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Sleepwalking into a nightmare

While the Pakistani press was too occupied with the latest storm unleashed by Imran Khan’s latest controversial comments to give such things much time or space, Bloomberg reported, quoting Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal, that the damage from this year’s floods will be “far greater” than $10 billion. It will take another six to eight weeks to come up with accurate figures, but so far it’s clear that at least 35-40 million people have been affected and about half the cotton crop has been wiped out. That, according to the minister, will require at least $3 billion in cotton imports to feed the flagship export industry — textiles.

That’s enough to put any country on the back foot, especially one that has less than $10 billion in reserves, has had to raise taxes and end subsidies and send millions tumbling into poverty for a $1 billion tranche from the IMF, and needs to make debt and interest payments of about $35-40 billion over the next fiscal year or so. Little surprise, then, that the capital market is once again flashing an SOS signal as bonds, currency and equities line up to take yet another completely exogenous hit.

All this has put the country’s very survival itself at risk. Common sense would dictate, therefore, the political elite should take the lead in sanitizing the atmosphere enough to attract emergency foreign investment. But that’s not possible when the most popular politician, who has built a fanatic, no-questions-asked following, is also the most divisive force in the land. And he has no qualms about branding any person, or even institution, he wishes as corrupt, traitor, and even infidel because he knows that his followers will amplify whatever he says blindly. And it’s just too bad if that hurts the country because all you need to do is put him back in power and everything will be fine. Just take a look at the trending twitter feed and you’ll know why.

Imran’s appeal presents two very interesting features. One, there’s no doubt that most of the country was just fed up with the politics of patronage and corruption that his rivals in politics came to epitomise over the last few decades. There’s also no doubt whatsoever that a lot of working-class Pakistanis have had enough of the so-called establishment’s puppeteering during this time, because it created a parasitic upper-class that robbed them of their fair share. And when somebody finally called them out publicly, a lot of people felt inclined to stand behind him.

But two, it’s also pretty clear that Imran’s appeal owes more to charisma than performance. For, he didn’t do many things in his almost four years in power to make him any different than his foes. He, too, was propped up by the army. He didn’t mind others changing loyalties to join his party, just like them. He very conveniently went back on his promises on issues like amnesty schemes, Toshakhana, etc., that benefitted the top guy and the top clique just like the old days. And he leveraged the law to hound his opponents exactly like the rest of them; and couldn’t recover one penny of stolen money.

That would imply — since he didn’t achieve much politically — that much of his charm still stems from his achievements as a national hero, cricket champion, world cup winner, and all that. After all, it’s not like anybody will say the obvious about our politics, and the army’s role in it, and suddenly become the proverbial messiah leading believers to the promised land.

That begs the obvious question of where exactly Imran is leading his legions, and the rest of the country to. Because right now his number-one quantifiable contribution is hurting the sitting government, even if it means berating the judiciary, ridiculing the army and inducing economic trauma that would hurt common people far more than the PML-N or PPP elite. Remember PTI’s smart idea about derailing the IMF programme?

Since it’s the same common people that are bearing the brunt of the highest prices, unemployment and devastation in decades, and will suffer the most if Pakistan’s financial markets dive and credit default swaps soar, it would do them a lot of good to wonder at some point if they’re really marching towards real freedom (haqiqi azadi) or just sleepwalking into a nightmare.

Shahab Jafry, "Sleepwalking into a nightmare," Business recorder. 2022-09-08.
Keywords: Economics , Monetary fund , Financial markets , Inducing economic , Raise taxes , Imran Khan , Ahsan Iqbal , Pakistan , PTI , PMLN , PPP , IMF , SOS

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