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September 7, 2018

The first few days


September 7, 2018

Let’s face it, PTI, there has been more pain than plaudits in the first few weeks of the government. This has less to do with how matters may have been handled by the press and information divisions and a lot more with the weight of expectations that the government has carried since induction. Add to this some missteps that raised hackles among observers.

Team selection has been an issue for the most part. So the talking heads have been busy. What has escaped attention is the quick, unburdened process of putting in place structures, agendas and teams meant to provide the best options to right the many wrongs in our policy structures. This piece though is about the net loss the PTI government seems to have incurred in the first few weeks.

What struck us all was the unpreparedness of the government. It was literally written on the wall that the PTI had an equal, if not better, chance of forming the new government, surely in the centre if not in Punjab. Yet it seemed to be a dazed beginning, almost with disbelief that the PTI was finally there. In the month leading up to the formal induction after the elections many were shouting the need to ‘hit the track, running’. Asad Umar had already been indicated as the resolver-in-chief of our economic woes, yet real work began after the government was in place. The Economic Advisory Council could have been identified and interacted with in the intervening period before formal induction to have a set of options ready for decision and implementation. But precious time was lost.

A member of the advisory council has written an article on what should be the way forward. It’s good to write and share thoughts but perhaps we can leave that to the freelance pen pushers who can keep the humdrum of activity going in the public square. The members of the council are meant to be doers, meant to make things happen around the beliefs and convictions based on decades of reflection and experience in their fields of profession. Now is the moment to make things happen. They also need to be reminded that they are already some twenty-one days down in the time available to turn the country around.

Even now the pace of decisions is slow by many counts. The more permanent parts of the economy – the stock exchange, the business confidence, the exchange rate, the market and the economic sentiment in general – is in wait of whatever the remedy is for the sick economy to revive. Too much consternation, too much reflection and deliberation are indicative of too much twiddling and too much dithering. The market senses it as fear of making decisions and reacts adversely even before those get made. It is called thinking oneself to a paralysis; ‘paralysis through analysis’. Markets work on sentiment. And a lack of action is sensed negatively. No decision is ever perfect but those ‘taken in time’ return favour in the balance, when addressed to answer questions posed by a specific environment. Worrying about future history can only worry one to inaction. Histories are made through action and left to historians of the future. Legacies are not designed; they evolve of their own.

What does a government bring into office? Political capital. What they spend it on, or fritter, is their choice. Political capital may not have a shelf life, but it surely has a sell-by date beyond which it begins to lose its effectiveness and pales rapidly in effect. The PTI’s is a popular government in all its manifestations and therefore comes with a significant capital devoid of any baggage. There cannot be a fresher opportunity and cleaner slate for a government. It is like building anew from the drawing board. Speed – or lack of it – can sow suspicion. The competition is with another kind of legacy but even that should be farthest from any thought. But people do make comparisons. Do they have their priorities right? Do they have some rough-cut options? Do they have the courage to declare those, or dither for fear of failure?

What has been the government fighting in its first few days? The surprise appointment of the CM Punjab left everyone aghast. Since then IK has been in the field himself defending the decision. What should have embodied confidence and assurance of fresher ways around exposure to modern methods of governance was soon circumscribed by uneasy apprehension; more so, what led to such key decisions? The whole philosophy of IK’s political struggle was called to question.

What has since devolved from that one office has been the meal of many courses. What is the PTI losing as it fights this early image? Political capital. This is how capital fritters. Just by way of example: Mian Sahib (NS) came with an equally impressive mandate. What did he waste it on? Fighting his old wars with Musharraf. And what came of it is what he suffers from at this time. Lost his chance, his government, his politics and his freedom. Yes, providence intervened but it always will when you have bared all your flanks. Even providence is rational. Clearly the PTI think-tank needs to be doing a lot better.

Then the three reforms: bureaucracy, police and criminal justice. Dr Ishrat Hussain has by now written reams on bureaucracy reform, most of it driven around fiscal saving. As a structure, it is an essential pillar of the state around which a government will develop. It has been woefully compromised through political patronage. Security of service, and performance driven terms of service, shall deliver it the much-needed independence from political influence and help retain its centrality. That shall ensure it retains its effectiveness along with the armed forces and the judiciary as elements which help sustain a state against all buffeting, internal or external.

What’s keeping Dr Hussain from reducing his studies down to a doable list of essential actions to restore the functionality of an important arm of both the state and the government? Extensively playing around with it should be avoided. They need their freedom to function per their remit, and just retribution when they err. But beyond that let the bureaucracy be. It is an important part of the state structure.

PM Imran Khan: sir, it helps to recognise a wrong and admit it, if not by words then by corrective measures. Waiting for the right time is losing time. You can’t afford it. Don’t let others dictate your script; you should write your own script and set your pace forcing others to do the catching up. But you must lead, otherwise others will lead you. In the Decision Loop, a famous leadership model, time gained comes via early decisions which convert into initiative. Time in hand enables multitasking. You have both – the need and the capital to expend on it. If you don’t use it, you will lose it.

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