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April 21, 2019

Sacrificing a limb


April 21, 2019

Let’s mourn for Asad Umar. His departure marks the end of a phase of our history that was supposed to transform us magically. It symbolises the death of the dream of the instant tabdeeli revolution, fuelled by the perpetual motion machine of Imran Khan’s honesty. It is a lesson on the limitations of the power of positive thinking propagated by American self-help literature and motivational speakers. On a more practical level, it officially closes the honeymoon period for the PTI government.

If Imran Khan was the soul of the tabdeeli revolution, Asad Umar was its wings and feathers. If Imran Khan had discovered that matter can be turned into energy, Asad Umar knew how to kick-start cold fusion and produce abundant electricity. Tabdeeli was dependent on his avionics to transport us all to Alpha Centauri and beyond.

As poster boy of the party, Asad Umar was tabdeeli incarnate. He supposedly resigned from a lucrative job to join the PTI in 2012. That made him an original nazriati worker. Since then he was marked as the PTI’s economic wizard. Unlike other leaders who were respected for their money bags or past political careers, Asad Umar was the gold standards tiger – middle class, educated, charismatic and, of course, ideological.

As most things are defined by their opposites, he can now be defined in contrast to who he has been replaced with. Dr Hafeez Sheikh reached the apex of his career as the finance minister in the PPP’s government from 2010 to 2013. During this period, the corruption narrative proved to be the undoing of the PPP in Punjab, which helped the rise of the PTI.

Till Asad Umar’s ouster, the PTI was insisting that all economic problems were created by the PPP and the PML-N governments in the last ten years. This decade covers the period of three finance ministers and advisors – Shaukat Tareen, Hafeez Sheikh and Ishaq Dar. With the new reshuffle, not only has the finance ministry gone to one of the culprits, but many other important ministries now belong to former players of the Zardari Eleven.

The reshuffle was more about sending Asad Umar away, rather than taking Hafeez Sheikh in. In the words of Pervez Musharraf, the choice before the PTI was of saving the body, Imran Khan, at the cost of losing a limb. The limb has been sacrificed while the body remains beyond reprimand and reproach. Asad Umar, in a frank moment, may say that he was merely following his leaders’ theory of change to bring tabdeeli. After all it was only Imran Khan who knew how developed countries became developed and how a country like Pakistan can become developed. What Imran Khan knew and shared in PTI jalsas could not be found in economic theory. Any wonder then that Umar was trying to psych himself up by listening to anthems, rather than wasting time on learning economic theory and governance?

According to this theory, a bunch of politicians are responsible for the rot in Pakistani state and society, and it is their greed and corruption that is pulling us backwards. In order to clean the Augean stables, we need an incorruptible leader at the top. Once such a leader is elected, a cascade effect will follow, cleaning up the system downwards. As soon as the system is cleared of corruption, Pakistan will start making tremendous progress.

Umar did not make political decision for the party, though he was a part of them. He was not leading the creative destruction that was aimed to bring Sharif down by stirring political instability. What is even more relevant, it was not Umar’s decision to keep the country in perpetual political turmoil by playing opposition while running a government. But he was a limb that may be amputated to save the body.

If Kaptaan gets credit for everything good – just as he won the World Cup all by himself – he must get some blame as well. He has performed abysmally in the first innings and he must take responsibility for bad selection, bad planning and bad execution. He selected a team based on linguistic skills and motivation, rather than knowledge, experience and technical capabilities. They constantly look towards him for guidance because he has portrayed himself as Mahathir-Plus who has a remedy for all of our problems.

The whole team is motivated with jang ka jazba, the killing instinct and junoon – all directed at the political opposition. Will Kaptaan realize now that war hysteria may be great for winning an election, but does not help much in managing a perennially unstable, complex state and a troublesome economy. Junoon can wait till the next elections, but policymaking can’t.

As the best historian on the Muslim world, does Kaptaan know that the effort to set up a one-party hegemony is a futile effort, tried by many before him? In fact, Nawaz Sharif came close to appointing himself as ameer-ul-momineen in 1999. Such an effort may make some sense for those who have to worry about their dynasties. Why is Kaptaan losing his energies for the sake of Zain Qureshi and Ali Tareen?

On the tabdeeli stage, we are witnessing a play that has been enacted again and again. Unfortunately, even the cast has not changed. Pakistan has borrowed from the IMF 18 times since 1972. In the last three decades, Pakistan has been the IMF’s patient for 22 years. This begging and borrowing is now termed a package, a term that young men and women using pre-paid cell phone services may find exciting.

It must change this time. We are trailing behind South Asian countries and our indicators have started resembling Afghanistan’s more and more. According to a recent World Bank report, if Pakistan’s population growth rate of 2.4 percent over the past 20 years is factored in, its per capita growth rates have been below two percent on average since 2010. This year, it may drop to one percent or even zero if we believe the IMF’s predictions.

Compare it with Indian and Bangladeshi robust GDP growth rates and low population growth rates. Where will we be in the next ten or twenty years? The PTI won the election by selling dreams of Sweden and Norway. Pakistan needs to work very hard to match the human development and economic indicators of our own brown neighbours, once considered a basket case.

But we have the honest Kaptaan and he has told us: “Aap nay ghabrana nahin hai”.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @zaighamkhan