Contradictory pulls

April 22, 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

WHEN the PTI stepped into government last year, economy watchers and political analysts were in broad consensus over two things. The first was that the government was inheriting a pretty bleak macroeconomic mess, especially on the external front.

The second consensus was that despite narrow electoral mandates in the centre and Punjab, the incoming government had quite a bit of political space, which would allow it to implement painful stabilisation (and subsequently its reform agenda) without incurring large electoral costs. This space was found at the confluence of factors, such as the purported backing by the military high command, a generally favourable media landscape, and an opposition cornered by NAB and the courts. The last one in particular cannot be understated given that, unlike the last two governments, there was no short-term threat of street agitation and lockdowns.

Eight months into this government’s term, an evaluation of the second consensus reveals mixed results. The space accorded by a cornered opposition still exists. Despite occasional threats, both the PPP and the PML-N offer no real challenge to the federal or Punjab government. However, with the recent cabinet reshuffle (and Asad Umar’s sacking), it seems the perception of space held by Imran Khan has narrowed considerably from other angles.

If we go by the most straightforward account, it appears the finance minister was replaced for his inability to lessen the pain of macroeconomic stabilisation and bring some ‘relief to the masses’. If we take the slightly less straightforward account, the case for his replacement appears to have been pushed by budget-wary vested interests and status quo economic lobbies that have the prime minister’s ear.

This civilian-led government is not dissimilar from previous ones in that it is being pulled in three often contradictory directions.

Finally, if we take the most conspiratorial version, which nonetheless remains plausible given historical praetorian precedents, the military stepped in and asked for a change because they felt he wasn’t doing a good enough job on their metrics of evaluation.

All three versions point to some variant of constrained power and reduced autonomy held by the prime minister. And all three are ultimately anchored in the nature of the PTI’s election win.

To understand this possible fettering of the government’s decision-making in such a short period of time, it makes sense to look at how it ascended to power in the first place.

The PTI’s victory was grounded in three electoral/political elements: The first was Imran Khan’s ability to mobilise some segments of the population through anti-corruption signifiers and other simplistic populist appeals. The outcome has been the creation of a direct link between middle-class voters and party leader, creating a potential source of political pressure and accountability, but one premised on (over)selling immediate relief and gratification.

The second element was the incorporation of traditional landed elites to win rural and semi-urban constituencies, and of status quo business elites to fund the party. This has created another chain of accountability, but one based on more traditional transactional ties of support-for-state access or support-for-state patronage.

Lastly, the third element was the perceived bargain with the military leadership, which depending on how extensively one wants to read into it, was either full-on deference and coat-tail riding as a willing client/junior partner, or a more considered sidestepping of hot-button issues during the campaign and maintaining studied silence on the larger issue of civilian supremacy. This has helped create yet another source of accountability/pressure in the shape of the government being beholden to the more powerful institution for maintaining its current dominant position in the civilian political space.

No one element was singularly causal in the PTI’s rise to the top. All were important and necessary, but none would have likely worked in the absence of the others. Ultimately, however, this diversity of factors that propelled the party’s victory also holds the potential of constraining its ability to act coherently in office.

Because the voter-leader relationship was built on tall promises and immediate gratification, it forces the prime minister’s hand to strike a populist posture long after the campaign has ended. Thus we see attempts at generating fiscal austerity on one hand, but tall promises of increased spending on the other. More acutely, the prime minister is now asserting that ministers will be sacked for poor performance in what can only be thought of as ridiculously small time frames for adjudicating performance.

Secondly, because the party burnt cash and political capital of sections of the rich and powerful, they too now expect their pound of flesh in return. So on the one hand the reform agenda preached institution-building and an end to discretionary spending, and on the other we see a retention of politician-led development schemes, a shelving of police reform efforts in Punjab, and continued use of ad hoc arrangements to control administration.

Ultimately, when it comes to things like the budget, questions like who gets to keep what subsidy and who bears the brunt of the government’s expenses comes in direct conflict with attempts at reform.

Finally, because the party relied on the direct or indirect goodwill of the military, it has no option but to toe their line on several key issues. This includes foreign policy, but more importantly, the budget process. Again, despite the government not having any extra money, it has chosen to sacrifice its own voter-centred populism for continued increases in defence spending.

This civilian-led government is thus not dissimilar from previous ones in that it is being pulled in three often contradictory directions by the people, economic/social elites, and the military. This, as political geographer Ayyaz Mallick puts it, reflects the incomplete hegemony of any one group over the rest, with the security establishment most often coming out on top.

Compared to other parties, the PTI’s (essentially Imran Khan’s) predicament is particularly dire because it has vocally sold itself as the best option to everyone, and it may not have the organisational wherewithal or the patience to withstand the anger of anyone.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2019