Benefit of doubt

December 25, 2018


The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

EVERY time Prime Minister Imran Khan says something, smart alecks start lecturing him on how to go about doing what he just vowed to do, the general assumption being that he does not know — at least to the fullest extent — what he is talking about or getting all of us into.

But what if he knows perfectly well the minefield that he has to navigate, and frames his vision in a manner that sends a message out to the arbiters of all things national so that he can course correct instead of causing a head-on collision with those who brook no ‘interference’ when it comes to defining the raison d’être of the state? No one wants that, at least not this early in his maiden national tenure.

Take this welfare state business, for instance. This piece would have gone in the usual unsolicited advice vein but then a thought struck — if his reference to welfare state actually means what Pakistan is not going to be, ie a security state? Before getting into the nuts and bolts of social protection and social policy that could define the contours of the type of welfare state that Pakistan will be, the prime minister may just be sounding out the establishment, indicating that the national security state mindset and the behaviour it spawns has run its course.

Perhaps he is saying it out loud that now is the time for real internal strengthening that can only be initiated through a rights-based welfare- and human resource-oriented approach instead of a warped ideology that thrives on scaremongering and rights abuse.

It all boils down to giving people a stake in the system.

He would be so right if he intends to first challenge the mindsets and address the underlying phobias that feed the security state frenzy. Such introspection and soul-searching is definitely in order. The nature, extent and specific features of the welfare state, ie target population for the universal features like education, and health services can be figured out quickly. Similarly, the size and frequency of unconditional and conditional cash transfers for addressing monetary poverty, and incentivising positive behaviours like getting children vaccinated or school enrolment and attendance also do not call for much head-scratching.

The most bandied-about question throughout this quest for turning Pakistan into a welfare state will be: ‘where will the money come from?’ However, this needs to be preceded by a reasonably broad-based and countrywide consensus that we cannot just rely on weapons systems to preserve the state. We must build up our human resource to galvanise the economy and make war such a huge opportunity cost that it ceases to exist as an option for all sides to a conflict or a dispute.

Let us turn to the resource-crunch question. Peace in the region and normalisation of relations with all its neighbours will free up Pakistan’s resources for increased investment in the social and human development sectors. Peace can bring its own dividends in an increased market share for Pakistani exports.

The benefits need not be restricted to the manufacturing sector as changed priorities and investments will lead to a boom in the services sector in the medium to long term. A virtuous cycle can soon be created where the increasing size of the economy combined with the government’s focus on welfare, redistribution, equitable and sustainable growth can help Pakistan turn the corner.

Every which way one looks at it — 10 million jobs, 5m housing units or turning Pakistan into a welfare state — each and every objective that this government has set out to achieve is dependent upon changing the national paradigm. Is it the number of missiles, their range, accuracy and potential to wreak havoc that will secure Pakistan’s future? Or is it the number of healthy, literate, skilled citizens and their outreach and access to the world of opportunities that we want to hitch our wagon to?

No weapons delivery system can ever be an alternative to a service delivery system that gains citizens’ trust in the state and its system of governance. Whether it is the demand for carving out new provinces, rule of law and access to justice, call for devolution and local governments, mainstreaming Fata, the constitutional status and rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan or healing Balochistan’s festering wounds, it all boils down to one thing: giving people a stake in the system.

Engendering a sense of ownership among the populace is the only way forward. Owners plant trees even before laying the foundation; tenants are susceptible to cutting them down for firewood.

Let us give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he does know what becoming a welfare state entails. Being a fast bowler, maybe he is just getting his run-up rhythm right. Shah Mehmood in the meantime should learn that googlies are the preserve of spinners, not pacers.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2018