PM faces multiple challenges on epidemic

BY Farhan Bokhari

It has been a week of unwelcome news for Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, and that’s not just the fallout from the coronavirus crisis. As health workers in Pakistan’s front lines battled the global pandemic, Imran received news that an investigation found a large number of politicians including his party men involved in actions that led to a shortage of sugar and wheat.
The issue at hand was the ill-advised export of sugar and wheat last year that was aided by a generous subsidy from the government of Punjab province, ruled by Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI. Following the exports, domestic prices of both of these commodities soared overnight burdening low-income consumers considerably.
These explosive revelations have far-reaching implications. How Imran tackles not just this matter but also the overall working of his government will have a huge bearing on his political fate. So far, the prime minister’s response has been less than impressive.
A former senior PTI leader named in the report found a largely symbolic position taken away from him, while a minister was ordered to swap one ministry for another. In a telling reminder of a largely token reshuffle, a prominent lawyer and politician who is not a member of parliament was inducted as an adviser on parliamentary affairs — overlooking more than 170 elected members of PTI and its allies. If Imran’s intention was symbolism in the hope of letting this matter die down, he is mistaken.
Prime minister’s disappointing response
Elected in 2018 on the promise of leading Pakistan towards a new beginning and widening the space for the lofty objective of creating a society based on justice, Imran has disappointed a large number of Pakistanis. His response to the coronavirus pandemic has raised additional questions.
A new volunteer body of youngsters known as the Coronavirus Tigers was announced in recent days, in a country with a large and robust civil society and non-profit organisations already in the field. The latter could break far deeper ground in fanning out through its workers and volunteers to provide food support to millions of Pakistanis stranded at home, while the former would take time to be set in motion. Building ranks with the civil society at this time would also create a much larger segment of stakeholders than just the prime minister and/or a few ruling figures holding charge.
Imran has also blundered by refusing to forge a national unity with opposition leaders who were the first to initiate calls for a united front to tackle the virus. The consequence of continuing with the political divide has raised the risk of unnecessary politicisation of matters where unity was essential.
Imran’s best bet now lies in immediately dissolving his cabinet and starting afresh with a largely new team, effectively replacing the deadwood and under-performers with fresh blood. His move to bring in Syed Fakhr Imam as the new minister of national food security last week marked a step in the right direction. Imam, one of Pakistan’s most experienced and respected politicians and a former speaker of the parliament, is also among the most knowledgeable on matters related to the country’s rural economy.
But Imran must induct a new team that is up to the task of meeting the ideals that brought him to power. After years of neglect, Pakistanis are still yearning for a leader to lift them out of neglect and set the pace for a promising future. As long as the prime minister fails to have a finger on the public’s pulse, his regime is likely to veer away from the task of stabilising Pakistan or securing its future.
Amid the growing gap between challenges on the ground and the direction taken by Imran, critical areas remain badly neglected.
In the coming days, a range of sectors from small and mid-sized businesses to farms across Pakistan’s rural belt will need the support of the kind that has yet to be extended by Imran’s government. The rural heartland has suffered badly in the past year with calamities ranging from the failure of the cotton crop to a locust attack that received little official attention for months.
Meanwhile, despite an unusual belt-tightening for ordinary Pakistanis under conditions agreed for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, the economy was in slumber even before the coronavirus crisis erupted.
It has become clear that in sharp contrast to Imran’s repeated promises of lifting the poor from their impoverishment, it is likely that more Pakistanis have been driven to poverty than when Imran took over the reins of the country.
It’s clear that even without the coronavirus pandemic haunting the world, Pakistan’s prospects would have been far from promising. Imran now has the choice to either turn his 2018 victory to just one tenure or recognise his failures, learn from past mistakes and make a fresh start. –GN