A faulty beginning

Published September 12, 2018

MAYBE it is too early to judge the performance of the PTI government but the bumbling start has not shown much promise. Almost a month after taking the reins, the new dispensation has yet to find its moorings. A disjointed team of novices and the lack of clear policy direction do not evoke much confidence.

Numerous taskforces have been formed to chart out the plan of action in various fields; but until they start functioning there will be chaos. Additionally, events over the past week have revealed an amateurish approach to handling critical issues related to governance. Populist rhetoric seems to have substituted policy. It is voodoo economics and politics in action — dams will be built through public donations and ‘unutilised state land’ can be used to reduce our debt burden. Just wait for the 100-day miracle, we are told.

There is no doubting Imran Khan’s commitment to bring change. His focus on human development and environmental issues is commendable. But it’s the economy that needs to be fixed first. It’s surely ‘change vs more of the same’. But what kind of change has not been clearly defined.

Without a clear vision it will be more of the same or worse. It is certainly a good idea to seek the services of technocrats to develop a framework for change but there is a question about the willingness of the elected leadership to heed their advice and recommendations. It was a wise decision to form a permanent Economic Advisory Council inducting the best talent from both inside and outside Pakistan. This showed seriousness on the part of the PTI government to deal with the grave economic challenges that confront the country. But all those promises came crashing down, when days after the formation of the EAC, the government asked Prof Atif Mian to step down from the council because of his faith.

Recent events have revealed an amateurish approach to handling critical governance issues.

Nothing could be more humiliating for a globally recognised economist and a professor at one of America’s top universities, who had volunteered to work for the country. It was a shameful surrender to zealots.

A democratically elected popular leader could not take a stand on his own decision because he appeared to be afraid of religious extremists within and outside his party. One can ask, what kind of ‘naya Pakistan’ does the prime minister intend to build? Surely not one that is more regressive than what we have witnessed in the past?

Not surprisingly, two other members, both internationally acclaimed economists, quit the council too in protest. In his tweet, Dr Imran Rasul, who teaches at University College London, said: “Basing decisions on religious affiliation goes against my principles, or the values I am trying to teach my children.”

Other members may not have resigned but they have reservations. The episode has dealt a blow to the image of the new government and could discourage any self-respecting Pakistani expatriate from returning to help the country.

Most worrisome is the observation that the pressure to remove Atif Mian was stronger within the PTI, bringing to the surface the paradox of a party that claims to represent the educated middle classes and youth. No action was taken by the party leadership against the Punjab information minister who went to the grave of Mumtaz Qadri to pay homage to the convicted murderer. It does not matter if the religious parties were routed in the elections; the zealots continue to hold sway.

Meanwhile, the conduct of diplomacy too has been amateurish. Despite being an experienced hand, the over-exuberant foreign minister has been at the centre of controversy. His fondness for holding frequent press talks generates more confusion. His misreading of a letter from Narendra Modi to Imran Khan that New Delhi was willing to resume bilateral talks caused embarrassment, especially as the Indian authorities denied there was any such offer.

Similarly, the hype regarding the outcome of talks with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also misplaced. It did not make much sense for the foreign minister to hold a long press conference after the meeting when the Americans did not choose to have a joint presser. In addition, there was the report of the prime minister refusing to take a prearranged call from the French president while he was busy talking to a group of journalists — if correct, it was an undiplomatic approach. There was no denial by the Prime Minister’s Office of the media report.

True, such matters may be dismissed as initial glitches, but can also cause serious diplomatic embarrassment. A faux pas by the adviser on commerce and trade has caused some problems with Beijing. In an interview with the Financial Times, he suggested that work on CPEC could be stopped for a year or more because the Pakistani government wanted to renegotiate the terms and conditions with the Chinese companies on some projects.

While there is certainly no harm in reviewing the contracts, there was no need to make statements to the media that were bound to create misgivings.

The government has time to fix things. But some mistakes could be hard to remedy. For instance, the government compromises on its authority and credibility when it gives in to the pressure of a small minority using religion as a weapon. The PTI and the government must decide what kind of future they want to chart for the country. The Atif Mian case has dealt a blow to the government’s credibility, and has further emboldened the bigots and extremists who present the biggest threat to the political and economic stability of the country. Now is the time for the government to get down to the business of governance before it is too late.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2018



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