By Najam Sethi
August 31-September 06, 2012
Is Imran Khan's tsunami "full of sound and fury signifying nothing", as Shakespeare would say? Imran claims his party's "card holding" membership has crossed the 10 million mark, no mean achievement. He insists PTI will hold transparent and genuine internal elections soon, which is not to be scoffed at. Now he has unfurled a blueprint to transform Pakistan from a dependent and failing state into a "Khudmukhtar" and prosperous one in five years, which would be an extraordinary accomplishment even if half its stated goals could come true.
The Reform Agenda is the handiwork of Asad Umar and Jehangir Tareen. Mr Umar is a dynamic corporate manager who would like to run Pakistan like the MD of a well-oiled, growth-oriented company wedded to the principles of managerial capitalism. His problem is that he lacks the political experience to understand why Pakistan, which is being pulled apart by various gravitational centres of power, cannot be run like a command-company from one vantage point. At least three military dictators, who styled themselves as Chief Executives, have tried and failed to set a self-sustaining course for Pakistan precisely because of such complex factors. Mr Tareen is an agri-business tycoon who has hopped Muslim Leagues and was flirting with the idea of forming his own Mr Clean Party before Imran trumped him with his populist charisma. He is a solid establishment-man who often looks uncomfortable in the company of "revolutionary" types in the PTI.
The blueprint is hamstrung by unrealistic assumptions about the nature of Pakistan's political economy. Consider.
Its central idea is based on doubling revenues and pruning expenditures so that fiscal space is created for welfare measures and dependency on foreign handouts is reduced. This is not a novel idea. It is also easier said than done.
The revenue measures proposed - whitener schemes, universal taxes, repressive measures, tax incentives and regulatory disincentives - are also not new. The whitener schemes are marginal, one-off injections into the economy. The repressive measures make good media headlines but encourage flight of capital abroad. Indeed, bringing back capital stashed away abroad in safe havens via foreign forensic expert companies is notoriously difficult, expensive and time consuming. The tax proposals look good on paper but the political will to legislate them is restricted by the composition of vested interests in and out of parliament. It may be recalled that Mr Khan was the first to succumb to populism when he opposed the present government's effort to impose a value-added tax last year and his party is banking on the very "electable" politicians to win the elections that have always been the biggest obstacles to good governance in every regime. The tax-collecting agency, CBR, is so riddled with corruption, incompetence and bureaucratic lethargy that it has consistently defied the exhortations of every prime minister to deliver the targets. Many strong and good CBR chairmen have come and gone without success. The judicial process is geared to stonewalling appeals down the line and the prosecution is untrained, administratively feeble and motivationally disinterested.
Expenditures, too, are notoriously difficult to control. How will subsidies to loss-making public sector corporations be significantly reduced without turning them into lean and mean machines by firing hundreds of thousands of people and raising a political storm on the street and roadblocks in the courts? How will defense expenditures be controlled in the face of myriad imagined and real threats to the "ideology and sovereignty" of Pakistan"? How will tje new PM in Islamabad control the purse strings of the provinces that lay claim to over three quarters of national revenues unless he also has them equally in his grasp, an assumption that is heroic, to say the least, in Sindh and Balochistan? Transforming Governors' Houses etc into public museums and sports complexes is substituting illusion for reality.
There are many such institutional and practical holes in the PTI's economic reform agenda. But the greater tragedy is that the "real" issues of political economy and power facing the country have been woefully ignored or wrongly analyzed. For instance, Imran says there will be one national education policy. But the ideological content of educational policy that has promoted religious extremism, social intolerance, political rage and international isolation for the last four decades - all anti-nation-state ingredients - is not even discussed. Economic reliance is placed on socialist China that neither lends nor grants money nor invests it in Pakistan (it is happy to sell goods and services, of course) while the source of capitalist trade and investment, the West, is degraded and even shunned. Any discussion of the role and security policies of the military that bear critically on the safety and welfare of Pakistanis is deliberately avoided. Regional policy statements are mired in contradictions.
In other words, as Imran Khan reaches out to grab power, he confuses it with office by showing an alarming ignorance of how power has been wielded in Pakistan and how and why it needs to be radically changed.
Najam Sethi is the editor of The Friday Times