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December 2, 2018

The beginning has not ended


December 2, 2018

After its first 100 days, the new government would be expected to confidently get into gear, firing on all cylinders. But this doesn’t seem to be the end of the beginning. And there is no definite sense of direction. Meanwhile, the economy is audibly sounding the alarm.

However, there has been a rush of activity this week, with Prime Minister Imran Khan playing the lead. A special ceremony was held on Thursday at the Jinnah Convention Centre in Islamabad to mark the completion of the first 100 days. It had an air of celebration and Imran Khan regaled his PTI supporters with his lively and expansive account of his administration’s achievements and policies.

He spoke for more than an hour and some of his asides tickled excited responses on social media. Essentially, though, he claimed that his government had achieved more than 50 percent of the targets set for the first 100 days. He elaborated on his future line of action to transform Pakistan into a welfare state. He was candid in admitting that we are facing a difficult time and that, in a sense, it could get worse before it gets better.

But the major distraction of the week was the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor in the Narowal district on Wednesday, performed by the prime minister. It also marked a new beginning on the part of the new government as a spirited call for making peace with India. Though rebuffed summarily by the Modi government, Imran Khan’s speech on the occasion made a lot of sense.

It is instructive to see why this could be judged as a new beginning. One important point asserted by Imran Khan was that at this time the party in power, the military, political leaders and the national institutions are all on one page. By way of illustrating this exceptional alignment, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was also attending the ceremony.

Against this backdrop, you could reflect on how former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had dealt with the tricky and combustible issue of our relations with India. He was seen, at the popular level, as a pro-India politician, anxious to open trade with the long-established adversary. There was that surprise stopover in Lahore by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 25, 2015 on his way from Kabul to New Delhi, to wish his then Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and to attend the marriage of Nawaz’s granddaughter.

But this was held against the former PM and his political opponents, particularly the PTI, were vociferous in their condemnation of Nawaz’s perceived ties with Modi. Remember the slogan “Modi ka jo yaar hai…”? Obviously, it is a different situation now. Imran Khan made the critical statement that Pakistan’s mindset has changed. We will have to wait and see what this actually means.

Yes, the Kartarpur Corridor that has been on the cards for many years is specifically meant for Sikh pilgrims. It will connect Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in the Kartarpur area of Pakistan’s Narowal district to Dera Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur district – a mere distance of four kilometres. Hence, the excitement it generated among the Sikh community, at a global level, was natural.

However, it appropriately became a launching pad for Pakistan’s peace offensive. It is interesting that Imran Khan invoked the example of France and Germany to underline how old enemies that are also neighbours can mutually prosper when they become friends. Incidentally, peace activists in the two South Asian countries have for long been making this argument to defend their cause.

Imran Khan also suggested that we must learn from history – something that the rulers of India and Pakistan have consistently refused to do. In any case, Imran had another opportunity to push his case when he held a press conference for the visiting Indian journalists on Friday.

An irony here is that while this government is courting for peace in the regional sphere, its first 100 days were blazing with sound and fury in the domestic arena. This has been a period of often unwarranted political acrimony and bitterness. Simultaneously, the PTI’s rather extravagant promises of what it would achieve in the first 100 days were punctuated by a series of somewhat trivial and cosmetic enterprises, such as the auction of vehicles and the buffaloes of PM House.

And very much in the limelight was the phenomenon of U-turns. It was a sorry spectacle to see PTI leaders obsequiously applauding Imran Khan’s wisdom when he said that taking U-turns was the attribute of great leaders. Irrespective of whether a pragmatic shift in policy can be classified as a U-turn, with its pejorative connotation, this government has made a series of lapses in terms of what it said and what it has done. There has been some comic relief, too, but I would not go into that.

The point, broadly, is that the first 100 days have not been attended by any major, impactful initiatives that would set the stage for a brave new world. As for the irrationality of judging an administration by its performance in the initial phase, the PTI itself had unveiled its ambitious agenda for the first 100 days. Besides, it has become a kind of political tradition, inspired by the example of US President Franklin D Roosevelt who came at the Great Depression’s darkest hour and made a decisive difference during his first 100 days.

Responding to criticism soon after he had taken charge, Imran Khan had said that the critics should wait for three months before they passed any judgment. The impression was that a new administration requires some time to put its act together. That, in a realistic assessment, has not yet been done. For instance, we do not yet know where we are in our talks with the IMF, though this deal was seen as a matter of great urgency.

All said and done, there is this feeling that the new government is still trying to set its house in order. The first 100 days have passed, but what was meant to be done during that period is mostly unfinished. As one of this government’s prominent advisers had foreseen, governing an ungovernable country is not as easy as some youthful loyalists of Imran Khan tend to believe.

And yes, Imran Khan himself has to be assured that he is finally the prime minister of Pakistan. Thank God he has Bushra Bibi to do that.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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