New year, ancient clichés

Published January 3, 2023
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

A NEW year begins, though in Pakistan we are already braced for old issues, older than just a few months. This was brought home by the new army chief’s statement in the papers on Sunday, where he reminded us of the nazuk morr the country was at.

It seems as if we have been stuck at the same nazuk morr for decades now. In Urdu that is; in English, Pakistan was always found at the crossroads, looking left and right. But this is not even the more worrying part. The million-dollar question frankly is, why are we still here? Is the traffic really bad? Has the car stalled? Or do we just not know how to navigate the corner?

As with the Day of Judgement, it seems as if only the higher forces have the answer to our nazuk dilemma. As for the rest of us stuck here, one can only point out the need for more introspection.

Take two of our biggest headaches — a phrase which simply understates the magnitude of the crises — that the army chief probably had in mind when he spoke of the nazuk moments: the economy and terrorism.

It seems as if only the higher forces have the answer to our dilemma.

With both, the public debate is perhaps the laziest and the least informed.

Take terrorism — post-2008, we have really never discussed the issue fully. The military-led operations were successful — this is about all we know. How and why they worked and what didn’t are questions rarely asked and never answered.

Beyond the use of force, there was the grand hope held out by the National Action Plan, a one-page moment, which never became anything else. We never got around to figuring out if more details were needed to turn the single page into full-blown, detailed plans.

Fast-forward to last year, when we abruptly began negotiations with the TTP. These have since ended but no one really knows what or who was behind the idea of the negotiations with the TTP (except for what the ‘sources’ of the well-informed say). So, we are left to gossip about whether it was the brainchild of Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed or the institution, and why.

More so, there is also little clarity on the reasons behind the resurgence. To simply harp on about the space the TTP has found in Afghanistan to thrive and use as a staging ground to target Pakistan does not help explain everything. What does the fence we constructed at huge costs achieve, if all the militants needed was freedom of movement in Afghanistan? And could we ask about the protesting residents of Swat, who were worried about militants they were spotting once again in their midst? How did they return?

We should try to answer these questions before we jump to creating a consensus for the operations. For the answers might just help point us in the direction of an overall policy rather than piecemeal efforts.

The second, and perhaps equally important issue causing our never-ending stop at the crossroads, is the economy. But unlike militancy, here the issue is not the absence of information but deliberate obliviousness.

Our boom-and-bust cycles are the problem, where the boom is fuelled by imports, which leads us to the IMF, whose programmes lead to a bust. The answer is long-term reforms which would allow for more sustainable growth, which requires discouraging both consumption and the real estate market at home and encouraging exports, among other things. Every economist has been saying this, including the half a dozen who do the presentations at the most important altar of all.

But it doesn’t get implemented, because there is no appetite for such tough decisions.

And so, we like to pretend we don’t have the answers. (As an aside, it is fascinating that we think we have the answers to militancy, which is far more intractable, but not the economy, where the solutions are perhaps more obvious.)

So we spent four years first insisting it was the PTI’s incompetence (and how Asad Umar didn’t know what he was doing, or that Hafeez Shaeikh was the IMF’s man) to then arguing that Miftah Ismail couldn’t manage the nitty-gritty. And now that we have no miracle worker left to fly in (even Ishaq Dar’s experience has come to naught) to ensure a better rupee-dollar parity, we insist the problems need consensus, a charter of economy and a unity government to fix it. This notion of a consensus is just about as nuanced as our obsession with incompetence, which dominated Rawalpindi as well as our media from 2018 to October 2022 — simply revealing our misguided notions about focusing on people rather than policies.

And now that this idea of the charter of economy or consensus is so widespread, no one bothers to ask what we need a consensus on and are the various factions already ruling agreed on it. Are the PML-N and the PPP on one page about privatising state-owned enterprises, such as the Steel Mills and PIA? What should the consensus be on energy issues — for example, if the solution is to hand the DISCOs over to the provinces, how will this be done? Or how will the political parties find the stomach to tax real estate in the presence of their own sugar daddies and the defence housing societies?

Tough questions all. And perhaps this is why it is easier to simply wax lyrical about charters of economy and unity governments. It is rather reminiscent of the neocon plans to remake Iraq back in 2002. On paper, the idea looked good to many but the implementation was a different story altogether.

Indeed, our ability to cross this nazuk morr requires a lot more honesty and introspection and far fewer clichés. But somehow, the latter is all that we have a surplus of. The sharp turn to some serious decision-making continues to be far from visible as we look around the crossroads. The start to the new year isn’t too promising.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2023

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