The government – shot in both feet

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It would be churlish not to have a degree of sympathy for the multitude of foetid swamps the government finds itself in. After half a year in power none of the legacy items of previous governments, most of them toxic, have been turned around and the Information Minister (IM) on Friday 8th February owned up and apologised that the middle class had not been the beneficiaries of governmental largesse, and that its hands were tied because of the economic problems it inherited from previous governments – which is not what the middle class wanted to be hearing but it at least carried the value of being honest. There is a widely-held belief that it was the middle class that brought the PTI to power. Time and the ballot box will determine whether that support is sustained.

The IM went to some length to detail the luggage found on the platform when the PTI train pulled into the station. It was not pretty. The national income from all sources is around Rs5,647 billion of which Rs2,000 billion is the interest that is paid on loans taken out both by the PPP and the PML-N governments over the last decade. An inescapable debt that is going to take a generation to pay off even if the PTI never added to it – and they almost certainly will have to. With a Rs5.5 trillion income, debt servicing of Rs2 trillion and the armed forces budgeted at Rs1.7 billion and six out of ten rupees going to the provinces from the federal pot, it is clear that the government starts the annual budget cycle 632bn in the red.

Poor fiscal management was also cited, again with some relevance to the current economic crisis. The Orange Line in Lahore at 27kms costing $3bn was compared unfavourably to the (unbuilt) Peshawar to Karachi motorway which was costed at $6bn. Where, the IM asked were the 61,000 teachers that were supposed to be inducted in Punjab and why was the money for the Saaf Pani project poured into the Orange Line instead? All fair questions to which the Opposition answers largely come in the form of blank looks.

Where the IM lost the plot somewhat was when he strayed into political Wonderland. The elevation of Imran Khan was described as ‘a miracle’ which is a considerable stretch given that he has been hunting the top slot for fifteen years, and matters went swiftly downhill when he cited the 126-day sit in that the PTI had staged as having laid the foundations of Naya Pakistan. His leader might have saved him from looking a fool had he been a little more diligent in his parliamentary attendances, but parliament appears to be an inconvenience that the PM would rather sidestep.

True the PTI has emerged as a third party and broken the hegemony of the PML-N and the PPP, but it is far from being consolidated hence the nod in the direction of the middle class that it needs to stay on board, and the first-time voters who may choose to make their crosses elsewhere come the next election.

Whatever the luggage the reality now is that the honeymoon, the grace period, is over and the PTI government is going to have to start delivering the goods. Some fancy footwork as it has danced away from the clutches of the IMF means that for now, it can avoid the restructuring of taxation for instance, the pill that no government has yet forced down the throats of the rich. Loans taken outside the IMF come with no such strings. The IM wound up on safer ground saying that it is one thing to form a government and another to change the system. It is. Thus far the signs are more coming from the cosmetic box than the box labeled ‘Big Tools for Tough Jobs.’ The government has the key to the box, whether it has the political courage to turn it remains an open question.