Is a course correction needed?

Published October 12, 2020
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

FEW governments in Pakistan’s recent history began their term with the advantages Prime Minister Imran Khan enjoyed over two years ago. It had unqualified support from the military, significant public goodwill, control (albeit with a razor-thin majority) of the country’s largest province and a demoralised opposition — all this, amid a popular yearning for change.

But as it approaches the halfway mark of its tenure, the hopes and expectations the PTI government evoked have yet to be realised. Few ruling parties have so rapidly underwhelmed their own supporters. Even for a party new to wielding governmental power, it has, at best, been underperforming.

Read: PTI's two-year record

To be sure, Imran Khan’s government inherited a troublesome economic legacy that limited its ability to take popular steps. But almost every new government has had to confront a similar inheritance given Pakistan’s chronic budget and balance-of-payments deficits. True, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic threw governments everywhere off course as well as in Pakistan. But while this wreaked less havoc in the country compared to other nations it saw an unedifying initial response to the crisis by the government until a military-dominated body took charge.

The question now is should the government consider a course correction? The answer is yes because all governments need to identify and address weaknesses on a continual basis, especially when there is public disappointment with their performance and when a revived opposition is raising the political ante. An opinion poll by Gallup Pakistan in August shows public ambivalence about giving a positive approval rating to the government. This should be worrisome for the prime minister. An earlier Gallup survey released in March showed 66 per cent of respondents dissatisfied with the PTI government’s performance. A more recent survey by Ipsos in September found that four out of five Pakistanis feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The real game changer would be for the government to show leadership that unites the country.

Against this backdrop, there are five steps the government could consider for a course correction: 1) Reframe its purpose in office and align it with public concerns 2) reconfigure its team especially in Punjab 3) Adopt a structured approach to governance 4) Evolve economic policies to spur growth by engaging the business community and political parties in parliament 5) Show respect for dissent and desist from seeing critics as enemies or traitors.

The first is crucial especially as the government seems embarked on a haphazard course. It should instead prioritise its agenda and focus on issues of greatest public concern and strategic interest to the country’s future. Redefining its view of the public interest means according economic issues primacy over other matters. For example, obsessive preoccupation with the opposition and a flawed accountability process shifts attention from urgent issues uppermost on the public mind.

If all that official spokesmen do is berate the opposition, hardly persuades people that issues that matter most to them — cost of living, unemployment, increase in utility charges, supply of essential commodities and services — are being addressed. Repurposing also means a focus on policy for all, not philanthropy for some. It involves shaking off the habit of endlessly blaming previous governments for all the country’s problems. After all, PTI was voted to power to chart a way forward not complain about the past.

Second, a course correction will only work if the bloated cabinet is replaced by a new, lean team that inspires confidence. It means dropping individuals who have failed to deliver. The present patchwork team is weak, disorganised and disunited with internal rifts that mar its effectiveness and credibility.

Most importantly, reconfiguring the team should involve replacing the leadership in Punjab so that it can run the province rather than run to Islamabad for decisions. That PTI has been losing political ground in Punjab should be reason enough for the leadership to change course there.

Three, move from the unstructured, personalised style of governance to institutional rule. Unstructured governance has led to embarrassing policy U-turns. An institutional approach ensures internal scrutiny of policy that prevents missteps. Institutional governance doesn’t mean the number of cabinet meetings that take place. It meansa consultative mode of governing in which reliance is placed on institutional advice, not the instincts of the leader. Unstructured governance is as much a result of the ruling party’s unfamiliarity with statecraft as on the way the Prime Minister’s Office is organised, which needs greater depth and experience to assist him in the complex job of governing.

The fourth step should involve reaching out to business leaders to build confidence and seek their views to promote the critical goal of investment without which economic growth — negative for the first time in decades — will remain elusive. Macroeconomic stabilisation is still a work in progress but will not be sustainable without achieving growth, which in turn requires investment and fostering confidence. The Ipsos Consumer Confidence Survey found that over 80pc of people lack confidence about their ability to save and invest in the future. On this critical issue the government needs to adopt an inclusive approach and engage the business community and parliamentary leaders to devise measures at a time when the World Bank is warning of a sharper Covid-induced recession in the country than expected. It should also heed the business community’s oft expressed view that NAB’s actions are casting a shadow on the revival of confidence and investment activity. The government should work with other parties on a plan for economic revival especially as the days of financial handouts from foreign donors are over.

Finally, the government should develop a habit of welcoming, not demonising dissenting views. Adopting an intolerant attitude creates an illiberal environment which undermines democracy and denudes the government of the opportunity to test its policies against criticism. Treating opponents as enemies and dissent as sedition are hallmarks of dictatorships not democracies. Official spokesmen should try to show respect for views other than their own rather than sound like a broken record by ridiculing contrary opinion.

The real game changer for the country would be for the government to eschew partisanship, show the kind of leadership that unites, not polarises the country, and rise above its own instincts to provide inclusive governance.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2020

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