Optical disasters: Not a good look for Pakistan's new government
The new quasi-national government of Pakistan has had a shorter honeymoon than Amir Liaquat’s last marriage. Much like him, it too stands shorn of clothing in front of a camera, staring wild-eyed and unable to comprehend the mess it has landed itself in.
The rupee is in free-fall and investor confidence is in tatters as reflected by a stock market that is bleeding like a haemophiliac with an arterial wound. No one seems able or willing to decide when and where to apply a band-aid, let alone a tourniquet. We aren’t quite Sri Lanka at this stage, but only the hopelessly hopeful or frankly delusional, would refuse to entertain the terrifying thought that, misstep by misstep, we are very much heading in that direction.
On taking power, the government went to friendly countries Saudi Arabia and the UAE looking for rollovers and bailouts and resumed negotiations with the IMF. The message from the Gulf was to make things right with the IMF. The IMF, for its part, looks askance at the utterly unsustainable fuel subsidy that the outgoing PTI government announced in its final days, partly to earn brownie points with a populace already groaning under inflation, and also – perhaps – as a ticking time bomb lying in wait for the incoming government.
The Prime Minister has to take a decision: continue with the subsidy and bleed out, or reverse it and preside over an unprecedented fuel hike leading to yet another inflationary spiral, with all the political costs that entails. Costs that an eager Imran Khan can and will exploit to the hilt, and why not? After all, wasn’t the stated raison d’être of removing him (forget about what actually transpired behind the scenes) said to be his mismanagement of the economy? Wasn’t the experienced and efficient government now in place supposed to fix all that?
No one expected a quick fix; those exist only in the political imagination as easily digestible slogans for the masses. But we did expect at the very least some semblance of decision-making and direction, which, at long last we are now seeing. Except that the direction points to London and now we have to witness the sorry and surreal spectacle of the top leadership flying off to the UK for consultations with big brother Nawaz Sharif.
Imran Khan and the PTI have achieved near-complete narrative dominance, at least on social media, and rallies held by the PTI show impressive crowds and coherence.
Pause and reflect on how absolutely awful this looks: we have a Prime Minister who is the father of a chief minister, running off to foreign lands to consult the family patriarch on how to run the country. In tow is the top leadership of the Pakistan Muslim league, which has clearly not heard of video-conferencing technologies such as Skype or Zoom but is nevertheless absolutely willing to take smiling selfies from the plane and post them on social media, perhaps expecting bouquets but instead receiving brickbats. For a government that has (successfully?) been labeled as ‘imported’ by its arch-enemy, one can only shake one’s head at the optical disaster of it exporting itself to the United Kingdom to take decisions that could and should have been taken in Pakistan.
In the meantime, the mood at home is rapidly shifting with even those bitterly opposed to the Imran Khan government openly asking who exactly is running the country? Do we have one Prime Minister or two? Is Islamabad the seat of government or London? Does Miftah Ismail hold the reins of the economy or not? If he does, then what explains Ishaq Dar’s near-constant sniping from the sidelines? Does no one in this government realise that the more they wash their dirty family linens in public, the more mud Imran Khan will be able to fling at them? What is the way forward? If the government does indeed go for elections, as Khwaja Asif recently hinted, does that not hand yet another political victory to Khan, given that he has now narrowed his demands to the single-point agenda of fresh polls?
And while we wait, probably in vain, for the answers to these increasingly existential questions, the political temperatures in Pakistan continue to rise: Imran Khan and the PTI have achieved near-complete narrative dominance, at least on social media, and rallies held by the PTI show impressive crowds and coherence. Khan himself seems to be channeling a bit of Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first Star Wars movie in which he warned Darth Vader: ‘If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’ Vader went ahead and did it anyway, eventually losing his Death Star in the process. Heck, its enough to make you wonder whether Imran Khan himself engineered his ouster as now it seems that all the mistakes and missteps of his tenure have been forgotten and all guns are trained on the new government.
Extending the work week by a day isn’t going to cut it. Having government employees show up for work early isn’t going to solve anything. These are performative gestures that fall into the category of ‘look busy and do nothing’ and in the meantime the country slides further and further into a despair borne of uncertainty while political parties compare the sizes of their rallies.
– Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News.