A strange thing happened this week. Some of the fiercest critics of PTI spoke out in favour of a genuinely revolutionary PTI policy. “Commendable work,” tweeted Jibran Nasir. “Universal health coverage is one of the most fundamental rights for a dignified human existence. Well done Imran Khan.” Jibran wasn’t alone. Pakistan Twitter took a pause from its polarised toxicity to come out almost universally to toast Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa becoming the first province in Pakistan to provide universal health care insurance for every citizen.
Just like the Ramazan moon appears in K-P a day before the rest of the country, Naya Pakistan’s promised tabdeeli becomes visible in certain places ahead of the rest of the country. One of the most unexpected places we’re seeing genuine tabdeeli today is on the economy. While PTI still needs to do a lot more to get its act together on day-to-day governance, its macroeconomic policy making is fundamentally shaking things up for the better. A pivot from an unsustainable import-led, consumption-driven growth model to a manufacturing-driven, export-led model with a focus on job-creating sectors such as construction is exactly what the doctor (not IMF!) ordered for Pakistan.
A stunning V shaped economic recovery is underway across any metric you can name — exports, large-scale manufacturing, tax collection, and current account deficit; even inflation is down. Just like the mainstream press and chattering classes missed the spectacular story of Pakistan crushing the first Covid-19 wave — because they were too busy criticising Imran Khan for policies that would later prove effective both from a health and economic recovery point of view — they’re going to miss the economic recovery story too. But the real question isn’t why life is so unfair for PTI but how PTI can tell and sell a better story. PTI can’t go down in history as the only political party in Pakistan’s history whose economic performance was actually better than its communication strategy on the economy. Here’s how we can change this for Pakistan’s sake.
First things first: PTI needs to get its messaging right. When it comes to the economy, PTI should focus single-mindedly on its performance and vision for transformation, a la universal health care coverage, rather than accountability, corruption or what the opposition did before. It made sense in the early days of government to bludgeon the sins of the opposition & focus solely on accountability because performance takes time to come. But now that performance is coming in like a tsunami, it’s time to focus on telling that story. If needed, accountability and corruption can continue to be talking points in the political sphere but divorce them from PTI’s economic story. PTI’s economic story should be built on visible performance (I fear even PTI doesn’t realise how many good stories it can tell) as well as a soaring, positive vision of the longer-term transformation of the economy underway.
Second, the medium is the message. PTI doesn’t need more spokespeople on the economy, it needs the right people to speak on the economy. One wishes there was a cloning machine to create more Asad Umar(s) but that’s what the PTI needs right now: ideological, intelligent, articulate forces of nature unapologetically telling PTI’s remarkable economic story. Everyone else in PTI needs to stop talking about the economy and muddling the consistency in messaging needed.
Finally, PTI needs to identify the core economic messaging that will appeal to different constituencies and deliver this messaging directly through social media, in person touch points and key opinion leaders. For example, talk the revolutionary steps the State Bank of Pakistan is taking to enable startups to operate more effectively, including digital payment systems, to the young, emerging middle-class college graduate. For corporate types, talk about record corporate profits and KSE being up 74% in less than a year. While you highlight Ehsaas and universal health care coverage for a more mass audience. Today, PTI is behaving like that Pakistani cricketer from the late 90s who’ll score a century on the field but be shy of speaking his heart out at the post-match press conference. Both Pakistan and PTI deserve better.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2021.