GIVEN the general absence of policy dialogue in our political discourse, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf’s recent move to publicise their economic development plan is, nominally speaking, a welcome step.
Naturally, it reads a bit like a wish list — a comprehensive one, to be fair — and its complete implementation is heavily contingent on their electoral success.
Their insistence and optimism at overcoming entrenched political-economic interests, both within and outside, is an indication that the party is fairly confident of obtaining, at the very least, a simple majority in parliament.
That said, it would only be honest to admit that what the PTI has pushed forward as its prescriptions for responding to five national emergencies (energy, government revenue, government expenditure, human development, and institutional reform) are safe, conservative strategies that have been mentioned before by other political parties, and by multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The idea to privatise lumbering, loss-making state-owned institutions is neither revolutionary nor novel, nor is the idea to spend more on health and education by cutting down on wasteful government expenditure (like cars and houses for ministers).
The problem — and this cannot be stressed enough — is that the step, nay leap, between a power point presentation and its actualisation, traverses the complex domain of this country’s micro and macro political economy, a fact few recognise, and even fewer are willing to admit.
There are several reasons why we saw Asad Umar — white-collared, educated star of the corporate world — delivering the speech and not someone like, say, Javed Hashmi.
Firstly, nearly everyone would agree that Asad Umar has the required expertise to talk about economic development and growth, which Javed Hashmi does not. Secondly, the gospel of division of labour suggests that policymaking and politics are two distinct entities, and the latter only serves to contaminate the former.
This admittedly global trend is precisely why we have had only two ‘political’ finance ministers in the last 30 years. Everyone else was a retired banker or a technocrat on some kind of sabbatical.
To construct a much-needed counterfactual, however, it’s best to evaluate which one, Asad Umar or Javed Hashmi, has a greater stake in the political system — a system that ostensibly this or any other plan aims to ‘fix’.
The former’s a freshly retired corporate king, who made his name and fortune by managing a large corporation, which runs as a hierarchical, rules-based organisation. The latter, on the other hand, is a politician, whose primary job is to stay relevant and in power, and to, theoretically speaking, cater to and at times balance out the competing interests of around 300,000 to 400,000 voters.
And for perspective’s sake, let’s not forget that Hashmi’s only one of the 137 (minimum) legislators that PTI wants to send to the National Assembly.
How do you ‘fix’ an election-conscious legislator from exercising de facto (not de jure, mind it) authority on a local bureaucrat in a bid to influence the induction of new primary school teachers?
How do you reason the armed forces out of their budgetary stake, which at one level serves to feed their Ghauri missiles, DHAs, Askaris and countless golf clubs masquerading as wedding lawns?
How do you prevent discretionary and very political expenditures on municipal goods — roads, water pipes, and sanitation schemes — and replace them with grand development plans?
As one tiny example from these last few years, the PPP attempted to expand the state’s revenue base by suggesting the implementation of a Reformed General Sales Tax (RGST). The MQM, a coalition partner and a representative of Karachi’s commercial classes, announced they’d jump ship the minute it was brought up in parliament. The PML-N, a party representing Punjab’s petty bourgeoisie, said that they’d oppose it tooth and nail, while trader associations all over the country declared their intent to go on a mass civil disobedience movement.
The bill, as expected, died an early death.
Even beyond the obvious challenge posed by a fractured, patronage-based political culture, a second, and more general, critique is how the language of policymaking is still fixated on centralised solutions in a country, which, only recently, has seen massive administrative and legislative devolution.
It’s all well and good to argue that any party plans for an ideal-most scenario — in this case majority in parliament and all four provincial assemblies — but the logical corollary from that would be to have specialised wish lists that serve province-specific needs.
A centralised health or agriculture policy serves little purpose in a country where health or agriculture are devolved subjects, and where there is significant socioeconomic disparity between different parts of the country.
Is it not worth considering that our resource-accumulation fetish — epitomised by this obsession with Thar coal reserves and large hydro-power projects, and painted in the language of ‘national’ interest — causes further fragmentation along provincial and ethnic lines?
Policymaking and policy implementation in this country require an unprecedented level of political ownership, and an ability to recognise that our fragmented polity, and the existence of cartels, unions and lobbies that range from cement producers and farmer associations to bakeries and sweets manufacturers, form crucial parts of this country’s politics.
Rather than seeing them as irrational hindrances, steeped in a ‘corrupt’ moral economy, it is probably best to view them as a reality that needs to be dealt with through actual grass-roots level politics.
An informed and well-delivered speech, a grand framework document, and a power-point presentation might be suitable for a policy dialogue, but that, in turn, only tells us what might be wrong with the country. A political dialogue, on the other hand, might just tell us how we go about fixing it.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.