IT has been a short five months from hope to scathing criticism. The PTI’s fall from grace came rather quickly and unexpectedly if drawing room conversations and talk shows (as well as social media) are to be believed. The memories of 2008 and 2013 do not seem this harsh and vitriolic, even if they are faded.
Is five months enough time to judge the incompetence of the PTI, in which case the criticism should be replaced with panic? Those who have not been able to manage five months will surely make a mess in as many years. But it still seems too soon for a decisive judgement.
Or is there more to the story than just the government’s mismanagement? Those in power think so. For them, part of the criticism stems from its reformist agenda, which has worried the forces of status quo. Probe the PTI-wallahs in government and they cite a list of reasons for why they face criticism: the increased prices, the encroachment drive, the plans to reform the bureaucracy, and so on.
Is there more to the story than just the government’s mismanagement?
But there is more to the story. The context in which the PTI came to power and the hostility with which the now opposition parties were handled before and after the elections meant that the party was going to face angry criticism — no matter what. In 2008, the PPP came to power in vastly different times where the anger was directed against Musharraf. The parties opposed to him cashed in on the goodwill. And in 2013, the PPP was willing to give the PML-N space, having completed five years itself.
There is no such bonhomie this time round, and the establishment’s meddling in favour of PTI has added an edge to the hostility. Add to this the hope the party itself generated in the past five years, leading its voters to think that a PTI government would set matters right in a matter of months. The sheer impossibility has not stopped disgruntled supporters from frothing at the mouth.
But the larger context cannot explain it all away.
The PTI has not helped itself. The constant attacks on the opposition and an obsessive focus on how the previous governments wronged the country have encouraged the opposition to launch a counter-assault.
And this is not simply due to the PTI-opposition ‘chemistry’.
The party’s leadership is aware of this but presses on as apparently this is what its supporters expect — any sign of softness towards the opposition apparently earns the leaders much ire from their voters. In other words, it is not dislike for the opposition, but the fear of their own supporters that compels the PTI to up the ante. This is not a party that thinks the graciousness of a government trumps the love of its supporters this far ahead of the next elections.
A second factor is the apparent disarray in its own ranks. Like the PPP, the PTI’s second-rank leadership is not scared of criticising the party head/prime minister. Islamabad is not short of stories told by anyone (who is anyone) who has had a frank discussion with a PTI-wallah about what ‘Khan’ was doing wrong (with the latter not just agreeing but also providing details). The party itself has been vocal — off the record — about ‘bad’ decisions. (Let’s not forget that the rumours about the change in the finance man at the top were said to be coming from the party itself.)
This internal censure has fed into the larger debate. The drawing room gossip in Islamabad and beyond is already grappling with an unknown entity in the shape of Imran Khan as prime minister. (No one knows for sure — the hope aside — that he can govern and can combine his impractical ideals with the realities of politics.) The prime minister’s own speeches and statements keep reinforcing the uncertainty, as do the views of his knights of the round table that the prime minister and his government is directionless. (An uncomfortable bureaucracy — for more than one reason — is also adding to this.)
Those around the prime minister say he is aware of this, but that he thinks dissenting views within the party are more important than an uncomfortable and imposed silence.
Third is the PTI’s blasé acceptance of the dreaded U-turn. The party doesn’t always do due diligence, runs headlong into wrong decisions and then backtracks without a second thought of the political costs of doing so. The recent brouhaha over the notification-that-was-not for Farrukh Saleem is a case in point. Officials claim that the good doctor brought up compensation matters a couple of months after having accepted the job, and only then did the government realise there was a ban on hirings. Nonetheless, the manner in which the entire incident played out convinces critics and supporters that the party doesn’t think matters through.
Last but not least, and linked to the third, is the PTI’s indecision as it is still trying to figure out what to do. The IMF negotiations are a case in point. An anxious business community is biting its fingernails at the government’s kabhi haan, kabhi naan to the bailout package and criticism is mounting. Indeed, the business community’s nervousness has infected the rest. And the PTI’s assurances that the matter has been sorted have not been enough. But even if the package comes through, what will happen next?
This will calm nerves and stabilise the economy somewhat. The right policies — if they come — will also help matters. But, this will go only so far in muting the criticism. Because the rest of the factors — the larger picture, the attacks on the opposition, the voices from within and even the government’s own indecision or back and forth as it figures out what to do will continue to be there. It is going to be a rough ride for the PTI and partly because this is how the party wants to play it.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2019