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Diminishing returns in politics

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‘Politics is the art of broadening possibilities and choices,’ writes Amir Hussain in his latest column in the News on Friday. He, however, questions the PTI-led government’s stance of mistaking politics for economics and diminishing returns on its political investments.

If there is any law of diminishing returns in politics (as in economics), none other than our sitting government should deserve the credit for its invention.

Diminishing returns in economics makes sense if you are a fan of classical liberal economics but in politics it is complex. Let me elucidate this a bit for the readers.

Politics is the art of broadening possibilities and choices because it deals with people and their relationship with the state and society. Unlike liberal economics, politics is not governed by any ‘invisible hand’; it is all about visibility, presence, and prescience. If you continue to spend money on frills in a crisis you will be flaunting even the basic principles of liberal economics by being imprudent. This imprudence in economics and diminishing returns in politics aptly defines our state of affairs in Pakistan today.

In the current political crisis, due to the selective anti-corruption moves and existential threat to the economy caused by Covid-19, the federal government seems to be mistaking politics for economics. The PTI seems to have diminishing returns on its political investments as Jahangir Tareen has been left to his own devices to defend himself to the dismay of many party workers. The sugar baron was taken to task by the prime minister in a political stunt when the inquiry report on sugar export was leaked, according to some sitting ministers of the prime minister’s inflated cabinet.

The PTI cannot afford diminishing returns on its political investments at a time when it needs the support of some strong political characters like Mr Tareen. If it were for corruption that a new consciousness had dawned upon the prime minister, he could have shown the door to many others around him much earlier.

It seems there is something more to it though which goes beyond the political diatribe of an anti-corruption move. Under the current regime, we have more riddles to settle than strategies to discuss on politics and economy. Some people say that, with all-pervasive factionalism within the party, the top man of the PTI acts peevishly to appease the powerful.

Theoretically, if parliament is supreme so are the elected representatives whose political credentials must have been examined before offering them tickets to contest the elections. Many amongst the prime minister’s team are those whose reputation was already marred when they joined the ranks of the PTI as electables – but they continued to thrive politically.

Jahangir Tareen – the cash machine of the PTI’s political campaigns – may not be equated with Azam Swati, Aleem Khan, Pervaiz Khatak, or even Wasim-Akram-fame Usman Buzdar – at least this is how the PTI worker thinks. Under pressure, Jahangir Tareen has started to put up his own fences within the party to guard himself against a possible arrest and politically perceived victimization of selective justice. However, this should not imply that Jahangir Tareen is without fault. He has been enjoying the export subsidy for years but the timing of this particular move is questionable.

We have had enough of political suspense thrills during the last 18 months and we do not know what will be the end of this new political melodrama. The Tareen camp within the PTI is disillusioned and if Tareen is booked, the political schism within the party will be sharpened only to accelerate the collapse of a weakening PTI regime.

The prime minister’s political audacity or egoism is buttressed by a dozen sycophants around him. If it goes wayward during a time of crisis like the one we have now then it is safe to assume that there is always a thin line between audacity and foolishness. With the exit of Jahangir Tareen, the PTI may lose Punjab where Tareen has strong political influence and he has been the real spirit in putting together a coalition government in the province.

This untimely political move reeks of the foolishness that has marked our political landscape during the last 18 months. If individuals become inevitable in politics, audacity rules which is impulsive and anti-democratic; and the PTI has all those credentials of being run with audacity. It is not only about the biggest of all audacities of Imran Khan it is also about Jahangir Tareen’s audacity. One day the silent majority within the PTI may put together the courage to say that enough is enough and those electables may bid farewell when they find greener pastures.

Heavens forbid, if this happens will we be blaming or cursing the follies of parliamentary politics again in our drawing rooms? We are farmed to be suspicious of parliamentary democracy because we have never seen its benefits translating into the wellbeing of the people. The journey of democracy has had several pauses in this country before it becomes institutionalized. We have had prime ministers hardly attending parliament sessions; our current prime minister has attended only three National Assembly sessions since he was sworn in. This speaks volumes of his commitment to upholding the supremacy of parliament.

The prime minister seems to be struggling with his political ideals of welfarism to build an inclusive polity and pragmatism to honour his commitment to a neoliberal IMF programme. Both cannot be run simultaneously as they are mutually exclusive and therefore it takes many U-turns to reconcile with reality.

Liberal economics considers people being self-centered driven by their economic interest and hence they make rational choices in their daily life but welfare politics dislodges the individual choices for attaining a collective goal. It, therefore, becomes imperative for economic liberalism to depoliticize an individual to relegate him/her to the foggy domain of consumerism. The fear is simple: as you start investing more your profits start to plummet at a certain point which may result in layoffs which in turn can lead to political unrest.

If you can transform citizens into consumers you can delay or even prevent the organized political uprising. When we look at the history of IMF programs in Pakistan it becomes pretty much clear that they have exacerbated poverty, disparity and have resulted in the shrinking of public services and development spending. From structural adjustment programmes of 1990s to the current one, IMF programmes have crippled the competitive potential of indigenous industries of Pakistan under a free trade regime – hence business closures and layoffs in the worst crisis of our national history today. We have little space to avert a political backlash without being smart and strategic.

The prime minister must be politically prudent and focused on reviving the economy and mitigating the adverse effects of the forthcoming corona spike. There is hardly any time to settle scores with political opponents; it should be our national moment to show collective wisdom by rising above party politics. You cannot gag dissenting voices; you should learn to accept them to build a better Pakistan – and that is the leadership people expect from a prime minister. You can make Jahangir Tareen accountable to his deeds but it must essentially remain an intra-party affair.

You cannot take credit for doing the minimal in a selective manner while there are many out there in your own camp who enjoy patronage despite their questionable political conduct.

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