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October 1, 2018

Get real


October 1, 2018

For some, it may be too early to suggest immediate course correction to the Imran government. Their standard response to any criticism directed at the government’s policies and its general conduct is that these policies are not even in place yet, and, therefore the critique is either mala fide or simply punches thrown in the air.

That may be so. But when structural problems become too apparent to ignore, hopes of good outcomes from well-meaning policies are often misplaced and dangerously misleading.

Moreover, while a few weeks in power do not reveal the actual worth of policy initiatives, they are enough to know a few important things. For instance, what values inspire those at the helm – in this case the cabinet and the coterie of personal friends of PM Imran? How does a government perceive its role, responsibilities and core job towards the nation that it is required to govern and deliver to? On most of these counts, the Imran government requires a decisive change of outlook. There is no time to lose.

It has become obvious that this government has a natural propensity to over-market expectations and under-market reality. Generally, governments do keep exaggeration as a handy tool to retain national attention and build an image of ‘doers at work’. But, considering the situation Pakistan is in, we can certainly do without the over-messaging that heavens are around the bend as angels are circling the sky. Nothing that this government does starts without a regular recital in praise of the Lord’s mercies that have bestowed this government upon this otherwise hopeless land.

The ‘messiah has arrived’ drumming is pervasive now. The First Lady too joined the beat in her first interview with a local TV network. There she flew above the pale of reality and constructed tales of supreme personal heroism around her husband’s persona – placing multiple halos upon his head. “Pakistan should be grateful that Allah has given Imran Khan to it”, she said.

Beyond wonderstruck waffling, such pronouncements about the leader of a rather struggling government aren’t helpful in positioning him in the context of the grim realities that he has to grapple with. Inane boasts (laced with tall tales of personal piety) boost the idea that something fantastic is about to happen in the near future, and that this time around miracles will become so commonplace that the nation will not ask for them anymore. Needless to say, this adds to the burden of people’s expectations that are already wearing the government down, truncating its policy maneuverability and reducing the scope for taking tough decisions and boldly stating the case for these decisions.

The mantra of the birth of ‘New Pakistan’ by a government whose DNA, skeleton, flesh, bones and soul are all borrowed and stolen from the ‘usual Pakistan’ is at present the biggest albatross that is bending its neck. On every step of the way it is haunted by its own rhetoric about change. Everything it does or tries to do is challenged by its own claims of being the ‘first of its type in national history’ – especially when it becomes clear that its methods are no different from all the previous governments and that there is hardly any radical departure from tried and tested past practices.

The so-called mini-budget is a trenchant reminder that for this government too taxing the overtaxed taxpayer is the only viable way of raising revenue. For all the proclaimed economic wizardry that the government insisted it possessed in its command, it has gone down the same path that others before it had tread a thousand times – inflicting deep wounds on the toiling middle classes. There is not much different on other fronts as well. The slogan of breaking the shackles of debt slavery has become an embarrassing emblem, heralding the gap between words and actions. It is back to Saudi financial help, Chinese lending and toying with the idea of another IMF arrangement.

It is clear that the government’s policy trajectory is not revolutionary because it cannot be revolutionary since it is a government of the old guard, by the old guard and for the old guard. Moreover, the terrain is heavier than the commander’s plans. With no fiscal space, and a political house divided among various claimants to power and authority – such as the Supreme Court – this isn’t a combination that is fit for testing radical ideas.

But even when each day it is humbled by its own performance and overpowered by the facts on the ground, the government continues to expand its rhetoric. When it should really be working to calm down national imagination, it is double-timing on churning out fanciful illusions through PR stunts like the sale of cows and cars and God-knows-doing-what with the governor houses and other state buildings. The holy grail of the Dam Fund is now preferred in terms of campaigning over more practical and useful messages such as encouraging people to pay taxes, or launching a national drive against an exploding population problem. With the Public Sector Development Funds being cut in the name of the austerity drive, most of the vital national concerns, education included, are now pushed on the wayside.

Debate on security challenges, and a deteriorating security environment around the country, is not in focus at all as more and more hours are spent building castles in the air about a bright future beaming out of auctioned official vehicles and buildings. This triumph of propaganda over the need to talk about the gnawing realities that are defining the government’s long-term policies is not just embarrassing, it is downright delusional. This attitude is constructing a tale that bears no relevance to the national future. The sold cows will not stop those policy cows from coming home in the near future that the government is implementing at present but is too timid to debate openly.

The Imran government, therefore, needs to get real and be more honest about its limitations. It also needs to be more attentive to creeping cronyism and leadership deficiencies in some of the core areas of governance. Whether it is in the realm of appointments of buddies like Zulfi Bukhari or in handing over lucrative construction projects to Aneel Mussarat or disastrous decisions like the Punjab chief minister’s selection, the Imran government has to detach itself from vested friendships and failed experiments. And now is the time to do it.

The continuing influence of Jehangir Khan Tareen on the government and on the party – even after his embarrassing and permanent disqualification from politics by the Supreme Court on grounds of seedy financial matters – is exactly the type of public image PM Imran does not need to have. It is understandable if rolling back decades of friendships is hard; people who have invested heavily in running the party will now be all over the place seeking returns. Bad decisions too are not easy to overturn and it is most difficult to accept that the gap between promises and possibilities is unbridgeable.

But all alternatives to these tough choices are far costlier. Cronyism is the antithesis of good governance. Persisting with bad choices is a road to nowhere. The mythology of greatness grounded in foolish narratives is the undoing of realistic trouble-shooting. Betting on professional soothsayers, fakirs and pirs is the ultimate upending of modern methods of reforming systems. The Imran government would do well to correct its course and realign its ambitions with reality. And to do that it needs its top leader, the prime minister, to open his mind and eyes to how the first few weeks in power have really gone. Fazed and dazed is not the best state to be in when ruling Pakistan.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12