Saturday, September 1, 2012

"Courting change" - PTI Economic Policy and Media's Cynical Reaction to it (By Babar Sattar, The News)

Courtesy: Daily "The News" (1 Sep 2012)
Courting change
On Media's Cynical Reaction to PTI's Economic Policy
By Babar Sattar
It is hard to poke holes in the PTI’s economic policy which highlights and addresses pressing problems of economics and governance confronting us without telling us that milk and honey will begin to flow the moment the PTI is voted into power. Being the sensible and pragmatic CEO that Asad Umar has been, he has told us that there are no quick fixes to Pakistan’s maladies, but neither are they incurable. Essentially his party will try and enhance our resource pool, curtail state opulence and undesirable expenditure and use the money freed up to reduce budget deficit on the one hand and invest in basic citizen services (health, education and skill development) on the other. What is there to disagree with in any of this?

Yes, the devil is always in the detail. The PTI says it will come up with sector-wise specific policies that will include implementation plans. We should critically review the macro plan and the detailed policies. We should examine if these policies and plans address the problems that are holding Pakistan down. We should scrutinise PTI’s priorities reflected in these policies and determine who will they benefit. We should analyse whether they are pure rhetoric or can actually be implemented. We should compare and contrast them with the policies and performance of the other mainstream parties – the PPP and the PML-N. Why is it that we have seen none of this in the public debates since the release of the PTI’s economic policy?

The media’s perfunctory and cynical response to PTI’s economic policy is worrying. The problem is not that the media didn’t like the policy but that it is not interested. We are interested in the Swiss letter and whether or not the Supreme Court will send another prime minister packing. We are interested in corruption scandals and who all can be named and shamed. We are interested in conspiracy theories of all sorts, in gossip, in violence. We have ample time and energy to be cynical and dismissive, but none to be constructive. We love the blame-game but have no interest or patience to engage with the real issues. If the media sells what people buy, what does its lack of focus on problem-solving say about us as a society?

It is not just that health and education are not sexy and scandal and dirt are. The rationality deficit we are witnessing seems rooted in an entrenched sense of defeatism and doom. In The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of fear, humiliation and hope are reshaping the world Dominique Moisi explains that he has chosen these three emotions as “they are closely linked with the notion of confidence, which is the defining factor in how nations and people address the challenges they face as well as how they relate to one another.” This monograph should be mandatory reading for thought leaders and decision-makers in Pakistan as it invites one to self-examination and the need to quit feeling sorry for oneself.

Moisi explains the three emotions as follows: “Fear is the absence of confidence. If your life is dominated by fear, you are apprehensive about the present and expect the future to become ever more dangerous. Hope, by contrast, is an expression of confidence; it is based on the conviction that today is better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today. And humiliation is the injured confidence of those who have lost hope in the future; your lack of hope is the fault of others, who have treated you badly in the past. When the contrast between your idealised and glorious past and your frustrating present is too great, humiliation prevails.”

Moisi then argues that, “humiliation without hope leads to despair and the nurturing of a yearning for revenge that can easily turn into an impulse toward destruction: if you can’t reach the level of those you feel are humiliating you, at least you can drag them down to your level.” “The weight of memory and resentment,” he contends, “constitutes the most severe obstacle to change.” Moisi’s thesis is that China and India emanate hope that is reflected in Asia’s upward trajectory. Since 9/11, the West has been defined by fear that is making it insular and static. And the Muslim world’s sense of humiliation sans hope is degenerating into hatred and manifesting itself through destructive violence.

Let’s now revisit our response to the PTI’s economic policy. There have been two main criticisms of the policy. The first is that it has produced no novel ideas and is “old wine in new bottles”. Are we really confronted with novel problems that can only be resolved by rocket scientists? Do we not know what our problems are or for that matter even the solutions? We live beyond our means. We don’t pay taxes. We have not invested in the health, education and skill-set of our citizen. We have not invested in maximising and exploiting the potential of our human and material resources. We have not invested in our enforcement and service delivery mechanisms that are now moth eaten and so the writ of the state is in shambles.

The Motorway police is efficient and respected. Nadra is a success story despite being a public-sector enterprise. Hospitals like Shaukat Khanum and Aga Khan inspire confidence. Engro is a Pakistani corporate that competes with multi-nationals and excels. None of these organisations employ rocket science, as none is needed. To turn Pakistan around we don’t need to get too creative. All we need is sincerity of purpose and the discipline to implement common sense solutions. And this brings us to the second major criticism of the PTI’s economic policy: getting everyone to pay taxes or their utility bills will not be easy and thus PTI will not be able to implement its policies.

This is a legitimate concern. Once bitten twice shy, they say. We have been chewed up for the last 65 years. Public office holders have made promises during election campaigns or in post-coup speeches and not kept them. We are reluctant to trust leaders because we have been deceived all too often. While this is true, it is not policy critique. It is a credibility and performance issue. Being critical is one thing, but let us at least ask the right questions. We are just entering an election cycle. If we wish to change the politics of patronage that we so despise, there is little room to be lazy. The onus of making our politics issue-based is as much on us as it is on political parties. Let us force all parties to present and defend their policies and performance and then choose who we wish to vote for.

The content of the PTI’s economic policy is sound. It has a worldly – dare one say, secular – overtone in a sense that it is focused on doing well in political and economic terms in the world that we have, and doing well now instead of in the hereafter. And herein lies the paradox: on crucial social and ideological issues – the protection of individual rights, the treatment of the ‘others’, our place in the comity of nations as well as our purpose as a nation state – that are reflected in debates about human rights, national security and foreign policy, the PTI seems to be standing beside retrogressive religious forces for whom faith is not connected in any positive way with the improvement of daily lives.

The PTI’s simple and sensible economic policy rightly requires Pakistanis to undergo behavioural change. But our problem is as much cultural and ethical as it is political and economic. For the PTI to be a force for positive change it will need to be as progressive and bold in approaching social issues as it is in the realm of governance and economics.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.



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With Regards,
"Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf FATA Volunteers" Team.

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