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Tuesday April 23, 2024

Political entanglements

By Abdul Sattar
March 10, 2023

When the coalition government replaced the PTI-led government last year to clear what it called the mess created by the gross incompetence of Imran Khan and sheer misgovernance by his team, people assumed that the alliance would announce a relief package to help them tackle rising inflation.

But these hopes quickly disappeared when the ruling alliance turned out to be more lethal for ordinary Pakistanis than Khan’s populist government, which at least took a few pro-people steps by introducing the Sehat Card and launching some initiatives under the Ehsaas programme.

Although these programmes benefitted certain vested interests affiliated with private hospitals and other lobbies, they also helped ordinary Pakistanis for whom medical treatment had become almost financially unbearable. But there were some flaws in the programme. The Rs400 billion spent on the programme could have revamped the entire health system of the country.

It is claimed that had this amount been spent on recruiting more doctors, nurses and paramedical staff besides launching second shifts in government hospitals, the country’s health system could have witnessed some drastic improvements.

For instance, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), at least 250,439 patients were reportedly treated under the Sehat Card Plus programme during the seven months of FY 2020-21. But what is worth noting is the number of people who went to private hospitals. According to the official data, around 174,388 people got themselves treated at private health facilities while only 76,052 patients preferred government hospitals.

According to media reports, under this initiative, around 173 hospitals in KP were put on the panel, out of which only 46 were state-run health facilities and 127 belonged to the private sector. The result was clear. In June 2021, it was reported that private hospitals made a hefty reward of Rs8 billion during the last five years while government-run health concerns fetched only Rs2 billion from the Sehat Card insurance scheme.

But like the fact that an ordinary person is least interested in pondering over the heavy subsidies that the Shehbaz Sharif government doled out to private companies, it is also true that an ordinary Pakistani was least bothered about the whopping Rs400 billion that Imran Khan’s government planned to spend on the health insurance card. S/he was happy over the fact that their family or loved ones were being treated at elite private hospitals and that they would not have to pay anything.

The government tried to scrap this scheme instead of coming up with more effective pro-people programmes that could have overshadowed Khan’s schemes. The new government was also accused of unleashing a reign of economic and financial terror by granting unbridled authority to ruthless market forces. Consequently, inflation skyrocketed, millions of people affected by floods were left at the mercy of fate while economic growth greatly contracted rendering millions of people jobless. Amidst all of this, the prime minister continued stuffing his cabinet.

Unfortunately, the alliance vindicated Imran Khan’s assertions by demonstrating great alacrity in defanging the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). It is true that NAB had been converted into a tool of political vendetta during the last government that wanted to use it to settle political scores. It is also correct that the accountability watchdog was far stricter against the leaders of the PML-N. But the success of the current government in undermining the institution of accountability and utter failure in extending relief to the people has helped the PTI chief propagate that this government has only come to power to get corruption cases against its leaders quashed. This propaganda has immensely dented the reputation of the PDM and its allies. Had it abolished NAB powers after announcing a relief package for the people, these claims would not have been as effective as they appear to be today.

It is true that even after Khan’s ouster, certain elements in the state were still throwing clandestine support behind the former prime minister. It is also correct that some elements in important institutions like appeared to be sympathetic towards him, instead of noticing the polarization that he was creating. But the alliance created an impression before coming to power that it was ready to brave all odds to steer the country out of the crisis. Before 2018, the PTI claimed that its ranks were brimming with experts who would tide over a myriad of problems that the country was facing. This time, the PML-N presented the magical wand of Ishaq Dar, asserting that the former finance minister was capable of putting the economy on the right track and that he would do so with a lightning speed.

Last year, the alliance government in Sindh and Islamabad had over Rs1,000 billion for social sector development schemes at the federal and provincial levels. The current government could have used it to mitigate the economic hardships of the people. But the PML-N, which is known for launching useless mega projects to boost its public image, again resorted to capital-intensive development schemes that only benefit a tiny minority of the super-rich instead of improving health, education, sanitation and other necessities of life that matter for over 220 million people.

Now, political entanglements do not allow the ruling alliance to deliver. Apparently, polls in Punjab and KP are just around the corner. The caretaker governments in the two provinces that enjoy the support of the ruling alliance cannot launch any development projects that could go down well with people. Country-wide inflation, industries’ closures because of the rising cost of doing business, unbearable taxes and rising menace of terrorism are undermining the political position of the PDM.

Many believe that the PDM should have opted to hold general elections last year right after Khan’s ouster because the memories of the PTI’s incompetence were still fresh in the minds of people. But it seems that the extreme desire of a PML-N leader to become prime minister has badly damaged the party narrative and vote bank. Despite being obsequious, the PM is still not sure if the incumbent government has the all-important backing or the PTI leader does. This has not only harmed the PML-N politically but also the entire coalition, which can neither delay the polls in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) nor can it win them.

The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: egalitarianism444@gmail.com