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July 28, 2019

Incredible Pakistan


July 28, 2019

There could be nothing as exalting for the rulers as travelling abroad. Agreed that Imran Khan’s visit to Washington was not a lot of pomp and show but the consideration he received in the White House and Congress was something to behold.

He received a hero’s welcome by the Pakistani diaspora assembled in Washington. Even his journey by a commercial airline turned into something worthwhile and led to a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar.

The results of Imran Khan’s visit to Washington have begun to unfold with the US restoring some of its assistance programmes and reviewing the travel advisory for Pakistan. That represents a paradigm shift and you don’t need to go far but only look at the reaction in neighbouring India to figure how those two days of meetings in Washington tore to bits some received wisdom about the strategic ties between the US and India. There has been no reaction from Modi to President Trump’s disclosure about their conversation on Jammu and Kashmir dispute. His silence as opposed to his team members’ loud denials should surprise no one. This is incredible India for you.

India, for years, has claimed the title of ‘Incredible’ but Trump went a step further by describing both India and Pakistan as “two incredible countries… with very smart people”.

Consider. For years, Pakistan withstood intense pressure from the US administration, Congress, military leadership, the media and the civil society to do something in Afghanistan that the superpower could not accomplish with its trillion dollars and advanced war machine. Washington had two options after 15 years of its war on terror – to slog on or reach out to the Taliban. Yesterday’s terrorists are today’s interlocutors. The great irony is that there is still ‘more’ to be done by Pakistan, like overcoming resistance to a negotiated settlement within the Taliban ranks.

There are other aspects of being incredible. Pakistanis love weddings, followed by many children – among others by marrying within close family – spending what they don’t have, and holidaying notably where free board and lodging are available. Every third day is a holiday in the government. The private sector works six days but their productivity is abysmal. Social networking is a craze, corruption is deeply embedded, crony capitalism has been a regular feature and on and on.

Imran Khan has focused on corruption in high places. There are some cases that are not in the limelight or on the radar. Take this shopping mall in Islamabad for an example, a clear case of crony capitalism. The developer added three unauthorized floors on top of the permitted four on a plot meant for a public dispensary. The mall is now threatened with closure. Construction work on the twin towers of the capital situated at No 1 Constitution Avenue was stopped for irregularities.

Islamabad’s big shopping mall is going through convulsions of a different kind as the municipality has forbidden them to use the unoccupied piece of adjacent land as a parking lot. The result being that parking in the evening and over the weekends – which was already a challenge – has turned into a traumatic experience, particularly for women and their young children.

These actions have hit business and construction activities in a city that thrives on the services sector. Across the country what the government is doing to discipline traders and car buyers into paying taxes has had a highly damaging impact on economic activity. It would have been far better if the authorities had tried to enhance tax revenue incrementally rather than scaring entire sectors of business and industry.

It was a coincidence that Imran Khan flew back home from Washington on July 25, a year after the election of 2018 that had propelled him to power. He is finally in a position to realize his lifelong ambition of steering Pakistan from the quagmire of poverty. However, the combined opposition seized the opportunity to lodge protests against the government while questioning its legitimacy. Imran’s detractors know that it is not yet time to mount a major movement against his government.

It is nonetheless a reminder of the growing sense of helplessness in the country, which is facing economic and social tensions. An international wire service used the term a ‘teetering economy’, hyperbole but indicative that the economic remedies before or after the IMF package have had the effect of depressing the economy and raising inflation.

August 18 will mark the government’s one year in office, providing another opportunity to both sides to launch claims and counterclaims. Economic analysts say that the turnaround promised by the PTI government is nowhere in sight. It is doubtful that the ruling party has worthwhile ideas for course correction. It is still consumed by efforts aimed at demonizing corrupt leadership of the major opposition parties, not realizing that people other than the PTI’s supporters are not interested in this endless rhetoric. They feel the need for something new from the government now.

That brings us around to the slogan of Naya Pakistan that had helped Khan mobilize support, particularly among the urban youth. It is by now manifest that the PTI founder has ended up with all the faces from old Pakistan who have no clue to doing something different. The result is Mahar vs Mahar in a by-election in Sindh, a reminder of how Z A Bhutto ended up embracing the same feudal lords he had hoped to consign to the outer space.

Unlike Sadiq Khan or Sajid Javid, there are no sons of working class parents in Pakistan who can hope to rise in municipal let alone national politics, which is dominated by the same families for decades. Incredible – but so true.

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