New year, old vows

Published January 1, 2024
The writer is a senior research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad. The views are the writer’s own and do not reflect the SDPI’s position
The writer is a senior research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad. The views are the writer’s own and do not reflect the SDPI’s position

WITH elections on the horizon, there has been an upsurge in political activity, marked by relentless campaigning through power shows and big speeches. Out of curiosity, we decided to analyse the content of some of the speeches to understand what is being promised this time round.

For what they’re worth, the speeches are rife with promises, making abundant references to legacy yet notably missing talk of action. The PML-N’s persistent emphasis on hard infrastructure for a country grappling with inequality and a human capital crisis is a point of concern; the PPP’s commitment to increasing social spending in the absence of sufficient resources seems hollow; and the PTI’s sole focus on mobilising the youth through the politics of revenge carries the risk of further escalating intolerance in an already polarised society.

Every election cycle unfolds with a familiar script: politicians make grand promises, assume power, and then cite resource constraints as the reason for their lack of performance, attributing the blame to the preceding government(s).

It’s crucial for political agendas to shift towards practical solutions and effective governance to tackle the economic challenges the country faces. This time round, the country is on the verge of default, and politicians are knowingly contesting for public office. In election manifestos, instead of focusing on how they are going to ‘spend’ public money, they need to tell us how they are planning to generate the revenue to afford those expenditures. There needs to be focus on a few key strategic reforms that can pave the way for course correction.

Political agendas must shift towards practical solutions.

Going over the election manifestos, one notices that every political party has been cooking the same broth since years … merely varying the spice level. The content focuses on the same sector-specific discussions without necessarily translating into practical, actionable plans for implementation.

They all talk of the same issues: universal education, universal healthcare, infrastructure development, devolution, tax reforms, women empowerment, energy sector reforms, accountability for all, SOE reforms, agricultural reforms, poverty alleviation, development of the IT sector, industry and trade, digital and financial inclusion, social protection, and (not to forget) youth empowerment. They pretty much cover all the bases. Yet, action in the past to bring about these reforms has been so lacklustre that it prompts one to ask: what measures will the incoming government take this time knowing that resources are scarcer than ever?

There seems to be an obvious disconnect between the politicians’ words and actions: they well understand the need for expanding the tax base, yet they continue to bring unsustainable tax reforms to protect themselves and their cronies; they speak of accountability, yet they adeptly navigate the bureaucratic landscape to secure personal advantages. They couldn’t even digitise the public sector till now!

Moreover, the irony of the situation is not lost when prominent politicians, having ascended to the highest party positions based on lineage, talk of inclusion and equality of opportunity.

Likewise, talking about gender equality is one thing, and taking constructive steps to achieve it is another. Using women as mere tokens simply doesn’t cut it. In fact, bringing women to the forefront without relevant educational or professional accomplishments to their credit is detrimental to the call for gender parity. Women are not to be used as pawns for anyone to advance their political agenda. Rather, they need to be brought forward based on their capabilities and qualifications. We don’t want your favo­urs; we need our rights!

Given the current challenges facing Pakistan, party manifestos need to be more specific and practical rather than all-encompassing and generic. There is a serious need for generating the political will to undertake priority reforms that can set the country on the right trajectory.

TV anchors need to redirect focus from petty political matters towards substantive debates and discussions on election manifestos. Blame games need to stop, empty promises need to be dumped, and tall claims need to go out the window. As voters, we need to be aware of the policy agendas, and they need to make sense given the financial crunch … someone living pay cheque-to-pay cheque can only dream of buying a BMW next month.

Politicians must understand that the PPP’s overreliance on the ‘Bhutto’ legacy, PTI’s stance on accountability, and PML-N’s ‘mujhe kyun nikala’ narrative of victimhood may resonate emotionally, but they won’t address the pressing issues at hand. In political speeches, politicians need to talk substance. We need to hear solutions, not notes out of development textbooks.

Dear future PM, step up your game!

The writer is a senior research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad. The views are the writer’s own and do not reflect the SDPI’s position.

Published in Dawn, january 1st, 2024

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