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Upending old politics

Understanding the PPP’s leadership is a puzzle these days. Its impressive show in Quetta two days ago (Nov 30) sent a strong message of unity.

Yet, last week its ‘new’ vs ‘old’ in-house tiff sent a different one. I am still mulling over the ‘unity’ message. But I figure deciphering the ‘tiff’ will unlock the puzzle.

But first, let us be clear – the tiff was surely not about retiring old politicians because they outlive their biblically ordained three scores and ten years of life.

Old age is certainly no obstacle to doing good politics. We know that from international experience. A case in point is Brazil’s president who is an excellent politician.

He is 78 years old, and he is vigorously eradicating hunger and poverty with his Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance) programmes. The latter is akin to our Benazir Income Support Programme but far larger in scope and payouts.

We don’t yet have a Fome Zero programme to eradicate hunger though we need it desperately. In his earlier term five years ago, the Brazilian president got the World Food Program’s title of ‘World Champion in the Fight against Hunger’, and 38 more foreign awards and honors.

So, no. The ‘new’ vs ‘old’ PPP in-house tiff is not about old age. It runs deeper. And the dissonance won’t go away. Hence the recent tiff is best understood as a skirmish in an ongoing battle. And this battle’s aim? I think it is to upend the ossified politics of elderly politicians.

So, herein lies the rub: the menace of old politicians is not that they are elderly but that continuing with them reinforces the widespread sense that with the same old characters contending for the same office, fishing the same ‘electables’, pulled by the same strings, and pursuing the same discredited economic policies, we are stuck in a loop and not going anywhere.

Naturally then, for the ‘new’ PPP the prospect of the general election early next year as merely a smoke and mirrors contest, is not a heartening one. Which sits well with us – the voters.

That said, our story so far, which is old politicians being out of touch with ordinary people, is selling them a bit short, since it misses the widespread damage their economic policies inflict.

So here are statistics about poverty and hunger that make the human damage painfully explicit: At present, 95 million of us are poor, including 12.5 million who became poor last year, that is those earning not more than Rs1,000 daily. This World Bank estimate of the number of poor people likely downplays the true extent of our poverty. Because right now inflation is setting back by two-fifths the value of the meager paychecks of millions more who insecurely hover just above the poverty line, and making them poorer.

On hunger statistics, my source is the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023, which is annually published jointly by several UN organizations. It says that a mind-boggling 191.6 million Pakistanis cannot afford a healthy diet; 97.9 million of us are food insecure, of which almost 30 million are severely food insecure; 22 million women are anemic. Infants suffer horribly: two million are too thin, and 10 million are too short because of chronic or recurrent malnutrition.

The point is that we are in bad economic shape. And we desperately need to invest heavily in our children and in our people starting now. And, as Brazil’s president has shown with his Fome Zero and Bolsa Familia programmes, we can do so. We could start by substantially up-scaling our welfare programmes: give far larger cash pay-outs and give free meals in schools. And tax the rich to pay for them.

But old politicians don’t see themselves placed in this position. They are squarely in the status quo box: utterly committed to the idea that the rich are the key to economic success – aka trickle-down economics – which simply means increasing the rich people’s profits and hoping they create more jobs.

You can rightly call it ‘kala jadu’ economics because its underlying premise is all wrong yet it has a magical stranglehold over policymakers. It fails consistently. Because investment does not depend on rich people’s decisions. If anything, in our country the historical correlation runs differently: the government leads investment and the private sector follows. So, boosting rich people’s income does not help the poor. All it does is give rich people financial windfalls.

In the 1960s, the hey-day of trickle-down economics, financial windfalls created the infamous 20 families. And today as the economic pie shrinks (GDP fell last year compared with the previous year), profits keep surging.

Corporate guys are making out like bandits and grabbing an ever-larger slice of the economic pie. For instance, consider this: last year just five private banks made a whopping profit of Rs275 billion.

Size this up with last year’s Benazir Nutrition programme (Rs21 billion), Benazir Education programme (Rs35 billion), Benazir Scholarship programme (Rs9 billion), Benazir Kafalat cash transfers (Rs240 billion) and you see how pitifully small is our effort to help the poor.

And how relentlessly the rich are collecting extraordinary wealth in their hands, and refuse to pay taxes.

Clearly these developments defy the spirit of our constitution’s Article 38(a), which binds the government to ‘prevent the concentration of wealth’, which, by the way, also tells you the prime minister’s statement last week to soon ‘see 1,000 billionaires in the country’ makes no sense!

Continuing with old economic policies to make billionaires at the expense of millions will be a nightmare. It will worsen the discontent of millions of people. We need a course correction in the direction of equal justice.

Right now, we should be going all-out to feed our children and making sure all our compatriots get the economic aid they need. In reality, none of this is likely to happen. Still, if the ‘new’ PPP upends the ‘old,’ and I hope it does, then economics and the people will be on its side.

Sarmad Khawaja, "Upending old politics," The News. 2023-12-02.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political party , Politicians , Poverty , Benazir , Pakistan , PPP