PAKISTAN is currently in the grip of serious economic and political problems. The currency is in free fall, exports and tax revenues are stagnant and inflation and unemployment are on the rise. Autocratic tendencies are ascendant while political grievances are increasing among marginalised groups. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, sages say. But in Pakistan’s case, its political leadership is in the grips of deep mediocrity as it churns out one vacuous idea after another.
Imran Khan has recently set up a highly publicised commission to investigate the reasons for the rapid increase in public debt over the last 10 years. The step bears all the hallmarks of the wonky and impulsive ideas that often grip him. Two aims underlie this new quest. The first is to figure out if the debt was taken for the right priorities. The question is, can sleuths from spy agencies judge national priorities? The Economic Advisory Council could do so, but it has been made non-functional.
The second aim is to investigate possible corruption. It is just the high total quantum of loans that seems to have aroused suspicion. That makes the exercise seem futile as our massive devaluation and high external and fiscal deficits over the last 10 years provide ample reasons for the large debt increase. There may be some corruption in some specific loan projects, not just in Sindh and Punjab but also Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, to investigate all the loans over 10 years due to vague suspicions is like looking for a needle in a haystack. So the real aim seems political — to keep the focus on the opposition’s past misdeeds and away from the PTI’s own poor governance.
A National Development Council has also been set up, whose stated functions overlap with those of a number of existing national bodies. Oddly, it includes the army chief. Even flawed Third World democracies now avoid placing military officials in strategic decision-making bodies beyond those dealing with security issues. Only in autocratic states like Myanmar and Egypt do such officials participate in non-security forums. This step highlights the increasing autocratic tendencies of unelected bodies here.
The aim seems to be to keep the focus on the opposition’s past misdeeds.
Practically too, this body is unlikely to be more effective than the several other similar bodies. The step reflects the naive notion among many that security institutions have the solutions to our governance problems.
It makes the PTI regime look even more like a leaking balloon, as more and more key positions go to non-elected non-PTI figures.
The opposition has suggested a charter of economy. Khan has embraced the idea too but the opposition itself is having second thoughts. The idea is obviously inspired by the charter of democracy signed between the PPP and PML-N earlier, which itself was only partially successful. It succeeded on points that were largely dependent on the actions of the two parties, eg their resolve not to undermine each other’s governments using extra-constitutional methods and certain constitutional agreements that the two could together pass.
But the economy is different. There are only a few areas in economic policy that require constitutional amendments, and economic success depends heavily on the actions of numerous private parties. So there is little that a charter of economy could do to increase exports, currently our biggest challenge.
Political parties could try to come to an agreement on contentious public economic policy measures, eg about taxation and state enterprises. This would signal policy continuity and give political cover to the ruling party in taking tough measures in these areas. But even here there are deep ideological differences across the parties.
Also, it is difficult to see how the parties can reach a charter of economy without first reaching a charter of politics. This is so because of the highly charged relations between the PTI and the opposition and the latter’s genuine complaints about one-sided accountability and attempts to politically reduce the space for opposition parties. Also, a charter of economy makes much less sense today when the government has already finalised the IMF package and tied its hands on major economic decisions for the next three years.
The opposition is also playing its part in perpetuating its own vacuous ideas. It has failed to present clear alternative economic and political visions and a road map for pulling Pakistan out of its current troubles. Unelected institutions are adding to the problems by digressing beyond their constitutional role into economics. So unfortunately, as the scale of the problem expands, there are few signs that our elected and non-elected decision-makers are willing and able to focus on identifying meaningful solutions for these problems.
The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive think tank.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2019