OVER A COFFEE: Demystifying status quo and change —Dr Haider Shah
It does not matter through which party gates the Makhdooms, Kasuris and Legharis enter parliament. The only measure of success is whether Imran or any claimant is able to show the courage and sagacity to deal with the three basic constraints
Various buzzwords can serve as the chapter titles for narrating Pakistan’s turbulent history. Of late ‘status quo’ and ‘change’ have become the buzzwords in the political discourse of the country. Some more examples are ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ (food, clothing and shelter) in Bhutto’s government, ‘Islamisation’ during Zia’s dictatorship and ‘accountability’ during the Musharraf regime. ‘Changing the status quo’ is the marketing gimmick of the new entrant on the political scene. Whether the new product is genuine or not, the fact is that sales are surging and the new enterprise is expanding its market share with aggressive mergers and acquisitions.
A new business enterprise always needs a well-coordinated marketing campaign to penetrate a saturated market. Imran Khan is lucky to enjoy the support of the two kingmakers in Pakistan. The men in khaki have always been instrumental in deciding who will sit on the throne but now they share this power with another powerful player: the electronic media magnates. On the country’s biggest private TV network, promotion of the new brand is being run like a cola company advertisement campaign as the network’s singers and caricaturists are busy round the clock popularising the new brand.
Investors in the new enterprise are of three types. First, those non-political aspirants who think it is a good opportunity to explore a political career at a time when the party is less crowded compared to the mainstream parties. Second, those stranded politicians who, like Robinson Crusoe, were waiting for a ship to rescue them. Third, those who always need nods from our spymasters to make such decisions. The weight of the electronic media, however, might prove the most crucial factor in getting Imran Khan enthroned. In one of my previous pieces I had stated that personally I like him but am fearful of some of the shades in his multi-coloured personality. Reassuringly, a gradual softening in his anti-US rhetoric is noticeable. His statements like ‘Khulfa-e-Rashida ka nizam’ (system of the Great Caliphate) can be ignored as a political gimmick because one can see many liberal women in his bandwagon who will not like to go back to that era in the 21st century nor would the religious minorities like to pay any jizya (Islamic tax). If Imran wants to lead us ahead into the modern 21st century, he better leave these phrases to the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam.
Whether it is a doctor examining a patient, or a mechanic inspecting a broken car or an organisational development consultant implementing a change management programme, one simple principle is common to all. You cannot fix and improve anything unless you know the source(s) of the problem. The times of divine interventions have long gone, says Faiz in one of his verses. Yes, charismatic leaders are always important for facilitating change but no leader can do this with a magic wand. First, the sources of the status quo must clearly be understood and only then can it be possible to measure the success of a leader in removing those sources and hence open the doors for change. So what are our main constraints? We can identify three. One, we have big ambitions with a small kitty. We wish to be a regional power like India and China without having the economic muscle of either. Second, there is no rule of law in the land. Due process of law is not only missing in day to day governance but its absence becomes even more conspicuous when disregard of law pertains to the military. Third, our weak budgetary position, as our income is always less than national expenditure, thus forcing us to seek expensive loans and foreign aid. ‘Changing the status quo’ thus means removing these three constraints that have held us back from performing to the optimal level.
Since both kingmakers are spearheading Imran’s campaign it is possible that the new enterprise soon grabs a major market share. But whether it is Junejo on the throne or Nawaz or Gilani or Imran, sooner or later all are confronted with these three interrelated constraints. Every incumbent prime minister discovers that in order to deliver the promised relief to the common people, megaprojects are urgently required. The projects in turn require heavy investments that put pressure on the fiscal budget, which in turn causes balance of payments (BOP) problems. In order to correct the BOP problem, exports need to be enhanced. If the last 10 years’ export data is examined, it can be seen that our biggest export partner is the US and up to 70 percent export trade is with the US, European Union (EU) and the Gulf states. When war hysteria defines our foreign relations we put this 70 percent export at risk, which then has a knock-on effect, resulting in a restraint on megaprojects.
Every new premier soon finds out that in order to boost revenue, new taxation measures are needed. Both India and Bangladesh have adopted VAT but we are still reluctant on that. Another possibility to ease the pressure on the fiscal equation is to rationalise expenditure. The other day I was listening to Imran Khan and found his comments on cutting extravagant expenditure, including defence, reassuringly sensible. He did mention that the prime minister lives in a small house in the UK. He should have also mentioned that there is no tradition of maintaining a full brigade of servants for polishing the shoes of military personnel in the UK either. In the recent spending cuts, the British Secretary of Defence announced cuts in military spending and made thousands of sailors returning from war redundant. In Pakistan, one-third of national expenditure is on account of defence. No doubt some of this huge expenditure can be reduced by minimising waste under tougher parliamentary oversight. However, significant reduction in military expenditure can only be possible if the causes of threat perceptions are minimised. This in turn would require a new policy initiative with regards to India and Afghanistan. Again, here the prime minister, whoever he or she may be, will have to deal with the status quo of the GHQ-driven security paradigm.
It does not matter through which party gates the Makhdooms, Kasuris and Legharis enter parliament. The only measure of success is whether Imran or any claimant is able to show the courage and sagacity to deal with the three basic constraints. Only then can the much hyped ‘status quo’ be changed.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org