Friday May 24, 2024

Simplicity with a twist

By S M Naseem
August 30, 2018

Imran Khan’s maiden speech as the prime minister of Pakistan has had a widespread and a generally favourable reception. The central theme that struck a sympathetic chord in the hearts of millions of people was the issue of simplicity.

However, by making ‘simplicity’ his signature issue, PM Khan runs the risk of promising too much and achieving too little, since the elites who are embedded, not only in his party but in society at large – especially in the middle class that he claims to represent – are bound to resist. More likely, they will prevaricate or adopt a pro forma attitude, bordering on hypocrisy.

Khan’s own lifestyle, in his palatial Bani Gala house on the hill in Islamabad, can hardly be held as a paragon of simplicity. Being a strong-willed person, he may be able to adopt a less ostentatious lifestyle than he is used to, but to expect the same from others in his cabal – many of whom have joined him at the last minute in the hope of striking a fortune, while many others have dubious reputations – will be quite a stretch.

A major problem with Khan’s television address was the half-baked and largely symbolic nature of his proposals. Of them, the proposal to convert the palatial houses of the prime minister, governor (perhaps, also those of the president, COAS, commissioner etc) into universities, museums, concert halls, seems to be driven more by populist impulse than economic logic.

This might, if carried out seriously and across the board, echo the situation that arose when PM Junejo issued the ‘Suzuki’ threat. Instead, the structural issues of land reform and land grabbing, which lie at the heart of poverty, inequality, social exclusion and related concerns, deserve much greater attention to facilitate the birth of a ‘new Pakistan’.

The point is that such major metamorphoses in public behaviour, or ‘mindsets, with unquestionable desirability, take time to be brought about and have to be deliberated upon deeply, in a systemic manner, rather than being casted in populist rhetoric. One of the main sources of lack of simplicity in our lifestyles, both public and private, is the rapid rise in consumerism fuelled by greed and acquisitiveness, which has been the main driver of our rising current account imbalance. Unless specific and detailed policy measures are adopted to check this cancerous growth, no amount of breast-beating about corruption and dishonesty in society and cosmetic efforts to reduce expenditures will avoid the perpetual rush to the IMF.

A more fundamental point of concern about the new PM’s speech is that it was devoid of an overall framework for mobilising resources and prioritising public expenditures. This also manifested itself in the absence of any reference in the speech about strengthening the country’s economic management structure, which has been in shambles and disarray for over three decades.

Without revitalising the planning and economic management structure, the government will resort to ad hocism in choosing projects like creating 10 million jobs and constructing five million houses and other items in PM Khan’s burgeoning wish-list. For the past five years, the Planning Commission largely remained engaged in channelling Chinese financial aid, especially CPEC, much in the same way that it used to channel the US aid in the 1960s and the structural adjustment and poverty alleviation assistance programmes of the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s and 1990s. If it has to play a key role in the transformation of Pakistan’s social and economic structure, it will have to undergo a new reincarnation.

Khan’s rather uninspiring economic team is headed by a non-economist Finance Minister Asad Umar, a former corporate sector CEO, and includes Razzak Dawood, an industrialist. The Planning Division has been assigned – almost as an afterthought – to a scion of a southern Punjab feudal family, who rose to prominence in the dying days of the PML-N government by deserting it to join the PTI, as a leader of the South Punjab Province Front. He was earlier assigned the water resources ministry.

In contrast, the old Pakistan boasted of luminaries such as Dr Mahbub ul Haq, Sartaj Aziz, Moin Baqai, Pervez Hasan, Hafiz Pasha and M Yaqub among others, who steered the country’s economy through turbulent times and put it in the front ranks of well-managed economies.

Palpably, Imran Khan is cognisant of the dearth of such talent. In one of his earlier speeches, he had mentioned the name of a Princeton University economics professor of Pakistani origin whom he was hoping to enlist as an adviser. However, he retracted his decision on learning that the person belonged to a community that has been declared non-Muslim. This narrow-mindedness will also stand in the way of his ambition to establish a high-powered research university in the Prime Minister House, which he has decided to forsake. Beautiful and well-equipped buildings alone do not make a university.

The injustice and indignity meted out to Pakistan’s only Nobel scientist needs to be undone to redeem Pakistan’s credentials as a liberal and open-minded country, whose faculty can interact intellectually with other scholars, regardless of their faith and other attributes. This is the quintessential requirement of a world-class university. Equally, Khan’s inability and lack of vigour to dispel Pakistan’s jihadist overhang will also upend his plans of converting Pakistan into a favourite destination for Western tourists, thereby unleashing the enormous potential for income and employment generation.

Imran Khan does deserve to be lauded for his warmth and empathy for the downtrodden sections of the population, including the 25 million out-of-school children, the predicament of the madressa students, the plight of the widows and domestic servants, as well as the high rates of infant and maternal mortality. But he has failed to declare any substantial increase in the ratio of educational expenditure to GDP and to address the equally seminal problem of enforcing only one-tier system of education in the country, instead of three – or four –, prevailing now. Also worthy of urgent consideration is an expanding network of social security to cover the vulnerable groups of the population.

Hopefully, the new PM will allow a thorough and open debate on the vision he has shared with the nation so candidly.

The writer is a former professor of economics at QAU, Islamabad.