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September 29, 2020

PTI and PML-N vs inertia

Opinion

September 29, 2020

The PML-N is, above all, a political party seeking to win power. Its leaders clearly believe that the best way to win power is to promise the people of Pakistan a more normal democratic system in which elected leaders have total control over foreign policy, resource allocation and most crucially national security. This is an awfully seductive pitch. What sentient Pakistani would not want the country to not need an asterisk next to it? “Is it a democracy? Yes, but…”. But is this a promise that can actually be delivered?

Of course, the PTI is no stranger to fantasy-fiction as its primary pitch to the Pakistani people. This is a party that has shamelessly married the word ‘justice’ to the notion of corruption. A party with leaders like Jahangir ‘I’ll Be Back’ Tareen, with a revolving door for special interests to enter and exit the Prime Minister’s office, and cabinet members widely despised within the PTI itself for their reputations for ill-gotten wealth, who keep getting newer and better cabinet assignments.

The PTI faithful, much like their Noonie cousins, have trouble believing that anyone could believe anything but the holy truth as professed by Bani Galaists around the country. Pakistan is nowhere near about to be rid of corruption. Yet PM Khan continues to pretend that his government is an anti-corruption juggernaut.

If civil-military equilibrium is unachievable, and rooting out corruption is unachievable, then why do the two most iconic national leaders in Pakistan continue pretending to be committed to them? Are they lying to us? Many powerful forces in Pakistan would like nothing better than to let this question hang in the air unresolved. The continued pregnancy of the political discourse with the question of integrity is a central plank for the sustenance of extra-constitutional power. Of course, this is a question for a different time.

For now, it is more urgent that we realise that the question of politicians’ integrity is external (or at best incidental) to the effectiveness of the politicians’ programme. In short, what matters is not whether Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan really mean what they say when they make all the promises that they keep making. What matters is whether they can get things done. Even the relatively little things.

You see, much as the Sharifistas and the Imranists would like us to believe that they represent polar opposites of each other, they actually don’t. They are a lot more alike than they aren’t. Both are broadly centre-right parties, with leaders from Lahore, and drawing on support from the urban centres across the country. One area of similarity that they share (along with the PPP, and with the Musharraf regime of 1999-2008) is also the least explored. It is this area of common ground that is at the heart of the inevitability of the failure of their political programmes.

In short, whether the PML-N, or the PTI, or the PPP, or any other political or non political rulers of Pakistan, they all face the same core challenge. It is this challenge that prevents the PML-N from delivering on civil-military equilibrium and the PTI from delivering on anti-corruption. Until this fundamental and core challenge is tackled, the cat-and-mouse game between lofty promises and your favourite politician will continue to be played – to the detriment of the taxpayer, the voter, and the citizen at large.

What is the common core challenge? Simply put, it is the awesome, inescapable, relentless and dominant power enjoyed by the concept of inertia. Now, we all want heroes and villains. So, the more vigorous reader will obviously want to know: ‘who is behind inertia in Pakistan?’ And of course, the answer is: ‘it depends’. But there is a general rule of thumb that can help fix the root of a problem like inertia. That general rule of thumb is to ask the question: ‘who benefits from a given inertia?’.

To understand this framework better, let’s take the news this past week of PM Khan signing off on an economic diplomacy initiative called the Economic Outreach Apex Committee’. Modelled on the NCOC framework, which has thus far also been applied to both the tourism challenge, and the Karachi challenge, this apex committee is supposed to solve the issue of coordination and coherence across various federal departments as well as the ostensible challenges to economic diplomacy caused by the provincial autonomy on some aspects relating to economic diplomacy. To assess whether this ‘Economic Outreach Apex Committee’ has a chance to succeed, we need to understand the context it seeks to tackle and fix.

First, we need to understand how deeply and widely felt a need economic diplomacy is in Pakistan. The four most recent governments in Pakistan – Musharraf (1999-2008), PPP (2008-2013), PML-N (2013-2018) and PTI (2018 to present) – have all invested substantial rhetoric in how important the conversion of Pakistan’s geopolitical advantage into a geo-economic one is. This begs the question: why has so little happened to advance economic diplomacy, despite there being no debate in Pakistan on its importance?

Second, we need to understand that the institutional home for economic diplomacy is spread across at least five different organizations, each with an important role to play. These five include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, the Board of Investment, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the Ministry of Finance. The NCOC model has been applied to this challenge principally because of this dispersal of authority and functions related to economic diplomacy. But is what worked for Covid-19 guaranteed to work for economic diplomacy?

Third, and most importantly, we need to understand the human capital available for economic diplomacy. Economic diplomacy is not a function that the Foreign Service of Pakistan (FSP) is capable of undertaking alone. It is also not a function that the Commerce Group, or the Information Group, are capable of undertaking alone. Most importantly, economic diplomacy is not a function that external, private sector actors or academics or thought leaders are capable of undertaking on their own.

Why are none of these sources of talent not able to perform the tasks necessary for economic diplomacy? Essentially because economic diplomacy constitutes the convergence of several disciplines and functions. Ultimately, Pakistani diplomats in the FSP must be the ones executing the function of economic diplomacy as second nature. But for this to be a realizable outcome requires a set of pre-conditions that must be met, most of which entail a substantial re-ordering, re-organizing, and re-prioritization amongst various civil service groups, and across various ways of doing things (including changes to rules of business). Enter inertia.

Pakistani leaders’ interest in economic diplomacy is like their interest in rooting out corruption or fixing the civil-military imbalance. It makes for a nice speech, and even better tweets. But to actually do the things necessary to achieve the high-minded ideals (in our example today of economic diplomacy), requires some very basic changes to how the federal government is organized, and how various interest groups and lobbies feel they are being treated.

Neither PM Sharif, nor PM Abbasi, nor PM Khan want to disturb the hornets’ nest of the Commerce Group, nor the Information Group, nor the Foreign Service of Pakistan. These 19th century constructs of so-called specialized civil servants are debased and humiliated in both the public and private domains on a daily basis. And yet both the groups themselves, and those that routinely humiliate them, prefer this sadistic relationship to actual changes to the status quo that would serve the interests of the people of Pakistan, and help achieve the commonly held conviction that Pakistan must focus its internal and external efforts on growing its economy.

PM Khan and Nawaz Sharif may not be lying when they claim to want to fix the big problems Pakistan faces. But they do not have the will or capability to change even the little things to solve the little problems. If Pakistan can’t merge the Foreign Service of Pakistan with the Commerce Group, and integrate the core economic diplomacy organizations into a wider, more modern Foreign and Trade Office, it has no chance at beating corruption or normalizing its democracy.

Maybe the Sharifistas and Imranists don’t know any better, but Nawaz Sharif and PM Khan should. And so should you.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.