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July 21, 2020

Disembarking the container

Opinion

July 21, 2020

There are least two areas in which this government, despite the odds, seems to have done some stellar work – the first is the diplomatic work by Mohammad Sadiq that is helping forge Pakistan’s seriousness as Afghanistan’s most reliable partner and neighbour, and the second is the work to contain Covid-19 by Asad Umar and the NCOC that has clearly eased the post Ramazan/Ramadan and Eidul Fitr spike of Covid-19 infections and fatalities.

Both represent major successes for Pakistan, tenuous and temporary as they may be. Yet PM Khan and his supporters will find little to no traction for celebration. Hardly anyone has even acknowledged these positive developments. It all seems a little unfair. The big question is: why?

Well, let’s imagine Prime Minister Imran Khan waking up every morning to assess his stature as the country’s undisputed leader. How would he be feeling? He has a cabinet in which members go after one another harder than they do the opposition. He has a press and media that has stopped gushing at his every smile and soundbyte (for the most part). He has a regional security situation in which India’s oppression in Kashmir is intensifying, with reports of thousands of RSS thugs being shipped to further intimidate and cow ordinary Kashmiris. He also has to consider the world after a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with worrying reports of TTP consolidation and public threats being made by a mysteriously free and liberated Ehsanullah Ehsan.

Most of all, PM Khan is going to be held responsible, rightly or wrongly, for a broken and dysfunctional economy in which Covid-19 has wreaked untold havoc – scores of unemployed Pakistanis will either not be covered by the BISP/Ehsaas programme, or will not find a one-time Rs12,000 cash grant to be enough to survive on.

If you think about all this from PM Khan’s perspective though, it would seem a little bit unfair. Covid-19 wasn’t invented by PM Khan, and yet he has taken a lot of flak (for off-the-cuff speeches and misstatements) and received little credit (for relatively better than expected infection and fatalities numbers in July, and a swift passing of the post Ramazan/Ramadan and post-Eid spike).

India’s annexation of Kashmir on August 5, 2019 was not enacted by PM Khan. Yet many question what the government and PM Khan have done for Kashmir and Kashmiris.

The economic mess that PM Khan inherited has certainly not been fixed, but prior to Covid-19 he and his team had certainly managed to lend greater stability to the macroeconomic numbers – leave aside the fact that I believe deficit reduction to be a misguided setting of tactics as strategic objectives (fiscal and external balances are tools to achieve policy goals, they cannot and should not be goals in and of themselves).

In so many things, whilst this government has been ill-prepared to govern, incapable of grappling with the wider challenges, and undeniably bereft of a grip over its own ambitious reform agenda: it has not been terrible at everything. Indeed, in perhaps the issue that should matter most to all Pakistanis – the well-being of our fellow citizens – the expansion of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) under the Ehsaas umbrella, has been one of the truly great moments in Pakistani statehood. With over 16 million households now having received an unconditional cash transfer of Rs12,000, the path to a universal basic income in Pakistan is now clearly defined. This alone can (and should) stand as an outstanding achievement for this government.

Yet Islamabad is abuzz with rumours. The intensity of the whispering ebbs and flows, but there certainly continues to be an intense sense of foreboding in the air. Smart money knows that the three pillars of the current regime are not going anywhere. But there is constant uncertainty and a wider sense of instability that makes the monsoon air thick with intrigue and anticipation. Again, the big question is: why?

PM Khan and his supporters will claim that the criticism of the government is rooted in vested interests as he and his cabinet enact major reforms to the country’s system of governance. When asked for proof, they will offer up the declaration of assets by the special assistants to the prime minister, and the publication of the sugar and wheat pricing scandals. But publishing these lists is neither a reform nor particularly reformist. From Hamood-ur-Rehman to Quetta, to Abbottabad to Faizabad, if the publication or leaking of facts and analysis was the same thing as reform, Pakistan would look very different than it is. This government either doesn’t want to, or worse, is not capable of distinguishing between noise-making and system-making.

And this, at its heart, is the problem. The current government is not nearly as incompetent and incapable of governing as it seems. Its most profound and serious challenge is not Maryam Nawaz Sharif, or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, or Maulana Fazlur Rehman, or any other political competition. This government’s most profound and serious challenge is the undiagnosed and untreated case of verbal dysentery that afflicts almost every single member of PM Khan’s inner circle, and especially aspirants to this inner circle.

This is a killer flaw, and it is why there is so much political uncertainty in Islamabad. On its merits, the Pakistani opposition today cannot even violate the gag orders that restrict the primary leaders of the most potent opposition party, the PML-N. They are not about to enact some grand scheme to take down PM Khan. But what the PML-N, PPP, JUI-F and every other opponent do have going for them is PM Khan himself. They know that, for example, a series of slogans shouted at him in the assembly can distract him from his agenda, and set him and his core PTI support base on a destructive path.

Opponents of PM Khan have figured out the killer formula. You don’t need to beat Imran Khan – indeed, given how power is configured in Pakistan today, you can’t. All you need to do is let Imran Khan beat himself. And beat himself he will.

The most important challenge facing the PTI government and its survival is not politics. It is economics. Covid-19 has exposed the foundational mess the economy is in. Daronomics, whilst perhaps unsustainable, and certainly costly, worked. It produced the one thing that this country needs more than any other thing: GDP growth.

Ask PM Khan: what is your economic vision? You will get a flurry of feel-good soundbytes. The word ‘corruption’ will appear early and often. Why? There is no vision. Ask PM Khan: how will Pakistan enact a jobs-heavy recovery from Covid-19? You will get more soundbytes. More corruption blah-blah. Why? There are no jobs. Not now. Not in six months. Ask PM Khan: what is the plan for Pakistan to take advantage of the economic opportunities Covid-19 creates in international trade? You will get some feel-good soundbyte about diaspora and the PTI’s fundraising prowess. Why? There is no plan.

This government will not go down because it is incompetent. It is not dramatically more incompetent than any previous government. It will go down because it is stuck on a container, nearly six years after the container almost sunk the entire political capital of the PTI. Being PM or a member of the cabinet is not a performance on a container. It is real. The ultimate test of the Pakistani leader is how many jobs she or he helps create, and how much more money he can put in pockets, in showrooms and on the streets.

Take a good look at the words and actions of PM Khan and his cabinet and ask yourself: where will the jobs come from? Where will the growth come from? How will more money get into more Pakistani pockets?

Silence.

That’s why this government is in trouble. The rest is just noise. And most of it is coming from the government itself.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.