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December 6, 2018

The spoken word


December 6, 2018

‘Naya Pakistan’ was a great election slogan. So was ‘tabdeeli’. Back in 1970, ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ was even catchier. But there is a problem: voters and the press can start asking for their implementation.

Bhutto ended up by giving passports to the people instead of what he had promised. Some promises may become excess baggage over a short period of time. Yet, who would have made a fuss over the PTI government’s 100 days in power if the Kaptaan had not promised change in that timeframe, once elected.

Again, who could have resorted to jibes, had the premier not taken it upon himself to point out Napoleon or Hitler’s foibles or suggest while he was addressing a major event to present the 100-day progress report that poultry could help banish poverty? The risk posed by the spoken word is best explained by a proverb in Arabic: the word you have not spoken is your slave and the word you have spoken is your master.

One-upmanship is no substitute for good governance, as we remember from Ahsan Iqbal’s repeated assertions about CPEC being a fate-changer for half the planet.

The ruling party’s claims at the 100-day conclave were upstaged by the massive devaluation of the rupee the next morning. If the government was behind this surgery sans anaesthesia, its timing was awful.

It would also appear that the PTI government’s honeymoon period with the media is over. Leading anchors and analysts, who used to tear apart the previous government, seem to have no issue with pointing their guns at the new rulers, particularly Imran Khan’s surprise choice of Usman Buzdar as Punjab chief minister. As in politics, there are no permanent friends in the press.

Imran Khan’s style of governance is not that of a popular leader and leaves much to be desired. He is still in boardroom mode or, perhaps, in cricket-match mode. As a team captain, he could strategise with a handful of people and then perform on ground, cheered by an adoring crowd. That method will not work when you are vying to win the confidence of millions who have to eke out two square meals a day.

Here are some of the issues confronting the people. First, a sharp rise in the cost of food items and utilities like petrol, gas and electricity. Looking at the furious protests in France over the same problem, Pakistanis are not only resilient but also docile. Second, unemployment is on the rise as the economy faces stagflation, says an economist based in Islamabad. There is no sign of any public work being launched that can provide jobs as well as economic growth.

The government had a unique opportunity to win support by giving substantial relief in POL prices in line with the falling international price of crude. Instead, it chose to give a miserly two-percent reduction in petrol price.

As pointed out in my earlier piece, the business sentiment is bordering on pessimism. The latest devaluation of the rupee is going to aggravate rather than ameliorate the situation. It is serious enough to have warranted a meeting between the prime minister and business leaders in Lahore over the weekend in an effort to reassure them about the government’s business and industrial policies.

It is true that the blame for failure in social and economic development goes to the previous governments. We are also responsible as a nation for not adopting the values of hard work and team spirit. It is a society still dedicated to the networks of family, friends and clans. The yardstick of success is not by way of advancing as a nation, but as individuals or networks where individuals belong.

No wonder that Pakistan is nowhere to be seen in the summit meeting of the globe’s top 20 economies, the G-20. The world’s sixth most populous nation, and one of its few nuclear powers is not worthy of a seat in the group of 20 leading economies. Failure is also reflected in the country’s dismal ranking in the UN Human Development Index. Pakistan has improved its position in the Ease of Doing Business Index, but remains way down in the list.

While the PTI government can blame previous rulers for past failures, its own sense of direction remains unclear after over its first 100 days in office. Anti-corruption measures are welcome, but the accompanying invective has outlived its utility. The investors, local or foreign, are keen to know how the new government will guarantee safety of investment and rule of law if things go wrong.

It is not clear if the government is cognisant of the obstacles in the way of profitable investment. There is fear of action by NAB, FIA or the courts, making public officials apprehensive of landing in trouble sooner or later. Yet, a modicum of accountability and some semblance of a rules-based system are also important. Investors are caught between a rock and a hard place. As the saying goes, nothing is as shy as a million dollars.

It is not the government’s business to do business, but it is certainly important that the state creates conditions conducive to promoting trade and industry, and facilitating exports. Considerable improvement can be made by removing bottlenecks and ensuring the timely payment of incentives that are already available in the system. Actions, rather than words, are needed by the government, to prove its business-friendly credentials.

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