RED ZONE FILES: The Fawad Alam effect

Published January 28, 2021
Fawad Alam kisses the ground after scoring a century during the second day of the first cricket test match between Pakistan and South Africa at the National Stadium on Jan 27. — AP
Fawad Alam kisses the ground after scoring a century during the second day of the first cricket test match between Pakistan and South Africa at the National Stadium on Jan 27. — AP

Does Fawad Alam’s century on Wednesday symbolise a larger political trend in the country?

Wear your political lens and visualise: Pakistan trounce the opponents in the first innings and bundle them out cheaply. Then they come on the wicket all confident and pumped up. Wham! They get hit by the reality of the opponent’s bowling attack. They stumble, they fall. Then at 33/4, they claw their way back to stability led by Fawad who scores a defiant 109.

Strong initial showing, panic and collapse, and gradual but definitive recovery; hey that’s us, says the PTI government today. Pakistan start their third day of the five-day Karachi Test this Thursday morning buoyed by their current position. Prime Minister Imran Khan has started the third year of his five-year mandate buoyed by his government’s current position. But there is a difference: the five-day Test can be drawn, the five-year term can’t.

Inside the Red Zone, senior government officials are increasingly talking about another win in 2023. The last few weeks have lifted their spirits, and perhaps their fortunes. They admit that their tactical scoreboard might be a mixed one but the strategic one is ticking along nicely.

This strategic scoreboard is an ambitious one, and the government appears comfortable enough to start whispering about it. If the opposition alliance PDM can get over its own contradictions, it might want to take a close look at what the government has in mind for the rest of its term.

Economy: The opposition’s key point of attack is that the PTI government has wrecked the economy. This criticism finds traction because citizens are suffering from the impact of food inflation, rising utility prices and unemployment. This has been accentuated by the sugar and wheat crises which continue to ripple across the land despite all attempts to control them.

In cabinet meetings and other high-level consultations like the parliamentary party meeting chaired by the prime minister on Wednesday, ministers and elected representatives continue to complain that the rising cost of living is depleting their political capital faster than many party leaders would want to admit. True, say key economic manager. We have a plan, they also say.

The plan: (a) Control inflation and bring it down by 2022. There is already some improvement. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, inflation has been coming down since September 2020. From being in the double digits earlier last year, it was 8.3 per cent in November 2020 and eased further to 8pc in December. Senior members of the PTI economic team say the government aims to have it under firm and stable control from now on. Food inflation is still in double digits — higher in the rural areas — but this too will be under control, they say. If “mehngai” is managed before the election campaign starts in two years, the government would be in a comfortable position. Finance Adviser Hafeez Shaikh, who is piloting this economic recovery, is almost guaranteed a Senate ticket, which means the government has decided to maintain continuity in its team and its policies.

(b) Kick-start the manufacturing sector and aim to increase exports and ease the burden of unemployment. Finance Ministry figures show that Large Scale Manufacturing (LSM) has been growing steadily since July 2020, with November clocking in an impressive 14.5pc growth. Senior officials say a massive injection of incentives for business people by the State Bank of Pakistan will boost these figures even more in the coming months. By 2022, the impact of this growth will be manifesting itself in improved lives of the voters.

(c) Drag up the growth rate. Cabinet members say the signing of the agreement with the IMF in the coming weeks will send a positive signal in the market. Estimates for the growth rate for the year ending in July hover between 1.5pc and 2pc. The government’s target is to have a 5pc growth rate by the time the election campaign starts in another two years.

Legislation: The Senate election will be a crucial turning point, say officials. A long list of legislation is waiting in the wings. There is some internal bickering and lobbying over the post of Senate chairman (some in the ruling party want a PTI person to occupy the chair), but as things stand today the current Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani remains in a strong position to retain his post for another three years.

Dr Sania Nishtar, who heads the PTI’s flagship Ehsaas programme, is also a hot favourite for the senate ticket and party officials say she is almost guaranteed to become a senator. The Ehsaas programme is already planned to be presented as a mega success for the next election campaign. With a majority in both houses, PTI plans a series of legislations that are aimed at racking up targeted achievements for the elections. The plan, according to Red Zone insiders, is to tell the voters that these legislations are the foundation of ‘tabdeeli’ projects and policies that will take time to bring to fruition. This is why we need another five years, PTI campaigners will argue in the speeches.

Health insurance: PTI leaders say health insurance via health cards for everyone in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab is their trump card for the next elections. The massive PR drive around them has not been developed as yet but officials claim this drive would be turbocharged nearer to elections. There’s no arguing that when it comes to political branding and PR blitz, PTI does it better than both PML-N and PPP.

All these planned achievements combined with the anti-corruption narrative that they have already ignited to full combustion, say party leaders, and PTI could enter 2023 looking in a strong position for another five-year term. One reason why Red Zone is brimming with confidence is the depletion of the PDM threat. There are five reasons why the PTI leaders feel they have emerged stronger than ever in the last few months despite their poor performance in governance: (1) Threat of a street movement from Punjab (PTI’s weakest link and PML-N’s strongest) has dissipated for now; (2) PML-N’s personalised attacks on the establishment have evaporated chances of a possible working relationship between the two that could have threatened PTI; (3) Prospects of mass resignations have dimmed to nothingness, thereby removing the threat of systemic instability that could have impacted PTI’s economic policies, etc.; (4) The prime minister is now in a comfortable position — without having to look over his shoulder — to make critical and sensitive appointments expected in April (including a cabinet reshuffle after the Senate elections); and (5) With the threat from PDM dimmed, he has greater space to focus on governance aimed specifically at the next election. If the opposition had kept him engaged for longer, it would have distracted him from critical governance matters.

So far, these are PTI’s aims and claims. But the opposition needs to take a very hard look at what the government could do while the PDM is trying to sort out its internal issues.

People underestimated Fawad Alam too.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2021

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