Ever since the newly-elected Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government assumed charge, its “100 Days” mantra has dominated national discourse. Originally, the 100-day agenda was announced by Imran Khan a couple of months before the general election – a radical step by local political standards.  The debate has since meandered between what is achievable and the need (or lack of it) to have such a strict timeline. The PM office has responded by launching an online tracker to trace the 100-day progress of the regime. Some of the tracker indicators though are quite superficial. An example is that of the progress benchmarks under the head titled “initiating civil service reforms”. The tracker informs you that the actions of “Appointments to key positions” and “Address by the PM to civil servants” have already been completed. This is 67% of the work envisaged under the head for the first 100 days! The minimal monitoring of government activities has followed a futile attempt by the PTI leadership to impose a moratorium on holding the government accountable or daring to criticise it during its first 100 days.  There are four major premises of why consistent vigilance of the new government is desirable even during the initial “honeymoon” phase. 

First, there are unmistakable early signs of who is calling the shots for the government. Is it largely the PM? Has he truly empowered his team? Or is it that the presentations by top bureaucracy are guiding government policy and vision, if any? The answer has a vital bearing in two respects. The responsiveness of the government (identifying and meeting public’s immediate needs) is likely to be low and laboured if critical steps are to be approved at the highest level. The responsiveness may well be absent if the bureaucracy is the prime agency feeding a low capacity political leadership about what needs to be done. This is already happening in Punjab with the PM leading on CM-level meets with the CM widely known to be sparsely knowledgeable about provincial issues. Perhaps more significantly, this mode of decision-making is an indication that PTI continues to believe in a trickle-down reform model: the individual occupying the highest echelon is honest and dedicated so this will spur reforms at the grass root. The paradox, however, is that institution-building is necessary for better service delivery by the institutions themselves. Arguably, better service delivery hence entails overcoming structural compulsions through devolved decision-making rather than a chivalrous one-man passion to transform. Given the enormity of the challenge, the PM must learn quickly to take the focus away from himself from time to time.

Second, let it not be forgotten that PTI has come into power after vitriolic opposition of the policies of Sharif regimes at the centre and in Punjab. It is, therefore, legitimate to expect that the priority areas for reform already stand spelled out on the basis of the “tabdeelee” vision. However, so far the reform roadmap has been at best arbitrary and shaped by hasty pronouncements. We have a Taskforce on promoting austerity in the public sector but not one exclusively devoted to enhancing revenue generation – the non-romantic actual solution to our economic predicament. We have all the rhetoric about relentlessly chasing “hundreds of billions of dollars” of supposedly black money laundered abroad. But what about proceeding against owners of posh properties and luxury vehicles within the country who are not even registered with the tax authorities? Did anyone in the Federal cabinet question the PM’s whimsical priority to go for a debt portfolio review of Pakistan from 2008-18? Should the meek surrender before the aggressive Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) be construed as the first indication of a hands-off approach towards religious fanaticism?  The prioritisation gaps need course correction or time, opportunity and credibility will be the casualties.

Third, the short period is about enough to gauge the political will: does the government follow-up its public declarations with concrete action and dedicated public spending? The government already has had the opportunity of presenting a mini-budget. Does it help that after all the platitudes about broadening the tax base, the restrictions on non-filers to purchase vehicles and real estate were lifted? That they now stand restored is more a tribute to the opposition and civil society’s refusal to listen to the government’s “please be soft on us during the first100 days” pleas.  Does the Atif Mian episode help? Another classic wavering of political intent is embodied in the back-and-forth between various Ministries about the CPEC:  “we will review the CPEC”; “we are fully committed to the CPEC”; “we will only review certain projects under the CPEC”. Unfortunately, courtesy the vacillating political will, the government may end up with the infamy of “damaging” the CPEC to secure an IMF loan!

Last but not least, given our sordid history of “good governance” rides, it is worth examining if the 100-day strategies and decisions have traces of elite capture, signifying complex “grand” corruption. The malefic influence of vested lobbies can take several forms. Does being “on the same page” with the military in effect “bequeath” complete policy ownership to the army high command in the security and external relations realms? Can holistic civil service reform be finalized through a Taskforce completely dominated by the Pakistan Administrative Service members (most of them in-service) sans public consultation? If elite capture is indeed happening the PTI government would need serious introspection about its decision-making process so that issue prioritisation and the political will to reform are not compromised. It does not help that the PM has been inside-the-box physically – not seen with the masses and/or at public places. It will be interesting to observe whether and to what extent the recently-launched Pakistan Citizens’ Portal helps the government reshape its policies/priorities through public feedback. So far, there is a strong perception that only the rich and the powerful have the PM’s ear and have been influencing his selection for key offices.

The 100-day tracker needs to be evaluated against the above-listed four criteria. Highlighting the ills of previous rulers, threatening them with reprisals and over-marketing expectations cannot substitute performance. The PTI government hence needs single-minded focus on formulating policies, devising strategies and effectively implementing them to overcome massive structural and institutional challenges. Conversely, the PTI team ought to have little time and motivation to question (however subtly) the intentions of its constructive critics or to ridicule objective evaluations of its performance. The disadvantage of incumbency is palpable. There are indications that top PTI leadership is increasingly resorting to heightened rhetoric against political adversaries to deflect performance scrutiny. By claiming the monopoly of wisdom, the PM will end up being surrounded by sycophants, many of them from the bureaucracy. The inevitable outcome will be the government’s entrapment in a blind alley of under-performance and false notions of indispensability. It has happened before to equally clever, more experienced, if perhaps less well-intentioned “reformers”.

 

The writer is a Political economy analyst and former civil servant

 goldenstar2005@hotmail.com