Hasaan Khawar |
PTI completed its first 100-days with plenty of fanfare and a grand launch event, where the Prime Minister and his cabinet members claimed that they delivered on most of the promises made in the 100-days plan. These ranged from the formation of committees and task forces to making key appointments and from developing many new legislative instruments to set up new units. But the real question is whether the tangible change promised by Imran Khan is anywhere in sight.
PTI’s 100-days agenda – closely aligned with the party’s election manifesto – provided a list of early actions, under the six pillars of governance, federation, economic growth, agriculture, social services and national security. The concept of ‘first 100 days’ of the government is not new and was pioneered by the U.S. President Roosevelt in 1933 under his ‘New Deal’. Ever since the concept has been used by analysts to assess and predict the performance of any new U.S. administration. In Pakistan though, it is a novel concept.
The first 100-days of the government can, therefore, be insightful in many ways, at least to predict if there is some real change in the offing.
Many believe that it is more of a political gimmick, as 100 days are too short a time span to assess a government’s performance or bring any meaningful change. But perhaps they are not familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book Blink, in which he discusses the concept of ‘thin-slicing’ – taking a small amount of data to draw meaningful conclusions. He mentions the psychologist John Gottman, who would observe couples for fifteen minutes and could predict with 90% accuracy whether they would still be together in fifteen years.
The first 100-days of the government can, therefore, be insightful in many ways, at least to predict if there is some real change in the offing. The media has been buzzing with stories and opinion pieces about the performance of the government so far, yet most of these were either full of praises or were loaded with outright criticism. There is, therefore, a need to look at the first hundred days of the government through an objective lens.
Read more: 100 days of PTI: Smoothening the way
Let’s first start with the good news.
Many PTI proponents argue that PTI has already started delivering on its promised change. Looking at some of the recent developments, there is at least some truth to such assertions.
The 100-day plan and its progress tracker run by the PM Office, for instance, is itself a manifestation of the fact that the PTI government is committed to its promise of change and is therefore voluntarily presenting itself for public scrutiny, an unprecedented phenomenon in Pakistan.
Another significant shift from the previous regimes is the change in narrative and focus. The PPP government’s high point was the 18th constitutional amendment and the 7th NFC award, demonstrating its commitment to strengthening democracy and provincial autonomy; the feather in PML(N) government’s cap was its strategy to address the infrastructure gaps, through constructing power plants, laying out a network of highways and building ambitious mass transit projects. However, issues like poor governance, a weak civil service, widespread stunting, unmet housing needs, a flawed criminal justice system and many others plaguing the very fabric of the society had been missing from the national political narrative at least in the last two regimes.
The concept of ‘first 100 days’ of the government is not new and was pioneered by the U.S. President Roosevelt in 1933 under his ‘New Deal’.
The PTI government must, therefore, be given credit bringing back these issues on the national radar. Similarly, the austerity and simplicity measures led by the Prime Minister such as converting the PM House into a university, opening up palatial residences of the governors and the president to the public, building shelters for the homeless, etc. are steps that may not have long-lasting effects, but do signify a certain ideology of changing the so-called elitism in the country and taking a pro-poor approach.
Besides these symbolic steps, the government has also take a few concrete steps on more complex issues. The ‘clean and green’ program to address the unbearable levels of pollution in many metropolitans and an effective campaign for the removal of encroachments retrieving thousands of acres of illegally occupied state land and enforcing state’s writ are indeed commendable actions. Similarly, the establishment of an asset recovery unit, broadening the scope of mutual legal assistance regime and drafting the legislation on whistleblowing reflect the government’s commitment to accountability and will go a long way in strengthening the anti-graft regime in the country.
No Change is Good News!
Besides these areas where apparently the change has started to set in, there are many issues on which the PTI government has not taken a drastic shift. But this absence of change is actually what was needed the most. On the foreign policy front for instance, not only does the country seem to be on the right track with an experienced Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the helm of affairs, but also after a long time, the civil and military leadership appears to be on the same page.
The Saudis have come to Pakistan’s economic rescue, while Pakistan is warming up to other neighbours like UAE and Iran. On Pak-India relations, many thought that a PTI-led government would lead to the rising temperature between the two archrivals. But Pakistan’s unilateral decision to open Kartarpur corridor has put India on the back foot, indicating its resistance to any improvement in bilateral relations. Similarly, after some initial hitches on the government’s stance on CPEC, it seems that there is clarity on solidifying the Pak-China relationship.
The PTI government must, therefore, be given credit bringing back these issues on the national radar.
With the U.S. acknowledging the need for political settlement of the Afghan issue and President Trump requesting the Pakistani government to facilitate the talks with the Taliban, Pakistan seems to be playing its cards well. A gradual improvement in foreign policy, with civil-military consensus, is actually what was needed the most and not someone rocking the boat.
Read more: A rebuttal: After 100 Days- Dawn’s Editorial
The Painful Change!
But then there is another category of change: the one that entails taking painful decisions. After all, change is not a candy but rather a bitter pill. This is especially true if it hits the pockets of the citizens. The economy is one area where the PTI government has been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one hand, the government has been trying hard to keep up its promises to break the proverbial begging bowl and on the other been forced to take tightening measures.
So far the government’s economic performance can be characterized as a drastic rise in gas and electricity tariffs, a significant increase in interest rates and massive rupee devaluation. In the backdrop of these painful measures, the indecisiveness on the future IMF program and utter confusion around who actually raised the interest rates led many to believe that the finance minister is not up for the task. The only saving grace was the generous Saudi package to support Pakistan’s balance of payment crisis.
However, these painful steps should hardly be a surprise to those who know economics. The debt-to-GDP ratio was already on the rise on the back of heavy borrowing, while the real effective exchange rate was inflated indicating the need for a serious devaluation. The circular debt was also piling up, while the accumulated losses of state-owned enterprises were swelling. The government did not have much choice. While the politics of these changes could have been managed better, there was no easy way out of this mess.
A gradual improvement in foreign policy, with civil-military consensus, is actually what was needed the most and not someone rocking the boat.
But the real challenge for the government lies ahead, as it starts to tackle the structural weaknesses that have been responsible for this economic mess, such as a narrow tax base, ever-expanding government salary roll and pension bills, state-owned white elephants bleeding the national exchequer, line losses and power thefts, a sub-optimal energy mix, poor export competitiveness and unfavorable investment climate.
The government has taken some promising initial steps, such as separation of tax policy and collection, announcing a tariff policy to support exports, the establishment of Sarmaya – a holding company for state-owned enterprises, etc. But without changing the fundamentals, can these measures work? We have the same bureaucracy, same systems and apparently the same level of risk appetite to take tough political decisions. So with the same old recipe and ingredients how will we get a different dish?
On top of this comes the PTI’s ambitious electoral promises. With all the fiscal tightening measures, how exactly will the government ensure adequate growth to create 10 million jobs or mobilize enough capital to build five million houses remains abundantly unclear. These are some of the questions that the government will soon need to find answers for. It seems that the dreadful combination of immediate economic pressures, mounting structural challenges and expensive political demands will not let the finance minister rest, at least in the near future.
While the PTI government may have full five years to deliver, Asad Umar may have to deliver much sooner. Ultimately, it will be his performance that will actually determine the runway available to PTI’s government.
Change for the Worse!
Along with all the substantial, incremental or painful changes, there are some areas, where the change has taken place for the worse, shattering the dreams of those living in romantic idealism. These shattered dreams were about inclusion and removal of Princeton economist Atif Mian in the Economic Advisory Council, politically motivated transfers of IG Punjab, IG Islamabad, DPO Pakpattan and many other civil servants, and abrupt resignation of ex-IG Nasir Durrani, who was pitched by the Prime Minister as ‘the man’ to reform the police.
The circular debt was also piling up, while the accumulated losses of state-owned enterprises were swelling. The government did not have much choice.
These shattered dreams, in fact, were a rude awakening for the ruling party as well as its voters. The new officeholders, the first timers in many cases, realized the dynamics of the realpolitik of running the state, while the idealistic voters came to terms with the fact that one cannot expect an overnight change in a culture like ours, infested with informal networks, exchange of favours and political conveniences.
The last category of change is the one that is still awaited. This relates to some of the most important promises, which if delivered can change the destiny of this country and put it on the trajectory of growth and prosperity. These promises are about bringing accountability to the centre of the government, truly empowering people at the grassroots level, depoliticizing and strengthening police, revolutionizing access to justice, reforming the civil service, ensuring reconciliation in Baluchistan and creating the South Punjab province.
These vital issues, however, have been left to dozens of task forces and committees that have already had scores of meetings without any tangible results. While 3-4 months are too short a time to fix these issues, it is also too long not to come up with a clear plan to resolve these challenges.
Irrespective of PTI’s performance on taking great symbolic gestures or effectively managing the foreign policy or even steering the economy reasonably well, these are the issues that will eventually be the litmus test of whether PTI signifies real change or it is just old wine in a new bottle. The clock is ticking and the jury is out on this one!
Read more: PM Khan’s 100 days Speech: Showing the Way
The Bumpy Road of Change
Not only do the first hundred days signify how the new government is taking shape but they are also a gauge of PTI’s preparedness, the gravitas in its approach to public policy and most importantly the choice of people that it is making to man important positions. All in all, the performance of PTI government so far has been a mixed bag but considering that it was the first time the party has formed a government, one could cut them some slack. After all, running the government is a complex affair and especially if one is bent upon changing the way things are usually run.
But PTI will soon face mounting pressure to show some real performance on ground, notwithstanding the challenges it is facing. With time, these challenges are only going to increase. The ease with which the new government can dump some of the wrongdoings on the preceding government and start afresh fades away with time. The fiscal crunch, putting reins to government’s ambitions, is not going to go away any time soon, while PTI’s focus on accountability and NAB’s activism are likely to discourage civil servants to take initiative. Furthermore, the appetite to take tough political decisions is going to fizzle out gradually, as the government gets closer to next elections.
Lastly, the success of bringing and sustaining change will depend upon reforming institutions, which in itself is a slow painstaking process. Even a government with the best of intentions can just get the ball rolling in five years, while the real change can take decades. For PTI, all of this implies the need for some serious introspection and soul searching to figure out how to move ahead on this bumpy road of change.
Hasaan Khawar is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets at @hasaankhawar. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.