PTI’s traits

July 16, 2019


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.

RULING regimes often get labelled in media by traits that define their key pluses or minuses. The defining trait of Trump’s regime is chaos while of Jacinda Ardern’s regime it is empathy and Narendra Modi’s bigotry. Hope and change were PTI’s defining traits before the polls. But those seem like distant dreams and it is now labelled often with many negative traits.

‘Selected’ was the first trait it acquired (as a birth defect) based on opposition and even neutral views that ‘selectors’ had rigged the 2018 polls to aid the PTI. The bonhomie seen in the meetings now between the establishment and the captain reinforces this view. The PTI reacts angrily to these charges by reminding the PPP and PML-N that their founders had both entered politics under dictators. But both parties later won at least one election each on their own. Critics say the PTI has yet to do that. In fact, they say that sans the support of the ‘selectors’, the PTI regime may even lose critical allies and fall quickly.

Incompetence is now a second defining trait. Pakistani regimes, elected or autocratic, are usually incompetent. But the PTI seems more so. Governance covers five functions: legislation, policy/strategy, projects, institutional reform, and service delivery. The PPP exhibited some competence in legislation and the PML-N in projects from early on. But both did poorly on all other functions.

Even after six years in power (in KP, and now also at the centre), the PTI is yet to make even a single function its forte. If it can reform FBR and other public agencies, it may yet do so. But that is still a big if. Daily mess-ups reinforce the incompetence image, eg, the many U-turns and W-turns; odd and conflicting statements by higher-ups; and the Punjab paralysis. Unluckily, time is a remedy for inexperience, but not incompetence.

Pakistan has a struggling ruling team.

This incompetence has led to a third defining trait: disempowered. The ‘selectors’, alarmed by the incompetence, have slowly imported players for key posts. Ministers/advisers holding the top portfolios are often referred to as their men, with the core PTI team apparently running only lesser ministries. It would seem as if expensive house items have been put out of the reach of toddlers to avoid heavy damage.

The fourth trait is autocracy. The party has clearly launched a major crackdown on the opposition, media and civil society on a scale usually seen under dictators. This too stems partially from its incompetence as the crackdown helps veil it. The opposition faces non-transparent accountability, while the PTI receives a virtual free pass. The NAB top honcho, after his seedy video leaked, says he will focus first on older groups that have ruled for decades and not new ones. But this is faulty logic.

Taken to extremes, it would be like saying that no action should be taken against the militant Islamic State group since it is a new terrorist group and the focus must still be only on Al Qaeda, which has existed for decades. But sanity says IS must be targeted too as it can commit more terrorism now than Al Qaeda, just as the PTI may commit more corruption than others as it controls most of the purses now. In fact, after the Panama leaks, Imran Khan himself had argued that accountability should start at the top, with the prime minister and ruling party.

How does the PTI compare with the last PPP and PML-N regimes? The two were not seen as being ‘selected’, or as autocratic towards the opposition and media, or as disempowered as the PTI. On incompetence, they seem similar — with perhaps the short-lived Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail and the Shahbaz Sharif team a bit more competent. Irked PTI fans may say the party is much less dynastic and corrupt. But it actually has more declared billionaires and persons with ongoing criminal cases in the National Assembly than the others.

Meanwhile, the Khattak dynasty is the biggest one nationally now. Even singleton Sheikh Rashid now has a dynasty. Imran Khan has perhaps more ongoing cases than perhaps any sitting prime minister in our history, though they are not about sleaze. So the claimed absence of corruption and dynasty largely applies only at the top, to the prime minister himself.

Pakistan faces huge economic, political and external challenges. But it has a struggling ruling team whose defining traits are selected, incompetent, disempowered, and autocratic. The blame for this lies with the selectors. Instead of trying to work with an elected regime, they chose to bring in a compliant one. Sans this, we could have at least had a genuinely elected, more empowered and inclusive, and slightly less incompetent regime. Even that would have helped in dealing better with these challenges. Inzamam and his co-selectors may soon lose their jobs due to the World Cup fiasco. What about our political selectors?

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019