Friday June 14, 2024

The task ahead

By Javid Husain
April 17, 2022

The success of the no-confidence motion against former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif’s election as prime minister are landmark developments in the political history of Pakistan.

The change of government paves the way for a radical reform of Pakistan’s internal and external policies to put the country on the road to stability and progress internally and to necessary adjustments and balance in the management of external affairs.

This would be a formidable challenge even under the best of circumstances. Considering the difficult situation left behind by the PTI government because of its gross ineptitude and the fragile character of the new coalition government, it will be a Herculean task. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his coalition partners therefore need to act with realism, sagacity and unity of purpose to have any chance of success in resolving the serious problems confronting the country.

The fall of Imran Khan’s government carries important lessons for his successors. The main factors which caused his ouster from power were his boundless arrogance which prevented him from seeking and accepting sane advice on the handling of national affairs, the failure of his policies in improving the country’s economy and the economic lot of the people suffering from high levels of inflation, unemployment and poverty, and a vindictive approach towards his political opponents which prevented him from evolving a national consensus on important issues. Over and above all of this, Imran Khan over-emphasized narrative at the expense of the substance of his policies. So while the people suffered from his government’s misgovernance, taken in by his own misleading propaganda, he continued to believe in the illusory success of its achievements.

The last thing the country now needs is the continuation of the state of confrontation between the government and the opposition. The new government must therefore offer an olive branch to the opposition to initiate a healing and conciliatory process in Pakistan’s politics. This will not be an easy task because of mutual bitterness and recriminations between the two sides and the PTI’s misguided decision to launch nationwide agitation against its ouster from power. Still the new government must make a serious attempt to engage the PTI in in-depth discussion of such burning national issues as electoral reforms and revival of the economy.

Perhaps the most important task waiting for the new government is the acceleration of Pakistan’s economic progress on a sustainable basis and making available the benefits of faster economic growth to the common man by lowering inflationary pressures and generating new job opportunities to bring down unemployment. This will undoubtedly be an extremely difficult task, especially because of the economic mess left behind by the PTI government. Still an effort must be made to rectify the situation.

To start with, the new government should prepare a short-term plan to put the economy back on track and improve the living conditions of the common man on a war footing. This would require urgent measures to facilitate business activity, attract foreign investment, re-activate CPEC projects to bring in Chinese governmental and private investment, cut down waste in government expenditure, bring about through appropriate trade policies a drastic reduction in imports barring machinery and raw materials needed for productive purposes, undertake tax reforms on an urgent basis to raise additional tax revenues, and provide as much relief as possible to the common man.

These urgent measures should be part of a long-term plan to raise the GDP growth rate to seven percent or above on a sustainable basis by enhancing the national investment rate to about 30 percent of GDP over the next five years. This will be possible only if we succeed in raising our national saving rate to about 30 percent as against the current low level of 15 percent and the tax-to-GDP ratio from about 10 percent to over 25 percent. These targets will remain elusive in the absence of effective measures to enforce nationwide austerity and bring about far reaching taxation reforms in the country. In addition, the government should pursue well-considered policies to increase exports, promote the development of science and technology, and raise the national expenditure on education from the current low level of about two percent to about 10 percent.

No less important than a radical improvement in our economy is the need to salvage our foreign policy from the enormous damage inflicted upon it by the cavalier manner in which it was conducted by the PTI government, especially in the last few months of its tenure. We need to formulate a foreign policy which is up to the task of navigating the ship of state through the turbulent waters of a world in disorder marked by the domination of power politics over international law, diminished authority of the UN on strategic issues of war and peace, civilizational fault-lines, primacy of economic power, importance of science and technology, the rise of new powers like China demanding the accommodation of their interests in the international system, and shifting alliances.

Pakistan’s grand strategy encompassing its political, diplomatic, economic and security policies must come to grips with the challenges of the current inhospitable international environment in such a manner as would safeguard its security and attain the goal of economic prosperity so that its people may realize their full potential. The linchpin of Pakistan’s grand strategy should be assigning the top priority to the goal of rapid economic growth while maintaining a credible security deterrent at the lowest level of armed forces and armaments. This in turn would require us to pursue a low-risk and non-adventurist foreign policy. Over-ambitious foreign policy goals should be avoided to extricate ourselves from the trap of strategic over-stretch and exhaustion in which we are caught at present.

Only a government driven by a long-term vision as outlined above, possessing the necessary political and administrative skills to formulate and execute policies in its pursuit, and enjoying popular support will have some chance of success in coming to grips with the world of the twenty-first century. Internal political stability and cohesion based on strong democratic institutions are a must for moving in that direction. Needless to say, in so doing, the government and our policymakers should always be guided by national interest as our lodestar.

The writer is a retired ambassador. He can be reached at: