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December 6, 2018

A hundred days: worth a thousand words


December 6, 2018

An official front page ad, bearing the solitary caption “We’ve been busy”, asked bewildered readers to “turn the page for Naya Pakistan”. The next page boasted “progress worth a thousand words” and was overfilled with screaming headlines. But for the U-turns that have come to characterise the regime, this was just another empty answer to the rhetorical claims.

Over the first 100 days, the current government looked busy and did nothing. A plethora of task forces were created to figure out a plan of action. We still don’t understand what they are up to, now that the honeymoon period is over with a whimper. There was much fanfare at the Convention Centre, where we were made to laugh at the PM’s chicken and egg theory of poverty alleviation, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood’s diplomatic googly of the Kartarpur Corridor and the virtues of the PM’s U-turns extolled by the finance minister.

Given the topsy-turvy financial policy explained by Finance Minister Asad Omar, the rupee could not take the joke and fell by five percent the very next day amid wild speculations. Some people had wrongly guessed that the devaluation was a shrewd move to enable Pakistan to receive an IMF package; that was not the case because the prime minister came to know about it from the media.

One was amazed at Special Assistant to PM on Establishment Shahzad Arbab, who revealed for the first time that a 100-day plan was conceived well before the last elections and that 18 out of 34 targets have been achieved or are close to being achieved. If this is the nature and style of governance, then how can one evaluate the performance of the government? The prime minister came up with similarly bizarre explanations in his press talk with a few TV anchors. He talked about midterm elections, legislation through ordinances and the need to regulate the autonomy of the State Bank to determine monetary and exchange-rate policies, as well as boasting of the military’s backing of the PTI’s manifesto or about decisions that the PM solely makes.

Looking at the performance of the PTI government, one can only conclude that the regime is clueless, as witnessed in the confusion on CPEC, foreign policy matters and the economy. To understand the current regime, we will have to understand its nature and judge it on certain objective criteria and as an auxiliary of a neo-colonial power-structure in a hybrid democracy. Like the PTI, the current government too seems to move and work at the whims and rhetoric of its leader – The Great Khan. With a hodgepodge cabinet at the helm, the regime doesn’t get its strength from parliament, where it enjoys a shaky majority in only the Lower House, but from other support systems.

Rather than taking parliament along, the PTI government prefers to maintain an acrimonious relationship with the two major opposition parties. As it is not ready to come out of its make-believe world of recovering plundered wealth stashed offshore, the government is not serious about setting a flailing economy in order. It is more obsessed with symbolic measures of austerity than tightening non-productive expenditures, generating resources and increasing exports to fill two deficits that haunt the future prospects of the economy. Former president Asif Ali Zardari has also alleged that, instead of respecting federal norms, the new regime is going back to the days of the ‘One Unit’ system.

The handling of the balance of payments crisis and the casual approach towards structural and governance reforms have been disappointing. The government first tried to raise financial resources to meet the huge gap in balance of payments, as a means to avoid necessary structural reforms or tough decisions. This allowed the finance ministry a false sense of self-assurance while negotiating with the IMF from a position of strength, which resulted in the failure of the talks. If the balance of payments crisis were over, as confidently declared by the finance minister, there would be no point in talking to the IMF. The finance minister kept everybody guessing without clearly setting a course out of this financial imbroglio.

As it transpired, ‘friendly’ countries are not likely to throw their good money after bad money. And that is entirely reasonable. Even if they had doled out the billions of dollars needed to meet the current year’s current account deficit, they must have wondered what Pakistan would do next year. They might also be looking for some kind of reforms that could spare Pakistan from a similar situation next year. Except for one economist, everyone on the Economic Advisory Council advised the government not to waste time and instead seek a bailout from the IMF, along with milking other sources to create some fiscal space for development. Some, like Hafeez Pasha, even warned against a looming default. But they were ridiculed as ‘Platos’. Hence, the crisis becomes more lethal with each passing day.

Devoid of a substantial socio-economic agenda, the PM is becoming impatient about his empty promises. Being an effective philanthropist, he seems to have picked some half-baked recipes to alleviate poverty. The PM could have consulted economist Qaiser Bengali, who is the architect of the successful Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) that also included the Waseela-e-Rozgar subsidiary, or Dr Akmal Hussain, who has authored the UNDP Pakistan Report on “inclusive and sustainable development”, which provides a policy framework for what PM Imran Khan is trying to do. Additional measures could be added to BISP with bonuses for population control and compulsory education of the children still out of school.

Many poverty reduction programmes have failed, except those that focused on creating subsistence assets for the poor. There are very good experiments of micro-financing, including the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, which provides insight into strategies for a trickle-down effect, even though marginally. Imran Khan looks to be ideologically confused between the non-militaristic Scandinavian model of taxing the rich and spending on social services, and the Harvard School model of accumulation of wealth in a few hands resulting in a trickle-down effect as adopted by Gen Ayub Khan (with disastrous consequences). He seems clueless about the high targets he has set for himself. Instead of taking a long road of reforms for good governance, he is taking refuge behind gimmicks such as bringing down the walls of governor houses or not living in the prime minister quarters while living in the PM House. He can, however, succeed by combining a policy of peace with neighbours with a massive poverty reduction programme.

The PM’s threatening tone and his followers’ abusive language against everybody else are also alienating the business classes, civil services, intelligentsia and critical voices in the media. Because his accountability drive is failing to bring back the plundered billions and he has nothing to fall back on, he goes back to offensive politics – perhaps forgetting the fact that he is now here to deliver.

The greater the expectations, the more rapid the disillusionment. If the government continues like this, it may soon face greater disillusionment and resentment on streets. The more it gets isolated, the greater will be its reliance on others. What is needed is for the prime minister to go back to parliament and keep the transition on track.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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