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Imran time is here

August 19, 2018

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AN opening weekend with something for everyone — the hope-y, change stuff; status quo and reality exerting themselves; tawdry politics and confusion; a sense that something is happening, but direction unclear.

It’s Imran time.

If change is a comin’ or change is to remain another country, there are at least some clues of where to look for early signs of the change agenda.

Imran’s actual agenda is surprisingly — or perhaps not — hard to pin down, but listening to him you get a sense: corruption-free, education, health and environment. A big four of sorts that dominates Imran’s politics.

In none of the four can change be gauged quickly.

Maybe clean-at-the-top is something you can signal by knocking off a few big fish or putting in place some Mother Teresa types. But clean in government takes a while to make itself apparent.

Say, six to nine months before the effects of a new government with a new spirit that it actually intends to infuse into the corruption-ridden body of the state start to become visible.

There’s more good news for Imran. He’s got quite a good opening stretch to look forward to in the kind of stuff that is out of his, and Pakistan’s, control.

Same goes for health and education. More likely, 12 to 18 months before even the flicker of reform starts to become apparent. Change — positive change — is slower than the politics that drives and demands it.

Environment is the slowest. Sure, you can do the big PR campaigns of billions and billions of trees planted, but for anyone with actual contact with the environment — which is everyone — change is necessarily a slow, slow process.

So the big four of Imran’s political agenda — anti-corruption, education, health and environment — are necessarily going to take a while to manifest themselves, whether as success or more-of-the-same failure.

Luckily — or as time will tell, unluckily — the economic arena has made itself a candidate for big, quick, splashy change that can drive the politics of change. And Imran has a hidden advantage here.

The N-League was beaten so senseless politically over its mishandling of state finances and the economy that there is no greater political truth today than that a financial crisis of monumental, historic, unprecedented proportions is already upon us.

It doesn’t exist. At least not as a crisis we haven’t seen before or that can’t be reasonably managed until the future lot are handed a familiar bag of steaming you-know-what.

Actual crisis is: close-to-zero or negative GDP growth; big inflation; no electricity in the system; serious sanctions or no external creditors available at any cost when the familiar dollar crisis hits; a vastly bigger-than-usual chasm between state expenditure and revenue generation; and monumentally unmanageable debt relative to the size of the economy.

There’s none of that.

The horror that was Dar prevents anyone reasonable or credible from driving home the point that there is no giant economic or financial crisis the likes of which the country has never seen or that can’t be managed with relatively familiar and probably quickly available steps.

That’s good news for Imran.

Because once the narrative switches to something more sympathetic, the mere claim that a historic crisis has been avoided by deft and wise steps, that’s a win for the hope-y change agenda.

It gets — or can get — better.

The federal budget is an annual event, but Asad Umar will immediately get to rack up some points resetting the numbers in the premature budget forced through by the PML-N in April. Big business can quickly be thrown some incentives they can loudly cheer. Quick, happy positive can be had with a reshuffle of loss-making public company management.

Luckily, for the purposes of politics, real turnaround of the economy and state finance is a multi-term project. Do enough in the beginning of a term to differentiate yourself and hope that a big external shock does not rock the system closer to an election, and you’re in good enough shape to fight for re-election.

There’s more good news for Imran. He’s got quite a good opening stretch to look forward to in the kind of stuff that is out of his, and Pakistan’s, control.

There’s no immediate crisis with India. Afghanistan is being bundled in the direction of peace talks. The Saudi-Iran stuff may explode, but it would hardly be a sudden crisis now. The domestic militancy stuff has been tamped down.

China is locked in and Pakistan a core part of Xi’s big external project. The West is not really looking for a fresh confrontation with Pakistan, barring something on the scale of 9/11 happening and being traced back here.

Sure, events can and will happen, but you wouldn’t complain too much about the regional and international hand if you were Imran just now.

Surely there’re downside risks too?

If Project Imran is about bypassing and side-stepping the core problem of who actually runs Pakistan, there’s two changes in the first few months of Imran’s term that may cause that question to bubble up.

The first, in October, can’t be mentioned for reasons of the muzzle and the leash.

The other big change is in the court. The fag-end of the incumbent’s tenure will begin soon, always a tricky stretch. And the judge who follows may want to quickly establish there’s a new top robe in town.

Imran time is here. But is change really a comin’?

The writer is a member of staff

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2018