Bespoke Optimism

Bespoke Optimism
The DGISPR says the military is totally apolitical, has no backdoor contacts with the opposition, didn’t rig the 2018 elections and is totally subordinate to the government. He also held out the promise of a hot cup of tea with biscuits should the PDM decide to protest in front of GHQ next week. The good general deserves to be commended for saying all this with a straight face. Lesser mortals might have been tempted to proclaim such outrageous falsehoods with a wicked smirk.

Not to be outdone, Maulana Fazal ur Rahman, who leads the PDM by the sheer weight of his political heft, has fired a salvo in the direction of ISPR. He says that there is “undeclared martial law in the country”. Moreover (as in Punjabi), he has expressed his displeasure at the miserly offerings for the PDM by the DG when Papa John pizzas are being wolfed down in GHQ, a reference to the enormous unexplained wealth of another good general.

If this exchange had lacked in irony and wit on both sides, it would have signaled a very dangerous impasse. Still, if the PDM can muster the courage to march towards GHQ , it is inconceivable that the military’s holier-than-thou mask will not drop, precipitating a wider conflict. Who wants that to happen?

We are also surprised by the timing of the DG ISPR’s press conference. What was the need for it? It has only given rise to a new round of anti-military memes. Indeed, it smacks of weakness rather than strength because its defense is so palpably weak. Nor do recent pictures of the top brass sunning with the selected PM in the lawns of his official residence instill any confidence in their “same-page” propaganda, not least since the two empty chairs behind the Prime Minister in the photographs are inexplicable unless they are reserved for invisible advisors or guards of the PM!

This leads one to recall the political fiasco following the brutal murders of 11 Hazara coalminers in Quetta last week when the PM refused to go and condole their tragedy unless they first buried the dead. The occasion became an affront to popular sensibilities when the PM said he would not be “blackmailed” to attend; then descended into a farce when one PM spokesman said the PM hadn’t gone for security reasons and he himself said he would only go after burial services were over, provoking the Twitterati to wonder whether the PM’s security was threatened by 11 corpses lying in open air.

Now the Broadsheet fire is raging across the country. Hired by NAB during the Musharraf regime in 2000 to uncover the “looted wealth” of the country, the CEO of Broadsheet, Kaveh Mousavi, has trained his guns twenty years later on his NAB client and a bevy of previous and current government officials and emissaries for corrupt practices, including seeking commissions, cuts and discounts from any recovered monies while protecting select individuals from investigation. These sensational disclosures follow a London High Court verdict awarding Mr Mousavi damages following an illegal termination of its contract by NAB in 2003. While the PM has scrambled to accuse the opposition of corruption, Mr Mousavi is pointing the finger at the PTI government for derailing the Broadsheet investigations. He is now threatening to make public the judgement of the London High Court which spells out the sordid machinations of NAB officials, aided and abetted by leading PTI government figures, to effect a grand cover up of the money trails of targeted politicians and civil-military officials. If this High Court judgment is made public, it may prove to be a bigger bombshell than the Panama papers and the shrapnel may wound NAB beyond repair. If that happens, Imran Khan’s prime weapon against the PDM may be disabled, with far reaching consequences. It may be noted that hardly a day goes by when some judge of the High Court or Supreme Court does not haul NAB over the coals for unaccountable, illegitimate actions and wonders why the government is loath to reform it.

In the midst of all this, Covid-19 and its mutants are rampaging; there is no end in sight to the misery of the populace; no vaccines have so far been ordered by the PTI government for 230 m Pakistanis in need; and there is no knowing when these will be available, at what cost and which chosen ones will get them first. But the PTI propaganda machines continue to churn out feel-good stories of economic recovery and political stability.

While political stability will be tested in the weeks ahead when the PDM gears up for an assault, notions of economic recovery will be subjected to stringent tests. For example, the World Bank says that GDP growth in FY 2021 will be 0.5%, the SBP says it will be 2%, Moody’s forecasts it at 1.5% and the IMF is waiting in the wings to know whether the government will return to its austerity program before making its prediction. More discerning critics ask whether a “recovery” from minus 2% to plus 2% in two years can be called a “recovery” when anything less than 6% growth is inadequate to stem the rising wave of unemployment in an inflationary environment. Meanwhile, tax revenues are not increasing but circular debt is; inflation is high but government expenditures are frozen. Here’s the dilemma: if indeed there is growth, imports will increase and the current account deficit will widen because exports are not increasing by as much, reducing forex reserves, diminishing the value of the rupee and increasing pressure to borrow more simply to keep afloat. It’s an unenviable situation.

To cap it all, Imran Khan has told his overflowing cabinet of ministers, advisors and SAPMs to tow the line or get out, confirming unease in his ranks about his government’s runaway policies. One good advisor has bolted; a few are squirming in their seats. How can we then believe the ISPR spokesman with faux gravitas, that everything is hunky dory?

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.