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Legal Eye

May 26, 2019

Something’s gotta give


May 26, 2019

With the economy in freefall and the diminishing ability of the majority of households in the country to balance their budgets and run their kitchens, many ask if the Tabdeeli experiment will last long.

The opposition has sensed the opportunity carved by the incumbent regime that brings it back into play. It has begun talking up the growing miseries of the common man and has announced the possibility of a street movement in anticipation of public sentiment evolving from disappointment to anxiety and then turning into rage.

The PTI’s thesis about what ailed this country is in the lab and the results now coming out don’t look good. Is corruption of politicos the number one issue for Pakistan? Was it caused by the political dynasties leading the PML-N and PPP? And will throwing the Sharifs and Zardaris behind bars make us the land of abundance? The fish rots from the head, we were told. So with IK at the head, has the rot disappeared? Will we now have cheap gas and electricity and fuel and dollar because we have clean patriotic leadership with financial integrity?

There can only be two explanations for the PTI’s populist rhetoric. One, that IK and the band truly believed that every time the prices of utilities increased or the rupee was devalued it was because the Sharifs, Zardaris and their cronies were carrying bagsful of looted public money out of the country, which was then being stored in lockers in Switzerland or Panama etc. And that, once clean leadership was in office, loot and its flight would instantly stop, and money already laundered would be wheeled back into Pakistan, making us an Asian tiger in no time.

Two, IK and the band understood that Pakistan has lived beyond its means for decades. It hasn’t fixed structures of governance and its skewed priorities don’t include focus on education, science, research, entrepreneurship, creativity, human resource management etc. It has pursued a security policy that its economy lacks the wherewithal to support. It has relied on aid, loans and largess of transactional allies to support a life of opulence. But acknowledging all this won’t help manufacture a narrative that can be sold to the populace.

If it is the first, we are at the mercy of a naiveté and incompetence. And if it is the second, we have a populist regime that rode a deceptive narrative into power only to discover that it is starting at the end of the rope. In his column in Dawn this week Khurram Husain gave the PTI the bad news: “you can’t spin inflation and you can’t plug macroeconomic deficits with emotional appeals”. Translation: without acknowledging the truth about why our formal economy is a basket case and the painful solutions required to fix it, you can’t begin fixing it.

Here is the bad news. The economic pain that almost everyone in the country is feeling (excluding the super-rich) is only the tip of the iceberg. It will keep getting worse for a while before it can get better. To sustain this phase of pain and suffering with grit, what we need is a Charter of Economy: an agreement amongst power elites (including politicos) to not use necessary corrective steps as a stick to pursue power politics and beat opponents down. Translation: the opposition’s behaviour should be the polar opposite of how IK/PTI behaved in opposition.

But herein lies the problem. How does IK now switch on the honestly button and tell people that the Sharifs and Zardaris might have been part of the problem, but the real problem is our priorities and habits as a polity? And even if he can, why will the opposition play ball with him now that it smells blood? With each passing day, the PTI’s ability to blame the PML-N for growing economic hardship is diminishing. In a country like ours that relies on miracles, loves conspiracy theories and opts for lazy short-cut solutions, moral rhetoric works – just not on empty stomachs.

If you break it it’s yours, they say. As people find it harder to feed their children, send them to school, pay for healthcare, utility bills and gas in the tank, they will need someone to blame. It might be NS or the dollar or the IMF today. But as things go from bad to worse the focus of anger will move towards the PTI. The opposition will add fuel to fire. It will throw statistics – not just about debt ratios and deficits but about things people know and understand: the price of petrol then and now; the price of tomatoes then and now; the price of medicine then and now.

The PTI’s patrons are in a pickle too. We saw four elected governments take turns within the decade in the 90s. In a two-party system, with Article 58(2)(b) at hand, it was easier to offer turns. Given the public perception of the PTI’s intimacy with state power, how will the PTI becoming a liability, if it does, be taken account of?

The dream remains that IK will miraculously fix the economy against the odds – just as he won the World Cup or built Shaukat Khanum Hospital or became PM, against the odds. But if the present nightmare continues, how do you shed deadweight only a year into the term of a government? Despite an election that opposition parties called doctored, the two mainstream opposition parties, PML-N and PPP, are still undecided about what they want from the proposed agitation, given their baggage. They understand that any street agitation will essentially be a negotiation for either an in-house change or a fresh appeal to the electorate.

The key problem with both options is how you get there without losing face and what alternative there is to opt for when there are no backup options. The option of in-house change seems useless. If the technocrat-heavy PTI – with all the institutional help – can’t get the job done, how would another menagerie steer this ship out of choppy waters? How can the horses be changed midstream after the initial choice has been oversold? Is it thinkable to hand over the keys of the house back to the looters who’ve just been ousted to ‘save’ the house?

And if the PTI continues to be found wanting and in-house change isn’t a real option, could another electoral contest be possible and make sense in which the available options for the lead role will remain the same: PTI, PML-N and PPP?

The PTI was founded in the late 90s. It took a decade and half of gestation, followed by strong steroid injections, to get it to a point where it could stake a claim to the civilian throne. There is no one else now. The maulvis are a nuisance and a danger. The PTI has been tried. And the others are ‘thieves’. What then will fresh elections deliver?

For now, there is no light at the end of the tunnel unless we count on a 1992-style miracle by the PTI. If the pain of economic distress becomes egregious, something will have to give. While no street movement can overthrow a government which is backed by power beyond the civilian ambit, that power too is part of the whole and extremely sensitive to public opinion. But the good thing for institutions is that with every change at the top they have the option of changing direction, learning from the past, shedding deadweight, betting on a new or used horse and moving on.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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