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PM Khan’s four crucial tests

The holy month of Ramazan will begin this year in the first week of May. By the time the moon is sighted, and Pakistanis celebrate chaand raat, this government will have completed nine months.

The debate about whether Prime Minister Imran Khan and the PTI are governing the country well or not will rage on, but by the time we are fasting in 2019, there will no longer be any debate about whether it is too soon to judge this government. There are four key areas in which the government is being tested and will continue to be tested: the economy, big picture politics or the opposition, local politics or discontent in provinces, and Afghanistan.

By the first week of May, the government will need to have demonstrated the capacity to pass those tests. If it does not, the whispering campaigns of its capacity to complete a full term will intensify. As of now, such campaigns should be dismissed summarily. But by the start of Ramazan, it will not be as easy to do so.

The first and most vital test of this government is the economy. The lack of confidence in the economy is a multi-headed hydra that any government would struggle with, but this government’s inability to communicate clearly about its plans for stabilisation and growth stands out as its most obvious failure. Pakistan’s fiscal problems are structural and have little to do with PM Khan or the PTI, and Pakistan’s inability to grow consistently predate the appearance of the PTI as a viable political entity. Yet in contesting the 2018 elections, and having gotten its victory on a plate, there is no excuse for the obvious lack of preparation that this government began its term with.

Five months into its term, there are three questions that it continues to fail to answer. Is the government going to take an IMF loan or not? How will the government tackle the low revenues that disable the state’s capacity to deliver? What is the path towards a substantial short-term increase in the inflows of foreign exchange? There is no excuse for such absence of clarity or confusion. By May 2019, all three of these questions will need to have been answered decisively. The IMF question is nearly inevitable. But if the inevitable drags past the first week of May, the government will essentially be formulating a low-growth, low-delivery budget for fiscal year 2019-2020.

The delivery part of the equation is quite crucial. There is no way a PTI government, built (according to its followers) on a construct of compassion and service delivery, can afford a second straight year of restricted PSDP spending. Instead, this government needs to approach the current fiscal year as a casualty of the interim government’s recklessness, the previous government’s appetite for borrowing-driven growth, and its own lack of preparation. But it needs to approach the upcoming budget and associated fiscal year as the rebound year in which it surpasses all predictions of growth. This includes a set of fiscal changes that guarantee substantially higher revenues through more direct taxation of the wealthy, and less regressive taxation of the poor and the middle class.

In short, revenue growth must not continue to target consumption and exploit the vulnerability of the non-rich. It must instead target the Pakistani rich and super rich. The landed elite, titans of industry, large home-owners, frequent fliers, fancy car aficionados, and other assorted well-to-do Pakistanis have extracted their privilege from the land and people of Pakistan without paying their fair share – ever. PM Khan and Asad Umar must not miss their historic opportunity to change this: Budget 2019-2020.

What kind of fingerprints will Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari have on national politics? This is the second big question for this government: the big picture politics test. The election made things interesting. Yet now, despite five months in office, this government seems incapable of decisive forward action, and not in control of the speed at which their eventual fate will be decided (their neutralisation and removal from the political mainstream seems to already have been decided). But this government never misses an opportunity to exacerbate the problem, continuing to deal with the residual elements of the PML-N and the PPP with inexplicable contempt.

Without some sort of functioning parliament – one capable of actual legislation – this government will not be able to govern. So one way or the other, both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari are going to get some sort of a ‘deal’. If such a deal is reached prior to May 2019, the country will have some chance to get down to serious business. If not, it will further confirm the impotence of the PTI’s claims of having the capacity to govern.

The third big test is more localised, but perhaps the most important of all. There is substantial discontent in all four provinces – and at any given point in time, this discontent has the potential to metastasize into a wider, more complex national challenge. Akhtar Mengal and the MQM are critical coalition partners, and we mostly tend to treat them for their arithmetic relevance in parliament. But intelligent observers will see beyond the math to arrive at what makes non-mainstream narratives relevant and potent. People vote for BNP Mengal or the MQM or PkMAP because they have legitimate grievances. The legitimacy is not in the eye of the beholder. It is in the voice of dissent. It matters because it exists.

The most troubling aspect of how localised narratives can become unwieldy and difficult to negotiate with is manifest in the ethnic response to the Naqeebullah Mehsud murder in Karachi, the disappearance and killing of Tahir Dawar, and the outrageous death of Arman Loni in Balochistan. The PTI has a critical stake in these narratives, because so much of Pakistan’s ethnic Pakhtun population happen to be the ones that have reward the party with a resounding electoral advantage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and beyond.

Naturally, there are complexities to the establishment and sustenance of ethnic narratives in Pakistan. The memory of India’s support for Mukti Bahini populates the imagination of our hawks. Yet, hawk or dove, no one ever denies the failure to adequately demonstrate compassion and to deliver opportunity that has been at the root of such movements. Some aspects of this issue will remain outside the domain of civilian authorities. But some are firmly within reach. By May 2019, the PTI must substantially increase the pace of visible development spending in the newly normalised KP districts. Failure to do so will guarantee the cementing of resentment.

Afghanistan is the fourth crucial test of this government. Three important aspects of the Afghanistan challenge require a coherent, whole of government, whole of country response that the PTI must provide before May 2019. The first is the degree to which Pakistan continues to facilitate and enable talks between the Taliban and the US. To date, this is an area with almost zero civilian input. This needs to change. Not only must the PTI government have a stake in this process, but PM Khan must also include other Pakistani political parties in it.

The second is how Pakistan will manage the existing Afghan refugee challenge, and how it will deal with another surge in refugees, should Afghanistan descend into further violence, after the Americans pack up and leave. The third is the impact of the post-US scenario on Pakistan’s national security – how it will manage the borders, how it will surveil potential terror groups, and how it will deal with the troublesome tendencies of interference by regional and global actors. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, one thing is guaranteed: Pakistan will be blamed for every negative event or process in Afghanistan – by the Afghan government, by the Taliban, by regional actors like India, and by the US.

The conciliatory murmurs from Senator Lindsey Graham should not distract PM Khan; the United States security establishment considers Pakistan an adversary, not a friend. Fixing this is not a one or two step process. It will take years – and it will require civilian competence. By May 2019, he needs to demonstrate the interest, the will and the capacity to engage in serious conversations about Afghanistan and the mutual interest Pakistan shares with the West, with China, with Russia and even with India – in a peaceful, stable, and friendly Afghanistan.

If PM Khan can pass these four tests, questions about the PTI’s capacity to govern will evaporate rather swiftly. Nothing would be better for Pakistan. If not, nothing could be worse.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "PM Khan’s four crucial tests," The news. 2019-02-05.
Keywords: Political science , Political entity , Foreign exchange , Local politics , Fiscal changes , National politics , Political mainstream , PPP , PML-N , PTI , IMF