The Ides of March

Once again the Maulana is huffing and puffing and even the PPP is signalling some movement, writes Murtaza Solangi

The Ides of March
For many people, Project Imran has failed miserably and caused a multiple crises infecting political, economic and governance systems. Yet there seems to be no consensus on the way forward, and although spring is here, it brings no promises.

Most economists agree that Imran Khan’s government has steered the country into a massive economic meltdown causing stagflation, unprecedented internal and external debt, inflation, low revenue generation despite huge direct and indirect taxations, and increase in the prices of public utilities like electricity and natural gas. Still, the fiscal deficit has touched 9 percent, highest in 50 years. According to a news report, “last year, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, the mark up on the federal government’s outstanding debt exceeded its net revenue receipts. This means that by the time the federal government paid the interest cost on existing debt, it had already surpassed its resources by about Rs53 billion (2018-19). The rest of the entire federal expenditure was undertaken with borrowed money.”

Large-scale manufacturing, agriculture and public infrastructure - the main drivers of employment - are almost frozen. At least 2.5 million Pakistanis have become unemployed after the administration took over. Around 10 million Pakistanis have dropped below the poverty line since Imran’s government was installed and the fear is that by next year, around 40 percent Pakistanis, almost half of the population will be under the poverty line.

Imran Khan knows that the economy has become a bottomless pit and is enough to end his rule. Recently, he called a group of top economic experts to find out a way-out to fix it but nothing much came out of the discussion. Some of these experts told this scribe that the prime minister was told that absence of an economic plan before the installation of his regime, inordinate delay to approach IMF and the most suffocating and unrealistic program agreed with the IMF through the parachuted economic team combined with the political instability caused by Imran Khan himself through his political vendetta, were responsible for the royal mess Pakistan finds itself in.

The governance failures in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have compounded these problems. Imran Khan is not willing to replace Usman Buzdar and Mehmood Khan in these provinces, fearing that it would eventually end the federal government led by himself. The governance failure and lack of any meaningful progress on any project that can attract the populace has put too much pressure on the elected members of provincial and national assemblies associated with the ruling PTI and its coalition partners. The federal cabinet has made history by meeting so many times, but important decisions are made elsewhere. Many cabinet members in off-the-record conversations vent their frustrations and admit that decision-making power of the kitchen cabinet of Banigala is shrinking by the day.

The grave economic and political situation fused with the governance failure has generated great public resentment across the country. We haven’t witnessed any government, elected or un-elected, becoming so unpopular in so little time in the 72-year history of Pakistan but we don’t see any mass movement against it. Why? So far, both major political parties have shied away from any political agitation. Last year, both the PPP and the PML-N tried their best to persuade the JUI-F against the long march and the sit-in in Islamabad. When the Maulana didn’t budge, they made a symbolic gesture of support, hoping that the political map of the country would change after the second tenure of the army chief. They rushed to approve the controversial army amendment act, but their woes are not over yet. Fact is that the miltablishment fears complete routing of the PTI in a fresh poll and a massive landslide for the anti-miltablishment parties and so there is no appetite for the mid-term elections.

Once again we see the Maulana huffing and puffing and even the PPP is signalling some movement. But the PML-N, the largest group in the National Assembly and Senate in the Opposition, is conspicuous by its silence. The word from London is that Nawaz Sharif is very unhappy how his party acted during the army amendment act and does not want any slice of the power cake should the in-house change take place. Instead, for now, he wants his daughter with him to accompany him during the upcoming medical procedures and only wants fresh polls in Pakistan as the solution to the current crises.

Imran Khan wants to save his government at any costs. He has somehow managed to ease his worsening relations with his coalition partners and keeps repeating the same page mantra now and then. In order to protect his regime, he keeps attacking the media and has come up with novel schemes to gag social media with the help of the PEMRA and the PTA.

The only problem is that the idea of the Digital Pakistan doesn’t gel with the new gags and is resented by the civil society, journalist community and the technology companies who have threatened to leave Pakistan should it choose to become North Korea 2.0. There are murmurs in the diplomatic community including the EU community. Should Imran Khan go ahead with the new gags, it might have serious consequences for its fledgling economy and the benefits accrued through GSP plus. The latest EU report has already mentioned the worsening conditions of human rights and press freedoms. The recent gags might come as the proverbial last nail.

Pakistan is headed south in a fast-spiralling crises. Only a political government with massive political support from the masses with a sound and competent team can pull it out of the multiples crises and put it back on the recovery track. There is no other option but the fresh polls. More it is delayed, more disasters we would have to face.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad