IN his news conference last week, Imran Khan was back on his container. To be more precise, he never got off it, despite his rise to power. He threatened his rivals with reprisal. He wanted to see more politicians put behind bars on alleged corruption charges. He was unhappy with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for being ‘too slow’ in taking action against those he blamed for plundering the country.
Khan has promised to bring back all the looted wealth allegedly stashed in foreign lands that he considers to be the cause of all our economic ills. This populist rhetoric had certainly helped him galvanise the electorate and win the elections. But can such a one-dimensional approach to governance take the country out of the woods?
Halfway through the ‘magical’ 100 days, the Khan government is still struggling to find its moorings. The prime minister seems to be in a state of nirvana with little sense of reality on the ground. Governance through the occult and inanity sums up the past 50 days of Khan’s rule. The government has put its entire focus on fighting real or imaginary corruption, notwithstanding the fact that some of the most tainted people are now part of his administration.
Selective accountability could cause a serious political backlash that would be disastrous.
As the political situation has started settling down a bit with the opposition parties limiting their battle to parliament, the country has been thrown into another whirlpool of political turmoil with the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif. The high-profile detention of the opposition leader without any formal charge smacks of the politics of vendetta.
The former chief minister of Punjab has been taken into custody in the investigation of a housing scheme scam, but there seems to be no evidence yet of his involvement in any financial corruption. What justifies his detention while the case is still being investigated? The prime minister’s lauding of Shahbaz’s detention and predictions of more arrests raise questions about the claim that NAB is an independent organisation and that it has nothing to do with the government.
It appears doubtful that the allegations of any wrongdoing could stand in a court of law without substantive evidence, bringing into question the entire accountability process. The remarks made by the prime minister and his hyperactive information minister only reinforce the allegations of a witch-hunt. Selective accountability could cause a serious political backlash that would be disastrous for the entire system. It is not surprising that NAB’s latest action has brought the squabbling opposition groups closer, thus exacerbating the problems of the fragile coalition government.
Surely, rampant corruption is one of the biggest curses retarding the country’s economic progress, but there are also other more serious issues that urgently need to be addressed. Voodoo economics would not remedy our deep-rooted problems. The ineptitude and lack of capacity of the PTI government were more evident in the latter’s handling of the economy. It may be true that the new government has inherited the mess left behind by the previous PML-N administration. Nevertheless, it is now the responsibility of the new incumbent to fix it.
Undoubtedly, the country is facing perhaps the gravest financial crisis of its history. But the government has failed to move fast to prevent a free fall. It was only after the signs of a complete meltdown appeared that the government decided to approach the IMF for a bailout. While the government remained confused and indecisive waiting for some miracle to happen the stock market crashed. The delay caused investors’ confidence to hit a new low.
Surely, going to the IMF has its own perils, but there was no other choice. It is obvious that the negotiations with multilateral financial institutions will not be easy this time because of our worsening relations with Washington, and the bailout is likely to come with much tougher conditionalities. The government will have to take some unpopular measures in order to gain space for carrying out much-needed structural reforms.
That may require the administration to maintain a balance between belt-tightening and its populist agenda. A one-dimensional approach will certainly not help in facing the grave challenge. There is also a serious problem of lack of professional capacity not only to navigate the country out of the financial crisis, but also to chart a long-term strategy for sustainable economic progress. The much-touted Economic Advisory Council seems to be in tatters if not rendered completely ineffective after Prof Atif Mian’s removal from it on religious grounds, with some other members leaving it in protest.
Religious prejudice is anathema to progress and Imran Khan, with what can only be described as a hidebound worldview, does not seem to be cognisant of this. He is certainly not prepared to take on extremists within and outside his party. The backtracking on the Atif Mian issue is one such example. It reflects badly on a government that promises to build a ‘naya Pakistan’ and take the country forward.
Incoherence in policy is another hallmark of the government that is not willing to come out of its populist and opposition mould. The disarray is not only evident in handling domestic political and economic issues but also in external affairs. One such example is the amateurish dealing with CPEC. There are so many contradictory statements emanating from different ministries that the future of the project has been made questionable.
Surely, there is a need to review some of the projects under CPEC, but the chaos indicates that we still have no clear idea of what we really want. Similarly, the unsubstantiated claim about Saudi financial support and investment has caused serious embarrassment to both governments.
Given the enormity of the financial crisis and domestic challenges, the government needs political stability. Defusing political confrontation is in the interest of a minority government whose survival hinges on the support of disparate political groups. There is a greater need now for national reconciliation to face internal and external challenges. It surely does not mean compromising on corruption, but inflammatory remarks can prevent the law from taking its course. The perils of a one-dimensional approach are contagious.
Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2018