PML-N should be a worried outfit


PML-N should be a worried outfit

Ayaz Amir

All the signs point to a difficult year ahead for the ruling PML-N. Exports are down. Imports are up. The balance-of-payments position—the difference between what we sell and what we buy—is more precarious than ever. Remittances, a key sign of national wellbeing, are down. And Ishaq Dar, the PML-N’s finance wizard, has broken all records in adding to the national debt. Five more years of him and Pakistan will be close to being compared with Greece.

When Pakistan’s finance minister pens a long article, as Ishaq Dar recently did, saying that the country’s debt position is not bad you can be sure that the situation is alarming. When finance ministers protest too much it’s a sure sign of trouble.

And the power sector’s circular debt is back with a vengeance, independent power producers threatening to invoke sovereign guarantees to get their dues paid. Ending circular debt soon after coming to office was an achievement the PML-N was fond of touting as evidence of its success in resolving Pakistan’s power crisis. Now the nightmare is back with IPPs taking out longish newspaper ads to warn of the steps they are contemplating.

When a pro-Nawaz Sharif English newspaper—no names, please, we don’t want to step on sensitive toes—says apropos of circular debt that Pakistan seems to be in for a long, hot summer the warning should be taken seriously. After all this is a warning from friendly quarters, not something coming from the media wing of the Tehrik-i-Insaf.

Just a day or two ago there was a front-page report in another English newspaper rubbishing the water and power ministry’s oft-repeated claim that the power sector had been turned around. Nonsense, says this report which is based on the findings of a German state-owned development bank. It acknowledges that power generation has improved since Nawaz Sharif became prime minister but says damningly enough that this relative increase comes from three power stations started not by this but previous governments—Muzaffargarh, Jamshoro and Guddu. Nandipur which has added something to the national grid was also started well before 2013.

Quoting the government’s own sources the report highlights the government’s total failure to carry out anything by way of power sector reforms like cutting line losses and improving power distribution.

Things are worse on the agricultural front with cotton production—cotton being our main money-earning crop—falling and prices of most commodities depressed and farmers complaining of getting a raw deal from a government which draws most of its support from Punjab’s urban centres and over the years has shown little interest in the problems of the farming communities.

So what exactly are the PML-N governments—in Islamabad and Lahore—beating their chests about? What will they be celebrating round election time? If exports and remittances are down from what they were last year, or the year before, or during the Zardari government, what will the PML-N brandish as its achievements when it goes to the people?

Agreed that the PML-N is good at publicity and it spends huge amounts on it. In charge of publicity is no less a person than the prime minister’s talented daughter, Maryam Nawaz, now unfortunately caught in that mother of scandals, the Panama affair. But to be really effective a publicity drive has to be based not just on flash and gimmicks but on something substantial. So what will they sell when the elections come? And if anyone in the PML-N thinks the 2018 elections are going to be easy he or she needs to think again.

Was it the Lahore Metro which got the PML-N its votes in 2013? The PML-N came out on top because of two factors: a) the revulsion the ordinary Punjabi voter had come to feel for the PPP and b) the PTI’s unpreparedness. It was a vote against Zardari and against all the stuff, from corruption to mis-governance, associated with the PPP. And the PTI was woefully unprepared. It had committed the folly of holding intra-party elections just before the elections and, besides, many of its contesting candidates were new to the political scene.

And let’s not forget that at the last moment Imran Khan had that accident which put him on a hospital bed when he should have been taking out his last rally in Lahore. These small things matter and people base their gut reactions on them.

There was another thing going for Nawaz Sharif. It was said about him that he had never been allowed to complete his term as prime minister, ousted from office by a presidential decree in 1993 and by a coup d’etat in 1999. Given a chance to complete his term he would work wonders. This was the myth surrounding him.

Well, just as the PPP completed its term the last time round, the PML-N is just a year short of completing its term and while it may not have presided over anything like the disaster that the PPP’s stint was, its portfolio really won’t be all that thick when it goes into the elections.

What really does it have to show for itself? The Orange Line Metro, signal-free corridor on Jail Road and the main Gulberg Boulevard, and a few things like that—is this going to be enough? The echoes from the PSL final in Lahore are going to die down in a few days’ time. Then it will be back to business as usual. And we don’t know what the verdict in the Panama case is going to be. But whatever it is one thing is clear: Nawaz Sharifs’ image and that of his family has taken a beating. The word Panama has entered our national discourse and it is not going away in a hurry.

Between now and the elections both brothers will be cutting development tapes, perhaps at a frenetic pace, and the PML-N’s media brigade will go full blast proclaiming the party’s real or imagined victories. But is it going to be enough?

Will the ghosts of the Panama affair be laid to rest between now and then? Nawaz Sharif is at the summit of his success, third time prime minister, which is no mean achievement especially in the context of Pakistan where prime ministers have come and gone without leaving much of a trace behind, and where the late Maulana Kausar Niazi once said that there should be a special graveyard for ex-prime ministers in Islamabad.

But what has he really achieved, apart of course from building a huge fortune for himself and his family? The Sharifs weren’t tycoons of this magnitude when they entered politics back in the 1980s. Today they can claim membership of any billionaire’s club. But then the Third World is known to produce tycoons like this. What happens to them when the stars move and their time is up?

Pakistan faces a momentous choice. It either sticks to the low-energy (a word much beloved of Donald Trump), lack-lustre and stagnation-inducing policies of the past or it opens a new chapter in its history and redefines its future. It may not be easy for the Sharifs but it promises to be an exciting year for Pakistan.

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