It’s not about PIA

Published February 7, 2016
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

WHY PIA? Why privatisation? And why now? Everyone’s got a story, but the basic version goes something like this:

The PML-N is a bunch of robber barons, out to sell the national silver. The PPP are a bunch of incompetents who think the federal kitty is their personal distribution fund. And the PTI are a bunch of awkward opportunists, torn between corporate sense and political opportunity.

It’s a good story and — like most good stories — it tends to circle around the truth. But buried in the PIA fiasco are some old lessons and new realities of politics.

First — the money thrown at PIA doesn’t matter. Not in any serious financial way. A few billion here, a chunk there, it doesn’t even amount to a rounding error in the vast waste and pilferage that is the Pakistani state.

The billions that everyone likes to talk about only matter when spewed out of context. Fix PIA, sell PIA, do whatever the hell you like with PIA, and it won’t change the basic maths of a decrepit state. And selling PIA has little to do with changing the basic maths of a decrepit state.

Second — this isn’t the old PML-N, determined to sell everything. In fact, this is a PML-N determined to expand the footprint of the state — from metro buses to orange lines to government-steered power projects.

The PPP’s response to the PIA debacle has been predictable — and you know the fire and brimstone is linked to the goings-on in Sindh.

So, what happened? Has Nawaz changed? Arguably, economically, he’s the same guy — it’s circumstances that have changed. Back in the ’90s, there was no money at home and neoliberalism was the rage internationally. Back then, selling stuff to pay the bills made sense.

So the PML-N — and the PPP — embraced privatisation. Anything to pay the bills — it’s really the first thing that any prime minister, and every finance minister, has to contend with in a state where expenditure chronically outstrips revenues.

Nobody thought of it then and no one saw it coming, but the privatisations of the ’90s made it possible to be ambivalent about privatisation today. It’s the banks.

Back in the day, no money meant no money. The big banks were all government-owned and the government couldn’t very well borrow from itself without getting in trouble with international players.

Post-privatisation, the banks are the best damn source of easy money in the world. Government needs money? Hit up a private bank. They’ll roll out the red carpet in the morning and be on the golf course by mid-afternoon.

The gigantic — and relatively new — private bank network has eased the federal impulse to sell, sell, sell — and blocked the very process that the private banks were some of the original beneficiaries of.

Aha, but that’s a heck of a mess this week for something Nawaz doesn’t really want to do, you’re thinking. Surely, there’s more.

And here’s where the old mixes with the new. Who’s to blame and how much depends on what you think of the economy and reforms — and class.

First, we’re only seeing this just now because the IMF has squeezed us. It’s a classic case of waiting too long and then squeezing too much — with predictable consequences.

Nearing the end of the programme, thinking that Pakistan may want another one, concerned that it has nothing big to show for three years of midwifing, the IMF decided to draw the line.

The IMF may even have thought it was being clever — PIA is something that the PML-N is willing enough to privatise and that it could try and sell as a political success. But the IMF doesn’t understand politics — or politicians.

Which leads to us to the PML-N — demand it do something on your timeline when it is feeling confident, and you’re only going to collect a bunch of tears. It could be arrogance, but part of you has to wonder whether it’s deliberate.

From here, after this week, the government can turn to the IMF and say, look, guys, we tried, we really did. But look what happened. It’s very unfortunate. Please be reasonable.

If the IMF stands its ground and still demands immediacy, the government can unleash its minions — look, the IMF are monsters; they don’t care about Pakistan or Pakistanis.

And if the protests die down and the government wins, it can argue that it has saved precious rupees and turned around a national institution — with the gratefulness of the middle classes who don’t use railways or care much about buses.

Not too shabby if you happen to be in government and are the PML-N.

But none of that will change the basic impulse: this government is, like all others before it, primarily about figuring out how to keep the state fiscally afloat — not reforms or job creation. Nor is there any real pressure for change.

The PPP’s response to the PIA debacle has been predictable — and you know the fire and brimstone is linked to the goings-on in Sindh. This version of the PPP cares about as much for labour and unions as it does a 1980s Pajero.

As for the PTI — it’s getting its politics in shape again and, come election time, maybe that’s all that’ll matter. If the N-League does it, it must be wrong — seems ugly, but could be effective. If you were the PTI just now, you’d take it too.

A relatively confident government with space to manoeuvre; a fading opposition with nothing to contribute; and a rising power with only politics on its mind — it could have been a scenario for real reform.

But who’s going to tell the PML-N that? And why should it listen?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2016



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