Beyond politics

Published March 18, 2021
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
The writer is a business and economy journalist.

ONE thing recent events have made clear is that the current set-up faces no threat from politics. Street agitations by political parties have not succeeded in bringing down a government in our history (with due apologies to those who nostalgically recall the so-called ‘street-fighting years’), and no long marches, en masse resignations or sit-ins will bring down this government either, at least not while it enjoys the backing of its powerful benefactors in the establishment, and a powerful triangle of mutual interdependence ensures that this backing will continue.

This much was becoming evident as far back as January when the PPP made known its reluctance to follow an agitational path forward. Working within the system — the preferred route of the Pragmatic Mr Zardari — can deliver a few moments that almost taste like triumph, such as defeating Hafeez Shaikh’s bid to become a senator, but the twist that subsequent events have followed has made it clear that these will be short-lived.

At best a political path forward — if that’s what one wants to call the strategy favoured by the PPP — can create a dispute requiring adjudication in a court of law, most likely the highest court of the land. But it should be abundantly obvious by now that the courts are in no mood to disrupt the status quo too much.

But there is a problem here. The present political dispensation may well be firmly rooted in the power structure of the country, but it is having a hard time with the more mundane task of running things. And here is the thing with power — in our world it may well “flow from the barrel of a gun” according to that unacknowledged grandfather of realism Chairman Mao, but it cannot remain divorced from the world of the ruled for too long.

The present dispensation is having a hard time with the more mundane task of running things.

Running things has never been easy in the best of circumstances in this country, given the fractured landscape that power has carved for itself. Perhaps what distinguishes one government from the next in our history — beyond the route they have taken to come to power — is how they decide who gets the first, second and third water from the well.

This government floundered to find its feet in its early days as it sought to line up that queue of thirsty aspirants at the well. But a little over a year later, it had its priority list drawn, and the billionaire elites of the country lapsed into silence behind it after a brief moment of tumult that saw them coming on air one by one to share their grievances about the implementation of the IMF programme following July 2019. Remember that meeting with the army chief and the billionaire elite of the country, in which Hafeez Shaikh and Shabbar Zaidi were also present, along with a handful of lesser ministers? It was announced by the military itself in a sign that this lot were being taken seriously at the highest level, like they always have been. State and capital cannot remain apart for long in our time.

It was shortly after that meeting that Imran Khan first began talking about the need for a “construction package”, an idea that was floated by these gentlemen at that meeting, when they were told by the chief himself that the economic adjustment under the IMF programme is here to stay but some sort of way forward can be hammered out within the limits agreed with the Fund.

That was the time when the government was in the middle of a massive “documentation of the economy” drive (remember that?), serving up notices by the thousands to retailers and wholesalers and other vendors and servants of big capital. As the noise and tumult from the street against the FBR’s efforts to pull them into the tax net rose, sparking shutter-down strikes, it forced the government to send in Jahangir Tareen — its all-purpose troubleshooter in those days — who promptly granted the striking retailers their wish and announced a postponement of the very conditions that Shabbar Zaidi, sitting forlorn next to him at that press conference, had said must be enforced with all the willpower the state could muster.

That was in November of 2019, and shortly thereafter the inimitable Mr Zaidi made his unceremonious exit from the position of FBR chairman. With him also departed all talk of “documenting the economy”, only to be replaced by new chatter about an amnesty scheme. This was the mother of all U-turns and it also signalled the consummation of the inevitable pact that this government finally managed to forge with the powerful interests that circle the state through every dispensation.

Only months later, the arrival of Covid-19 was the first big test of this compact, and the government passed this test with flying colours, standing by its allies in the business community with unflinching resolve. Ever since something like Rs200 billion (or thereabouts) have come into the real estate rackets that have sprung up like mushrooms across the country through the amnesty scheme, while the banks are being urged to do all in their power to meet their targets to put more capital into real-estate projects.

This compact is now about to be tested once again as the government gears up to undertake another round of economic adjustment under the renewed IMF programme. Losing the street or the goodwill of allies and backbenchers is one thing, but governments are not on a sound footing in this country if they lose the backing of the billionaires. The forthcoming adjustment is probably the only time I can recall when a sitting government had to undertake such an adjustment twice in a single tenure. Of course, it is not likely to put paid to the government’s term, or shake the resolve of its backers. But it will present the government with a bigger challenge than what politics has been able to serve up till now.

The writer is a business and economy journalist.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2021

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