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Doghouse intrigues

June 06, 2013

AT a critical juncture, when the country has undergone a historic transfer of power, when structural economic weaknesses have swelled into the daily newsflow, when the monster of militancy is growling at the city gates, the last thing those about to assume charge need is to get embroiled in doghouse intrigues.

What are doghouse intrigues? You’ve heard of palace intrigues, no doubt, the shadowy games played by those within the palace, using tricks from the subtle arts of persuasion to shape the perceptions of those in power.

Doghouse intrigues are similar, but with a few crucial differences. For one, they are conducted by those who are not inside the palace but outside it. Second, the arts of persuasion involved, and the attempts to shape perceptions, are usually quite blunt because the person waging such a campaign does not enjoy the benefits of proximity to the ears he is trying to reach.

The whispered tools of innuendo and suggestion lose their power when they have to travel a long distance to reach their intended audience. Therefore, doghouse intrigues are usually shrill in tone, blunt like a stone axe in their assessment of things, and obnoxiously personal in the type of differences they seek to draw.

Ever since election day, the incoming government has been busy carrying out consultations with a wide array of people to try and get a handle on how to tackle the big issues. We know that a working group has been meeting and discussing macroeconomic challenges, another has been working on power issues.

In both cases, the working groups have reached out to the existing pool of knowledge to see what suggestions have been floated. We know they’ve reached out to various industry groups that have worked on both challenges, such as the Pakistan Business Council. They’ve got industry leaders from textiles and banking and power sitting at the table, as well as technocrats past and present.

Then there’s the doghouse crew. Sitting outside with little black clouds hovering over their heads, deep scowls etched on their faces, eyes and nose — sharpened by malice — sniffing for any hint of a crack inside the consultation chamber to drive in that wedge. This is a manifestly unhelpful lot, and those in power are well advised to keep them at a long distance.

We are warned, for instance, of a trap being laid for the incoming government inside the ongoing consultants’ meetings. One is reduced to using words of one syllable when engaging with this sort of animus. “I don’t think so” is the only appropriate response.

In another place, our hero in the doghouse hurls mud on the IMF programme Pakistan signed in 2008, and the NFC award, and lays the blame for both on Shaukat Tarin, financial advisor to the previous government, and member of both working groups today.

In both cases it is worth bearing in mind that the outcome being blamed carried a broad consensus behind it and, unlike dictatorial dispensations, was not the handiwork of one man. The IMF programme was acceded to following a rapid and quite spectacular round of deep consultations that stretched over a number of days and involved almost every notable economist in Pakistan — though, ironically, many amongst the PML-N were opposed to the move.

The group was called the Panel of Economists, a rather humdrum title but then again the task before them was hardly studded with glamour. They were assembled in the basement of the Lahore Gymkhana for a number of days, and did not leave until they were able to emerge with a full report on what needs to be done to steer Pakistan out of the growing crisis that it found itself in. The report was made public, and members of the team gave media interviews to answer why they advised austerity at a time when governments in other countries were trying to grow their way out of their difficulties.

Similarly with the NFC award. Let’s recall that it was not one man’s doing, but carried the enthusiastic backing of all the chief ministers, the prime minister and the economists seconded by each of the provinces to help lead the negotiations.

If today someone finds it hard to live with the terms of the award, perhaps they should recall that Pakistan was originally envisioned as a federation, where the centre is weak and the provinces are strong, and if fiscal space and governance is what they crave, perhaps they should seek the opportunity to serve in the provinces where these elements rightly belong. For the centre there is one overriding priority: to adjust to the terms of the revamped federation.

Anybody who wants to criticise the decision to approach the IMF in 2008 should first answer what alternatives there were in their opinion, keeping in view that the financial markets in Pakistan were shutting down and banks could have been next had help not arrived in time.

Another hallmark of the doghouse crew is the boilerplate solutions they offer up if ever asked for their input. When speaking of the power crisis, for instance, the same one enthusiastically plugging away at Mr Tarin has little to say beyond “let’s divert some gas towards the power sector and revamp the regulator”. Once again, the brief response: “Thank you for that, sir.”

The moment is complex, the challenges are large. The new government requires — and deserves — every opportunity to demonstrate its seriousness of purpose first. Doghouse intrigues only muddy the air and boilerplate solutions only add to the background noise. The incoming government would be well advised to steer its course away from both.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy. Twitter: @khurramhusain