THE magic wand has not worked. The promise of change has turned into a nightmare. Still, there is no shortage of self-congratulations. The eight-month rule of the PTI has so far been a lesson in how to blunder through.
It is not just about incompetence and inexperience but also about the self-righteousness that has become the hallmark of the Khan government. The promise of instant good governance is far from being fulfilled; instead, chaos and paralysis have stalled even the regular functioning of the administration. The drift seems unstoppable. The performance of the government shows the limits of populism.
Imran Khan is now doing everything that he had criticised the previous governments for. He is launching the same kind of tax amnesty schemes that he had vehemently opposed in the past. He had labelled such schemes as ‘legalised corruption’. Has it now been declared kosher? For him, taking U-turns is a sign of leadership.
His so-called austerity drive has been flaunted by the PTI government in Punjab that has recently ordered a new fleet of 70 luxury cars for provincial ministers. The total cost of these new vehicles is certainly much higher than the money fetched by the auction of the Prime Minister House vehicles that he had declared were symbols of status quo that needed to be broken. A ‘humble’ background has not stopped his handpicked chief minister in Punjab from attempting to secure substantial benefits for his life after the high post.
The drift seems unstoppable. The performance of the government shows the limits of populism.
Once described as relatively better governed than the rest of Pakistan, the country’s biggest and most powerful province has now gone down the ladder. Multilateral and donor agencies find it much harder to deal with a provincial administration lacking leadership. Being under the constant scrutiny of the National Accountability Bureau, the bureaucracy is not willing to put its neck out and take responsibility for any decision that may land it in trouble.
It’s not much different in KP. The PTI government, which is serving its second term in the province, is implicated in a deplorable scandal involving the metro bus project that was launched in 2017. The cost of the project that is yet to be completed is nearly Rs70 billion. A recent report by an inspection team has revealed massive mismanagement of funds and other flaws in the project. To the anti-corruption crusaders, the scandal in their backyard does not seem to bother them very much. That also reinforces allegations of a politically driven accountability exercise against the opposition leaders.
With the induction of Ijaz Shah, the federal cabinet now looks more representative of the legacy of the Musharraf era. The former IB chief has certainly not been appointed on any political merit. The overwhelming presence of old faces in the cabinet raises questions about Khan’s promise to break with the status quo and introduce a new generation of leaders.
While in opposition, Khan had vowed to bring aboard talented technocrats from among Pakistani expatriates, but after the Atif Mian episode, no one is willing to come here. Given people like Shah and his ilk in government, professionals would hardly be motivated to come forward to serve the country. The PTI is no different from any other status quo party, though it may be less tainted.
Nothing quite puts into perspective the la-la land in which the Khan government operates than the latest claim by the finance minister that the economy is out of “intensive care” and on the path to recovery. “The crisis is over,” Asad Umar declared before his departure to Washington for the final rounds of talks with the IMF for a bailout package.
This wildly optimistic declaration came as inflation approached double digits, the rupee plunged to a record low against the dollar, and the stock market appeared in a state of free fall. Revenue collection has shown a record shortfall of more than Rs300 billion in the last nine months. And the economic growth rate is likely to decelerate to 3.4 per cent this financial year, and further down to 2.7pc next year, according to a World Bank report. Given this state of affairs, the economy is certainly not out of the woods as the finance minister has indicated.
Part of the problem may be attributed to the ‘pain of stabilisation’, but it is mostly to do with the voodoo economics practised by the government and the state of uncertainty that has been fuelled by its inaction. Domestic investment remains low for that reason. There are few signs of any reforms being undertaken or incentive being provided by the government that could spur investment.
Massive cuts in the development budget have also been a cause of slow economic growth. A high inflation rate combined with low economic growth could lead to stagflation with dire consequences. Surely, the borrowing from friendly countries has helped avoid default on the repayment of foreign loans, but it is short-term relief as new debts continue to accumulate. The current account deficit will remain a major problem, despite the finance minister’s claim of plugging the gap. Pakistan’s external debt has crossed $100bn and is predicted to grow further.
More worrisome is the worsening unemployment problem because of the sluggish economy and high population growth rate. The PTI’s promise to create five million new jobs seems far-fetched in this situation. Yet Faisal Vawda, the federal minister minister for water resources, has announced that there will be such a spurt of employment opportunities in the next couple of weeks that there will be more jobs than people needing them.
He might have been inspired by his prime minister’s statement that Pakistan was on the verge of discovering huge reserves of oil and gas that may change the fate of the country by making it a part of oil-exporting nations. The minister who is fond of riding motorbikes and maintains a collection of expensive sports cars is ironically a part of the ‘crazy crew’ in the la-la land that the PTI operates in.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2019