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August 14, 2018

Of tsunami, youth and Naya Pakistan


August 14, 2018

The dusk of July 25, 2018, saw the end of the most politically active day in Pakistan, as the highly contested 13th General Elections of Pakistan concluded. The dawn of July 26 was hailed by many as the start of a “Naya Pakistan”. This unexpected change of political power dynamics of the country in favour of the 23-year-old PTI has largely stumped various political analysts. The losing political parties - including PML-N, PPP, ANP, JUI-F, MMA amongst others- unanimously questioned the transparency of the electoral process.

However, the results tabled on July 26 showed PTI as the largest party at the national level both in terms of popular vote and in terms of seats. Whereas Punjab, which remained the key province for any political party to form a government at a national level was still being led by a thin margin by PML-N. Sindh - true to its history - once again proved to be the stronghold of PPP, while Baluchistan was won over by the newly-formed Baluchistan Awami Party(BAP). Interestingly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa penned down history by electing PTI a second time in a row. PTI managed to put a dent in a common provincial saying that holds that the ‘province never elects a political party a second time’. However, despite the various shortcomings of the PTI government, the KP voter still opted for Imran Khan largely due to the lack of a better alternative.

At this time, the author recalls the total political defeat faced by Imran Khan - the leader of PTI- in the 1997 General Elections. When asked about why he lost the elections, he is famously quoted as saying, “My followers are still young. Give them time to grow up”. It seems Khan’s gamble paid off. His charisma, his background as a cricketing legend, coupled with his stubbornness not to give up, saw him steadily woo the masses - especially the youth - and consequently climb the political ladder to become the premiere of the country. One of Imran Khan’s political mantras has revolved around the pivotal role that the youth played in the creation of a Naya Pakistan.

Rewind back to May 11, 2013, and we see PTI coining the term ‘Naya Pakistan’ and using it at a public event, as the then democratically elected government completed its tenure. More than a slogan, the phrase became part of popular culture, and was used in songs, internet memes and in debates between political parties. However, now in August 14, 2018, one is left to wonder where exactly does youth fit in the political equation of Naya Pakistan?

United National Development Program (UNDP) reports that 64 percent of Pakistan’s population comprises youth - the largest percentage of youth in the world. The country has a dismal literacy rate of 58%, and a gawking unemployment rate of almost 6%. The time has come for PTI- the proclaimed champion of youth in Naya Pakistan- to lock their heels and look deep inwards and devise a development roadmap for the youth of the country.

The creators of Naya Pakistan should watch closely into the hopeful eyes and beaming faces of the youth which is quick to equate the victory of PTI as their own. Yet reality is a harsh critic and reminds us that the country lacks meaningful youth centric policy formulation and development mechanisms which in turn adversely affects Pakistan’s capacity to fully benefit from the energy, dynamism, and creativity of its youth. Numerous studies show that, for instance, nearly 11% of the Pakistani youth do not have a job; neither do they have the means to acquire any vocational or technical skills.

Similarly, the current labour force participation and unemployment rates suggest that Pakistan’s working age population includes around 3.5 million unemployed individuals. Studies also show that Pakistan needs to create 1.3 million additional jobs each and every year, keeping in view the tsunami of youth who are attaining working age. Just to put the enormity of this demand into perspective, it is worth mentioning here that the youth who are attaining working age is most likely to rise from the current 4 million to around 5 million by 2035. This implies that the gradual increase in labor force participation means further added pressure on the labor market with increased demand for employment opportunities. Herein lays perhaps the biggest test for Imran Khan’s government i.e. carving out a future for a sea of young Pakistani dreamers who are looking at Naya Pakistan as a gateway to achieve their economic and social aspirations.

However, creating jobs is a fleeting concept and one which cannot be grasped by working in silos. It will require a holistic approach wherein it must be realised that the few of the country’s urban centres, or any one single sector of the national economy in general, cannot single handedly satisfy the collective hunger of the youth to acquire jobs. A national strategy will need to be developed wherein each and every sector of the economy - in every city, town, village and neighbourhood- would have to contribute towards employment generation so as to meet the required demands of Naya Pakistan.

Creating synergy across all sectors of economy is important. Equally important is the need for political parties to work together in developing a policy framework which meticulously identifies, prioritises and addresses the needs of the youth. For this to be a meaningful exercise, this must be done through a consultative process which involves the youth. Isolated instances and short-term endeavours have been taken in the past to include the youth in policy making. However, the efficacy of such short-term efforts warrants merit. For instance, in the past various political parties - singularly and collectively- held dialogues with youth representatives-including members of the Youth Parliament, young activists and entrepreneurs where they have tried to identify issues relevant to the youth.

Amongst others, the issues often discussed were revival of students’ unions, lack of quality education and infrastructure, homelessness, sexual exploitation of children, lack of availability of funds for education, the introduction of an updated curriculum alongside religious education in madrassahs, career counselling services in education institutions, entrepreneurship opportunities and investments in scientific education, business and investment. However, by the end of the day the number of school dropouts, out of school children, and slowly creeping unemployment figures point to the fact that something is gravely wrong.

What can however be said with certainty is that in the past, no long term systematic government led process has been conducted which provides meaningful interactions between young people and key policy actors such as government, parliament, media, academia, and civil society. As a result, the voices of the youth are largely alienated from the policymaking sphere. In this context, it remains to be seen how Naya (new) will Naya Pakistan be for the youth?

Another observation which can be made is that such an effort requires a combined commitment and ownership across all political parties. This is perhaps a pre-requisite which seems too far off to achieve in the current highly polarised political landscape of Naya Pakistan. Still an optimist will argue in favour of hope. Hope, it seems, knows no boundaries and - yet perhaps once so very often - may deliver the fruit that it promises.

Indeed, Imran Khan’s 23-year-old spell and promise of a changed and Naya Pakistan has resonated with the ambitious youth of the country who are searching for economic sustainability. However, there is quite a difference in selling a dream to the masses before elections, and actually working to realise the promises made once the party comes into power. PTI will now need to work with its staunch political opponents. Make no mistake that in the interest of the youth PTI, PPP, PML-N, ANP, MMA, JUI-F - to name a few political parties- will have to let go off their political vendetta’s and sit at the planning table and work constructively.

This requires trust - within and across all political parties - which must be the binding force at the very heart of Naya Pakistan. Without it, there is little change that the youth can expect. It does not take a political expert to understand that Naya Pakistan is riddled with some seriously harsh reality checks.

In conclusion, the list of challenges that Naya Pakistan must mitigate is a long one. Without even touching upon the severe economic impediments facing the country- the winning party- PTI must face what can only be expected as one of the strongest political oppositions the country may have ever seen in recent history vis-a-vis the strong alliance between the losing political parties such as PML-N, PPP, ANP, JUI-F, MMA and others. On the other hand, PTI must find ways to make quality education a reality for every young child, adolescent, and young man and woman of Pakistan.

Political leaders must also find ways to make the youth economically relevant in Naya Pakistan by providing them with industry relevant education and jobs and in the process safeguard them from becoming the next potential crop of violent extremists or criminals. This and more needs to be done by PTI’s Naya Pakistan if the party expects to live up to its proclaimed repute as an honest and hardworking peg in the political engine of Pakistan.

Resonating the voice of the masses- the author in his heart of hearts- communicates to the political parties of Pakistan- especially Imran Khan and his battery of advisors “put your head down and get to work because the youth of Naya Pakistan is watching. The same tsunami of youth - that has given you a chance to create a Naya Pakistan- can also become your staunch critic if left un-attended. Deliver or perish. Your move!”

—The writer is an Islamabad based development practitioner with a background in research & broadcast media and can be reached at [email protected]

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