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Importing success?

January 08, 2019


The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

JUST before Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded his much-publicised trip to Malaysia, his words of praise for the Southeast Asian country’s economic success quickly exposed an oft-repeated mistake made by a succession of Pakistani rulers.

“My party wants to learn from your experience and how you transformed the economy,” said Khan, complimenting Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian Malaysian leader. Khan has sought investments from Malaysian entrepreneurs in areas like tourism and energy to charge up Pakistan’s beleaguered economy.

But beyond seeking investments, the idea of emulating the Malaysian model, following the footsteps of Mahathir’s economic journey, yet again smacks of a failure to learn from Pakistan’s agonising past. Previous rulers have also bandied about a range of foreign success stories as a mirror image of where they want to take Pakistan.

Rulers have ignored the mistakes committed in the nation’s history.

But the fundamental gap in throwing up such images as a reflection of the future of Pakistan is just one. In turning to foreign success stories, Pakistan’s rulers have often ignored the key mistakes committed in the nation’s 71-year history that have driven down prospects for progressive change and saddled the country with multiple challenges. In brief, the idea of importing success is essentially a non-starter.

A litany of woes surrounding key challenges — notably corruption, fixing the economy and ensuring rule of law — have all emerged from the crisis of governance surrounding Pakistan. And years of failure to ensure transparency in the functioning of successive governments has only added to Pakistan’s sorry state of affairs.

The ongoing controversy surrounding the contract for the proposed Mohmand dam being given to a company owned by the de facto commerce minister, Razzak Dawood, has caught the eye of many in Pakistan. Yet, the Khan government’s apparent determination to shove the issue under the carpet should not be surprising.

Many past governments have chosen to rush into projects without thinking through their ultimate consequences. In a country where a crisis of governance has given way to a crisis of government, repeating past mistakes will only aggravate already adverse conditions.

And the sorry episode with Minister for Water Resources Faisal Vawda pouncing on the media when asked about the ‘single bid’ award for Mohmand dam says much about the state of affairs in Islamabad. (Vawda’s bravado was widely witnessed during the attack on Kara­­chi’s Chinese consulate. Dressed in a bullet-proof vest and showing off a fancy pistol, Vawda’s appearance was no less than John Wayne’s.)

Notwithstanding the search for a foreign success story to mimic Pakistan’s future, recent controversies surrounding Khan have vividly pointed towards the problem fundamentally lying at home. Just as the multifaceted challenges are rooted in Pakistan’s own peculiar history, solutions must also be found on the home turf.

Only months after landing in office, the PTI appears to be groping in the dark as it seeks to set a long overdue new course for Pakistan. Nowhere is this more evident than in the clear challenge of fixing a largely moribund economy. The success in receiving a variety of financial bailouts from friends of Pakistan still leaves the zillion-dollar puzzle — the economy is not moving in the intended direction.

After a series of devaluations over the past year that have together sunk the rupee against the dollar by a hefty 30 per cent or so, exports remain sluggish and imports stubbornly refuse to come down. Obviously, there are policy gaps which continue to fuel Pakistan’s all too dangerous trade and current account deficits. In seeking to make the transition for tackling a host of challenges, Khan needs to look back at the team he is carrying for the job. As a good captain, he either needs to crack the whip or change the team — or both. Ulti­mately, the captain’s own reputation is on the line.

Going forward as the government adopts popularly painful measures to back the all-too-inevitable IMF loan, Khan will find his already fading popularity drying up. Lessons from the history of previous rulers in Islamabad will serve well to illustrate exactly how underperforming regimes have travelled quickly from riding high on popularity waves to the political wilderness.

And for the moment, putting Mohmand dam on hold till a new round of contractors are chosen will help to clear the air in Islamabad. Ultimately, a transparent process will only reinforce Khan’s widely touted promise to stamp out corruption.

Otherwise, Prime Minister Khan and the PTI can bet on being haunted by this sorry saga for years to come, as the first financial controversy during their rule. Notwith­standing Malaysia’s own controversies, even aging prime minister Mahathir Mohamad will hardly approve of the way business is being done in Islamabad.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2019