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Interview: ‘PTI Is In Charge Now. Blaming Past Governments Won’t Work’

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Veteran journalist Rashed Rahman sits down with Miranda Husain for an exclusive interview for Naya Daur. This is the first of the three-part interview.

Rashed Rahman is a veteran editor and journalist, intellectual and committed activist for the Left. With a career spanning some 40 years, he is presently Director of the Lahore-based Research and Publication Centre (RPC) and Editor of the Pakistan Monthly Review (PMR). Earlier this month, he was interviewed by Miranda Hussain about PTI’s record, the role of both the Army and judiciary in the current political set-up, as well as the talk supporting a presidential system.

Miranda Husain: Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) swept into power on the promise of transforming the country into welfare state. Eight months on and the dream of Naya Pakistan is, for many, nothing but a mirage. Has the government failed to deliver?

Rashed Rahman: I think there’s consensus that the PTI seems to be floundering. Of course, that would excusable on the grounds that it has come into office at the Centre for the first time. And there would obviously be some sort of learning curve. But having said that, the manner in which the party has approached the task of governance suggests that the prevailing mindset is still mired in opposition mode; when the leadership was agitating on top of the containers. Yet as soon as anybody takes over at the helm, the game has changed; the role has changed. And one has to function accordingly.

The attack on the opposition — justified or not — continues at a decibel level, thereby militating against even minimum cooperation between the two sides of the House. Both Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) are in the dock regarding NAB (National Accountability Bureau) and corruption references. And every day they are pilloried by the current set-up as crooks and people who have laundered money.

Now there may be some truth to that, but by continuing to repeat this — the government is, in a sense, shooting itself in the foot. The PTI has a bare majority of five in the National Assembly. It doesn’t hold a majority in the Senate. Thus it can’t legislate without some minimum cooperation from the opposition. Yet given the present atmosphere this seems to be a long shot. So, the government’s agenda, if it has any, is at risk. In fact, over the last eight months, no serious legislation or bills have been moved. Except money bills; mini budgets and things like that. For which the Senate isn’t needed; only the National Assembly.

Now, that is one aspect. The other — and I think this is the one that’s worrying most people, including experts (external and internal) and institutions (external and internal)— is the manner in which the economy is being handled. It’s no good.

Eight months down the road repeating the mantra that previous governments have landed the country in this mess. That wears thin. The PTI is in charge now and that means dealing with the challenges; whatever they may be. But this is being done in a contradictory manner. On the one hand, there’s already a dearth of business confidence. This has been further exacerbated by an over zealous campaign to collect revenues, through the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). Businesses have been raided and had their records taken away. These enterprises are tax payers. Not non-filers. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever is discovered will translate into treasury revenue. Rather, given the endemic levels of corruption here — there’s always the possibility of demanding bribes to let ‘offenders’ off the hook.

MH: You mention a dearth of business confidence. Are you specifically referring to the Financial Action Task Force?

RR: That’s one factor, undoubtedly. But that’s not an internally originated issue. It’s an international one. And it’s related to terrorism and the possibility that money laundering is contributing to terror financing. So, Pakistan is in the dock on that front. This has a very critical bearing on our credibility with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions to which we are finally going; it seems. Eight months on and all the government has done is gather whatever it could from friendly states — bilaterally — in terms of loans and deferred payment on oil imports and the like. This is helpful but certainly insufficient to garner the required confidence that international financial institutions and lenders have to have before the IMF or the Asian Development Bank (ADB), say, can be approached in the hope of bolstering funds.

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So, the country’s been caught in this kind of limbo where on the one hand the PTI has, during the opposition days, been condemning governments for taking loans and going to the IMF. And now it’s been forced by circumstances to do exactly the same. Yet even this isn’t the sin. What this set-up is being pilloried over is how it’s changed its tune upon entering office. Yet regardless of all this, the critical issue remains business confidence because Pakistan isn’t getting investment locally. And that means the chance of securing investment internationally is open to question. When the PTI came in, it initially made some very critical comments about China and CPEC (Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor); despite $65 billion being in the pipeline. None of which went down well in Beijing. There may have been some course correction since.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons that this government hasn’t been enamoured with CPEC in the same way as, say, the PMLN was or previous governments is its impact on local businesses. The complaint, which has some justice to it, is linked to non- transparency. It’s still not clear what benefit, if any, local businesses will derive or, indeed, local people in terms of employment. So, these questions were raised and the Chinese became a little prickly about it. Since then, of course, as I say, the PTI has tried to salvage the situation. But investment is critical for growth, employment and prosperity. It’s crucial to providing the 10 million jobs and five million homes that have been promised; for which there’s no money. Everyday a new package is announced. But nobody explains where the money is going to come from. Thus many of these initiatives, which sound good on paper, suffer from fundamental flaws or else ambiguity as to how all this is going to be arranged.

Earlier this month, the stock market lost 600 index points in a single day. Not only was this the worst decline in Pakistan’s history — it’s an indicator of just how low business confidence has plummeted. Additionally, investment channels are few and far between. This sharp drop is part of a general trend. And it’s been going on for the last eight months. The upshot being that the government doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy for dealing with the economy. It has floundered and in the view of many critics is still floundering.

MH: The PTI inherited a hemorrhaging economy. That it hasn’t managed to stem financial losses has prompted analysts to speculate the party’s already on the way out. Is this mere hyperbole or is there a very real possibility that the government won’t fulfil its five-year tenure?

RR: To me, this is kite-flying. As long as the military is solidly at the back of this government and the opposition is divided and remains unable to get its act together — I don’t see [Asif Ali] Zardari’s threat of a long march materialising anytime soon — this government isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future. Of course, in Pakistan things can change very rapidly.

The crisis of governance is intensifying. Particularly on the economy. But instead of reassuring the citizenry, Asad Umar [the former Finance minister who resigned from the cabinet earlier this month] is warning of more hardships. Essential food items are fast going beyond the reach of ordinary people. And yet there’s another minister who’s been advising people to eat one roti per day instead of two or three. This is rubbing salt in the wound. In fact, Marie-Antoinette would’ve been proud of these protégées. The bottom line is whether it lasts five years or not, this tenure of the PTI will, by the end, put paid to all the illusions that the party aroused when in opposition and making tall claims.

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MH: Nawaz Sharif and his party have long talked of falling victim to a judicial witch-hunt, orchestrated in cahoots with the military. Recently, there have been signals that the courts are now offering the top leadership relief. Is this same judiciary now ‘wooing’ the PMLN?

RR: One has to go back to Justice Saqib Nisar’s tenure as the CJP (Chief Justice of Pakistan). During this period, the judiciary became so hyper-active that it left Iftikhar Chaudhry’s reign far behind. I describe this as the old problem of the saviour complex without understanding that the CJP — no matter how sincere his intentions — isn’t in a position to change and fix everything. This is what Justice Nisar tired to do. And, I think, as a result there’s a whole history of complaints and reservations about the role of the courts in the country’s political life. The judiciary, after all, has supported every military coup; legitimised every marital law; and gone along with every dictatorship.

Its role, during periods of civilian rule, has been controversial to say the least. It has acted in ways that raised charges of collaborating with the military against political leaders. Pakistan’s judiciary shifts allegiances from time to time. Today’s favourite will be tomorrow’s victim. Thus within this constant merry- go-round it seems that the judiciary sways in the wind.

As to whether or not there’s a courting of the PMLN — I’m not going as far as to suggest that recent developments indicate a complete sea-change. But, yes, there’s a breeze. Though I don’t think the reason is to bring Shehbaz Sharif to power; as has been hinted in some quarters. Rather, there’s a recognition that the judiciary has lost credibility. And it appears that the new CJP, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, feels the time has come to restore integrity and rebuild repute. Ironically, of course, he penned the judgement in the Panama case against Nawaz; which is a very flawed judgement because the charge was for X while the punishment was for Y. This question of Articles 62 and 63 remains a hangover from military dictatorship.

Within this context, individual judges, even in the SC, are being rounded up. For instance, a petition has been moved to remove Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who appears to be a dissident on the bench. For example, it’s said that his judgement in the Memogate affair didn’t take into account the fact that Zardari may have known and not informed the security forces about the raid that took out Osama Bin Laden. The fact is Justice Isa is an independent-minded judge with integrity. Meaning that he was often seen as the odd man out. But individual judges aside, within the judiciary as a whole there may be a feeling that the era of intervention has gone too far and that the time has come to pull back in terms of suo moto powers and Article184 (3) [pertaining to how far the SC can use its original jurisdiction to give verdicts on fundamental rights]. In short, the reputation of the courts has suffered quite a few dents over the past few years. There now appears a concerted effort to change all this.

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