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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Can the Sharifs reform Pakistan?

Image result for nawaz sharif caricature
My unequivocal answer to the question posed in the headline is ‘no’, and when I state this, I believe I am voicing the opinion of the vast majority of the people of Pakistan who are highly disappointed by the Sharifs. One may assume that they have learnt nothing from their past blunders, while others may argue that they have very limited intellectual capacity to handle the big problem of reforming Pakistan. After having lived through half of their current tenure, which has been consumed by adhocism, cheap populism and bending like noodles at the slightest pressure exerted by vested and organised, anti-people interests and lobbies, I see no chance of better days in the remainder of their time in office. In fact, we may live to suffer even greater ill-effects of their style of governance, their inability to avail big opportunities and openings for Pakistan, and their failure to bring about structural reforms in the country.

The Sharif dynasty and its collaborators or allies cannot be blamed for everything wrong in the country. The national situation we have today, especially with respect to the economy — where we always seem to be at the ‘take-off stage’ only to crash back to the ground — as well as problems like the patronage of radical groups, corruption, poor governance and public enterprises guzzling up public monies, is an old story predating the Sharifs’ time in office. There are many culprits who are responsible for this state of affairs, and the Sharifs are not alone in bringing Pakistan to where it is today. We also know that for any political government, reforming Pakistan is always going to be a big challenge because of the power and resistance of vested interests and the opposition-for-the-sake of opposition politics, but it is a challenge that the PML-N accepted when it came to power. It promised many things that no one believed it could deliver, but even so, it could have still done a few things right had it displayed some grit, intelligence and good political resolve.

First, let’s look at the so-called efforts to reform public-sector enterprises — PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) and power distribution companies. The whole world, supporting Pakistan’s reforms, is crying hoarse that these and some other state-run organisations are consuming amounts that are close to four to five per cent of the GDP. And what is the progress of these reform efforts? Zero. As I write these words, 30 per cent of Pakistan’s electricity is being stolen and the theft of natural gas is also at a significant level. The honest consumer continues to suffer, while governments come and go and dynastic politicians continue to replace each other. It is shocking to see the way the government has handled PIA’s privatisation. There is a clear self-interest in robbing the public as many dynastic politicians have placed thousands of their relatives and friends in PIA and other public-sector enterprises. The issue of the PSM, power distribution companies, State Life and many other entities continues to linger, for which this government and its predecessor have paid for from the taxpayers’ money or by borrowing heavily from national and international sources.

Second, the government has surrendered to business interests on two very important issues. The first is the closure of shops and markets at 8pm and the second relates to bringing businesses into the tax net. Businesses threatened to conduct what they call ‘shutter-down’ strikes and the Sharif dynasty immediately took its decisions back. Where in the world can we find a country facing an acute energy shortage, which doesn’t avail of the day-light saving system? Businesses all over the world close at 8pm, even in the most developed countries.

Finally, the present government’s ill-advised priorities, focus on extravagant projects and corruption makes it no different from the one it replaced. Once again, it appears that the PML-N has squandered a huge opportunity to put Pakistan on the path of reform and reconstruction.
By Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at LUMS
Express Tribune: http://tribune.com.pk/story/1038988/can-the-sharifs-reform-pakistan/

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