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Imran Khan, Pakistan Prime Minister Image Credit: Instagram

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday won the hearts and minds of Pakistanis in a detailed speech at the parliament in Islamabad.

From Pakistan’s case on the disputed matter of Kashmir to the country’s vast needs, Erdogan extended a hand of friendship in a powerful reminder of the close ties between the two countries.

President Erdogan’s visit came at a time when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is seeking to build closer ties of friendship with a range of foreign players.

And yet, this visit coincided with mounting challenges internal to Pakistan that are increasingly pushing the limits of endurance for the country’s mainstream population.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday completed his two-day trip to Pakistan — his fourth visit to the country — aimed at strengthening bilateral strategic partnership and economic ties Image Credit: AP

Imran, elected as prime minister in 2018 with promises of bringing a robust change to Pakistan’s future, has yet to deliver on his bold commitments. In some ways Pakistan has slided backwards, leaving significant gaps in the ability of the state to deliver fundamental needs of its people.

Imran’s ability to seize a brand new initiative for a qualitative uplift to Pakistan’s future has become compromised. Instead of becoming a leader of change in the first 18 months of his five year tenure, Imran has been forced to become a reactive firefighter responding to event after event

- Farhan Bokhari

The recent crisis triggered by rapidly mounting prices of flour followed by shortages in parts of Pakistan, clearly highlighted the gap between the basic needs of the population and the capacity of the ruling structure to meet those needs.

The flour shortages alongside escalating prices of sugar highlighted a wider crisis in Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Meanwhile, for over seven months, the country has faced a growing locust attack that reportedly also damaged large parts of the cotton crop. Yet, it was only in the past month that Imran’s government announced a much too delayed emergency over the rapidly growing locust infestation.

Other parts of agriculture also remain in continuous disarray. There was a time when Pakistan’s policymakers drew comfort from witnessing food security as a given. But tragically, today’s Pakistan witnesses failure after failure in this crucial sector. The final consequence is a monumental tragedy given that almost half of Pakistan’s population depends directly or indirectly on agriculture as their main source of subsistence.

Meanwhile, other parts of Pakistan’s economy are suffering too. From industry to businesses, Pakistan’s outlook remains weak in large part due to uncertainty emanating from the way the country is being ruled. And last but not least, the social sector notably government provided hospitals and education remain under resourced. Revamping these services was among the central themes of promises made by Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 2018.

Together, Pakistan’s present day environment suggests just one core point. Imran’s ability to seize a brand new initiative for a qualitative uplift to Pakistan’s future has become compromised. Instead of becoming a leader of change in the first 18 months of his five year tenure, Imran has been forced to become a reactive firefighter responding to event after event.

Reversing the malaise

Reversing the malaise requires a combination of action on three accompanying fronts:

First, Imran must immediately reshuffle his team at the federal level in Islamabad and the provincial level across the Punjab and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces controlled by the PTI.

Anecdotal evidence widely suggests the extent to which the government has been saddled with non-performers or half performers in the federal and provincial cabinets. Unless a robustly performing team in put in place, the prime minister’s ability to become a leader of change will continue to be compromised.

Second, his agenda of change must focus on the bigger picture of Pakistan. This month, Imran’s government has announced a subsidy of Rs2 billion (Dh50 million) a month to support a subsidy for basic commodities through government run stores. Yet, this promises to be no more than a trickle in a big pond. On average, the subsidy amounts to roughly Rs9 every month for each Pakistani — a sum that provides less than the price of one ‘nan’ bread. Clearly, this is vastly insufficient.

In sharp contrast, the big picture must take the government to target a renewed push for food security through reforms in the agricultural sector. Unless farmers can get back to sizeable profitability and provide a resultant relief to Pakistan’s average household, the prevailing crisis will continue.

Noble objective

Finally, Imran must recognise that neither rubbing shoulders with foreign leaders nor prosecuting opposition leaders will rescue Pakistan from its present day challenges. Observers have lost count of the number of times when the prime minister promised to eradicate corruption from Pakistan. That is indeed a very noble objective.

But returning Pakistan towards a semblance of normality in its daily economic life must be a far more vital target. For now, key leaders from the opposition such as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Zardari face charges of corruption.

The reality however is that even if they are eventually prosecuted and kept in jail for years to come, that in itself will not rescue Pakistan from its fast descending outlook.

Even rubbing shoulders with leaders like Turkish president Erdogan could indeed be in Pakistan’s interest.

However, high profile initiatives on foreign relations while Pakistan’s outlook remains lacklustre, will hardly help the country’s future stability.

In a repeat of previous gestures, prime minister Imran once again on Thursday climbed in the drivers’ seat as he drove president Erdogan from the airport to a state owned accommodation for the visiting dignitary. Such a gesture obviously brings forth a certain warmth which is likely to be appreciated by visiting state guests. But prime minister Imran still has to come up with a convincing answer to a compelling question — What will it take for him to take charge of Pakistan’s driving seat?

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.

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