Managing a political project

June 17, 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lums.

ON June 11, 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan delivered a hard-hitting, (albeit technologically challenged) speech, which followed his government’s announcement of next year’s budget. The speech came at a time when primary opposition leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Hamza Shahbaz, had both been arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), and the now irrelevant Altaf Hussain was being hauled in by Scotland Yard.

The speech was prefaced with two pronouncements: one that the welfare state of Madina didn’t emerge on day one, and two, that the government was finally on track on the economic front (a highly optimistic appraisal, all things considered). Given the latter, the government has decided that it can now devote its energies to agenda item one: anti-corruption accountability. Here we’re served an explicit proposal, which is the intention to set up an inquiry commission consisting of FBR, ISI, NAB, and a raft of other investigation agencies to document the reasons for mounting domestic and external debt over the tenures of the last two governments.

At the outset, it’s quite clear that the inclusion of the ISI in the proposed list of investigating organisations suggests that the government intends to place more pressure (Panama-style) on the opposition. It is also quite clear that the government seeks to leverage the perception of its favourable proximity to the security establishment to underscore how serious it is on this front.

We’re left with the careful curation of political space and, ultimately, of desirable outcomes.

Closer reading of the speech points towards several concurrent tendencies. The first is that the speech was aimed at the core PTI support base — urbanites of various shades — who may have been left disheartened by two parallel trends: the first is the increased incidence of taxes in the government’s recently announced budget, along with the slow-creep of prices of basic necessities (fuel, food, energy). The second, and this probably resonates more with the inqilabis is the relatively slow pace of progress on big-ticket reform. The fact that no major prosecutions have been carried out as yet, nor has any allegedly stolen wealth been returned plays a part in egging on some of the jadedness.

These two trends have played a part in the government (and particularly the prime minister) becoming more cognisant of raising their profile as far as anti-accountability initiatives are concerned. This will likely remain a consistent theme over the coming months (in a larger three-year cycle), especially as the government attempts to stabilise an economy that remains burdened by fiscal and current account deficits.

The second takeaway from the speech is that it can be read as a show of authority by the prime minister for the explicit purpose of reasserting himself in the public eye. For the last three months, there is growing evidence that the dynamism of the party has taken a back seat to the technocratic, cookie-cutter interventions required for macroeconomic stabilisation. In this flux, the one major takeaway has been the heightened importance being attached to the finance ministry and its relations with the IMF, neither of which are being managed by Imran Khan or a party figure since the ouster of the previous finance minister, Asad Umar. In fact, the latter being shuffled out after less than eight months on the job validated the rumour-mongering of decisions being taken elsewhere (whether in D.C. or Rawalpindi).

For a prime minister whose political genesis and success has been built on his persona and his ability to exercise moral and executive authority over an unwieldy party apparatus, being forced into a thumb-twiddling position is — for the sheer optics of it — likely unacceptable. In this regard, a corruption investigation reporting directly to the prime minister probably helps stop some of the gloss being taken off. More so because in its absence, the people are just left looking at him attending charity fundraisers and photo ops with foreign leaders for the time being.

The third, and most important, takeaway relates to the possible role that an investigation commission may play in the overall management of the political project that began in July 2018 (or perhaps a bit earlier). I use the term ‘political project’ rather than government here because it is now increasingly apparent that it is operating as a shared enterprise among different stakeholders within the state, rather than being purely an outcome of parliamentary and electoral activity

So instead of focusing solely on societal interests and electoral pressures, both of which matter less in a largely disconnected and de-socialised state apparatus, one should pay closer attention to the lofty aspirations of the military and government elite. The country is going through a painful adjustment, which will likely last for the next three years. After that, the government will be left with two years to dig canals of milk and honey, which by all measures is an unreasonably short time frame. One can safely assume that the larger project of ‘Making Pakistan Great Again’ will not be possible in the space of five years. It will require at least another five-year term if not more.

Left to its own political devices, the vagaries of an electoral contest in 2023 might not deliver the requisite outcomes. There’s too much uncertainty if politics unfolds unhindered. So we’re left with the careful curation of political space and, ultimately, of desirable outcomes. For the next three years, opposition parties will have to contend with rebuilding, rebranding and solving internal tussles once a slew of convictions and disqualifications come in. It means that during the adjustment cycle, when the ruling party will have no money or benefits to placate its legislators, and when inflation inevitably takes a bite out of voter enthusiasm, it will also have no serious contender for its perch. All in all, that seems like a pretty good position to be in.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2019