In spite of a great deal of discussion, I am prepared to suggest that Pakistan has made serious progress in reaching the point at which it can look to the future with some hope. This is largely for the reason that while working together, the forces that have divided the country in the past have initiated actions that will ensure relatively smooth development on both political and economic fronts. Two recent examples of this are the adoption of the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter domestic terrorism and the unanimous approval by parliament not to accept the request made by Saudi Arabia to help it militarily in its effort to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Yemen. This was not the style of governance adopted by a number of previous administrations, especially those led by the military.
As I have repeatedly asserted in this space, for Pakistan, as for several other developing countries, it is not possible to achieve the much sought after goal of sustainable economic development without first making progress in establishing a viable political order. Economists have made great progress in defining what is meant by “sustainable economic development”. It means more than a high rate of growth in national income. It also means growth at a rate that would provide well-rewarded employment to those entering the workforce, reducing disparities in personal and regional incomes, allowing opportunities to the disadvantaged to participate in the economy, and financing a large part of the needed development effort from domestic resources.
Where does Pakistan stand when viewed from these perspectives? The big break in the country’s political development came when the 2013 elections threw out the ruling PPP from office, replacing it with the rival PML-N. The citizenry voted for change having watched, with growing anger, misgovernance by the regime headed by former president Asif Ali Zardari. Millions of voters abandoned the PPP in favour of the PML-N and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The latter, a relative newcomer in the politics of Pakistan, was headed by the once-popular cricketer Imran Khan. The PPP’s tenure witnessed unprecedented corruption committed by those occupying high offices. The party also presided over the country’s longest period of economic stagnation.
I am still waiting for a thorough analysis of the pattern of voting in the May 2013 elections. In the absence of such analysis I am prepared to suggest that tens of millions people from the PPP vote bank, as well as the millions who voted for the first time, were from the country’s rapidly expanding urban middle class. In a conversation with Shahbaz Sharif a couple of months after the elections, I suggested as much and also made the point that unless his party governed better than the PPP, this group of voters will travel on other political avenues. Their sojourn with the PML-N may prove to be a temporary one. He seemed to agree with my assessment and said that the administrations in Islamabad and Lahore will do all that is needed to be done to meet the people’s expectations.
The PML-N had promised a great deal in the election campaign. Four promises stood out: that it will provide fair — or at least fairer — governance; that it will revive the economy; that it will solve the problem created by energy shortages; and that it will deal with the rise of extremism. Even before the new government could settle down, Imran Khan brought tens of thousands of his supporters on to the street not so much questioning what the PML-N-led government was doing in terms of fulfilling its promises. He argued that the party headed by the Sharif brothers had gained office in illegitimate ways. He alleged that there was massive rigging in the elections. It took more than a year of relentless campaigning for him to attract the sustained attention of a large and increasing segment of the population. He succeeded for two reasons: the PML-N did not entirely fulfil its promises and the country’s political development was on a course where the voice of a large middle class could no longer be ignored.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2015.