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December 2, 2020

Chaos vs chaos


December 2, 2020

Monday’s defiant public protest in Multan by the opposition coalition – the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) – immediately drew harsh criticism from members of the ruling structure led by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Yet, the opposition is not alone in refusing to lead by example as leaders of Pakistan’s ruling class have all equally led public gatherings with an almost complete disregard for Covid-appropriate social distancing.

As Pakistan remains locked in the battle against Covid-19, public gatherings – irrespective of who gets to organize them – are blatantly irresponsible. To date, there’s no record of any such gathering organized by the government or the opposition that has successfully forced full compliance by participants in embracing all the key safeguards.

As Pakistan joins the rest of the world in facing the biggest public health challenge in recent times, public gatherings present a potential nightmare in blocking the spread of the coronavirus. But the matter of such gatherings is just one part of the challenge that has fuelled the proverbial mother of all chaos in recent memory.

As the Multan gathering drew near, the ruling PTI oversaw a crackdown against organizers and prospective participants, with clear disregard for democratic norms. After tens of activists were detained over the weekend, the authorities unexpectedly took a U-turn and allowed the gathering just hours before Monday.

It seems eventually the reality that dawned upon almost everyone across the ruling corridors was an obvious one: that unless the ruling class embraced an unblemished record for responsible behavior, it could not afford to tie down the opposition.

In brief, Pakistan has this week witnessed a substantial widening of the chaos that has prevailed across the power corridors for months. Beyond the matter of the gatherings lies a palpable sense of dismay all around.

More than two years after Prime Minister Khan took charge of Islamabad along with the ruling structure of the populous Punjab province, there is increasingly a widespread disconnect between policies and the realities on the ground. This disconnect has fuelled the most obvious policy chaos witnessed across Pakistan for years.

For Prime Minister Khan, criticism of his rule is driven mainly by the opposition whose leaders are keenly seeking to get off the hook on graft related charges. But that real or imaginary impetus cannot change the many shortcomings across the power corridors of Islamabad and/or Lahore.

Punjab, once widely known as home to Pakistan’s industrial and agricultural heartland has overseen a consistent deterioration in the quality of both of those key drivers of the economy. While Pakistan’s industries in some sectors such as textiles have recently witnessed a recovery, there’s no guarantee of the turnaround also remaining sustainable. And agriculture which stands at the very heart of Pakistan’s economic lifeline has witnessed one of the worst breakdowns in recent years.

With crop after crop set to underperform, Pakistan’s food security has been badly hampered. Pakistan clearly needs a mix of short, medium and long-term policy changes to tackle the catastrophe.

The most obvious disconnect, however, stems from the regime’s failure to appreciate that early and selective signs of recovery have failed to make a difference across the country’s average households. And there may be more misery in store for mainstream Pakistan as the authorities in Islamabad ponder over new revenue measures to satisfy the international monetary fund (IMF) and keep intact a $6 billion loan program.

As Pakistan’s mainstream population suffers from the twin effects of the fallout from the dreaded coronavirus and policy failures, the writing on the wall is abundantly clear. The chaos emanating from the power corridors of Islamabad and Lahore has become comparable to the chaos unleashed by the opposition.

Going forward after Multan, Pakistan’s opposition parties – armed with more than just a defiant streak – have promised to mount further pressure on the Khan-led ruling structure. The next round is set to take place in Lahore with yet another public gathering planned for December 13. And then comes the opposition’s target of staging a protest march towards Islamabad.

For now, PTI leaders have chosen to denounce the opposition's protests as no more than an inconsequential side show. But faced with mounting chaos all around, Prime Minister Khan can ill afford to make further mistakes and also consolidate his rule.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs.

Email: [email protected]