Three years on By Maleeha Lodhi

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Its most important task is to repurpose its remaining time in office to set a clearer policy direction. If its early years were spent muddling through, the past year has seen the government zero in on several areas but without strategic focus or clear priorities. The problem with being all over the place is that it produces haphazard governance in which ad-hocism rules rather than a well-thought plan that is coherently executed.

In Pakistan’s volatile environment political fortunes shift quickly and consequentially.

The governance challenge is compounded by an incohesive patchwork cabinet that has underperformed and done little to inspire confidence. This makes it essential to reconfigure the team to match clearly articulated policy priorities. It is time for the prime minister to replace the bloated and jaded cabinet by a new, lean team chosen solely on the basis of competence.

In Punjab his team needs a total overhaul. One of the mysteries of the PTI government is why it persists with a provincial leadership that is so weak and lacklustre. Its poor management of the province is already responsible for the ruling party losing significant political ground there. Senior party leaders and allies in Punjab have long wanted a change in provincial leadership especially as they see it as incapable of leading PTI to elections. But the prime minister continues to resist this at great cost to his party even though Punjab is the main battleground in general elections that determines its outcome.

It is, however, the economy that will decide the government’s political fortunes. Its economic management record has so far been mixed. A degree of macroeconomic stabilisation has been achieved in spite of economic difficulties wrought by the pandemic. But this is due mostly to multilateral funding from the IMF and others as well as higher remittances from overseas workers. While symptoms have been addressed in this manner causes have not.

The structural sources of Pakistan’s chronic financial imbalances have yet to be tackled: a narrow and inequitable tax regime, the energy sector’s circular debt, loss-making public-sector enterprises (reflecting lack of movement on privatisation), a broken public finance management system and the heavy regulatory burden that is impeding productivity and efficiency and hindering investment and growth — essential to deal with debt liabilities. With debt building up to unsustainable levels the only way out of the debt trap is by high growth driven by investment, both of which remain sluggish or stagnant despite official claims.

It is inflation that has emerged as the government’s biggest political foe — and challenge. The rising cost of living is the top public priority that emerges in every opinion survey and that people want the government to urgently address. Despite the prime minister’s concern that inflation is eroding public support for his government it is mostly the consequence of official policies: high budget deficit, devaluation and rising utility rates among other factors. Higher oil prices have also contributed. What has exacerbated the situation is poor administrative management that has often resulted in shortages and a spike in prices of essential commodities.

Providing a cushion for the very poor through an enhanced and expanded Ehsaas programme, which rebranded the Benazir Income Support Programme, has been among the government’s positive initiatives. So has the introduction of a health card in Punjab and KP. Aimed at helping the underprivileged, these programmes have brought credit to the government and have so far been implemented transparently.

One of the promises PTI made was to accord priority to civil service reform. Rightly so as strengthening the instrument of governance has become urgent given the erosion of the state’s institutional capacity over time and with that, deterioration in the delivery of public services. But patchwork measures by the government have fallen much short of systemic reform. What is needed is comprehensive and fundamental reform to make the civil service fit for purpose, not tinkering that creates confusion rather than meet the requirements of modern governance.

On foreign policy the government’s record has been mixed especially as it has mostly been reactive, lacking strategic focus or imagination. It has also been bereft of real initiatives. The much-touted policy shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics lacks substance, as well as understanding that the two are inseparable. Given that Pakistan is in the eye of more than one geopolitical storm such a ‘shift’ also seems a disconnect from reality. Geoeconomic policies have to rest on a strong domestic economic base which the country lacks at present. As for leveraging Pakistan’s location for ‘regional connectivity’, also envisioned by previous governments, this requires a dissipation of regional geopolitical tensions and strong economic fundamentals, both of which remain elusive today.

More importantly, imposing foreign policy challenges lie ahead that will test the Khan government. The uncertain and volatile situation in Afghanistan, a fast-eroding relationship with the US and continuing tensions with India will all require thoughtful and skillful management and smart statecraft that protects the country’s security and advances its interests in an increasingly perilous environment.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2021