Outside the box

Published July 25, 2020

OUR prime minister is fond of repeating that we must ‘think outside the box’. The problem here is that you first have to think within it.

It’s no secret that the dozens of ministers, special assistants and advisers that have been assembled are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. But although clueless, they know their jobs are secure as long as the boss is happy.

And as we saw recently in the fiasco triggered by the aviation minister, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, the idea is to be seen to be doing something. This keeps the leadership happy, even if it means grounding hundreds of pilots, and destroying Pakistan’s reputation as a nation whose flying licences can be trusted to be genuine.

We all recall the grandiose ideas Khan and his acolytes announced before and immediately after his inauguration. They were going to reduce the national debt by selling the buffaloes in Prime Minister House, as well as the luxury cars bought by Nawaz Sharif. So how did that turn out, by the way?

Prime Minister House itself would be turned into a university. Colonial buildings would be transformed into museums and luxury hotels. This would usher in the new Pakistan Khan’s supporters had been dreaming of. Oh yes, and corruption would be eradicated in 90 days.

Where did all the hype and hoopla go?

So where did all this hype and hoopla go, two years into this government’s tenure? Into a black hole called reality. The truth is that you must have more than imported help to make things happen. You need focus, hard slog and commitment. A clear sense of direction also helps. Above all, you need an understanding of how the system works before you can improve it. But sadly, none of Khan’s A Team seems to have bothered to do their homework.

The alleged sponsors thought the prime minister’s long exposure to London would make him an acceptable figure in the West. And Khan felt his friendships with English socialites would automatically grant him admission to the corridors of power. Alas, he has since learned that power does not reside in London’s nightclubs.

Luckily for him, he now has the Covid-19 pandemic to blame for his government’s woes. Earlier, the scapegoats were his predecessors.

Few politicians accept their own incompetence: it’s always somebody else’s fault that things are going badly. Trump has spent nearly four years blaming Obama, and the last few months have seen the American president defend his appalling handling of the pandemic.

But more importantly, the government’s economic policies, such as they are, have pro­­ved disastrous. Lacking any knowledge of economics or finance, Khan and his team have blundered on regardless, creating a trail of misery in their wake. Prices have gone up, and sugar and flour went briefly und­er­ground. The answer to this unfolding eco­nomic crisis was to hire yet more advisers.

Education was an important plank in the PTI electoral platform. We expected some solid reforms that would lead the younger generation into this century. But what we have got is literally more of the same for overburdened pupils. And, as Pervez Hood­bhoy informed us in a recent column, the Punjab government’s new policy requires students to pass an exam designed to test their knowledge of the Holy Quran in order to graduate. Even Zia’s era did not have such conditions, he points out.

Also read: Is education a priority for the PTI?

Over the last few months, I have received numerous emails from readers who said they had voted for the PTI, but would never do so again. They had long lists of complaints, and basically, they all seem to agree on the perception of pathetic incompete­nce at the heart of this government. If this sampling is representative of Khan’s slipping support, it is bad news for the government and its boosters in the establishment.

One of Khan’s major ambitions was to raise revenues by forcing tax evaders to cough up their fair share. This is an entirely reasonable target, but implementing it has run into major problems. For one, the entire tax-collection machinery is incompetent and corrupt. In order to streamline it, a number of people from within and without the FBR have been tried. But each has been removed before they could implement any changes. And now, with the pandemic shutting down large parts of the economy, tax collection has dropped further still.

One source of foreign investment was supposed to be the large number of expatriate Pakistanis who supported the PTI. But as we have seen from the pitiful number of donations that came for the construction of Bha­sha dam, sending Khan a supportive tweet is one thing; writing a cheque is quite another.

We have no option but to wait till the next elections to throw the current lot out. But ele­­­c­tions, as we know all too well, are too ea­s­ily manipulated. I have no answers, but do know that the system cannot continue as it is.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2020

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