Status quo policies by Shakaib Qureshi

IS Imran Khan’s government unravelling or is it merely mid-term turbulence? The answer depends on Khan’s various partners in power. Khan’s main partners in power are state institutions, and institutions tend to find comfort in the status quo.

My understanding of the institutional comfort with status quo deepened when I was invited to lead a workshop at a National Defence University event at the Marriott Hotel in Karachi in 2014. Before the workshop, there was supposed to be a keynote address by an important person whose name had been kept secret. While we were setting up, in walked Gen Naveed Mukhtar, at the time the corps commander in Karachi, with a press legion in tow. He took the floor and proceeded to announce another operation in Karachi. The key reason he gave was obviously, bad governance and the fact that ‘wrong choices had been made’.

Luckily, the powerful general did not bother to turn around and see the graphic slide I had already brought up on screen as an introduction to Pakistan’s predicament. A graph that showed a relentless but consistent economic decline evidenced by a basket of social indicators from 1992 until 2014. Irrespective of whether it was a civilian or a military government and regardless of choices made, economic indicators showed Pakistan had continued sliding.

The press left the building with the general, debating the civil versus military equation rather than policy itself. Karachi’s history reveals a policy status quo — operation followed by operation. Never examined through a strategic economic prism, the isolated operations policy can guarantee nothing but another operation.

A strategic review would ask tough questions.

Similarly, the absence of debate on broader strategic questions has resulted in our interior, defence and foreign policies being frozen. For example, Kashmir is considered a taboo subject on which everyone is supposedly on the same page. From the PML-N to the PTI everyone trips over themselves to pay lip service to Kashmir. A strategic review would ask tough questions, like whether the policy for the last 70 years has done anything for the betterment of the Kashmiri people or are they worse off? It would also evaluate the cost to the poorest two billion people of the world and then decide on whether a more aggressive policy is the solution or perhaps a shift to a more complex engagement including prioritising trade is a way forward.

Look at China and India. Despite the clashes on their border, which we are very excited about, they have quietly got on with the $75bn trade between the two countries. Just to contextualise, our trade with China is around $16bn and not even worth mentioning with India. Have we ever weighed accepting India’s offer on normalising relations in return for relief for the tortured Kashmiri people? An economic policy would pragmatically debate this question across policymaking interfaces.

Imran Khan is unable to provide the interface as he has no economic policy. If this was not evident when he replaced Asad Umar with Hafeez Shaikh, it became even more evident with his FBR play. When he, unnecessarily, removed Jehanzeb Khan as the chairman Federal Board of Revenue in 2019, I noted, in these very pages, that Shabbar Zaidi may work out only if Imran Khan provides him political support. Since Jehanzeb Khan had a solid track record as a professional, apolitical civil servant with strong achievement credentials, my remarks were construed as supporting the change and evoked widespread consternation. In hindsight, Imran Khan could not support either of the two because he had no economic policy. His lack of economic policy is the root cause of the economic stasis.

We live in a dangerous part of the world and our army is essential to citizens having the security to order their lives. Our army, however, due to its historical political role needs political interfaces who can explore alternative economic policies to sustain our strategic interests. So far, Khan has been unable to provide the interface necessary to develop broader strategic policy rooted in economic reality. The result is frozen status quo policies and economic stasis. The advantage of this paradigm to Khan is twofold: status quo institutions are comfortable and the Imran Khan government is not unravelling.

Unfortunately, status quo policies are rapidly increasing the danger of our national fabric unravelling due to a mismatch between our economy and our strategic objectives. A bonus for Khan is that currently the opposition has not focused on such strategic debate either and focused on playing populist issues, hoping the institutions will consider them as alternatives. If Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz stay with this approach they are unlikely to qualify as credible alternatives. By providing no alternatives to the status quo, even if they rule one day, they may, like Khan, rule but not govern.

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.

Twitter: @qureshi_shakaib

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2020

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