AT any regime’s three-year mark, one must review its record. With the PTI, it is also the review of an iffy political system crafted by autocratic forces that negates global political wisdom, according to which political legitimacy and, hence, stability based on fair polls is key to national progress, more so in multi-ethnic states. But one strong force and many among our yuppie middle class feel politically dubious systems do better for us.
Thus, comparing the PTI’s era with the last PPP and PML-N eras that had more legitimacy helps test the validity of the two wisdoms. I call them legitimate and PTI less so based on the election reports of EU, the foreign neutral ‘umpire’ (an idea given by Imran Khan in cricket). The 2002 and 2018 reports carry grave charges of establishment rigging, the 2008 report less so and that too in favour of PML-Q and the 2013 report not so at all. The 2018 charges were echoed by credible national media and civil society sources. But they were never investigated formally unlike the PTI’s frivolous charges in 2013. Who could investigate them when our most key national institutions stood accused?
A regime’s outcomes are in the economic, political, social, security and external realms. Their quality depends on actions in five governance tasks: legislation, policy, institutional reform, projects and service delivery. Only major work in the first three gives big change but its fruits reach masses mainly via the last two. If done without the first three, the two give weak results. Oddly, given its ‘change’ mantra, the government’s work on the three key tasks is the weakest. Despite passing more laws, it is yet to give transformative ones like PPP’s devolution or PML-N’s Fata merger laws (though both lacked super majorities too), or major economic policies like the PML-N’s CPEC one.
It first followed IMF’s austerity menu without serious reforms that choked growth. In its last two years near polls, it is pursuing growth but based on large fiscal deficits and growing external deficits that at best may give short-term growth, as CPEC still flounders. Policies in other major areas too show a state of drift. Police, court, tax, bureaucratic and state enterprise institutional reforms are on hold. Frequent political transfers have hurt institutions. So change claims are mainly seen in projects and services, ie 10 Billion-Tree Tsunami, Sehat cards and new BISP/Ehsaas programmes. Though with potential, many of these are still untested and without major changes on the first three governance tasks will not yield optimum results.
Policies in major areas show a state of drift.
Weak action has given poorer outcomes in all five areas. The natural insecurity of a regime with a controversial mandate has caused more political instability and deadlock than before 2018 despite the establishment’s support and the crackdown on media, civil society and opposition. Cross-aisle coaction on legislation is lower, even on minor issues like replacing ECP members. Many see it as the most retrogressive regime in decades, as shown by the prime minister’s odd comments on rape and purdah, reversion of social legislation to the Council of Islamic Ideology and inclusion of religious material in secular subjects under the Single National Curriculum.
Externally, ties are adrift with key allies. Tensions are higher than in 2018 on both borders due to India’s actions in held Kashmir, as well as Afghanistan’s unravelling. We have contributed to the latter. Our tepid response threatens our hard-won security gains against terrorism.
The PTI claims a better economy. But the data is iffy. Of approximately 15 key GDP, fiscal and external measures, the PTI does better than both the PPP and PML-N’s last eras only on foreign reserves. Faced with such data, the government jumps nimbly from claiming great outcomes to blaming bad ones on PML-N and Covid-19. But the PPP got a worse hand from Musharraf in higher twin deficits, inflation, and terrorism. The PPP faced higher oil prices and a global (2008) economic crisis too that dented global flows key for developing states like trade, investment etc. more than Covid-19.
So this review confirms the global wisdom. Questionable political power has given more economic malaise, political instability, social retreat, external setbacks and insecurity even against the low norms of 2008-18, which remains our least-worse era overall since 1947. Our path since 1947 has been one step forward and two steps backwards, under democracy and autocracy respectively. Now yet another establishment experiment has failed. Yet the fossilised minds that craft such iffy systems have learnt no lessons about their appalling incapacity for this task. So society remains caught in the vice-like grip of autocratic forces and is unable to break free to realise its potential.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2021