It can be different this time

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VIAShabir Ahmed
SOURCEBusiness Recorder
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In a recent article IMF Director for the Middle East saw in government’s perceived commitment hope that ‘this time it will be different’. Would it be different enough to make it our last IMF programme, something that Asad Umar had promised but his successor hasn’t?

Most find the ‘big bang’ approach to reforms necessary if we are to kick our IMF addiction – the incremental approach, easier on the political eye, clearly didn’t work. The differences of opinion are more about scale, speed and sequencing.

The more astute look upon it in terms of change management theory: you can have the best intentions but things will go awry if you have not invested enough in preparing the structures – and people – for change.

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Is the government trying to do too much too fast? Is it unmindful of the change management dictates – ignoring, for instance, Professor Kotter’s first principle in his 8-step process to change management: ‘build a guiding coalition’? Does it know without broad-based political support fundamental shifts in economic policies are hard to realize?

Also Read: No agreement with IMF on rupee-dollar parity

Early reactions show the government came to the conclusion that this needed to be done at all cost. It rushed in under-prepared, in the expectation that ultimate results will justify the costs.

Even tyrannical states know, or learn to their cost, the limits of power. A stringent reforms process, no matter how badly needed, can turn on itself if it is forced without preparing the ground that a political process alone can ensure.

Few would contest that the untested and untried Imran shot like a meteor on our political firmament. He symbolized change. He promised hope. Many who had written-off elections as a waste of time dutifully queued up at the polling stations – without the nudging of any extra-terrestrial forces. The two-party regime gave way, unambiguously, to a three-party system.

But that was then. Nothing can dent the religiosity of the PTI jiyalas but there are clear signs of the less devout becoming more circumspect. They still defend but with less fervour. The fact of the matter is that PTI’s political core is becoming increasingly less stout.

It now stands accused of standing on the shoulders of the extra-terrestrials.

Given its uncertain political strength, as evidenced by a shaky control over the parliament in the Centre as well as in Punjab and a hostile government in the second largest province, it is nothing short of bewildering that PTI goes on opening new fronts almost as a matter of deliberate policy.

PTI’s coalition partners at the centre and in the Punjab are demanding their pound of flesh, dissent is at a price, media is seen by many to be under siege, and there is a lot of noise about witch hunts and warped accountability. Even independence of the judiciary is being feared.

Whether these charges are well founded or not is not the point – as is often the case, critics use stray incidents to build a self-serving narrative. The point is of the effectiveness of government’s counter-narrative; how the government reclaims space to govern and mitigate the risk of economic reforms becoming a casualty of politics.

There are serious external factors to contend with as well. They cast a huge shadow on our economic situation. It is just not FATF. We seem to be nearing the point where hard choices may be forced on us.

Foreign policy may become, if it already hasn’t, a significant determining factor in our economic fortunes. Resisting the demands to belong to this camp or that would require a tricky balancing act that will become that much harder if the nation remains polarized.

Odious as the IMF conditionalities might be, we have to accept as we have little choice. The worst thing will be for the government to retract, which it might have to if it fails to bring the political temperature down. The only chance of success of the IMF programme is if somehow, miraculously, we forge national consensus.

This would require great statesmanship on the part of our political leadership. You can kiss national cohesion good-bye if you cannot stretch your hand across the divide. Yes, crime needs to be punished but it requires an infallible rule of law, not something that is perceived as a vendetta. You can’t gain the trust of investors, domestic or foreign, if you keep fulminating from the pulpit that this is a country of thieves and plunderers.  time

As the leader, the Prime Minister is asking the nation – all strata of society, the rich, the middle class and the poor – to make huge sacrifices. Willy-nilly, the nation will make these sacrifices, but it will lose faith in the system if the Prime Minister doesn’t step up to the plate or fails to convince them that their sacrifices won’t go waste.

The government’s first year in office has been marked with an unwholesome rhetoric that people are getting tired of. It forms commission after commission to fix governance issues, only for each to get buried almost upon birth. In between there is the ‘no NRO’ raga that has few listeners. time

It is time the PM got a new hymn book that beckons the gods of reconciliation and not Eris the Greek goddess of strife and discord. There is serious business to handle. He should devote his considerable energies to tasks ahead and not fritter them away on digging graves that he mistakes for gold mines.

Now that the IMF Staff Report is out people have a better idea of what is in store for them. Now that we are in the quagmire the big question is how and when we will get out of it. This is where the top leadership comes in; not to sing us a lullaby but to give us a credible way-forward.

IMF and the road to stabilisation

We are surrounded with fears and it will be difficult to say what our worst fears are. Let’s be reckless and say these are business confidence, jobs, and exports. To check despair the government must tell us how it proposes to boost these and over what timeframe.

Hope or despair? If despair persists the IMF programme is doomed. For hope to prevail the PM has his role cut out: focus on the present, not the past. Reach out, Sir. It can be different this time.

shabirahmed@yahoo.com 

(This news/article originally appeared in Business Recorder on July 11th, 2019)

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