‘Suitable boy’

April 29, 2019

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

IN July last year, just before the general elections, it was argued in these very pages that the political parties in the electoral fray should stop wasting everybody’s time by highlighting who their prime ministerial candidates were. Instead, they should name their prospective finance ministers. A big qualifier was added though, ie if names like Asad Umar, Ishaq Dar, Naveed Qamar or Saleem Mandviwalla were to be bandied about, they should know that these are all non-starters. They don’t have what it takes.

It was also argued that no political party in Pakistan concentrates on attracting, grooming and retaining experts in finance, and when they eventually find themselves facing the daunting task of running the country, they are stunned. In this state of bewilderment, they start searching for a ‘suitable boy’ — there being just one instance of a female finance minister, and that too in a provincial government. Since the freshly imported minister neither has an electoral constituency nor any roots in the party, he becomes nothing more than a ‘no-man’. Saying no to whimsical development schemes and turning down fantastic plans to rid the country of foreign debt put forth by sages both in uniform and civvies. The only worse thing he can do is to become a complete ‘yes-man’.

Enough of games and intrigues; reforms are unavoidable.

To prevent this piece from turning into a ‘told-you-so’, let us not dwell on what happened just recently, and, instead, focus on the future. Dr Hafeez Shaikh has been brought in to put a professional and competent sheen on things. Since he too is a paratrooper, he can only do tactical stuff not strategic. He can only play the hand he has been dealt — notwithstanding the fact that in the recent past he too has shuffled the deck if not really dealt it.

That economic reforms are always tough and cause great pain which becomes disproportionately excruciating for the lower income brackets is a known fact. That reforms do not win you elections is also axiomatic. So what was the PTI leadership thinking when it campaigned to oust governments and could not wait to get into the saddle? When it constantly demanded its bari (turn) did it actually believe that statecraft is some sort of a game where all that matters is that participants get a turn?

Now that it has woken up to the fact that reforms are a painful and unpopular business, what will the PTI government at the centre, Punjab, Balochistan and KP do? Will it take the extreme step and dissolve the assemblies, in the hope or on assurances that fresh elections will not follow anytime soon to prevent a defeat at the polls? Such a tactic will surely put a four-year distance between the current performance and the unpalatable reform measures that an interim technocratic regime will have to roll out, even if just to the please the IMF.

Calling for the dissolution of the assemblies is within the ambit of the Constitution; however, not holding fresh elections as prescribed by the law will not be easy. The current state of the media and the quiet manner of the superior judiciary should not be misread as acquiescence. All it will take is for the media owners to dig into their deep pockets and pay a couple of months’ overdue salaries to their employees and the fourth estate will be back in form. The judiciary does not need to go back to the hyperactive ways of the recent past to assert its constitutional powers. All it will need to do is quietly put its foot down, and it will.

If any quarter is dreaming to get Prime Minister Khan out of the firing line and putting a technocratic distance between him and the 2023 general elections, and using the interregnum to drum up support for a presidential form of government, they have another thing coming.

Enough of games and intrigues; reforms are unavoidable. The public has been bearing the pain, the leadership at the helm should put up with the dip in popularity that comes with the territory and work for the results that restore it eventually.

Economic and governance turnarounds have happened and not too long ago in history. However, neither Hafeez Shaikh nor the Pasha combine, not even Atif Mian can pull a rabbit out of the hat. We need to stop looking for silver bullets and magic wands and get down on all fours if need be and start scrubbing the grime off the floor to clean up our act.

The founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, observed the following about Pakistan in his book Singapore: From Third World to First; “It was soon obvious that they faced dire and intractable problems.” However, he went on say: “The Pakistanis are a hardy people with enough of the talented and well-educated to build a modern nation. But unending strife with India has drained Pakistan’s resources and stunted its potential.”

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2019