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For Pakistan, reforms are the only way forward. But can Imran deliver?

The truth has dawned on us that fixing a rotting, calcified system in the face of all resistance is the end game.
Updated May 25, 2019 01:48am

Economy has always been on the periphery of talk show debates in Pakistan. Last eight months have seen a record deliberation on the topic as compared to the last 15 years. How many of us knew of inflation rates when it came to PPP and PML-N's first eight months in power — 25.3% and 10.9% respectively. How many of us read the fine print of previous IMF conditions, limitations and restrictions? How many of us knew of rupee devaluation during PPP's term. Or that it was higher in percentage terms than in any other government in the last 30 years?

Mind-numbing aggregates and startling figures are force-fed to an equally bamboozled public round the clock today and it seems anchors have assumed that they have nothing short of a doctorate in economy.

Is it because this is the only debate the opposition can win today or are we finally waking up to what has been staring us in the face for decades now? Worse yet, is it owing to Imran Khan’s catastrophic lack of homework on this front? Truth be told, a bit of each. An unnamed senior party official said one can deliberate over climate change with Khan for four hours straight but try discussing the economy and you’ll see his eyes glaze over. This has been the case since April 18, 2012, when Asad Umar officially joined PTI. Ironically, exactly seven years later, on the same date, he lost Khan’s confidence as PTI’s answer to all of Pakistan’s economic woes.

Interestingly, it seems neither Khan nor Umar saw it coming. Until April 15, Umar was being reassured that rumours about his removal were "rubbish", thus the hazaroun khwahishain aisi, ke har khwahish pe dum niklay (if wishes were horses, beggars would ride) confidence flaunted by the then finance minister in Washington. Three days later, on April 18, his portfolio was finally taken away from him.

Asad Umar, Imran Khan, Arif Alvi and Fawad Chaudhry holding copies of PTI's manifesto. — AFP/File
Asad Umar, Imran Khan, Arif Alvi and Fawad Chaudhry holding copies of PTI's manifesto. — AFP/File

In truth, as soon as the news cycle around Umar's 'shaky' position in the cabinet took hold, it successfully created the environment and the pressure that his opponents had been waiting for. Some might have also muttered something regarding the ‘pompous finance minister’, thinking he considers himself aql-i-qul (know it all) but way too ‘indecisive’ in a situation where fast and bold decisions may be needed.

Explore: An economic charter

It is also an open secret who Umar's leading antagonist was during his short stint and the many others who wanted him gone, some of them serving on the top advisory council on the economy.

It was during this time that the perception had been created that if Umar continued in his role, the consequences would be dire and things would get from bad to worse. Things were also said about how expat bonds issued sans any marketing campaigns were faring badly and that no reform initiatives had been undertaken to shore up revenue, and basically, that nothing was looking good. What happened after is history.

How are things now? It is widely believed and perhaps there is good reason to do so that the people currently in control have the nod and approval of multilateral agencies.

When one looks at Umar and where he went wrong, perhaps his singular biggest fault was his failure to espouse confidence in the handling of the economy.

Pompous or not, the uncertainty that was generated created panic, paralysed investments, and sent shockwaves through the market.

He had serious disagreements with the terms being proposed by IMF and has called a Finance Standing Committee meeting, where he plans to share what he was willing to accept when it came to the Fund vis-à-vis the agreement that has now taken shape. This should make for an interesting account.

More on this: Don’t blame the IMF

Everything said and done, Khan has now effectively put all his eggs in the proverbial status-quo basket, whereas others call it a professional, specialist team.

In survival mode, the tried and tested are a far easier bite to digest than a blue blooded, anti-privatisation, all-is-possible Insafian, unbothered by perceptions and possibly causing loss to political capital.

The premier, who until 2017 was vociferously rejecting PML-N’s amnesty scheme as a direct abetment of tax evaders, asset concealers and money launderers — a scheme he would investigate upon assuming office, has extended the same opportunity today in order to “document the economy”. And the well-preserved media archives are enough to show what Khan promised compared to what he is delivering.

The truth is, we are in a royal mess and there is no exit from the highway with a singular flashing neon sign screaming reforms. Reforms, which will give the squeezed opposition much needed breathing space, enough to distract the political debate away from NAB investigations and an all-consuming corruption narrative which has suited the government all too well up until now.

Take a look | Tax amnesty: Is PTI packaging gimmicks as economic reforms?

Maryam Nawaz has seized this opportunity to make a powerful comeback, where she wants the party to feel a difference; and what's better than to cash in on the idea of a hysterical public struggling to make ends meet?

The days ahead offer no respite for the government. Finally put to test, Khan, who coddled in hyperbole, has been called out; call it under-training, call it ignorance, he has been dealt the punch he did not prepare for or saw coming.

A set of events has changed the rules of the game as of now. Cases against Shahbaz Sharif have shifted power back to the father-daughter duo and the vote ko izzat dou (respect the vote) narrative has been reinvigorated.

Many within the PML-N feel an effective opposition alliance would not have been carved out had the opposition leader been at the helm.

As for PPP’s co-chairman, there is nothing inexperienced or naive about Bilawal either and he has fit in rather comfortably in the role his party has always been known for, opposition ki party. Informed sources reveal that the field may clear for him even further very soon and the newly-bolstered PML-N coupled with a fiery Bilawal with much to say, will indeed be a test for the government in the coming days.

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Khan, who has otherwise been an idealist, has perhaps taken this path to turn towards the technocrats, men who know what they're doing, thinking now is not the time for dull reflexes.

Perhaps, he's also aware that simply incapacitating his opponents is no longer the way to win this round, most likely his first and last, and that he must struggle to think out of the box and deliver where the old guard least expects, overhaul of the system.

The political resistance against Khan can get vicious, a tsunami threatening to wash his government away, riding on the undercurrents of an angry restless public. And the third-world truth is, the common man is concerned with only two things, unemployment and inflation; he has no care or appreciation of a better current account deficit or improving foreign exchange reserves.

Hard political choices need to be made and communicated effectively. For instance, rightly allocating gas in order to support industry, investment, employment, as well as achieving the right balance of trade versus gas for household consumers, motorists etc.

A large chunk of pharmaceutical production capacity has also shut down in the last five years. Difficult decisions need to be made regarding pricing of pharmaceuticals; don’t increase prices and we’re looking at more companies shutting down, unemployment increasing, more medicine being imported (outflow of dollar) and smuggled (black market). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Similar is the case of over 190 hemorrhaging state-owned enterprises, where the bulk of the loss is made by the top few. Shut them down, sell them or continue burning money? Pick your poison, unemployment or continue bleeding? Khan cannot divorce himself from these hard choices.

The truth dawning on us better late than never is, fixing a rotting, calcified system in the face of all resistance is the end game. Khan mustn’t only calculate his risks and take timely decisions, he must also succeed at convincing the public that it has to get a lot worse before it gets better. For the time being, how quickly he tackles the problems of circular debt, public enterprises and the tax net will disclose his aptitude.

Finally, when it comes to all these decisions, the public needs to be engaged at every step and explained, patiently and very simply, every choice, each of which will have its consequences. And more likely than not, the political loss will be borne by Khan alone.