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Incentives to govern

Updated November 25, 2018

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

WHAT is Imran’s incentive to deliver? As the contrived, self-imposed 100-day milestone has arrived, there have been questions de rigueur. How has Imran done? What has Imran learned about his office? What have the people learned about Imran in office?

Grades have been handed out.

The buoyant faithful have declared that Imran’s doing just fine, the worldlier faithful that he needs more time. The faithless have said they’ve seen all that they need to see. Is Imran just finding his feet or has he already been fatally consumed by firefighting? In this era of a familiar-unfamiliar governance experiment, Imran is the ultimate Rorschach test: you see what you want to see.

The tyranny of numbers quickly asserted itself and then it didn’t matter what Imran thought before — he had to prop up the state’s finances or risk economic collapse.

But government at its root is a question of incentives.

What actually pushes you to do things or not do things, to tread path Y or pick policy X. Not what you think you want to do or say you want to do, but what you can do with what you have and what you’re up against. The problem is, the combination of others and voters that has delivered to us this familiar-unfamiliar governance experiment has not answered a basic question:

What is Imran’s incentive to deliver?

And quite possibly the combination of others and voters who have delivered to us this governance experiment have created the opposite of an incentive for Imran to deliver. It’s not all that esoteric. What is anyone’s incentive to deliver in office?

For a civilian, it’s re-election — immediate or eventual. For a dictator, it’s staying in office as long as he can. And for a civilian front of a dictatorship, it’s delivering what the dictator needs or else risk being swapped out for another civilian.

B obviously isn’t happening right now and C doesn’t really fit the scenario we’re in. So that leaves us with scenario A: the basic incentive for a civilian is re-election. That incentive has been easy enough to see in the last 10 years.

Since 2013 was effectively a referendum on electricity, the N-League had to early on figure out how to get electricity to the people. The N-League figured it out, but the way they went about it was quite revealing about how incentives work in government. The public’s demand was for electricity, not electricity produced in a fiscally or environmentally responsible way.

And so that’s what the public got: enough electricity, but not an electricity network that is fiscally sound or environmentally responsible.

The same goes for, believe if you will, Zardari and his PPP. They figured out how to deliver — to the voters who mattered to them, which is in Sindh.

Zardari figured out early on that he wouldn’t be allowed back in the centre, certainly immediately and maybe even long-term, so he pivoted to Sindh instead of fighting a futile struggle at the national level and risk losing everything.

It has helped that there is no organised opposition to the PPP in Sindh, but Zardari and his PPP have done remarkably well in Sindh. The obliteration of the anti-PPP GDA in Sindh in July 2018 was reconfirmation of Zardari’s Sindh strategy — you can’t really argue with success.

Turn, then, to Imran.

It’s easy enough to see how some incentives have already forced Imran to bend to their logic. Imran didn’t really want to spend all this time and travel working to secure an economic lifeline — we know he didn’t because he’s said he didn’t and it wasn’t really on his mind immediately after the election.

But the tyranny of numbers quickly asserted itself and then it didn’t matter what Imran thought before — he had to prop up the state’s finances or risk economic collapse. The same goes for Imran’s initial foreign travels: Saudi, China, the UAE. The interconnectedness between domestic straits and international relations quickly asserted itself over Imran’s schedule.

You can see it in a different way with the rival power centres that Imran has set up in Punjab. Punjab is power and a strong, single centre of power in Punjab may turn on you when your back is turned. So if you’re busy holding down the fort at the centre, the incentive is to set up rival centres of power in Punjab. Which is what Imran has done.

The same goes with the police stuff that Imran has made a mess of. The PTI in Punjab is a coalition of true believers and electables. True believers aren’t going to leave your side so quickly, but electables may. So the incentive in government is to keep the electables onside.

Hence the mess Imran has with the police stuff to satisfy the electables — lose the electables and there may go the government in Punjab.

So, where is Imran’s incentive in government? The incentive for Imran to govern and deliver — or else? It’s hard to find.

The combination of others and voters who have delivered this governance experiment has diminished the incentive to deliver to the voter — the others may matter more than the voters in Imran’s electoral maths.

Plus the true believers in the PTI aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — because where can they go? They have waited so long for this moment. The pressure of dreamy expectations is never much. And if Punjab is the path to power, the rival power centre in Punjab is under sustained pressure and risks the threat of dismantlement.

If government at its root is a question of raw incentives, it’s hard to find the right pressure on Imran. Maybe that’s why the 100 first days looks like what it does. And that can’t bode well for the next 100 and more.

The writer is a member of staff.
cyril.a@gmail.com
Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2018