Of White Papers and Blue Smoke

They may have spoken, but they did not say much

Salaar Khan December 05, 2018

Life has made me skeptical of three things: advertisements; claims involving the number 100; and advertisements featuring claims involving the number 100. The seeds for this deep mistrust were sown when I realised that the bold ‘100% juice’ slapped across the face of the juice box, didn’t really mean anything. (Some time later, the Competition Commission agreed, and slapped the manufacturers with a bunch of show-cause notices.)

And so, as I came across an advertisement featuring an ominous ‘100’ followed by, “We’ve been busy”. “Turn the page for Naya Pakistan”, urged the ad. I took a sip.

PTI scores a B+ for first 100 days

What followed was a deluge of headlines that, apparently, were supposed to “speak for themselves”. They may have spoken, but they did not say much. Take, for example, “Saudi Arabia invited to become 3rd CPEC partner”. As of early October, the government has itself categorically denounced the claim. Why then, include it in the advert?

Another — repeated twice (apparently it was really that difficult to find just one more favourable headline): “CCI agrees to publicise LNG import contracts”. Only, Qatar — the second Middle Eastern nation to burst the PTI’s bubble in the same month — has said no dice: confidentiality clauses matter.

And while the government said not to take their word for it, and that the headlines would “speak for themselves”, a fair share was, in fact, the government’s own ‘words’. “We’re sitting on ‘dead capital worth billions: PM” — in what reality is that the fulfillment of a promise? Evidently, participation-medal culture has seeped so deep that we are now to laud elected representatives for completing a sentence.

And yes, there is room for nuance here; not all ‘words’ are the same. ‘PM hopes India will mend its ways’, for instance, might be seen as offering the proverbial olive branch and, arguably, progress. The same cannot, however, be said for ‘PTI govt to ensure independence of media: Fawad’.

There is a method here. As a rule of thumb, first, look for an action verb. For instance, ‘Imran launches citizens’ complaint receiving system’. Second, look at whether the verb itself signifies action, or whether it signals only the intent to act. ‘Launches’ is fine, but ‘promises’ and ‘announces’ are not — particularly when the promisor himself prides his ability to backtrack on such commitments. Finally, fact-check.

Let’s apply this to the Government of Pakistan’s detailed report on the first 100 days in government. While the advert provided only 19 headlines, the report provides 18 ‘deliverables’, marked ‘complete’. And while the difference in number is 18 and 19, the difference in content is little more than uneess beess.

Only five of 18 ‘complete’ deliverables have action verbs, such as ‘establish’; ‘launch’; or ‘draft’ (deftly placed at the beginning and the end). Of these five, one is “Increase Pakistan’s regional and global relevance”, however that has been measured. (The PML-N’s own collection of international headlines in its ‘white paper’ — unflattering as they may be — still demonstrate relevance.)

On its own, listing ‘Naya Pakistan Housing Programme’ as one of the 18 complete deliverables suggests that the Housing Programme has, in fact, been ‘completed’. The devil, of course, is always in the detail.

Naya Pakistan Housing Programme, listed as complete under ‘Revitalize Economic Growth’ corresponds to initiative 13: “Launch the Prime Minister’s Housing Programme to build five million housing units for the middle class...” Turns out they do know how to use verbs after all.

So why the absence? Because the actual ‘completed milestone’, in smaller, non-bold text is ‘Housing task force established’.

Try a deliverable for yourself — same pattern.

Bear in mind, also, that this is without prejudice to questions regarding how realistic these goals are to begin with. The PML-N’s white paper, amidst a flurry of MS Word 1997-esque clip art, (with occasional gems such as ‘promise’ — vowed to kill himself before going to IMF, rebutted by ‘U-turn’ — went to IMF but didn’t kill himself’), occasionally raises such objections. To the housing project, for instance, it contends that the 20 per cent down payment will disqualify ‘almost 99 percent’ of low income people.

But what does one make of all of this? Did anyone realistically expect the new government to build five million homes in 100 days, revive the manufacturing sector, and revolutionise access to justice — all at once? Of course not. The only ones who did were the PTI, themselves.

The 100-day mark was an arbitrary number set by Franklin D Roosevelt, a US President, followed mostly by other Presidents. The Prime Ministerial is simply not as well suited to such an arrangement even at the best of times (let alone with parliament in a deadlock). The last Pakistani to toot a smiliar horn, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did so as President and CMLA.

But ‘these things do not happen overnight’. Fine. Who asked the government to announce a 100-day plan? They set the goals; they cashed in on the praise. Can they not now be judged against their own benchmarks? For all their criticism of the likes of Marie Antoinette, they seem not to realise that if you keep the cake for yourself, you can’t eat it too.

And yes, it is refreshing to see a government attempt to hit the ground running, and yes, partial success towards goals is still success. The PML-N’s claim that nothing has been accomplished is just as unlikely as the government’s own claims.

100 lies in 100 days, say PML-N leaders

But to treat such modest success as some one-off miracle presupposes that previous governments spent their own first 100 days doing little more than playing carrom board and swindling people out of their hard-earned money (that part mostly came later). The truth, however, is that while the PTI is ahead by some metrics, it is behind by many others. And before this escalates into a classic game of whodunnit, the causes for being held back are irrelevant to the claim being made.

Towards the end of the government’s report, there is a timeline with arrows running from the number 100 to the number 1826. The government would do well to focus on that second number — because 100 is still only the start. And while it remains to be seen whether or not the government eventually decides that 1826 days were enough, slamming down your palm and announcing “Done Maa’m” at the end of a test, does not make you more likely to score the highest on it.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2018.

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