Curse of the big office. By Fahd Husain

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GLOOM is also an infectious virus.

People in Pakistan are talking about the PTI’s policy prescriptions and related problems; they are talking about the PTI’s muddle-headed approach to structural weaknesses of the economy and the adverse impact on reform; and they are talking about the PTI’s inability to manage delicate relations with political allies and the ensuing instability generated by such mismanagement — and yet, there is something else here that may be far more disturbing and far more worrisome than all of these issues combined.

It is not a sense of drift, because drift can happen under the enormous weight of problems; it is not ill-preparation, because people learn on the job and figure things out; it is not insincerity, because no one has ever doubted the right intentions of the prime minister; it is not even the weakness of the team, because the cabinet is peppered with a fair number of experts — no, ladies and gentlemen, there is something else here far more disturbing and worrisome than all of these combined.

It is not the lack of any improvement in the FBR, because it has suffered from poor performance in successive governments; it is not the inability to make any headway in reforming the SOEs that bleed billions of rupees every year, because they have bled like this under successive governments; it is not the stunting of the economic growth rate and the pain that comes with it, because growth has slowed under IMF programmes under successive governments; it is not even the sky-high interest rate and inflation that are squeezing credit, culling industrial expansion and forcing companies to lay off workers, because interest rates and inflation have gone sky high under successive governments. No, ladies and gentlemen, there is something else here more disturbing and worrisome than all of these combined.

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And it hides in plain sight.

When optics — and those too symbolic ones — begin to substitute for hard-nosed macro work, red lights should start blinking furiously.

Government is a big office to hold. This ‘big-ness’ combines the sheer size of the machinery, the scale of the problems and the complexity of governance. For an individual used to dealing with normal scales, government can be a truly frightening affair in terms of absorbing amounts, weights, extents, measures, volumes and the immense expanse of the canvas. The only way any person can even begin to paint on this canvas of governance is to have the big picture in mind and to grasp the proportions that are required to complete the task. But then, this should be pretty obvious to anyone who wants to draw a reasonably good painting on a canvas of this size and magnitude.

If any government’s grasp on these fundamental concepts is weak, be afraid. Be very afraid.

There were early indications that something was amiss in the PTI. For instance, the party leadership — led of course by the leader himself — peddled the simplistic notion that if Imran Khan was elected as the prime minister, he would fix the economy because he would (a) get the looted money back from abroad; (b) overseas Pakistanis would send dollars that would fill our national coffers; (c) citizens would rush to pay taxes and we would have enough money to fix all that needed fixing.

Of course every sane person knew this was poppycock. Such simplicity (I resist the temptation of using a stronger word) should have been laughed away by citizens. It was like someone wanting to buy a BMW car and saying he would save money from his monthly school fee to pay for it. But no questions were asked, no details were demanded, no specifics were inquired. The real problem, however, was the absolute and shocking inability of the PTI leadership to understand and comprehend the discrepancy between the scale of its governance ambition and the proportion of its solution.

This lack of proportions has spilled over into government. The PTI it seems just cannot grasp the scale of the problems and the complexity of issues because its fundamental and conceptual understanding of macro-level problems appears frighteningly shallow. You cannot swim across a lake if you cannot think beyond the limited size of a swimming pool.

This is exactly why PTI — faced with massive economic challenges — continues to obsess with touting austerity measures like the prime minister saving money by staying at Banigala instead of the PM House, or offering tea from his own expenses, or ordering ministers to not have sandwiches at public expense, or having a friend pay for his official travel. These are all good symbolic steps no doubt but they are not policy prescriptions that Pakistan requires at this point. Brandishing them constantly as big achievements of the government reinforces the terrifying fear that the PTI leadership is just not able to grasp the fundamentals of governing a country and the scale such governance requires.

This shallowness is now a theme. From the prime minister talking about the importance of hens and calves to boost national agriculture, to him focusing on a few shelter homes and langars as projects aimed at establishing a welfare state, to his excitable colleagues showing a line of cars and buffaloes in the PM House that they would auction off to raise national revenue, to the cabinet members being repeatedly asked to ‘show performance’ without any tangible idea of what this ‘performance’ may entail (leading to ministers coming up with silly projects just to show they are ‘performing’) — these absurdities all point to a nightmarish scenario where the real problem is not that the government is performing badly but that it has little idea what performance at this level entails.

When optics — and those too symbolic ones — begin to substitute for hard-nosed macro work, red lights should start blinking furiously. The leadership of the PTI is struggling not just with how it is supposed to govern the country, it is struggling with the actual concept of governance and the framework that is required for it. This is not lack of competence, it is lack of capacity.

The curse of the big office may be upon us all.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2020