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September 3, 2018

The season of follies


September 3, 2018

Imran Khan built his long and emotionally charged political campaign around some powerful images. These images invoked nostalgia for long-lost glory and the burning desire to surpass our present circumstances. There was the image of the rightful caliph living like a hermit and the image of a European head of government pedalling his way to work on a lonely bicycle. Juxtaposed together, the two images, belonging to two historically and geographically distant civilisations, conveyed the central narrative of Imran Khan’s political campaign.

In the PTI’s narrative, the two images carry the same moral essence and explain the reason of the greatness of past Muslim empires and the contemporary Western world – a simple incorruptible leader can put a country at the pinnacle of nations. This is as naïve as historiography can get, but this also is as powerful as political messaging can be. No wonder he trumped top religious leaders and snatched their home constituencies from them.

The images nurtured over hundreds of political rallies and millions of tweets have collided with reality rather violently during the PTI’s first fortnight in office, giving birth to a million jokes and memes. His followers must take a huge leap to cover the crater that lies between the idealism of a romantic relationship and the harsh realities of a marriage. It will be far harder to convince those who consider it a forced marriage to begin with. The information minister remains adamant that the PM’s $12 million helicopter costs merely Rs55 per kilometres to fly and therefore is more economical than a road journey.

The PTI, during its first fortnight in office, has embroiled us in useless and needless debates that are consuming our energies without any purpose. The Pakistani government is not a terribly expensive government but it is a horribly inefficient government. By putting the executive on the back of a camel, Imran Khan risks making it even more inefficient.

If we put together the cost of all the cars of the PM’s Office and his helicopter together, the sum is far less than one day’s of loss made by the state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Pakistan will not be harmed if the prime minister keeps all his cars and rides his helicopters as much as he likes. It will certainly be crippled economically if we fail to do something about the SOEs fast. Yet, the PM appears engrossed in those cursed cars, hardly ever discussing the SOEs or other urgent issues. It is the sale of these cars that will prove that he is as good as a caliph in Baghdad or a PM in a Nordic country.

While the helicopters and cars relate to optics, the scandal arising from Pakpattan is substantial and relates to governance. This scandal is serious because it involves the PM’s family members, and their friends and relatives.

No modern state can be run with such blatant interference in the affairs of the public administration. The chief justice has rightly taken notice of the incident. Imran Khan consistently and rightfully railed against such interference as an opposition leader. Going by his own standards, this is the type of scandal that can make a European leader resign.

Unfortunately, the PTI government has lost the opportunity to handle the incident through executive means as it has already landed in the Supreme Court. Arising so early in the government, this scandal may haunt the prime minister for a long time to come.

Such early goof-ups and blunders may shrink the PTI’s capacity to undertake the promised reforms. For an elected government, the agenda of reforms is a race against time. All reforms create winners and losers. Losers can inflict a huge electoral cost on a ruling party if reforms are undertaken close to an election. In Pakistan, where the opposition can start a movement early in the life of a government or relations with the state institutions can deteriorate any time, this window of opportunity may be even smaller.

A government can succeed in substantial policy reforms only if comes prepared with a policy direction and is able to build consensus with other political forces and stakeholders. Both these factors worked in the case of the 18th Amendment and the 7th NFC Award. The PPP and the PML-N had clarity about the direction of reforms because of the early consensus building thanks to the Charter of Democracy. Other major parties were also willing to extend their support because of their own interests and agendas. Once that window closed, the government’s ability to undertake reforms was also lost.

A similar opportunity was not available to the PML-N government as Imran Khan started his agitation barely a year after the party took power. The PML-N government could not even privatise any loss-making SOE as the employees of these enterprises and the political parties ganged up against the initiative. The only significant legislation undertaken during this period was Election Act 2017.

The PTI has promised a large-scale agenda of reforms. Some elements of these reforms require constitutional amendments, while others need federal and provincial legislation. Many of the reforms carry political cost as they will anger entrenched interests. For example, economic reforms will require forcing consumers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh to pay their electricity bills and traders in Punjab and Karachi to pay their taxes. No government has been able to achieve these miracles so far.

It appears that the PTI has taken the reins of the government unprepared for reforms. It has nothing more than rudimentary ideas outlined in its manifesto and agenda for the first 100 days in government. The process of consensus-building with other political forces can start only after the PTI has done its homework and prepared a roadmap. Many of these reforms will have to be sold politically to the people and to those who may thwart them.

The level of unpreparedness is clear from a news report in this paper last week that gave us the good tiding that the PTI is going to follow “the transparent governance model of Sweden, which has the lowest levels of national debt, low and stable inflation and a relatively healthy banking system among the European Union states.”

Though Imran Khan was able to decode the secret of European progress by playing cricket in Britain, there is a problem with the so-called European models. Europeans themselves have forgotten how they got there. The evolution of reforms and governance in Europe occurred over a period of centuries and Europeans societies are very different from us. For example, the PM’s in-laws based in the sacred city of Canterbury can’t force the home secretary to throw out the city police chief.

We can better focus on countries that are very similar to our own and have stolen the march over us over the last decades. Everyone knows what was done and how it was done. Our own Siamese twin, Bangladesh, can be a better model to follow. Its economy is growing at 7 percent of GDP while we may slide to 5 percent this year; it exports $40 billions of goods and services while we are stuck at $23 billion low grade exports. Its human development can be measured through just one indicator – population growth rate. Bangladesh’s population growth rate is merely 1.1 percent while ours is 2.4 percent. Growth rate is an important measure because it is directly related to health, education and women’s empowerment indicators.

As any literary critic will tell us, no serious play should start with comic relief. There’s something wrong with the plot. Only two paragraphs have been written. Shakespeare has the opportunity to make corrections to the prologue.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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