WITH the budget proposals now in the public domain, for the first time in almost three years, the PTI government and its powerful backers seem to have edged ahead of the PMLN-led opposition in the battle for political ascendancy in the country.
Both the hybrid government, as some of its supporters have called it, and the PML-N-led opposition opted on different occasions to play the good cop, bad cop game and, as things stand today, the former appears to have outplayed the latter. Among the many pointers, let’s first look at the budget.
After almost three years of IMF-mandated ‘stabilisation’ and ‘austerity’ (read pain inflicted on the people), the emphasis has shifted to a growth strategy à la Ishaq Dar and, within 24 hours of Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin’s speech in the National Assembly, a ‘feel-good’ effect is being talked about.
Inevitably, experts will quibble with the figures. They will also point out the consequences of the IMF not agreeing with the budget proposals but it seems that risk has been considered by Mr Tarin’s team and all officials express optimism that the Fund will be brought around to their point of view.
The feel-good factor can cancel out some of the very negative perceptions about the PTI among low-income voters.
An added bonus has come Pakistan’s way in the shape of America’s needs in the run-up to, and after, its troop pullout from Afghanistan. These needs can’t be broken down only in terms of the political hot potato, the issue of a US base on Pakistani soil, and whether Islamabad will say yes or no.
There are other areas such as air corridors to facilitate aerial reconnaissance and ground support missions if the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces are faced with a rout post US pullout. Equally, there is an expectation Islamabad will use its ‘considerable’ influence over the Taliban.
This will need to manifest itself in the militant group agreeing to be a part of a broad-based Kabul government. Who knows whether Pakistan can deliver on these demands? But if it is established it is trying in earnest, respite is likely to come from the IMF as well as the easing of challenges like the FATF.
This environment seems so favourable to the current dispensation compared to the trouble it appeared to be in when the PDM campaign was in full swing. The fact is Nawaz Sharif’s hard-line narrative came at that Gujranwala rally a mere nine months ago and found traction in the support base in Punjab.
The mobilisation that followed and how Maryam Nawaz Sharif was feted by throngs of supporters wherever she went particularly in Punjab and a string of by-election wins created the impression that the party was on an upswing. And, at some point, it would deliver the coup de grâce on the incumbents and pave the way for change. Nawaz Sharif’s naming and shaming looked like a winning strategy. When former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was elected by the National Assembly to the Senate, the opposition’s euphoria was expected.
Just a few days later, other more potent players showed they were in the game too. And soon demonstrated that they still held the key to the corridors of power and pulled the rug from under the ‘unified’ opposition in the shape of the PDM which fragmented.
Read: Politics of the budget
Subsequent developments showed that PML-N ‘bad cop’ Nawaz Sharif ceded space to his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, the avowedly confrontation-shy good cop. On the opposite side, the prime minister was left to play the bad cop all by himself as he continued his ‘I’ll get them all’ tirade.
And the perennial ‘bad cop’ convinced everyone that counts in the political system that it was actually the ‘good cop’. All those who favoured a rapprochement that many identified as capitulation happily went along, Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-led this group.
So, a prime minister they dubbed ‘selected’ will complete his term and before the next election many other key offices will be filled by a secure Imran Khan as the challenge from the opposition has fizzled out due to the extraordinary play by the born-again good cop.
With elections due in two years, the government’s budget seems aimed at ensuring growth. One can be sure that targeted cash relief will continue to be delivered to the very poor via income support programmes whether they are called BISP or Ehsaas.
Even if the macro-strategy is to make the size of the cake so big that everyone gets a slice and not striking poverty at its roots, the ‘trickle down’ effect will be lauded by those who control so much of the discourse in the country via TV shows.
The resultant feel-good factor can cancel out some of the very negative perceptions about the PTI among low-income voters who are in dire straits due to the inflation post-devaluation, belt-tightening due to the so-called stabilisation and then the pandemic-triggered contraction of the economy.
So, the respite won by their ‘good cop’ for the incumbent set-up for another two years can effectively mean that if the economy shows signs of a turnaround and the next budget, the final one to have an impact before the 2023 elections, is made truly people-friendly, the PML-N will face the toughest challenge in Punjab even if powerful quarters stay true to their pledged neutrality.
The likely result: a weak, coalition government in Islamabad in 2023. That, in turn, means that issues close to some of our hearts like human rights and media freedoms, free speech and most of all the supremacy of elected civilian institutions will have to wait yet another five years. If not longer, that is.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2021