Don’t ban PTI

Published June 3, 2023
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.

THE PTI is visibly crumbling. Each passing day sees senior members deserting their supreme leader. Those who have always served power were terrified once the establishment made May 9 into Pakistan’s Sept 11. Smarter members have already jumped overboard.

One needn’t worry too much for them; they will soon be rescued by ships innocently sailing by. These could be carrying the PML-N or PPP flag, or perhaps that of JKT or PML-Q. Maybe TLP or MQM too. Who knows?

Notwithstanding the well-fed jinns at his side, the great Khan shall not fare so well. He has more stamina than his former lieutenants but his multiple contradictions have caught up with him. Like Colin Powell waving a sheaf of papers ‘proving’ Saddam Hussein had WMDs, he too had ‘proof’ of America orchestrating his ouster.

Nevertheless, he is currently occupied sending SOS messages to senators on Capitol Hill. His fatal mistake was in not anticipating how seriously the military would react to stirring divisions.

Earlier this week in a BBC interview, Mr Khan revealed that the military has run Pakistan for the last 70 years. This is hardly breaking news. That in 2018 he had ridden into power held high upon its shoulders was not mentioned. But three years later it changed its earlier policy to one of no favorites; Project Imran had flopped.

And so, in an intemperate moment, Khan famously said that only animals can be neutral not realising that neutral doesn’t mean neutered. As he has now discovered, baiting those with big teeth can be dangerous.

Of course, one knows that the violence of May 9 was not about democracy, a freer press and media, fighting corruption, or land reform. Since Khan’s ouster, PTI’s protests have been about just one thing — returning him to the throne which, he believes, has been divinely gifted to him.

PTI’s downfall owes to Imran Khan’s hubris and arrogance but this is no occasion for rejoicing.

Notwithstanding Khan’s hypocrisy and contradictions, persecuting PTI is a bad idea. So is military rule for which Pakistan has paid through its nose.

The downsides are there for all to see, including the loss of half the country in 1971. Khan never noticed this until his exit. But, to be fair, none of the PDM parties have ever done so either.

It’s time for change. Pakistan’s geopolitical importance has dwindled and nukes don’t impress anybody. A crazy foreign policy — in particular waging covert wars against neighbours — is no longer an option. To switch from a war economy to a peacetime one will not be easy. But now that America has exited and China refuses to step into its shoes, there is no other option.

Economic collapse is 100 per cent certain. True, on the face of things, life is still going on normally. SUVs are hogging the roads and high-end restaurants thrive. For the rich, currency devaluation means that, relative to two years ago, they must now find twice as many rupees for supporting their children studying in America. In another year that amount could double.

But for millions of ordinary people, collapse has halved their pensions and these could come to mean nothing. The lowest strata of society now faces the spectre of starvation. Beggary has visibly multiplied. Worse is coming.

At this point, just one question is important: what steps can prevent utter mayhem and chaos? Between now and the time when a post-election government takes charge, what can an interim government possibly do — assuming it was responsible and caring?

First, turn on the sirens and prepare for an em­­ergency landing. And so get the experts toge­ther — which means first fire the current finance minister, Ishaq Dar, and then hire someone in touch with reality.

Economists familiar with Pakistan’s issues say Dar thoroughly understands party politics but is clueless about economics. His shoddy response to noted economist Atif Mian’s critique exposed his calibre. It defies common sense to publicly flay the IMF for price hikes while importuning it for an additional $1.1 billion loan.

Second, show empathy for those crushed by the inflationary burden. Throwing bags of flour from a moving truck — and so initiating food riots — is not the answer. Wealth pumps taking from the poor and giving to the rich are still working away. To devise and implement highly targeted subsidies that cannot be misused has become urgent.

Third, plug loopholes allowing tax evaders to skate around existing laws. In particular, for agriculture to go untaxed and awarding special concessions to military businesses is nonsensical. Brazen rejection of taxation by shopkeepers and retailers must be overcome — by force if need be.

Fourth, shrink the vastly overstaffed federal government by about two-thirds. Shahid Kardar, a former governor of the State Bank, has written about shockingly large armies of unskilled labour employed by the federal and provincial governments.

Countless departments and divisions are superfluous. These not only gobble resources, they also raise the cost of doing business. Logic says that the 18th Amendment would have resulted in a smaller federal government but, on the contrary, the size has since doubled.

Fifth, do not make a mockery of justice. The May 9 rioters were not TTP terrorists and should not be tried by anti-terrorism courts. Punishing them is perhaps justifiable, but only after they are allowed to defend themselves in fair, transparent trials with access to their legal counsels.

While delaying elections by some months is reasonable, the Sharif government must soon announce a firm date. Else trust in government — now at an all-time low — will erode still further.

Also, right-wing elements in PTI, attracted into the party by Khan’s religious rhetoric, could join violent extremist groups that believe in the power of the gun rather than the ballot box.

Imran Khan is paying the price for his hubris and arrogance. He is unlikely to get a second chance. But this is a time for sombre reflection, not rejoicing. We must understand how hard the road ahead is.

If by miracle some kind of unity emerges at the political level, Pakistan will still be stuck with dysfunctional institutions and a broken economy. But if we remain as badly divided as we presently are, today’s grim situation will get a lot grimmer.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2023

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