Wednesday February 28, 2024

Inside the Red Zone: Need for a new normal

December 10, 2022

Now where were we? Ah, it’s been a few months since politics in Pakistan took an interesting turn and swerved to avoid an orchestrated disaster. Thirty-two weeks after the PTI stumbled out of power and spilled onto the streets, the first round of this contact sport appears to be over. One look at the scorecard shows the government on top with the opposition groping for options.

As round 2 commences, it may be useful to look at where we stand today.

The PDM government has seen off the PTI challenge and is on its way to completing the mandated term. The journey to reach this stage has been a rocky one but as the calendar readies to flip another page, the government can feel smug in knowing that its existential fears, if any, have evaporated into the crisp December air. Coalitions can be unwieldy, but on political strategy the PDM has been able to build a firm consensus.

Chairman PTI Imran Khan’s political strategy, on the other hand, has not generated the outcomes he desired. At the end of round one, he may look back at the decision-making of the last seven months and wonder where, why and how this miscalculation happened. The five key blunders:

One, announcing resignations from the National Assembly and leaving the field open for the new ruling coalition. Contrary to Mr Khan’s calculation, this has not forced the government into a fresh election.

Two, conjuring up a fairy tale about some imagined US conspiracy to oust the PTI government and whipping up base emotions into a disastrous wave of maniacal hate-mongering aimed at discrediting the political and military leadership. Seven months later, Mr Khan has been forced to walk back from these wild allegations. This embarrassing reversal however cannot reverse the damage accrued.

Three, undertaking a long march to Islamabad in May as a decisive step in his strategy only to see the event sputtering into a failure and going up in smoke (literally). The march had a net zero impact on the government and instead landed Mr Khan in the Supreme Court.

Four, dialling up the name-calling tactic on the jalsa circuit to ratchet up political stakes – and temperature – in a bid to stare down the military leadership and force it to referee an immediate election. Mr Khan milked this for last drop and yet the ploy did not produce the intended outcome.

Five, firing the last, and supposedly the most potent, salvo from his arsenal by embarking on a second long march after having weaponized the tragic and heart-wrenching murder of journalist Arshad Sharif. After the vile assassination attempt on Mr Khan, the march lost whatever momentum it had and whimpered into a zero-dividend conclusion on the unhospitable streets of Rawalpindi.

Inside the Red Zone, the concern today is therefore more economic than political. Deep deliberations portend some key decisions in the coming days in terms of macro-economic stabilization. Informed commentators on the economy have already eased fears of a default. These fears, it turns out, were fanned more for political reasons than anything else. Pressure on the currency exists, no doubt, but the final approval of the next IMF tranche is likely to ease this off. As will the expected financial help from friendly countries.

But a larger question continues to flutter in the wind: how do political stakeholders find a bare minimum consensus on the fundamentals of our economy? This red light has been flashing furiously since early this year, and possibly since the first reversal of the IMF agreement by the then PTI government.

The core of the concern is this: how can the economy be protected from political vendettas? Cutting the nose to spite the face is usually not a recommended prescription for any problem, least of all the business of the state.

But this grim reality is drowning in the noise of ‘narrative-making’. It should not be allowed to. Best therefore to revert to facts. These facts say that Hafeez Shaikh as the finance minister of the PTI government negotiated an IMF agreement in 2019 after the regime had dithered for a dangerously long time. Mr Khan and his team argued this agreement and its harsh conditions were a bitter pill that the government had to administer to the nation to cure its economic ailment. So the PTI signed on the dotted line and walked away with the first tranche of these direly needed dollars.

The IMF programme was however suspended in early 2020 when Covid-19 broke out and the PTI government refused to fulfil the agreed upon conditions. It was finally revived in 2021 and Pakistan received the next tranche.

Except, there was a twist. The turn of events had made one man rather unhappy. He began to grumble that the PTI government had negotiated badly with the IMF and that it was taking the economy in the wrong direction. The man complained so much that ultimately Mr Khan appointed him the finance minister in place of the man who had negotiated the IMF deal, who in turn had been appointed in place of the man who had refused to negotiate the IMF deal in the first place in 2018.

As Hafeez Shaikh flew out of Pakistan, Shaukat Tarin flew into Q Block ready to take the IMF bull by the horns. But the bull too had had enough of the red rag of broken agreements and politically motivated U-turns. Tarin tried to muscle his way towards softer terms but his talks with the IMF remained inconclusive in August 2021. Humbled by the bull, he finally agreed on terms in November 2021 and pocketed a tranche in February 2022.

But tragedy lurked in the shadows.

After three years of a turbulent relationship with the IMF – marked by repeated broken promises – the PTI government finally appeared set to fulfil IMF conditions. The November understanding between Tarin and the IMF was locked into place. This included, among other things, a petroleum levy aimed at strengthening the revenue stream. But with the Ides of March kicking in, Mr Khan did the unthinkable: he announced an economy-crippling and agreement-wrecking massive subsidy on fuel and electricity before being ousted from power. Failing to block the no-confidence move, he dynamited the economy to settle political scores.

The rest, as they say, is painful history that continues to unfold in slow motion.

In the last seven months, Mr Khan has pursued a scorched earth policy in which his ends are supposed to justify all means. At all cost. The cost though: politics polluted, economy wounded, reputations damaged, institutions maligned, electorate poisoned and society polarized.

Yet, the end result of all this? Mr Khan failed to get the elections he wanted, the election commissioner he wanted and the army chief he wanted. Today he sits in Zaman Park all out of options, and all out of ideas.

There is still hope for politics though. The negotiating table is waiting for him and his team. With elections ten months away, there is a lot to be done to ensure that they are free, fair and transparent. This requires some understanding between the PDM and PTI, which in turn requires the PTI to return to the National Assembly, which in turn can legislate the required reforms and ultimately agree on the caretaker setup when the time comes. These are meaty issues that demand the PTI shun its scorched earth policy which has produced zero dividends and revert to serious and meaningful politics that can steer the country out of these difficult times.

Pakistan deserves a new and healthy normal – both inside and outside the Red Zone.

The writer is the specialassistant to the prime minister on public policy and strategic communication. He tweets @fahdhusain