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February 1, 2019

Searching the soul


February 1, 2019

A sentence that Imran Khan spoke when addressing his party convention on the government’s 100-day performance may be the most telling if indeed that is what he meant to say.

When some chanted ‘qadam barhao Imran Khan, hum tumhare saath hein’ (move forward, Imran Khan; we are with you), he retorted: “What else is left to achieve; aren’t we already there”? This is a loose translation.

Question: is forming government and becoming prime minister the ultimate goal? Is this the end that Imran’s struggle sought, and for which the people reposed their faith in him? Will we once again fall short of expectations to be delivered from a system seeped in crass neglect and inattention? If so, we are in deep trouble.

This is why: there is a serious creeping rupture between the state and its people. The two exist in separate spheres which may intersect at some points, mostly for bad reasons and even worse outcomes. This holds true for the entire spectrum of the nation-state compact – economy, society, justice and politics. The state has control of resources which hardly ever get to serve the people who theoretically are the real owners of these resources.

The economy is the tipping point of this rather precarious rupture. There are two economies: an economy of the state, and another in which the people persist. It is perceived that the people’s economy – irregular, unregulated and undocumented; and therefore outside the stream of national economy – is half – two-thirds – of the country’s total economy. This translates into an extreme model of laissez faire in which convenience and consumption control the market. Since most traders are unregulated and don’t pay taxes, they have the flexibility to adjust their profit margins while still being affordable, giving sustenance to the deprived. Inconsistencies of a broken system? Thank God for small mercies.

Yet there are intersections which impact the poor pocket. The duty structures and cash-crop prices are set by the state based on its own model for survival. Sometimes it is to appease potential voters, and at another to benefit its own cartelised patrons at the expense of the common man. The pain always transfers to the lowest common denominator of society. The state on the other hand must run along with its minders. And this keeps the governments busy. They tax and tax, mostly indirectly, and rob legally those who aren’t strong enough to defend themselves against its excesses. Some in the government and within their patron base will become excessively rich creaming off resources from the government’s treasury, or through kickbacks from megaprojects that may have only a superficial value for the common man. When the treasury is empty they borrow or invite handsome foreign investments in self-appointed projects which will bring a lot of hard cash to play with.

“For the first time in our financial history, interest payments on the accumulated public debt (by all governments) are going to hit Rs2,000 billion”. Not the principle, merely the interest over it. That should tell you how governments revel in borrowed money. The current budget deficit will touch, by some counts, seven percent and by others 10 percent as the difference between what the state has and what it must spend to run itself.

The PTI government borrows Rs15 billion every day to run the state and itself – twice what earlier governments used to borrow. It carries the cost of fiscal readjustments that this government undertook to revive the economy. This burdens every Pakistani with an additional Rs30,000 beyond the Rs117,000 as the cost of the loan already carried. This part of the economy, called macro-economy, is a state remit. When governments borrow from others, or target an exchange rate, or refer themselves to IMF care, they are catering to themselves and the state.

The common people are only collateral damage in this scheme of things, despite all assurances that in the end it will all work out – that the pain is only temporary. The show thus goes on. More tellingly the PTI is having the greatest difficulty breaking from this cycle of debt economy since most has been pre-ordained by the short-termism of previous governments in handling it. The rupture thus is perennial. Governments remain obsessed with finding the next resource to run the state while the people remain perpetually neglected and left to their own devices.

One other manifestation of this state-society disconnect, also reflecting elite capture of the state, is the recent Sahiwal incident where a family murdered by state police continues to await state attention. State and society both are beset with their severest test as they deal with what can be termed as catastrophic ineptness. And both seem to be failing at it. Justice is awaited, as is soothing fears, and owning the error and the responsibility to take care of the young children whose parents were taken away from them. This blot will never go away but its pain can be mitigated by greater sensitivity and attention to what must be done to ease the pain. And it must go beyond perfunctory lip-service, including the adoption of the three young survivors by the state to enable them a life of independent and sustainable existence.

Society’s failures continue to be highlighted in how the three children have been reduced to a pawn. At one level some seem to play the children up, in the hope for some suitable financial compensation by the state for its excess. At another, the political parties feed the same people to use the tragedy to score hits against the government, its institutions and the intelligence agencies which is an indirect path to squaring off for their own perceived excesses. This includes maligning the more formal state institutions with direct responsibility in murdering innocent citizens. At least that is the intent as the affected read off prepared scripts. The children, of course, become pawns in such political game-playing. It remains IK’s remit to deliver justice in the matter – and even more importantly take the children as wards of the state to save them from being used as a pawn by manipulative parties, familial and political.

Social decay is obvious as is state apathy. Fractious politics and a parliamentary farce in addition only complete the scene. There is so much to repair and so much to do. With his elevation the work has only begun. Reaching the pinnacle in politics is not the end, it is only the beginning. That is what separates sport from politics. Imran Khan was elected on the ticket of hope. He cannot pander to hate. He can only meet expectations with delivery. He also cannot fail nor sit on the laurels of past electoral victory. That cannot be an end. Hope must live. Only if his government would listen more.

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