IT is not every day that one feels like writing but today is one: to thank the prime minister for advising us to watch the Turkish TV show Dirilis:Ertugrul. It has not only rekindled one’s interest in Islamic history and kept one suitably occupied during this Covid-19-ordered ‘house arrest’, but has also mercifully kept one away from the daily tripartite slanging matches on TV between the same faces, discussing the same topics ad nauseam.
While Ertugrul may have lessened the boredom of confinement, Covid-19 has been for Imran Khan what the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was for Gen Zia and 9/11 was for Gen Musharraf. Zia’s tottering regime was given a shot in the arm with the invasion in 1979; the resultant world sympathy helped him rule comfortably for the next nine years. Musharraf turned from a villain to a darling of the West after 9/11 when he conceded more than they had asked for, and ruled for the next six years. Similarly, the PTI government — which was tottering earlier this year, with most people expecting a change in weeks — is now in complete control, thanks to the distraction of Covid-19.
The PTI government is now in complete control.
There is little debate on the government’s handling of the economy, or the provinces’ inept governance, since the nation is riveted on a single issue. Criticism is focused on issues like the poor handling of the maulvis, hasty relaxation of the lockdown, and not letting Sindh do its job. These the government can credibly answer, rather than bigger issues of poor governance, piling debt, halting development activities etc, for which it had no real answers.
The PTI’s performance in handling the pandemic looks okay, because criticisms of this government are exactly the same as criticisms of most governments around the world: inadequate health capacity, indecisive decision-making in the lockdown-vs-economy debate, etc. Further, the government has adopted a smart approach; its machinery takes decisions based on data while the prime minister announces his views independently, based on gut feeling and populist politics. Though the confusion provides mirth for his critics, the prime minister speaking like an opposition leader by constantly referring to the plight of the common man is taking the wind out of the opposition’s sails and improving his political standing.
The good news is that the establishment continues to be on the same page as the government, The Punjab chief minister seems to have woken up, and the opposition is on the run, with Asif Zardari’s health engaging the PPP and continual corruption cases against the PML-N keeping them on the back foot. So, one can say with some confidence that the PTI government is on its way to complete its full five-year term. The worrying thought is that one sees these five years as being no different from the previous 10 combined years of the PPP and PML-N, ie directionless and without impact.
During his long struggle for power and his two years in government, Imran Khan’s single-item agenda has been corruption. We see in this time that NAB has arrested scores of politicians, making a lot of noise. The Supreme Court set aside all routine matters and concentrated on ‘trying’ Sharif for 163 days. All significant politicians and their frontmen have spent months in NAB custody. JITs have been formed with the best resources to dig out prosecutable evidence. But the end result is the conviction of only Nawaz Sharif who is sitting in the comfort of an apartment bought through allegedly corrupt practices in London. The rest, after having gone through the virus-fighting stage, have become practically immune.
Whether we achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 or not, we have achieved herd immunity against corruption in Pakistan. No corrupt person fears anything as long as he can hire good lawyers, knows the weaknesses of the system and has the patience to let the storm pass. The corrupt in Pakistan, with almost zero conviction rate, have never been more confident; having beaten the system, leaving people who hoped that Khan would demolish this scourge disappointed and fearful of the future.
Similarly, the other panacea offered was that people would start paying their taxes once they see the government is not corrupt. What has actually happened is that in the PML-N’s last year in office they collected Rs3,842 billion with a 14 per cent increase over the previous year, while the present government’s target for 2019-20 (usually missed) is only Rs3,908bn, less than what targets were two years ago. Taking normal increase due to inflation, there is perhaps 20pc less tax collection from when the present government took over.
So with corruption and poor tax collection the same if not worse, and no major nation-building initiative in education and health on the cards, it looks we will be remaining a purana Pakistan — minus the hope we had two years ago.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2020