PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has been widely praised for delivering a powerful and impressive speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept 27. Ironically, soon after his stellar performance at the UNGA and a grand reception in Islamabad upon his return, he faced some difficult and annoying questions about the quality of governance at the PTI parliamentary party meeting. It was an illustration of how powerful communication can’t go very far if there are questions about performance.
Communication through speeches, pressers, TV talks and lately, social media including Twitter, forms almost three-fourths of all politics when one is not in government. The dynamics, however, drastically change once a politician and his or her party are in government; although communication still remains an important aspect of politics, it is not longer as dominant as it once was in their case. This is the change which the PTI and Imran Khan have to live with now when effective communication does not seem to be enough. This phenomenon is not peculiar to the PTI; it applies to almost all political parties.
The key obsession of politicians around the world is to win public approval in order to come to power. Courting the public for this purpose is important, and politicians and political parties spend almost all their time and energy doing just that. Coining and disseminating popular messages, gauging public opinion and adjusting public positions accordingly are all part of electioneering.
A political party aspiring to power often has no idea about the real challenges of ruling.
Sometimes enemies are identified and even conjured up by politicians to whip up public fear and hatred and to present themselves as potential saviours. The public is told in oversimplified terms of the nature of national ailments such as corruption and is promised that these will be eliminated as soon as the aspiring politicians come to power. Populism is a handy instrument of politics which is put to effective use if all else fails. But one can’t only blame politicians; in recent times, we have seen the judiciary as well as the civil-military bureaucracy also getting sucked into the vortex of populism.
While politicians and political parties are almost totally consumed by electioneering, they hardly devote any time, at least in Pakistan, to prepare for the challenges of governance. The result is that a political party aspiring to power often has no idea about the real challenges of governance and how and where to find solutions once it is in a position to rule. Parties seldom make conscious efforts to attract and retain the talent needed to run the government.
Consequently, there is a scramble to search for experts outside the party, who are then pressed into service so that they can solve critical governance issues. Political parties hardly have any functional policy think tanks or even policy wings. If some policy wings do exist, they lack even the prerequisites such as researchers, working space and funding.
Public policies are seldom discussed at party forums. The only policy document which a political party produces once in about five years is the election manifesto with very few and diminishing exceptions like the founding documents of the PPP produced back in 1967. The manifestoes are generally wish lists rather than serious policy documents. While many flashy promises are made, the ‘how’ part is conspicuously missing. There is no discussion on how the party will finance its promises. Our parties should learn from the British Labour Party, which came up with a separate document called Funding Britain’s Future, explaining how it plans to finance the pledges made in its manifesto in the last parliamentary election.
Although the PTI prepared a detailed election manifesto and a 100 days’ agenda for last year’s national general polls, subsequent events indicated that the party had not fully comprehended the challenges of governance. In fact, the PTI’s first 100 days in government, and an extended period thereafter, were consumed by the formation of more than 30 taskforces and committees which worked to understand the issues, and produce policy documents and action plans for the federal and two provincial governments. It was a ‘learning on the job’ exercise which was not only detrimental to the party image but also unhelpful for a country which could hardly wait for solutions to its pressing problems.
Currently, we have at least three national and six regional parties that are serious contenders for power at the federal or provincial level. None of these parties have a shadow cabinet or spokespersons for various sectors of governance. No serious work is undertaken by the parties on public policies which they have to pursue when in power. Political parties are probably under the mistaken impression that things will automatically work out when they come to power.
Isn’t it time that parties seriously prepared themselves for governance? While they may continue to spend a major part of their energies and resources on efforts to come to power, if they want to spare themselves and the country the pain of learning on the job, they should start investing a part of their resources in putting together a team which can smoothly take over the levers of power once they are in the saddle.
The team and party officials in general should be groomed via a series of orientation and training courses on various aspects of governance on a continual basis, with a special focus on elected officials and ministers or potential ministers.
If appointing a shadow cabinet is considered too divisive, committees may be formed for each federal and provincial cabinet portfolio. Conveners of the committees can serve by rotation and act as sectoral spokespersons. These committees can collect information, critically review government policies, coordinate with their international counterparts and formulate policies and plans of their parties for their respective domain for implementation if and when they come to power. This exercise will not only prepare parties for the challenges of governance, public trust in their competence will also be enhanced as a result.
Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2019