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Saturday September 24, 2022

Absurd political economy

August 27, 2022

Imran Khan is fond of reminding anyone who will listen that politics had nothing to offer him, and that he “came into politics” for completely benevolent reasons. In doing so, he paints himself as a selfless politician. Scrutinizing how he navigates the politics of character gives us some insight into the character of politics in Pakistan. This, in turn, may be a good starting point for understanding why we are so far beyond the point of failures of public policy that we can barely get the government as well as the opposition to pay attention to the floods in various parts of the country.

So, in order to understand the absurdities of Pakistan’s political economy, let us analyze the two absurdities of the PTI chairman’s oft-repeated statement. The first absurdity is the claim that politics had nothing to offer to Imran Khan. Politics gives us the chance to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves by cooperating with people. The argument that he was already doing so through the SKMCH is not entirely wrong but misses the point. Philanthropy is not public service, and the scale of influence that being prime minister offered him is no comparison to a hospital, no matter how good the hospital is. Khan’s claim shields him: how can one blame a man for anything if becoming head of government didn’t really increase his power and influence? This trivialization of the influence of public office, especially one as high as that of the head of government, may have shielded him but has likely done deep, long-lasting damage to Pakistan’s political culture.

The second absurdity is the idea of 'going into politics'. Khan is not alone in employing this phrase. 'Going into the dirty world of politics', as if the rest of daily life of a Pakistani citizen is squeaky clean and infinitely comfortable, and in 'going into politics' a Pakistani walks out of a fantastic utopia into a dangerous and dirty place. The phrase is as absurd as the idea that Pakistan is a dreamland. It implies that there are citizens who are not political, and that citizenship – our daily life in this country as its citizens – is not a political exercise. That citizenship is not a skill and a continuous political engagement with daily life. Again, this absurd claim has the effect of trivializing our status and agency as citizens.

Khan isn’t the only one partaking in absurdities. Exhibit B: the PML-N. Miftah Ismail got plenty of praise for prioritizing 'difficult decisions' to achieve economic stability at the cost of electoral prospects (see his interview with Gharidah Farooqi on July 18). The prime minister, in his August 13 speech, talked about rising above politics, to ignore electoral prospects, and to focus on the economy and the prospect of a charter of economy. These two PML-N figures are only at the tip of an iceberg of a popular and common sentiment: that parties should pursue the country’s economic interest rather than their own political interests. There is something not right about the idea that parties ought to or in fact are pursuing economic prosperity by ignoring their own political interest at the voting booth. It suggests two things: (1) that economic prosperity is not already part of their own party's political agenda' and (2) that the Pakistani voter will in fact actively reward political parties for pursuing an agenda which does not include economic prosperity. The first suggestion is a damning confession and the second is an insult to the voter.

No wonder then that the Pakistani political economy has become enveloped in layers and layers of myth, mysteries and smoke screens. It has taken on a magical quality and become impenetrable with all this talk of invisible ghosts, foreign powers in the shadows, and Mr. X. (Not to mention Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s secret formula to eliminate the inflation problem; see his August 13 speech). In this environment, any debate and discussion on Pakistan’s economic path is to be appreciated and encouraged. We need a more disciplined and (social) scientific analysis of Pakistan’s political economy. But these should be a part of citizens’ everyday life, which is why the power of social media which gives citizens more access and amplifies their voices (e.g. Twitter spaces) is so important.

There may in fact be some value to the idea of a charter of economy. But it is not possible for the value of consensus about the economy to be rooted in a neglect of daily political life and processes. If this neglect prevails, the country will continue to suffer the distributive consequences of the power differentials between big economic actors and an impoverished citizenry. No consensus will emerge without attention and commitment to the political agency of the citizenry, and any consensus which does appear in this manner will be suspect and questionable. The neglect of citizens’ suffering is not inevitable. Too much politics? Far from it. The political life of the citizen needs recognition and nourishment, and it needed them yesterday.

The writer is an economist. He tweets @khand154

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