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Missing agenda

Updated May 28, 2017


AND we’re off. They started a bit early, but now stuff is in place. There’s no big moves left to make.

Let the election games begin.

The budget lost its relevance a while ago. Expenditures are artificially suppressed, revenues artificially inflated. By September or October, the numbers have usually already crumbled.

Why do they do it this way? Uniformed or civilian, this party or that, the approach is the same.

Because they’re not trying to change anything, just manage stuff.

But there is an intriguing twist this time round. We’re into dictator territory.

No government, and certainly no finance minister, has got this far with this kind of future.

By election year, it’s not just that an external crisis has forced governments into desperate spending. It’s also that they’ve been in a bad place politically.

Musharraf in 2007, Zardari in 2013 — they had to spend, spend, spend because they had to survive.

And if they didn’t survive, the mess was the next chap’s to handle anyway.

Nawaz and Dar have arrived at a different point — they’ve got a good shot at getting another five years.

Splash out budgetarily this election year and they are the ones who may have to clean up the mess next year.

Cleaning up your own mess isn’t the most appealing of things. So a kind of restraint has been visible.

The quasi fiscal restraint has set up two very different opportunities for the next five years. If Imran wins, he’ll inherit a macro picture that is relatively stable.

The immediate benefit is obvious: the PTI’s finance team is vastly inexperienced and you don’t want an inexperienced team coming in to handle a crisis.

And if elections are held on time, a PTI government will also quickly have to turn to tweaking the budgetary priorities of the caretaker government that will have preceded it.

In both scenarios, inheriting a stable situation would be good for the PTI because it would allow the new government to quickly set its own economic priorities.

The same applies if the N-League wins. And here’s where it could get potentially interesting.

The twin priorities of the Nawaz government this time round have been electricity and roads.

Electricity was a two-pronged challenge: more electricity and affordable electricity.

The N-League seems to have figured out the first part — ratcheting up the megawatts that the system can churn out — and given up on the second.

Embracing the existing rickety financial state of the power system means giving up on affordable power.

Allowing power producers to gouge means the state will pick up the difference between what the consumers cough up and what the producers demand.

Cleaning up your own mess isn’t the most appealing of things. So a kind of restraint has been visible.

The other priority, roads, are pretty much on auto-pilot now, the schemes and building and systems already in place. A thousand kilometres of road isn’t particularly different to ten thousand.

With one-and-a-half of the core two-point agenda conquered and the other half jettisoned, if the N-League wins, what exactly will it do next?

You may win elections on promises kept, but you can’t govern by relying on past promises.

Punjab may offer some clues about what the N-League may do at the centre — in Punjab, the PML-N is wrapping up consecutive terms and aiming for a third.

If the Punjab model is followed, we could be in for more dullness and unimaginativeness at the centre.

Much as Shahbaz may tout education and service delivery in Punjab, there’s nothing really memorable in his nine years beyond the metro and his latest obsession, the Lahore train.

Dullness in Punjab though is harder to replicate at the centre. Elections are won on one or two issues and the issues need national relevance and wattage.

CPEC could be it because it’s blingy and popular, but CPEC is also more roads and electricity.

The Nawaz dream remains an opening to India, but election year here segues into election year there — not really an opening.

And an opening to Central Asia is one of the longer-term fantasies, but Afghanistan seems a mess for the foreseeable future.

Up and down the possibilities you can go — the possibilities that Nawaz could be interested in — and it’s hard to find a fresh and interesting agenda.

More of the same is not exactly a rousing slogan for a historic fourth term.

And that’s the problem were Nawaz to win again — politics is unmerciful if you’re just sticking around for sticking around’s sake.

We already know the vulnerabilities — the unending PTI assault; the Panama crisis; the possibility of slipping up in Punjab just enough to carry the N-League back into coalition terrain.

An agenda-less or stale-agenda government could be the trigger for a re-elected N-League government to find itself engulfed in crisis right away.

And that’s because a funny thing has happened over the past four years: Imran has managed to separate political success from electoral success.

Four years ago, it seemed like a long shot that Imran would keep up this pace of politics.

Four years ago, it seemed like a long shot that Imran would stay relevant with the same style of politics.

And four years ago, it seemed like a long shot that Imran could end up with the same results as 2013 and still be a disruptive political force in 2018.

Now all of that seems real because Imran has sustained a kind of politics that had seemed impossible to sustain.

So who’s to say he won’t go for the jugular again if he loses the elections?

A government without an agenda is a government vulnerable to attack.

Nawaz shouldn’t need to be reminded of that.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2017