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May 23, 2019

Shattered dreams


May 23, 2019

I was in Barcelona on a business trip when I saw a street vendor selling a ball with a device. The device would pitch the ball about 60 feet in the air and then when the ball came down it would catch it. I realised it would require some practice to catch the ball but still I bought the toy for my children. However, when I returned home and my kids played with the toy, the ball wouldn’t even go two feet in the air. I realised that I'd been had.

This is the feeling a number of Pakistanis are increasingly having about the PTI: that we've been had. All politicians speak to their people’s aspirations but the dreams that Imran Khan sold to our people are one for the record books. He made people believe that not only was Pakistan a very rich country but that this wealth was being stolen by PML-N leaders and the only thing required was for Imran Khan to come into power and turn Pakistan into the proverbial land of milk and honey.

To add weight to his narrative, he constantly repeated his accusations with a lot of confidence and added made-up numbers to fortify his claims. For instance, he repeated ad nauseum that $200 billion of our nation’s looted money was stashed abroad. Moreover, and here's the dream he sold to the nation, he claimed he would bring back the money and with $200 billion in government coffers, he won’t tax us for 10 years and the prices of all items will decrease.

But the PTI wasn’t done just yet. Next it claimed that $12 billion was being laundered out of Pakistan annually and once the PTI came to power this too would stop. How important $12 billion is can be gauged by the fact that our government signed a most austere and contractionary programme with the IMF for only half that amount and that too over three years.

Furthermore, the PTI claimed that there was in addition daily corruption of Rs10 billion that would be stopped when the PTI came to power. However, if one were to question the outlandishness of these numbers, one was quickly tagged as siding with some “mafia”.

The end to the above types of corruption along with the dream team of outstanding individuals that the PTI would bring in government, working under the exemplary leadership of the prime minister, would transform Pakistan into a utopia that would be the envy of Scandinavian welfare states.

The Naya Pakistan dream promised the creation of ten million new jobs (which normally requires GDP growth of eight percent but, since the PTI is sincere, numbers don’t matter). It also promised five million new homes (that’s more new pukka homes than exist today in Karachi and Lahore combined). And, of course, dollars were going to rain on the streets.

Nevertheless, many people weren’t comfortable with the PTI leadership and its proclivity to make fanciful claims. Thus to make the dream, and the inadequate PTI leadership, more palatable to the people the vision offered, and the development work carried out, by the PML-N had to be disparaged.

The dream was so beautiful and the alternative now so dangerous that not just the young and the gullible but many others too fell for it. The real problem with this false dream however was that, unlike the Barcelona toy salesman who knew he was selling me a defective product, the PTI leadership started believing in its own false narrative. It actually thought that governing was easy, that balancing the budget a cinch, that collecting taxes or increasing foreign reserves was routine, that just because Imran Khan would come into power there would be an increase in foreign investment and hence foreign exchange in Pakistan, that people would start paying taxes, that expenditures could be reduced, etc etc.

But when the rubber hit the road, the PTI was found wanting. It was found wanting in understanding and competence, in planning and preparation, and in honesty. The hopes and aspirations of all those who supported Naya Pakistan were dashed. People don’t like to admit to mistakes, so many supporters still hope that the current government will pull off some miracle. But nonetheless supporters are now worried for their future, for their children’s future and indeed Pakistan’s future.

In ten short months, the government has spectacularly brought down every single indicator of citizen welfare. From polio cases to medicine prices to circular debt to the price of dollars, there isn’t a single area that hasn't seen incompetence that has proven damaging. But nowhere has this incompetent governance been more harmful to our people than in the economic arena.

The dream that Pakistanis had of a Naya Pakistan where food items would be cheaper, where children’s education would be better and where medicines would not be out of reach is now just that: a dream. In fact, Tabdeeli has turned out to be a nightmare.

After ten months in government, the ruling party has not been able to issue one white paper on its central plank, the previous government’s corruption. It hasn’t been able to tell us of one contract where a kickback or commission was paid. I understand kickbacks are difficult to show. But what is not difficult to show is a price comparison. For instance, the PML-N installed three gas power plants worth over $2 billion. It’s not difficult to find other similar plants around the world. Why not tell Pakistanis how much cheaper other countries were able to set-up these plants? This would expose the PML-N’s corruption or mismanagement.

Similarly, the PML-N government made contracts with Qatar, ENI and Gunvor for LNG. Again, why not show how other companies or countries were able to acquire LNG at cheaper rates during those times when the PML-N government was making those contracts? That would show the people that there was something wrong.

Because if the PML-N was so corrupt, then where is that extra money going now? Why is the economy still deteriorating? Let’s also consider the merit-based dream team that was supposed to improve governance. The current dispensation has replaced Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Asif, Zahid Hamid, Musadik Malik, Khurram Dastgir, Baligh-ur-Rahman and Marriyam Aurangzeb with Imran Khan, Murad Saeed, Shehryar Afridi, Zartaj Gul, Faisal Vawda, Firdous Awan, Azam Swati and Sheikh Rasheed. Why isn’t this “superior” and “better educated” team making a difference? Is the prime minister really thinking that replacing Shehbaz Sharif with Usman Buzdar will bring about improvement? Does he really believe that? Does he expect reasonable Pakistanis to buy that? Seriously?

No one asks the PTI for ten million new jobs or five million new homes anymore. In this age of tabdeeli, Pakistanis are finding it so difficult to make ends meet that people don’t want to ponder over the disappointment that is Naya Pakistan.

The writer has served as federalminister for finance, revenue andeconomic affairs.

Twitter: @MiftahIsmail