Imran Khan versus the storm – News Analysis

It has been a tumultuous week for Prime Minister Imran Khan, forcing him to reshuffle his cabinet in the wake of the anxiously awaited probe to assess exactly what triggered a significant rise in domestic prices of sugar and wheat this year.

Khan’s decision to break off his informal but close ties with Jehangir Khan Tareen, once considered his key lieutenant, has prompted widespread expectation over more political casualties set to come in the days ahead.

For the former cricket captain who brought home the glory of snatching the World Cup in 1992, the crisis at hand is not just infinitely more troublesome than any before witnessed in Pakistan’s history. More troublesome is the growing anecdotal evidence of Khan’s inability to grasp the full scale of the challenge and respond accordingly.

More than 18 months after leading the PTI to begin its maiden tenure to lead the country, Khan’s credentials remain increasingly in doubt. The most pertinent issues confronting the ruling structure have emerged from mounting challenges on the political and economic fronts. And, the promise of leading Pakistan towards a new beginning today stands surrounded by considerable and rapidly growing public skepticism.

Meanwhile, the de facto lockdown across Pakistan following the arrival of the deadly coronavirus has triggered questions over the regime’s ability to steer the ship through the mightiest of storms.

With the last quarter of Pakistan’s financial year now having begun in April, it’s amply clear that key economic targets for the year in areas like overall economic growth and the fiscal deficit, are all set to perform significantly behind target. Though the fallout from the coronavirus has aggravated Pakistan’s outlook, the slippages had begun well before the world was hit by this unprecedented pandemic.

A central aspect to the sugar and wheat crisis must relate to choices made by the government that allowed manufacturers of these commodities to reap exorbitant returns, practically overnight. A decision by the Economic Coordination Committee or ECC which works under the prime minister, allowed sugar mill owners to earn generous returns from the export market. For Pakistan’s rank and file, however, this turned out to be an unfortunate double whammy.

With stocks depleting in Pakistan after their export along with reports of hoarding by key stakeholders across the country, the prices of these very essential commodities escalated overnight. To top off this saga, the government of the Punjab where Chief Minister Usman Buzdar is backed by Prime Minister Khan, dished out a decent subsidy for sugar exporters-a baffling choice given that a realistic assessment of expected domestic consumption could have ruled against allowing exports in the first place. Ultimately, while Pakistan’s so-called sugar barons made a fortune, the people of Pakistan suffered and the government failed to provide badly needed relief in good time.

The sugar and wheat crises reinforced the credential of Prime Minister Khan’s government for its uncaring take on the lives of Pakistan’s middle and low income consumers. The popular outcry over price escalations of sugar and wheat topped off the powerfully painful reality of an economy where ordinary households have suffered in the wake of the loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since July 2019.

The decision to significantly raise the tariff for domestic electricity and gas consumption have added harshly to the overall monthly bills of the average household. And, while the federal government clearly bungled up the economy during the pre-coronavirus phase, the Karachi based central bank’s refusal to further reduce significantly high interest rates has further pulled down Pakistan’s growth prospects.

Meanwhile, as Pakistan’s wheat farmers fan across the country in the coming days to harvest their crop, they can be certain of receiving no significant support from the ruling structure. Though Pakistan’s effective lifeline is agriculture given that almost half of the country’s population relies directly or indirectly on this sector, the Khan government has failed to tackle the multiple issues across the farmlands.

In the wake of last summer’s first reports of a locust attack in parts of the country, it took the Khan government almost six months to declare an emergency on this critical front. And, while crops like cotton failed and output of the once prized rice crop performed behind target last year, the governments either at the Centre or the provinces failed to treat these matters as significant and growing emergencies. It’s’ therefore’ hardly surprising that the once assured food security cannot be taken for granted in today’s Pakistan.

Faced with the coronavirus storm across the country, Khan’s refusal to either talk to the opposition parties or reach out to the large and robustly active members of the civil society, are major flaws that must not be taken lightly. As Pakistanis face unprecedented odds that have tested the very limits of the country’s healthcare network, the battle ahead will be mean at the very least.

In this environment, a failure to lead Pakistan towards an unprecedented national unity must be characterised as a major blunder. And yet, Khan’s refusal to reach out to a wider political and societal opinion is not only baffling. It speaks of a failure to rise up to a battle that has engulfed the world beyond just Pakistan.

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