PM Khan’s agenda for 2019
The new government is no longer new. In 2019, Pakistan is scheduled to get a new chief justice and a new army chief, and at some point of time between January 19 and November 30 – when both those positions are due to have new individuals filling them the prime minister will discover that he is the elder statesmen in Pakistan’s triumvirate of power.
When he realises this, the layman’s charm that he has deployed to such great effect as he has ridden the favour of voters, journalists, judges and generals to the highest office in the land, will cease to have the effects it did in 2018. The bumbling, fumbling, stumbling of the PML-N and the PPP will also stop being a luxury that Prime Minister Imran Khan can depend upon. Both parties are made of sterner and more competent stuff than the young leaders running them have shown so far. They too will realise that their constant dependence on their fathers, uncles and their network of sycophants will have to be replaced with something more autonomous and more believable. In this way, the year 2019 will be the most trying of Imran Khan’s almost quarter century in politics.
In the minds of his many sympathisers across the electorate and inside the military and civilian bureaucracy, PM Khan is an extraordinary and heroic figure. He has taken down the Sharifs and the Zardari-Bhuttos, and with them, the grand federal, democratic consensus of the Charter of Democracy, the 18th Amendment and National Finance Commission. All three of these institutional responses to dictatorship and centralised power are seen by the rank and file of PM Khan’s camp as Trojan horses for corruption.
In summary, as we ring in the new year, there is much to celebrate for the PTI supporter. Both royal families of Pakistani politics are on the ropes. There is a sitting PM in Islamabad that could never be a Modi Ka Yaar, because he is a bona-fide patriot – because he has no quarrel with any institution. He is as close as one can be to being certified as kosher by the higher courts in the land. And perhaps most of all, a pliant, malleable and ductile press is all too happy to offer him lifeline after lifeline. The problem for any leader when she or he has everything going for them is that expectations of delivery go through the roof. 2019 is primed to be an incredibly trying year for PM Khan because the genie has granted him his every wish. The only thing left to do now is actually deliver.
There are three broad areas to which PM Khan must devote his attention to fulfil his promise as the answer to Pakistan’s problems. The first is the micro-economy or the wellbeing of the Pakistani child, woman, and man let’s call this PM Khan’s compassion agenda. The second is the macro-economy, or Pakistan’s ability to pay for things, including expensive things – let’s call this PM Khan’s prosperity agenda. The third is stability, or the ability to keep the Pakistani street and the Pakistani screen free of violence and mayhem – let’s call this PM Khan’s normalcy agenda.
Since PM Khan is a sportsman and since he has needed a clear and well-defined enemy, not just to be motivated himself, but to mobilise his base, he will need to identify who the enemy of the micro-economy is, who the enemy of the macro-economy is, and who the enemy of stability is. As we define these, we have to remember that it is now 2019, so we cannot raise enemies of the past. Or rather, we could define the enemy as the same enemy PM Khan had in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 but then we would end up reliving 2018. And whilst 2018 was good for PM Khan, it was not necessarily great for all Pakistanis. In 2019, PM Khan has to be PM for all Pakistanis.
The principal enemy of PM Khan’s compassion agenda is administrative and bureaucratic status quo. The Pakistani state does not serve the poorest and most vulnerable children, does not protect single women, or widowed women, or divorced women, or married women (or indeed any kind of woman), and does not offer hope to the young Pakistani man. These Pakistanis need protection from uncertainty. With the blistering pace of technology, Pakistan’s close proximity to China – which is the high-tech factory for the world – the high impact of climate change in this region, and with continued poor education outcomes for Pakistanis, the future is full of more and more Pakistanis needing this protection from economic, social, political and nature’s uncertainty.
Luckily, PM Khan has chosen a capable public policy polyglot as the chairperson of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). But because administrative and bureaucratic status quo is the enemy of the micro-economy, Dr Sania Nishtar currently has no executive power – even over BISP. The best way to deliver the PM’s compassion agenda is to ensure that Dr Nishtar is his quarterback. Healthcare, education, nutrition, population, drinking water, and cash grants for social protection are all best delivered when they are driven by a clear vision and coherence. Few are better qualified to frame this vision than Dr Nishtar. If she is given the executive authority to deliver it, 2019 may offer some hope for the vulnerable in Pakistan. If she is not, the status quo will continue to expose poor Pakistanis to uncertainty.
The principal enemy of PM Khan’s prosperity agenda is a tax regime that penalises and punishes poor and middle-class workers, and rewards and subsidises the super-rich. The super elite have developed the brilliant skill to be on-side with every government whether democratic or despotic. The secret of their success is to threaten job losses and economic slowdown every time there is a potential for increased taxation on their enormous and seemingly unlimited wealth.
PM Khan has fashioned himself as the principal champion for the poor and against a corrupt elite. But the fact is that many of his closest friends and party financiers are among the criminally extractive elite. Indeed, many PTI financiers are people that have a track record of cheating the system to make more money. The system has to be allowed to fight back. Finance Minister Asad Umar has been out of his depth on many issues of the economy since taking office, but there is one thing he can do. He can lead this fight. PM Khan must not allow the filthy rich to contaminate the prosperity agenda. The poor have paid the price for being born Pakistani every day since Independence. The rich have extracted this price. It is time to turn the tables.
The principal enemy of PM Khan’s normalcy agenda is geography. But no woman or man, not even Imran Khan, can change Pakistan’s geography. An Afghan elite – including the Taliban – that cannot agree on how to keep the peace in Kabul cannot be trusted to win the stability for the region. An Indian elite for whom brutality in Kashmir is normal, and who escalates war rhetoric as an election tactic, cannot be trusted to anchor peace and stability in the region. An Iranian regime that intervenes as far as Syria and Yemen will not hesitate deliberately provoking its immediate neighbours to serve its expansionary interests at home.
Knowing that geography cannot be changed, PM Khan can choose to continue to allow a defensive, reactive, fearful and anxious narrative of Pakistani stability to dominate the national discourse. Or PM Khan can offer a coherent, rational, positive and strong counter-narrative of Pakistan’s place in the region and in the world. To do so, he will need to milk the goodwill he enjoys within state institutions. But he will also need to challenge the dominant mindsets that shape the threat perception. The new year is a time for hope. Here’s to more of it in 2019.