October 14, 2018: The limits of populism

It has been more than fifty days since the creation of Naya Pakistan. The hype, the promise and euphoria among the voters of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) is now taking a more somber turn as the hard realities of governing become clearer every day. While it is true that the PTI government has inherited formidable, if not intractable challenges, PTI is haunted by its populism, and it’s performance has been undermined by lack of preparation and a looming impression of incompetence.

Populist politics work well while a leader or a party is in the opposition. There is no responsibility but ample room to attack opponents (in power) and promise the moon. However, in Pakistan’s polarized political landscape, the myth of ‘popular mandate’ is also manufactured largely due to the mainstream media that was tasked with the project of presenting Imran Khan and the PTI as saviour[s]. This was good until the responsibilities of wielding power set in and now the media is getting increasingly divided on where the government is headed.

Take the case of tackling the balance of payments crisis. It was evident from day one that Pakistan would need to seek assistance from International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the government dilly-dallied for weeks largely under its own populist baggage. Imran Khan as the opposition leader had relentlessly attacked previous governments for ‘begging’ from foreign powers. To the extent that Khan said he would kill himself before doing that. Now his government is doing the same; and the finance minister has distanced himself from this stance.

The federal cabinet comprises a good number of Musharraf era team. The Punjab has PML-Q (the old Pakistan’s vanguard) as a major partner; and the old bureaucrats have new postings. Yet, the informed and the educated in Pakistan and overseas are somehow convinced that with jazba (passion) there are miracles in store.

In the process of eliminating ‘non-IMF’ options for financial stabilization, the government faltered and way too quickly. First came the visit to Saudi Arabia with the proverbial begging bowl followed by inaccurate claims of Saudis joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Sympathetic media commentators and analysts went on a celebration spree until the Chinese and Saudis had to clarify that no CPEC festival was on the anvil. Not to mention the reckless statement by a minister on reviewing CPEC deals. China is perhaps the most reliable partner and friend of Pakistan and irking them for no reason was nothing short of a blunder. But this rhetoric continues.

The idea of writing a letter to the Indians without taking into account the political climate next door was also a miscalculation at best. There is little appetite in India during an election year to hold any kind of dialogue let alone mend fences. But the question is who advised the Prime Minister and why? The facts will emerge sooner than later but Pakistan did not earn any brownie points regionally or globally whatever the shrill rhetoric about an ‘obstinate’ India, not willing to talk, on the television screens.

Perhaps the populist positions of the past hurt the most when it came to cosmetics of the Imran Khan choosing not to live in the PM House. Travelling via helicopter was made into a big deal by the media simply because PTI and its hordes of self-righteous followers had made this into an issue for many years. And now their leader doing the same was a tad embarrassing. Auctioning cars for austerity resulted in 10% of the estimated amount and selling buffalos at PM House for a paltry sum were nothing more than gimmickry which cannot cover up the obvious: unpreparedness.

Worse, the affairs of the Punjab administration have exposed the mythology of Naya Pakistan. The police officials transferred for not obeying the political diktat and arresting the leader of the opposition in the parliament just before the by-polls are tricks that Pakistani state has been using through different regimes. The competence of Punjab Chief Minister is still under media scrutiny (TV journalists have been shouting that the CM doesn’t read files); and the thana-kuthcery politics of patronage is still the order of the day. Punjab is and will remain the biggest political challenge for PTI, and there is certainly more of the same impression thus far. If anything Shehbaz Sharif had set certain standards of efficiency which will be hard to meet by a minority government in the province.

The federal cabinet comprises a good number of Musharraf era team. The Punjab has PML-Q (the old Pakistan’s vanguard) as a major partner; and the old bureaucrats have new postings. Yet, the informed and the educated in Pakistan and overseas are somehow convinced that with jazba (passion) there are miracles in store.

The greatest manifestation of this flawed approach to a complex world is the building multi-billion dollar dams through public donations. The judiciary, the army and now the prime minister are all convinced that they can build dams in such a manner. Experts continue to remind that this is simply not possible but populism reigns supreme. Very soon this bubble will also burst like raising funds from overseas Pakistanis, China and the Saudis to service debts accumulated over the year.

It is still not too late. There are competent and experienced people in Imran Khan’s team such as Shafqat Mahmood, Dr Ishrat Hussain and many others who can tell their boss that the time for populism may be over. Jailing political foes, keeping mum on media controls, crackdown on activists and making unrealistic promises – such as building millions of homes each year – will only backfire when the ruling party goes back to electorate in a few years.