Monday May 27, 2024

This time isn’t different

By I Hussain
May 09, 2022

The former combined opposition parties that backed Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister have been shaken by the size and age diversity of the crowds attending Imran Khan’s rallies. These are some of the largest political rallies since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and in marked contrast to the rent-a-crowd gatherings that have been the norm for so many years.

Imran Khan’s supporters have been described by his critics as cult followers who ignore his administration’s glaring failures which are alleged to have led the country to the brink of economic collapse. This is an insult to the intelligence of the throngs that come to hear Mr Khan speak and/or follow him on Twitter.

A simpler explanation for Imran Khan’s crowd pulling power could be that the populace is tired of seeing the same two dynasties at the helm of government and are therefore receptive to following a political leader whose name isn’t Sharif or Bhutto. Further, his charge of an American conspiracy against his government has gained considerable traction.

Experience is apparently an overrated quality. Pick up any edition of the Pakistan Economic Survey over the last 25-30 years and you’ll find the same issues being highlighted again and again. So much so that you can copy-paste the situation analysis for any one year and there will be no difference in the structural issues involved. The magnitudes of the three Ds (deficits, debt, depreciation) that have been the mainstays of discussion during this period are different but the underlying reasons for the perennial crises, punctuated only by brief periods of economic stabilization, are the same.

Obviously we have let the many crises in the past go to waste or we wouldn’t be in the fix we are in today where the economy is hanging by a thread. If the past is prologue then we shall again be saved, hopefully, through some deus ex machina. But don’t bet on it.

As to the charges of malfeasance against the former prime minister, one of the accusations is that he wrongfully kept and profited from the sale of gifts received from foreign dignitaries.

To clear up matters on this issue, the auditor general of Pakistan should be asked to conduct an investigation as to rules and practices governing official gifts and whether and how these rules were breached by any of the country’s prime ministers.

Before pointing fingers at Mr Khan for using a helicopter to commute to his office that was an unnecessary waste of taxpayers’ money, one should first personally experience as a citizen the torturous experience of waiting at a road intersection in the sweltering heat for a VIP motorcade to whiz by – comprising a dozen or more gas guzzling vehicles. (Ambulances trying to pick up the sick or injured or getting them to hospital have a particularly hard time.)

A cost-benefit calculation would certainly count the avoided operation and maintenance cost of the vehicles providing a security escort to the prime minister as a benefit; the cost of petrol of the public’s vehicles that are idling while awaiting the motorcade is also an avoided cost and therefore a benefit.

Of course, unless one assumes that the productivity of those waiting in their vehicles for the VIP is negligible there is a benefit in time saving for the public who would otherwise be delayed by the VIP movement since travel by helicopter means less traffic congestion on the roads. This can be assigned a monetary value.

A major benefit of helicopter use would be the time saved by the prime minister in reaching his office. Spending time in the office undoubtedly has a higher value than forced downtime in a car commute.

The point here is that helicopter usage is not inherently wasteful unless, of course, it is used for non-official purposes.

The dismissive attitude of the former prime minister to the charge against Farah Khan, a friend of the former first lady, is however problematic. To claim in a television address, as Mr Khan did, that the lady in question made her fortune in real estate because the real-estate sector boomed in the last three years is a description of something that could only have happened in a parallel universe. If anything, the real-estate sector has been moribund during the two years of the pandemic and is only recovering slowly. Anybody connected to the real estate supply chain in Pakistan will attest to this.

The appropriate response by Mr Khan should not have been that the charges against Farah Khan are politically motivated (this is the default position of the PML-N and PPP leaderships against corruption charges) but to welcome any investigation just to prove that her business transactions do not involve any wrongdoing.

In Pakistan’s political history there have been two politicians who have been openly critical of American policies. One was Z A Bhutto and the other is Imran Khan. Bhutto publicly voiced his criticism of the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s while Imran has been a thorn in the side of the US ever since they launched the war against the Taliban in 2001.

There is an interesting episode described in Stanley Wolpert’s biography ‘Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan’. In 1966, President Ayub Khan on a visit to the US met with US president Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office. Bhutto, then Pakistan’s foreign minister, was made to wait in the anteroom while the two leaders had their discussions. After the meeting Johnson greeted Bhutto and made a banal comment about his future. The latter immediately realized that his days in Ayub’s cabinet were numbered.

Many of our politicians have obsequiously solicited American patronage so let’s not put all the blame on the US for intervening in Pakistani politics. For instance, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, a couple of months before Musharraf’s coup in 1999 Shehbaz Sharif went to Washington to plead for support from the Clinton administration to avert an impending military takeover.

Then of course there’s the infamous ‘memogate’ controversy involving former Pakistan ambassador Husain Haqqani that allegedly sought US help for Pakistan’s civilian government.

Right now, the country is adrift with no clear direction. The IMF’s seal of approval with the concomitant inflow of dollars is not yet a done deal. Can the IMF be assured that with another election looming the Sharif government will be able to enact the stringent policy reforms that it wants? Will the current government be willing to bear the political cost of implementing the proposed austerity measures?

The non-renewal of Dr Reza Baqir’s contract as the State Bank governor would also be a cause concern for the IMF since it raises doubts about the independence of the State Bank that the IMF believes is necessary for a sound monetary policy.

The political situation in the country is on a knife-edge and could easily descend into violent chaos. Nobody wins under this scenario. However our country’s adversaries will no doubt be pleased to see this happen.

The situation therefore calls for a de-escalation strategy to tamp down the political rhetoric. The sensible option to defuse the situation is for the government to announce the holding of free and fair elections at an early date. Then let the chips fall where they may.

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group. He can be reached at: iqbal.hussain@janggroup.