FIVE weeks into a five-year term, but this past week could prove to be the most consequential of them all. Three big things and all spelling some kind of danger for the PTI.
It’s not been a good week for Imran.
First, Asad Umar gave us his first budget and it turned out to be the dampest of squibs. Second, the release from prison. And third, India lashed out against Imran and scrambled whatever foreign-policy calculations he may have been evolving.
The next nine months will not be pretty for the PTI fiscally. Which could trigger Imran to do something reckless to recover political space.
Five years is a long time, but week five will take some recovering from.
The budget is the most obvious self-inflicted wound and it has stored up greater — political — trouble for the PTI. Numbers impose a tyranny of their own and there was little that the finance team could do beyond the familiar stabilisation that the PTI has gone for.
Taxes up, spending down, rupee set to slip further against the dollar at some point — hardly the kind of change that the PTI had promised, but it could have just another missed opportunity.
But Imran has been done a political disservice by his finance team.
The first few days and weeks Imran ran around trivialising austerity and turning it into a joke — with Asad Umar either failing to warn his boss what was coming down the pipeline or not having a clear idea of what he needed to do.
That distorted public expectations, leading up to Asad’s second mistake: presenting a budget to satisfy creditors, present and future, and markets, and forgetting the big-fish-versus-little-guy stuff — the essential stuff on which the PTI does its politics.
A gas price hike and a slew of indirect taxes juxtaposed with special favours to non-filers and the automobile and property markets is bad enough. But the PTI PR machine could have battled against public perception — if the PR machine had been thrown a bone.
Anything, really. A modest expansion of the tax net at the highest rungs of the income and wealth ladder. Make it easier for the middle class to get home mortgages from the banks. A populist gimmick like a penalty fund to take money from the ultra rich and funnel directly to the poorest of the poor.
Anything that didn’t make this budget look wholly like something that could have been drawn up by the PPP or the PML-N.
The finance team has also stored up trouble for Imran down the road. The PTI has won on the back of electables and electable-type allies in parliament. They will demand their pound of patronage flesh and Imran will eventually have to acquiesce.
At that point, Asad’s numbers will crumble a bit more and Imran will again be hammered politically. So better to have slipped in those adjustments now and hope they get lost amidst the slew of other bad news than to let patronage become another lost PR battle for the PTI later.
The next nine months will not be pretty for the PTI fiscally. Which could trigger Imran to do something reckless to recover political space, thereby worsening the fiscal trouble his government is in.
On to the other thing: the release from prison.
The death and other matters have made it likely that this will be a slow-burn threat to Imran. But it will eventually manifest itself. Before the release, you could make a straightforward case for keeping them in jail.
After all, why go to all the trouble of setting things up for Imran only to let him get engulfed the moment he sets off on his prime ministerial adventure. Folk assumed that meant 18 months or a couple of years in prison for the father-daughter duo.
At a minimum, it seemed like nine to 15 months they’d be out of the equation. Now, they’re already out and it’ll be harder than before to send them back in. Because it’s the PTI in government now and it would seem like a clear vendetta.
And because the same set of cases/ facts/ claims can’t suddenly be re-ginned up to reasonably justify re-incarceration. Never say never in Pakistan and it’s a brave person who’ll bet on much these days, but soon out and about could be the only two people with a single-point agenda of tearing The House of Imran down.
And, finally, this India stuff.
It’s obviously not Imran’s fault. The problems predate him and will outlive him. In a way, it may even be relief: the very worst incidents tend to happen when there’s a possibility of serious dialogue. When the hawks on both sides are snarling at each other, there’s little that needs to be scuttled.
But to be smacked down by India so early isn’t a good place for a civilian to be. Before Imran could find his foreign-policy feet and find a semblance of coherence between pre-office rhetoric and in-office reality, he’s been shown by India to be — at best — naïve.
For all the apparent bonhomie between Imran and the permanent state, the permanent state has ingrained suspicions about the political compulsions of the civilian lot. Imran could, as his initial reactions have suggested, go hard against Modi personally.
But the outside world tends not to approve of public snarling and bickering between the two leaderships. It may not matter who started it. And if Imran opts for moderation and friendliness going forward, it could make hawks here wonder if Imran really understands India or his job.
Either way, not a good place to be for Imran.
Five weeks into a five-year term and this past week could prove to be the most consequential of them all. It’s not been a good week for Imran.
The storm clouds are gathering.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2018