The power of necessity

Published October 11, 2018
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE show is about to begin. Ever since the PTI government was sworn in, a situation had been developing and now it has matured. Thus far the government has lived in some territory midway between hype and hope, but that is now drawing to a close. Once the talks with the IMF gain momentum, and the outlines of the stabilisation package begin to appear, it will become clearer to them what exactly they can and cannot do.

In the meantime, the government is fielding a great deal of criticism for going to the IMF for a loan because during his campaign Imran Khan said repeatedly that he would not add to Pakistan’s debt burden if elected to power. Let’s get one thing straight first: rhetoric aside, the government made the right decision to seek support from the IMF since that body is the lender of last resort in the international system, and all other options such as ‘begging’ (to use the language of the commerce adviser) from ‘friendly countries’ were not bearing any fruit. So the decision itself is the correct one and ought to have been made much sooner.

The PTI leadership should learn a lesson from this rather than reacting with anger at the taunts of the opposition. The lesson is simple: be careful what you say today because you might have to eat your words tomorrow. Be careful what commitments you make today, because, contrary to a popular saying, tomorrow does indeed come, and people remember what you had said.

The lesson is simple: be careful what you say today because you might have to eat your words tomorrow.

This is important to underline for a simple reason (all reasons better be simple reasons these days). When Imran Khan was campaigning for office, his lack of experience and amateur decision-making style, as well as shallow rhetoric, were often pointed out by people who did not necessarily do so as part of a political opposition. They were simply pointing out a fact.

In return, those people were told ‘don’t worry, Imran will learn, and he means well’. That worked for a while, but now we are waiting to see whether or not he is learning. The decision to go to the IMF is possibly one of the biggest learning opportunities for him, but is he learning? The first lesson he should learn is that one should be careful with one’s promises — you might actually be expected to deliver on one or two of them. Second is, be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it and then not know what to do with it. And the third lesson is, keep your eyes and ears open, power teaches its lessons in the oddest of ways.

It is entirely possible that when Khan and his cohorts went around the country assailing the levels of debt and promising that they would never resort to foreign borrowing (least of all from the IMF), they never thought they would actually be made to stand by their words. Most likely, they were just saying things that sounded good, drew cheers and made for decent talk show rhetoric. So now they need to learn that these commitments have to be lived up to, or at least some of them.

This is important because now they’re making another set of commitments that will come back to haunt them too. They’re saying this will be the last IMF programme that Pakistan will take, because they intend to undertake some reforms that will ‘fix’ the underlying dysfunctions and make further recourse to the Fund’s support unnecessary.

This is a noble intention, and everyone in the country would like to see them succeed. But there is a good reason to be sceptical here. They have not told us in any convincing way why Pakistan is stuck in this cycle of eternal return to the IMF. In his public remarks, Imran Khan still says that the reason why Pakistan keeps requiring balance-of-payments support is because, in his telling, corrupt rulers siphon money out of the country. To support his case, he cites the State Department report that says $10 billion is laundered out of the country every year. All we have to do is plug that leakage, he says, and we’re home and free!

This explanation does not inspire much confidence. How much does Khan or any of his team members actually know about this $10bn figure? Or has he just read a newspaper story about it, and made up his mind? Is this going to be the thrust of Khan’s economic policy now?

Offering simplistic solutions, with a childlike assurance, is precisely how he landed up having to eat his own words and go to the IMF and face the taunts of his opposition. Remember when this government came to power, most of what we heard from the mouth of Imran Khan by way of economic planning was about seeking support from overseas Pakistanis and recovering looted wealth stashed abroad. When that didn’t work out like he thought it would, the talk turned to ‘friendly countries’ and oil facilities and dollar deposits. When that didn’t work out either, we finally had the IMF.

Now we have another mirage to chase: that $10bn pipeline flowing out of the country. How many months are we going to kill before realising that this is no substitute for sound economic policy?

They wished for power, and now they have it. What they don’t have is any idea of what to do with it. So they’re chasing mirages till necessity forces their hand. This is no way to bring about change. The power they’re holding has just taught them a valuable lesson, in an odd sort of way. Imran Khan can either open his eyes and ears, pay attention to what is happening around him, learn to learn, or the next lesson that necessity will teach him is that power is not a joke, and should not be played with.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2018


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