Bilawal in AJK

20 Jul 2016


The writer is a former caretaker finance, planning & development minister of Sindh.
The writer is a former caretaker finance, planning & development minister of Sindh.

AZAD Kashmir’s election is on and there has been much argument regarding the wisdom behind Bilawal Bhutto leading the PPP campaign there. The key question raised was that it is not fair to the new party leader to be pushed into leading a campaign which has a high chance of ending in failure. The strategy becomes even more questionable due to the fact that the reasons for possible failure are not in the control of the leader actually tasked with leading the PPP in the elections.

To me this whole debate is a bit of nonsense. The key risk of PPP failure in the election lies in the historic reality that Kashmir traditionally votes with the central government and the establishment. Issues like delivery, governance, electoral alliances and promises usually come second.

Bilawal like any political leader needs to get down on the ground and meet his workers and party, and an election campaign is the best place to work and connect with the workers and the public. This is what politicians do and in this context victory and defeat are immaterial; what matters is that the party leader is among and with the public, understanding what they need. There is no downside for the PPP and a massive upside if Bilawal engineers an upset.

Fear of failure should not determine opposition leaders’ approach.

Irrespective of Bilawal’s impact on the Azad Kashmir election what is equally important is that for the purposes of the world stage, Azad Kashmir’s politics should become progressively more democratic rather than centre led. Given the peculiar history of Azad Kashmir, the more progressive and politically savvy its politics appear the more the cause for occupied Kashmir will be strengthened. This is more important than all the delegations that can go around the world pleading the Kashmir cause. Imran’s participation in this campaign should similarly not have been low key. Fear of failure should not determine the opposition leaders’ approach.

Irrespective of politics the economy will be the key to Kashmir in the future. Currently, Azad Kashmir’s natural tourism industry is in the doldrums, the hydel power strategy has not delivered and local economic hubs are not emerging. Unfortunately, clear economic strategies have yet to become part of political campaigns in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir is no exception.

The lack of clear economic arguments plays into the hands of monopolistic parties like the PML-N which are able to give a right-wing impression of a firm hand on the tiller. The PML’s policy of trying to run an accountant’s economic policy predicated on numbers meant to please international financial institutions works only to the betterment of the elites in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the PPP and the PTI have been unable to think out of the box and challenge the PML-N’s impression of handling the economy better. For the PTI and the PPP it would be good to remember that in 1971 the political parties that actually managed to acquire real power were parties that led strong economic campaigns with a message that reached the local levels.

Currently, the activity relating to indoctrination of political workers with clear economic messages that promise real and palpable change at the grass roots is not happening among the opposition parties. This may be because the political elites are truly confounded by the actual enormity of the problems and their economic advisers are stumped.

However, I feel that this is because their local political support bases believe in political patronage rather than economic programmes. Such political patronage has traditionally been delivered through rent-seeking rather than actual profit-based growth. Rent seeking means that the local political elites profit from channelising parts of the development budget and money made through services provided by the government into their personal coffers.

Changing local economies towards a profit-creating economic growth model requires the local elites to be educated in how such a change will benefit them. Sad as it may seem such change needs to be launched in partnership with them.

This is a conversation that needs to happen within the opposition parties. The local political elites have to be engaged by their parties to create a larger pie for themselves but through economic models that create more value for the community as well.

Persuading such rapacious elites requires political parties to start restructuring themselves to create workable agendas and programmes. If they do not create such agendas political parties will keep losing power. If politicians are not able to champion change in a society they tend to lose moral legitimacy and if this happens as in the past then Pakistan’s cycle of dictatorship and democracy will continue. And if we keep dealing with this cycle then Kashmir will remain a mirage.

The writer is a former caretaker finance, planning & development minister of Sindh.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2016