Punjab has a date, finally, thanks to the Supreme Court while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to use Dawn’s fabulous analogy, continues its search for the elusive moon, or consensus between the governor and the Election Commission of Pakistan. It seems as if Popalzai is the only one brave enough to sight the moon, when the state is in a contrary mood.
But even so, there is little certainty in Punjab of polling day. In hushed whispers and outright declarations based on their “sources”, journalists and politicians continue to assert the election will not be held. And once the provincial elections are delayed, so will be the national one. It’s like riding a bike; once you fall off, the next time, it’s just that much easier.
But how this will happen remains a closely guarded secret in a country specialising in openly discussed secrets. The only explanation which has come forward is that it will just happen. If the Supreme Court orders are flouted and also the Constitution, so be it. What difference will it make? And flouted they will be because after the initial excitement over the numbers of judges who ruled in favour of an election date and those who didn’t, the government and the powers that be went back to the old arguments about the security situation and their concern for caretaker governments at the provincial level and the federal level as mandated by the Constitution. It’s as if the law minister has gone all Ghajini on his media talk outside the Supreme Court.
Or perhaps it may just point to the absence of a concrete plan. But then, this is simply a guess on the part of those of us not important enough to be in the know.
At best, one can say elections have to be delayed because the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf can’t be allowed to win? For there is also this other view that the delay is needed to level the playing field, which would then reduce the scale of Imran Khan’s victory. But what exactly does this levelling require? Arresting Khan? Or disqualifying him before holding elections? Or is it to overturn the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif before the voting exercise? Once again, we are left with a snappy headline but no detailed story underneath.
But there is one problem here. In this effort to provide a level playing field and justice for all, there is no time left to address the economy.
The most important issue has been left to one man, who has in his few months in the spot neither impressed nor convinced either the International Monetary Fund nor the Pakistani voters. And no one in a position of authority is asking him what the plan is. Or even asking if it is possible to have a plan, where there is so much uncertainty over the political situation. If the current International Monetary Fund programme is simply going to leave Pakistan thirsting for a new one come the summer (which means no economic relief for the people as we understand it in Pakistan), how long a delay is being planned? And to what end? Will we continue to wait for “better times”, so that the election results will organically be different, or will we opt for the mirage of a caretaker set-up, which will again take us down the path to a more acceptable electoral choice? And how long will this “fixing” take, for an economy which needed this fix 10 years ago? This and not the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s and Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s idea of justice should be the main issue. In fact, if the economy was placed foremost, it would also provide the answers for those who fear a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf win.
The kind of populism which has led to the popularity of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and its leader is the result of Pakistan’s skewed economy. And Imran Khan’s popularity is simply a symptom of the populace’s anger at an unequal system, which has not carried out any self-correction addressing the needs of the people. In their anger at the unjust world they find themselves in, they opt for a leader who doesn’t just rail against the status quo but is also not seen to be part of it. The rest of the political leadership has been around for a long time and hence closely associated with the status quo.
It would be so much easier (and stable for Pakistan) to simply address the issues leading to dissatisfaction and the subsequent support for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, than try and remove Khan from the political landscape. But then, we have this tendency to see the paths ahead and opt for what appears to be a shortcut, only to run the risk of getting lost.
Structural reforms of the economy which would not just increase the pie but also ensure a more equitable distribution would tamp down the anger. This would mean fixing some of the basic – though admittedly difficult – distortions by taxing the more privileged. This would include increasing the tax base, taxing the trading class as well as the income from agriculture, for instance. And it would mean directing investment away from real estate. None of this is a secret; just difficult. It is easier to hope for a miracle.
But we cannot stop with the economic reforms. Even the political system needs to be made more responsive. Pakistan needs empowered local governments, with financial awards which distribute monies far beyond the provincial governments and reach the people.
All of this would help address the anger which feeds into a populist cry and makes it successful. And at the same time, it would lay the foundations for a far more stable and prosperous Pakistan. But this can be done only if there is some realisation that forcing the country back into the past is not a recipe for success. Understanding and managing change is the only path to progress. There is a reason time machines only exist in fiction.
This article first appeared in Dawn.