Decision time

September 12, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT was obvious to those of us who either have stakes in government policy or have been following the making and implementation of policy for many years now, but increasingly it is also becoming obvious to others. Sooner or later, this country will need somebody at the helm who knows how to run things.

For a year, we have lived on fiery rhetoric and outlandish delusions disguised as policy. For a year, the reigning assumption at the top was that all Pakistan needs is for one man to come to power, and like the proverbial fish that supposedly rots from the head down, the country’s rot will end and things will fix themselves automatically. For a year, the belief was that we just need to put the bad guys away, appeal to the better angels in people’s nature, and the deficits would be plugged and the wheels of governance begin to turn once again.

This was the thinking behind the appeal for the dam fund, behind the Pakistan Banao certificates, behind the prime minister’s hotline and app-based complaint registration system, behind that bizarre midnight announcement on the night the budget was presented, promising vengeance and fire and brimstone for his opponents. It’s been a methylated year for sure, with emotions stirred and people’s brains whipped to a froth.

But now, all that is changing. Now somebody seems to be getting the hint upstairs that things cannot go on like this. The country won’t run itself. And in truth a fish does not rot from the head down. It actually rots from the inside out. So much for that tired metaphor.

For a year, we have lived on fiery rhetoric and outlandish delusions disguised as policy.

What has changed? Two things: the IMF programme implementation began, and a steady stream of visitors seems to be passing through Islamabad (and in one case Peshawar) from China urging the government to get to work on the second phase of CPEC that has been stalled up till now.

The Chinese visitors are not exactly headline material yet. But something important is happening, given the regularity with which the government is being prodded by various Chinese delegations, in some cases headed by senior officials, and the equally regular stream of announcements coming from various quarters of the government that they remain committed to CPEC, that the projects will now be fast tracked. In one case, none other than Khusro Bakhtiar, the minister for planning and inheritor of the mantle previously worn by Ahsan Iqbal, announced that the government was prepared to create an overarching CPEC authority to oversee the implementation of the second phase from end to end.

The latest of such announcements was on Sunday during the Islamabad visit of Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. Pakistan remains committed to CPEC, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, following his meeting. He reiterated the idea of creating a CPEC authority, mentioned the importance of the ‘speedy implementation’ of CPEC projects, and talked of the benefits Pakistan would get once more Chinese companies began to invest in the country.

This was not the first such public announcement. Since April, when Khan paid his visit to Beijing for the annual Belt and Road conference, there have been a number of such announcements. For example, during the conference, both governments signed a concessional agreement to develop the Rashakai Special Economic Zone, one of the nine planned zones under the second phase of CPEC. Then the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Economic Zones Development and Management Company announced that the prime minister would soon perform the groundbreaking ceremony for the zone.

There is no further mention of any groundbreaking ceremony, and that announcement was back in the first week of May. The CPEC website simply says land acquisition is complete.

Rashakai is not the only sticking point. No breakthrough has been made in financing for the ML-1 railroad upgradation project either. In fact, hardly any of the commitments and understandings contained in the overall CPEC portfolio have advanced, and the Chinese are taking notice of this.

The question many people are asking is whether this delay is on purpose because the government is not eager about the idea of CPEC, or whether it is because of incompetence, since the people brought in by this dispensation, in both provincial as well as federal governments, are not exactly known for their ability to get things done, at least not for the public. A quick look at the Peshawar BRT project should confirm this.

So are they being clever or are they just incompetent? If they’re being clever, then perhaps it’s a little too clever to give commitments and timelines on specific actions at the prime minister’s level, then fail to move on them. And if incompetence is the answer, like it is in so many other areas as the whole GIDC fiasco so spectacularly displayed, then it obviously cannot continue much longer.

It is the same story with the IMF programme. The whole programme is built around one massive revenue target and a very steep target for accumulating foreign exchange reserves. All else is secondary. The problem with this implementation is that it puts the PTI government directly at odds with people’s pocket book issues. The public’s ire against rising prices, diminishing job opportunities and incomes invariably falls upon those in power. People do not make careful distinctions to say ‘well, the pressures built up under the previous government’. They simply tell each other ‘when the other people were in power, things were better’. Full stop.

The challenge for those in power is to manage the politics that such a perception creates. The more serious challenge for those currently in power is that managing such politics takes considerable skill. So the time has come to demonstrate skill in running things, and that part has the great Khan all flustered, hence the red letters and the daily meetings on the economy. It’ll take more than bluster and bombast to get through this one though.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2019