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May 30, 2019

Waiting for a turnaround


May 30, 2019

Not very good news for the opposition’s stalwarts and their heir-lings preparing to launch a protest movement against the government. A free run on the Pak rupee and the share market has paused momentarily, raising hopes that both might have hit the bottom and things could start looking up in the days ahead.

The good tidings from Karachi were given a victorious spin by PM Khan who had been counselling perseverance to the nation till a turnaround in the economy. He went bullish and promised that the crisis would be over in two months, and that people from abroad would come to Pakistan for employment. We should wish him good luck because the number of successful applicants stands at two so far.

The first to seek employment in Pakistan was lucky enough to pick the plum job at the finance ministry but considering the herculean task he is called upon to perform, Hafeez Shaikh may be wondering whether it was the right decision. On a serious note, he is hinting at a whole year of stabilization of the economy. He was frank to stress the need for across-the-board austerity, for civil and other expenditures, to overcome the financial crunch. As for the second expat to find a job in Pakistan, let us pray for him because winning at the central bank is an equally daunting task.

The PTI-led government will be completing a year in office in August. It has managed to pile up another mountain of debt with some success in limiting the pilferage of public funds. The balance of payments deficit has been reduced. Of late though, there are reports of inviting foreign companies to participate in the Naya Pakistan Housing project that might add to the foreign debt, already spinning out of control. The PTI’s other promise of ten million jobs is linked to the mega housing plan so the two could swim or sink together.

Meanwhile, the prime minister has ventured into something that could touch the people’s lives. He paid surprise visits to places where the citizens find themselves at the mercy of hospital staff and police officials. This is precisely where the citizens of Pakistan are subjected to great humiliation while the rulers and high officials chill in their plush environment.

Nothing describes our society better than the term ‘thana-katchery’ where the people end up invariably for protection from criminals or for paperwork related to property or other civil matters. Farishta’s horrific murder has left behind a tale of callousness that should put the law-enforcement apparatus to shame.

It is an open secret that Pakistan is ruled by state functionaries dealing with the public and not by the senior officers. A CSS cadre has little public dealing which is left to the lower ranks such as the patwaris, the tehsil officials, the thanedars and havaldars, the tax and customs inspectors. The judicial system as a whole is notorious for its apathy and inefficiency. Bribery is a part of most working level officials’ DNA.

No claims of tabdeeli can help improve the lives of citizens unless there is a change at the public dealing level. We do not know if the PM’s symbolic visit will lead to a systematic effort to improve the performance of lower public officials who behave as the lords and masters of the mass of humanity. The higher bureaucracy, which was conceived to strengthen the colonial raj, is now expected to help the rulers in the fulfilment of their designs.

There is a widespread feeling that the government’s nine months in office have been largely spent in an unproductive blame game. While the people are measuring tabdeeli in terms of time, cabinet members do not miss any opportunity to castigate the previous team for laying landmines etc in revenue collection and circular debt.

Now that the prime minister has given good tidings of a turnaround in the economy in two months and the finance advisor hopes to stabilize the system in a year’s time, let us hope that the effects of various economic measures will begin to show in the short term by improving revenue collection, reducing the trade deficit and the balance of payments. The long-term economic fundamentals, however, do not look promising and the government is likely to go on struggling to meet the IMF criteria.

The opposition parties are poised to give the government ‘a tough time’ before it consolidates its grip on power and particularly before the economic indicators start moving upwards. The opposition parties are hoping to cash in on the economic crunch to pressurize the government on NAB cases and seek a deal for a reprieve. Imran Khan claims that there will be no NRO but then he should leave matters to the courts rather than using accountability to whip the party leaders rather than delivering on the economic front.

Tailpiece: Political observers in Pakistan are assessing the impact of Modi’s election victory on Pakistan-India relations in the period ahead. There is really no need to rush to conclusions because things need to gel before we can make a reasonable prognosis. It is nonetheless clear that no progress should be expected till the BJP has a change of heart on the bloodletting by the Indian forces in Kashmir. As a note of caution, it should be remembered that excessive zeal in diplomacy can be a waste of energy. PM Khan can only gain by treading cautiously with Mr Modi.

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