Course correction – Dr Farrukh Saleem

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Imran Khan took oath as the 22nd prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. August 2018 to January 2021: in a nutshell, here are the six things that have happened over the past 29 months. One, the current account deficit has turned into a surplus. Two, the price of wheat flour has gone up from Rs35 a kilo to Rs75 a kilo. Three, the price of sugar has gone up from Rs55 a kilo to Rs90 a kilo. Four, the price of electricity has gone up from Rs11 a unit to Rs28 a unit.

Five – and this is the most worrisome of them all – in 2018, there were 31.3 percent Pakistanis living below the poverty line. Over the past 29 months, the percentage of Pakistanis living below the poverty line has gone up to 40 percent. In numerical terms, Pakistanis living below the line of poverty have gone up from 69 million in 2018 to 87 million. Six, the Buzdar Factor. This is difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to explain. Why would the PTI government deliberately let the management of the largest province spiral down into the abyss?

According to Ipsos, the global market research entity, Consumer Confidence Survey (Q4; 2020): “4 in 5 Pakistanis continue to worry that the country is heading in the wrong direction; Increase in inflation is the most worrying issue for every 1 in 3 Pakistanis, followed by unemployment; 7 in 10 Pakistanis dissatisfied with the way things are going in country today; only 1 in 10 Pakistanis rated current local economy as strong.”

Here’s my diagnosis of the real disease. One, the PM’s current ‘performance criteria’ for his ministers mostly revolve around their performance in the media – not what they are legally responsible for. Two, the Buzdar Factor. Three, conflict of interest in some of the most critical sectors (electricity and sugar, for example). Four, a demoralised bureaucracy.

To be certain, the PTI government cannot do without a midterm course correction. One, the PM must have his team develop a quantitative and qualitative ministerial assessment framework. The PM must evaluate ministerial performance based on what the ministers have done – or failed to do – within their own ministry rather than their performance in the media. Two, Punjab cannot do without a strong politician-administrator, the sooner the better. Three, the PM must learn to identify and then manage conflict of interest in the public sector. In Canada, there’s an independent ‘Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner’ which advises the government on conflict of interest issues. Four, there can be no service delivery when the bureaucracy is demoralised. The PM must follow two golden rules: merit and tenure protection.

Half of the PTI’s time is over. To err is human. PM Imran Khan ought to let all his focus on the media take a back seat. The PTI’s ‘anti-corruption’ has amounted to a total focus on the rear-view mirror; the party ought to take Pakistan forward by looking forward through the windshield. Yes, Pakistan’s ship is way off of its trajectory. Maintaining the status quo means more Broadsheet-style international humiliations. Maintaining the status quo means more PIA-type asset confiscations. For the PTI – and for Pakistan – the only way forward is course correction. Yes, the cost of maintaining the status quo will be awfully high.