Populism and GovernanceZahid Hussain Dawn Newspaper (Aug 22, 2018)

IMRAN Khan has set ambitious goals for his government. While his priorities seem right the challenges are enormous. His first address to the nation has indeed inspired people giving them some hope.

No Pakistani leader in the recent past has spoken so earnestly about the problems faced by the common people and also the difficulties confronting the nation. He believes he can change the destiny of this crisis-torn country. All that sounds reassuring. But can he deliver on his promise?

The transition from the position of an opposition leader to one of power is never easy, particularly when it has taken one decades of relentless struggle to reach that level. Khan’s outburst during his first speech at the National Assembly following his election as prime minister was seen to prove the point.

He lost his cool in the face of the PML-N’s unruly protest and went into his confrontationist ‘container’ mode. He, however, appeared more in control during his televised address.

Notwithstanding some populist rhetoric, the prime minister has given his vision of turning Pakistan into a social welfare state. His emphasis on human development is in contrast with the PML-N government’s obsession with big-ticket infrastructure projects. Health, education, environment and institutional reform are at the top rung of Khan’s priorities.

The PTI government has taken populist rhetoric too far on the issue of accountability.
It is rare for our political leaders to take such an emphatic position on critical issues directly linked to the well-being of the masses.

The lack of investment on human infrastructure has been a major cause of Pakistan lagging behind in economic and social development. Surely successive governments had pledged to improve education and health services but there has never been any serious effort to fulfil those promises.

Financial constraints have also been a factor in low investment in the social sector. Khan’s promise to get millions of children into school needs massive resources. It is a similar story in the health sector. The party may have succeeded to some extent in reforming the education and health sectors in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that it ruled for five years, but a lot more needs to be done.

The financial crisis is certainly the most serious concern for the new government as acknowledged by the prime minister. The current account deficit and falling foreign exchange reserves need urgent action. But Khan does not seem to have clear thoughts on the question of whether to seek an IMF bailout or to see if other options are available to deal with the crisis. The massive debt burden has limited our options. The delay in making decisions could worsen our predicament.

Equally serious are the burgeoning circular debt affecting the power sector and the massive losses incurred by public-sector organisations that have added to our financial woes. There is an urgent need to formulate a clear policy to stop this haemorrhaging. The government has made it clear that it did not have any plan to privatise the losing state-owned enterprises. But it will be hard to revamp organisations like PIA and Pakistan Steel Mills and make them run more efficiently by just making changes at the top. The government will have to take some tough and unpopular measures early in its tenure. It remains to be seen whether it is ready to bite the bullet while keeping its populist promises.

Khan has promised to double the tax revenue by reforming the FBR and appealing to the conscience of the people to pay taxes. That sounds great. But it requires much more to instil the tax culture in society. There is a lot of symbolism involved in Khan’s austerity drive. His decision not to live in Prime Minister House and cut down on protocol certainly has great symbolic value, but the administration needs to do much more in order to decrease public expenditure.

Given the enormous challenges of governance, the new government needs a more prudent approach on the political front. But there seems to be no let-up in the party’s confrontational politics. The decision to put the former prime minister and his daughter on the Exit Control List does not make any sense as they are already in prison. The move smacks of vendetta and it only serves to divert attention from the government’s reform agenda.

Also on the issue of accountability, the PTI government has taken populist rhetoric too far. Indeed, there is a need for across-the-board accountability but the government’s actions reinforce allegations of a witch hunt. The pledge of bringing back looted money is nothing more than rhetoric. It would be much better for the PTI administration to let the law take its course rather than have its leaders trumpeting the mantra day and night.

Although Khan has vowed to implement the National Action Plan, there seems little clarity on how the administration plans to deal with the menace of religious extremism that threatens to tear apart our social fabric. There was not even a mention of the problem of violent extremism in the prime minister’s address to the nation.

In order to accomplish the ambitious target, the prime minister needs a good team. Surely the 22-member cabinet has many capable and experienced people, but there is no new blood to bring in dynamism and fresh thinking in the administration. One can understand the compromises one has to make in a coalition setup, yet some space could have been created to bring in new faces.

Most shocking has been the choice of chief minister of Punjab. The logic offered by Khan on the odd appointment that Sardar Usman Buzdar comes from the most backward region is astonishing. The selection of a man who had never held any public office before and has a dubious personal record to head the government in the country’s biggest province is more alarming as the provinces are responsible for carrying out the reform agenda announced by the prime minister.

Notwithstanding Imran Khan’s commitment of building a ‘naya Pakistan’, there is now a need for the new incumbent to focus more seriously on governance rather than pandering to populism. Governance is serious business and must be taken as such.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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