ALL is not well with the government. Fifteen months ago, the PTI swept into power riding an avalanche of hope. Today, it is burdened with disillusionment. What went wrong? Here are five reasons:
1. Lack of direction: Imran Khan’s government still does not know what it stands for. Yes the government is talking and attempting a gazillion things, but that is exactly the problem: hazy focus. As Khurram Husain pointed out in his incisive column on these pages, the PPP and PML-N had legacy projects that defined to a great extent their main achievement but the PTI, so far, has none. Is it accountability? If so, what has the government done to improve the process? As its leaders are fond of saying, opposition members are facing old cases and NAB is doing whatever accountability is being done. And even this process is under criticism because of its partisanship.
If the big ticket item for PTI is not accountability, is it a stunning turnaround of the economy? Not so. Is it a revolutionary police reform? It is nonexistent. Is it the imposition of an ‘education emergency’ with specific targets? No such emergency is in sight. Is it housing? We have not heard Khan speak about housing of late. Is it the Ehsaas programme? Read the excellent story by Syed Irfan Raza in this newspaper and you will have the answer.
So if it is a bit of all this, then there is no clarity in terms of prioritisation. It is such prioritisation that channels a government’s energies, direction and funds towards a legacy-building achievement. The PTI does not have one.
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The PTI continues to display a cavalier attitude towards complex problems.
2. Lack of narrative: That the government does not have a narrative is strange for a party that turbo-charged its way to power on the wheels of a powerful narrative. Promise of change is alluring. Its seduction lies in its vague generalities and sweeping statements. But delivering on this promise requires a new set of skills draped in specifics, detailing and execution. These skills require an upgraded narrative that stitches promises with deliverables; that knits intentions with actions; that substitutes aims with policies and that encapsulates all these into a wide narrative arc that convinces people their lives are improving. The PTI is still whipping its container narrative to death. The diminishing returns accruing as a result are obvious.
3. Lack of governance in Punjab: The prime minister birthed the Buzdar blunder. Punjab is the battleground where ‘tabdeeli’ was to manifest itself in all its glory. It was supposed to be the jewel in Imran Khan’s crown. Tossing this jewel to Usman Buzdar was a mistake. Letting him keep it was a blunder. Allowing him to defile it is a disaster. And yet here we are 15 months into the experiment with a fiasco unfolding in slow motion, and here he is blundering ahead with the blunder.
The prime minister is expending a lot of precious — and depleting — political capital by hanging on to the Buzdar blunder despite insistent and consis-tent warnings from his supporters, defenders and benefactors. Punjab is a mess. It is Buzdar’s mess. More importantly, it is Khan’s mess. And he does not seem to mind it.
4. Lack of gravitas: The PTI is handling power callously. It continues to display a cavalier attitude towards complex problems. For instance, most PTI leaders, including their boss, continue to pretend they do not know the difference between an accused person and a convicted one. When this key distinction is ignored while chronicling a political theme, the entire discourse becomes skewed, in fact, dangerously wrong. This same alarmingly simplistic approach is reflected in repeatedly invoking the NRO while knowing — hopefully — that the executive is in no position to make the court cases against its opponents disappear. This linearity and quasi-superficiality of thought in the highest echelons of power is alarming at best and terrifying at worst.
But there is more. When this cavalier attitude morphs into a gung-ho one, you end up with needless complications like the foreign funding case in the ECP. For nearly five years, the PTI has handled this case with barely disguised contempt. Now it is staring into the abyss of an existential crisis. Power is a sacred trust bestowed on the PTI by Pakistani citizens. It needs to handle it with greater respect and humility.
5. Lack of inclusiveness: The government has adopted divisiveness as its political philosophy. The ‘other-isation’ of its opponents and by default their followers has enabled the PTI to inject a lethal dose of hate in our nation’s environment. This revulsion for political adversaries — and the expression of this revulsion through abusive words — has seeped so deep that it almost irreparable. In such a deeply antagonistic political climate, there can be no meaningful debate, discussion or discourse. The death of decent dialogue weighs heavy on us all. The visceral hatred that defines the relationship between key political stakeholders is suffocating democracy’s ability to breathe normally. A smog of revulsion blankets the realm.
The result: the PTI has more than three years of its mandate still left and yet it is battling the demons of existential crises. The government insists these crises exist in the imagination of its critics, and yet this is what makes them so dangerous. Perceptions alter realities, and the PTI is losing the battle of perceptions. It is increasingly seen as a government that is low on delivery, low on clarity, low on policy, high on empty rhetoric, high on vitriolic bluster and high on lofty intentions. Its obsession with vendetta as a substitute for deliverable governance is blinding it to the pummelling it is getting in the ring of public opinion.
A serious rethink is required in Banigala. The wrongs can be righted; the course can be corrected and a new forward-looking, people-oriented and inclusive approach can be adopted. But for this to happen, the lords of PTI will need to open their eyes, open their ears — and above all — open their hearts.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2019