Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan
Amid the nail-biting aura of political uncertainty gripping the country during the past few months, Pakistan’s tottering economy is made to experience serious convulsions with economic indicators showing continuous downward trend. The ever surging inflation spiraling to a record high and the rupee taking a steep nosedive against the US dollar during the past one year or so, has put the country on the brink of default.
Currently, the country is standing at the critical juncture of its economic history and has witnessed an unprecedented economic erosion during the past few years. Economic managers of the country have continuously been experimenting with the sick economy with no symptoms of recovery in sight. At the moment, the economy finds itself on the ventilator with Miftah Ismail trying to resuscitate it after his predecessors such as Asad Umar, Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh and Shaukat Tareen failed to treat the chronic patient. Miftah Ismail is seen running from pillar to post trying to arrange the much-needed oxygen to keep the patient breathing though with a bleak chance of standing soon on its feet again. If at all he manages to put it on the path of recovery, it would be at a glacial speed. He is making desperate attempts to convince the oxygen supplier, i.e. IMF to do the needful to save the patient from collapse.
In such a dismal scenario, a meeting of PML-N cabinet members headed by PM Shahbaz Sharif was convened by PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif in London. During the unusual huddle, the fragile economic situation of the country was reviewed. During three days meeting, the participants comprising cabinet members belonging to PML-N reportedly focused their deliberation mainly on the economy and discussed myriad options to take the country out of the economic morass it has sunk deep into. Various suggestions were floated that included dissolution of National Assembly and handing over of the government to a caretaker set-up and go for fresh elections without losing further time or continue with the present coalition government as desired by Zardari and other allies, take the bull by the horns, make electoral and economic reforms and take steps on war footing to put the economy back on track.
In this regard, tough and extremely unpopular decisions like raising the petroleum prices by abolishing subsidy which Khan’s government had given and the prices were frozen till next budget, are needed to be taken thus passing the economic burden on to the masses already reeling under the back-breaking inflation, that would certainly have a severe public backlash which PML-N is not ready to face alone as said by PML-N firebrand leader and federal minister for interior Rana Sanaullah. While talking to Geo NEWS programme “Naya Pakistan” he said, “PML-N has the ability to revive the economy ruined by an incompetent gang, but there is a cost for it, and PML-N is ready to pay its part of the cost but not ready to take the responsibility for everything alone. All other allies must come clear and show how much burden they were ready to shoulder for reviving the economy”.
So, PML-N has the painful realization that if subsidy is abolished, inflation will shoot up manifold and it will cost heavily on its political standing thereby badly affecting its vote bank. On the other hand, if the government decides to keep the petroleum prices frozen at the existing level, it would fail to meet the major IMF conditionality which is a must for releasing the 6 billion dollar loan as a bailout package to save Pakistan from default. So, this bleak economic scenario has created a catch-22 situation for Shahbaz Sharif’s coalition government.
Having said that, it was an epic faux pas committed by the opposition alliance (now the ruling alliance) with PML-N at the vanguard to oust Imran Khan through a vote of no-confidence. They have made him a political martyr. It would have been better for them to let him complete his tenure as his popularity graph was continuously sliding down and was destined to hit the rock bottom in due course of time due to his abysmal economic performance and bad governance. By showing him the door, PML-N and its allies have done him a great favour inadvertently. Now, Khan has succeeded in gaining unexpected public sympathy and people have forgotten the colossal economic fiasco he has brought to the country.
PML-N and its allies have lately realized that they have landed themselves in a place where they find themselves caught between the deep sea and the hard rock. However, in this tricky political game, Zardari has played his cards shrewdly leaving his perennial political rival PML-N in a cath-22 situation. He feels relaxed seeing Shahbaz Sharif in hot waters and laughs up his sleeves because he and Fazlur Rahman have nothing at stake. The way fast changing political developments are taking place, it is likely to hit PML-N very hard in the coming days and months leaving it totally spineless thus creating space for the PPP in the next general elections as Zardari will be in a comfortable position to do political wheeling and dealing – his favourite game, and would be able to carve out a suitable niche for himself and get a lion’s share in a much likely national/coalition government in the center after general elections. So, Zardari seems to have acted ingeniously to block PMl-N from getting comfortable majority in the next elections. He would never like to see his archrival forming government in the center alone for obvious reasons.
While playing this ticklish political game, both Zardari and PML-N top leadership understand well that their survival lies in keeping their common enemy away from power for which they seem prepared to make even major political compromises despite harbouring deep-seated hatred and enmity against each other; and Bilawal dropped a subtle hint at it while addressing a rally in Karachi the other day. Both PML-N and PPP leadership believe in the famous English adage,”the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The present alliance is likely to continue even after general elections for the greater interest of both the parties.
Last but not the least, PML-N top leadership needs to tread the rocky political path full of twists and turns very cautiously as both Zardari and Fazal ur Rahman have never been losers in political bargaining throughout their political carrier. Both have the track record of bemusing their opponents quite successfully.