By Arif Nizami
In just less than two months since Imran Khan took oath as prime minister, he must have realized that governing Pakistan is a not a bed of roses. There are a multitude of issues confronting the proponents of ‘naya Pakistan’ ranging from foreign to domestic.
Notwithstanding the resource crunch, even in terms of human capital the Khan has been unable to cobble a vibrant and cohesive team around him. That is why some erstwhile supporters of the ruling PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) are wondering aloud in what direction he wants to steer the country?
Take the case of foreign policy. Foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is back from a rather longish trip of the US virtually empty handed. Qureshi made a good speech at the UN General Assembly session and earned some brownie points by displaying his formidable language skills addressing the body in the national language.
Apart from (mostly irrelevant) bilateral meetings with his counterparts on the sidelines he achieved nothing else much. The most important meeting scheduled with his Indian minister for external affairs Sushma Swaraj was abruptly canceled by New Delhi even before he left for New York.
Hopes for a resumption of the stalled dialogue with India were dashed at the outset. But the biggest faux pas made by the foreign minister was wrongly portraying his handshake with the US president Donald Trump at a reception as a meaningful reset of relations between Washington and Islamabad. This is the second time in the past few weeks Pakistan has been openly snubbed by the US.
National Security Advisor John Bolton after a meeting with Qureshi clarified that he was not at the luncheon in question but was sure that if the Foreign Minister had approached Trump for a handshake he would have shaken his hand.
The first was when the US State department was forced to release the readout of a formal telecon between the prime minster and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Now the White House was forced to clarify that no bilateral exchange took place between Qureshi and Trump at the reception. The hallmark of the foreign minister’s sojourn to the US was his meeting the secretary of state Mike Pompeo and John Bolton separately. Apparently these meetings came to a naught with the Trump administration sticking to its mantra on Afghanistan. No joint statement was issued.
Paradoxically on one side the US administration insists that Pakistan should flush out terrorists allegedly having safe havens in Pakistan while on the other it wants Islamabad to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. In this context Washington quite candidly has conveyed to Islamabad, that it is unlikely to review its policy of aid suspension for Pakistan.
One is really befuddled by the fact that why Qureshi who is not only an experienced politician but an old hand at the conduct of foreign policy has been unable to get his act together. He is easily excitable and long on talk and short on action.
Leaving alone foreign and security policies, on the domestic front the new government is yet to make its mark. It would be unrealistic to expect any government to achieve wonders within a few weeks of its induction but by now some kind of direction should have been visible. This is certainly not the case. There have been so many policy reversals that the Khan has been branded – somewhat unfairly – by his critics as “U-turn Khan”.
Take the case of the economy. It is not yet officially clear whether Pakistan will go into an IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout plan or not. The government has been unable till now to muster alternate sources of funding to fill up its empty coffers.
The IMF has clearly told Islamabad to jack up its gas and electricity tariffs in order to meet its fiscal targets. After initial denials and reversals the prices are being quietly hiked. Why not candidly give the bad news to the people that the PTI is heading a bankrupt economy, which needs external funding even to service the country’s humungous debt.
One would have assumed that after a long bout of Darnomics the new government would have an economic plan of its own to fix things. It was known even much before the elections that Asad Umar is the presumptive finance minister. But as it is fully evident now, apart from relying on the babus of the finance ministry he had no original ideas of his own to fix the economy.
Much was made of the prime minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia. It was boasted that Riyadh was becoming an integral part of the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor). Those in the know of US reservations about CPEC discounted this claim as being unrealistic.
The US president’s rather acerbic style of speaking, that has become his hallmark, candidly stated the other day that the Kingdom could not last more than two weeks without Washington’s support. In the end analysis Riyadh has promised nothing more than setting up an oil refinery at Gawadar. Supplying oil to Pakistan on deferred payments remains a pipedream.
In the meanwhile government ministers led by advisor on commerce Razzak Dawood have succeeded in making CPEC controversial. Without giving any thought to its strategic and security importance they have managed to irk our sole friend China.
Undoubtedly those projects that Islamabad can ill afford to finance should be reviewed, but without making a public spectacle out of it.
Similarly much was made by the PTI while in the opposition about the non-transparent nature of the LNG (liquefied nitrogen gas) 15-year supply deal with Qatar inked by the Sharif government. In a recent meeting of the CCI (Council of Common Interests) it was decided to make public the terms of the deal with Qatargas. After a vehement protest from Qatar that controls 70 percent of the world market the government has understandably backed off.
The PTI government’s self inflicted wounds largely emanate from its obsession to nail the former PML-N government. Some of its preconceived notions like the LNG deal that was being supplied to Pakistan at a cheaper rate than the prevailing international prices have simply proved to be baseless.
The previous government should be brought to book for its alleged misdeeds on the basis of hard evidence rather than using the Sharifs bogey to cover its own malfeasance. Selling buffaloes and cars, opening governor houses to the public and converting the Prime Minister house into a university are good for optics. But such measures are no substitute for good governance or performance.
Running government by gimmickry is self-defeating. It cannot be sustained for long. The leader of the opposition, PML-N president and former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif‘s sudden arrest by NAB National Accountability Bureau) while he was summoned in the Saaf Paani probe is rather surprising. It’s timing – as alleged by the PML-N and the opposition – smacks of a political vendetta.
Was Sharif an absconder that he had to be arrested in such a shabby manner? The former chief minister of Punjab was fully co-operating with the NAB investigators. Then what was the need to arrest him just before bye-elections taking place in more than 30 constituencies of national and provincial assemblies on October 14?
As PPP stalwart and former leader of the opposition in the national assembly Syed Khursheed Shah has claimed that it is unprecedented that the leader of the opposition in the parliament has been put behind bars.
The PTI government spokesmen are gloating over the high profile arrest. And why not? It certainly clears the decks for them. It is becoming quite evident that victimization in the name of ehtesab (accountability) is the new mantra.
(The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)