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The PML-N show

June 05, 2018


AFTER years of living precipitously, the PML-N proved pundits wrong and completed five years in office. But the 2014 dharna, ‘Dawn leaks’ and the Panama scandal inflicted a heavy toll on its already weak governance and re-election chances.

Reviewing a regime’s performance in less complex states is easy. One can list its major challenges, its policies to handle them and the ultimate progress. The task is tougher in highly divided states like ours where governance is a tortuous process and constant tugs of war occur among multiple power centres. Such states operate less under normal cause-effect laws and more under chaos theory ones like the Murphy’s Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences.

So, the most progress under the PML-N came against terrorism. But should the credit go to it given that it initially favoured talks with the Taliban? Or to the army which started Operation Zarb-i-Azb but which, too, had earlier delayed action? The PML-N did put in much effort into CPEC to create a major opportunity. But opportunities must be converted into reality via sound policies. So, CPEC must create growth and decent jobs, generate tax and export revenues and reduce poverty and inequity. Growth has gone up a bit. Still, it’s unclear if PML-N policies will ensure the rest. Meanwhile, its neglect of the existing economy caused fiscal and external deficits.

Uncharacteristically, it produced legislation this time, eg, Fata and election reforms and many pro-women’s bills. It will take years, though, for the common people to benefit from them given a lack of police, bureaucratic and judicial reforms to implement the laws. One can still ask whether it is realistic politically to expect those reforms when it faces so little electoral pressure for them.

Timid doers who avoid risk remain lesser politicians.

Finally, there is the area close to its boss’s heart where out of past fears we saw no more than late-night whispers, timid half steps and quick U-turns: taming the security establishment. But even these half steps cost the boss a lifetime ban. So fury replaced timidity after the ban.

Thus, this was the PML-N show in summary in four areas ie much progress but unclear credits; much effort but unclear returns; clear credits but delayed returns; and finally high cost for timid half steps. What grade does it deserve? I give it a ‘C’ (just pass) for not creating a major disaster, unlike all our autocrats, and putting in some effort here and there. Gallup Pakistan and EIU UK poll predictions suggest Punjab rates it higher. But the 1990s showed that the establishment doesn’t allow back in soon those they have evidently evicted. Still, the 1990s’ fallen actors faced polls very soon, with little time to recover. The PML-N has had a year to recover while in power after Nawaz’s fall. So, the past is only a rough guide.

The poll dilemma it faces is whether to follow big brother Nawaz’s or baby brother Shahbaz’s way based on whose vote bank it is. Some say it is Shahbaz’s as he has done most project work. This logic wrongly equates politicians’ worth with project work, for they do institutional and policy reform too.

Most critically, they also take risk and fight against status quo powers to alter the societal balance of power in favour of voters. Voters like this quality most. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz rose politically within the establishment. But both became front-line popular leaders only when they challenged it, even if partially. Timid doers like Shahbaz, Pervez Elahi and Pak Sarzameen Party’s Mustafa Kamal who avoid risk remain lesser politicians. People seldom support the politicians the establishment prefers.

Also, the PML-N has to explain why its project work has bypassed millions after three decades even in Punjab. Outsiders like Imran Khan can blame current rulers. Smaller province rulers can blame Punjab. But the Punjab rulers can only blame the one higher than them in the food chain: the Punjab-heavy establishment. So Nawaz’s rallying call since his fall is that it doesn’t let PML-N work freely; he will thus fight it and create more space for civilians so that project manager Shahbaz can then come in and do more projects easily. So sans the risk-taking and often rash Nawaz, Shahbaz can’t win polls and he knows it. Crowds don’t erupt into frenzied dances when politicians talk about project work but when they promise to slay Goliaths for them.

Clearly, his call is only partially true, for the PML-N misrule is a big part of the problem too. But politics is largely about selling partial truths. So the partial truths of Nawaz and Imran will soon clash. Sans rigging by hidden forces, Nawaz’s partial truth may win again. This thought may tempt some to delay the polls. But the issue will be finding a strong rationale and then legal cover. Thus, beyond minor delays, we seem set for decisive polls soon that pitch Punjab elites against each other.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2018