EDITORIAL: Circumstances leave the government with no option but to think out of the box, which is why the prime minister’s “strategic roadmap”, which will give federal secretaries of concerned ministries targets/performance indicators for a wide-range of reforms, is very encouraging. Seven “key areas” have been identified for the first round, and more will obviously be incorporated based on its results.

However, before we get ahead of ourselves just because of the announcement, it’s important to remember that this is not the first time such a thing has been tried. The then PM, Imran Khan, captured the headlines pretty much the same way not long after coming to power, when he would hold marathon cabinet meetings, take detailed briefings from secretaries, and give stiff targets to different ministries. And then, just as now, the PM’s office made sure to mention that the head of the state would himself monitor all the progress.

Nor is there anything surprising about the key areas. Every government makes the same kind of noise about fiscal consolidation, revenue enhancement, SOE (State-Owned Enterprises) reforms, increasing exports, FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), energy sector problems and poverty alleviation.

Yet here we stand, with the resumption of a mere $6 billion IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout programme being the only thing keeping us from tumbling head first into sure sovereign default. Successive governments refrained from using the D-word for the longest time, out of fear of spooking financial markets and investors no doubt, but now this threat has become so real that no less than the finance minister himself was forced to admit it, even warn of it, in a live press conference very recently.

The PM’s secretary has invited 13 secretaries and the FBR (Federal Board of Revenue) chairman to the PM’s office for a detailed briefing on 27 June 2022. But it’s not clear from initial reports if the PM expects the secretaries to come prepared with detailed targets and plans of action or if that part will come after the initial interaction.

Regardless, for this plan to succeed this time even though it failed every other time it will have to be strictly result-oriented and completely transparent. Since the people are once again being made to pay through their nose for the incompetence of successive governments, it’s only fair that they also get to monitor all the progress.

They will, after all, have to decide who to vote for not far down the road. And since most of them have very short memories, a lot of people are already blaming the current setup for all the economic problems, especially high prices. That is why this government will have to go the extra mile to show something for the austerity it has had to enforce otherwise the noose will keep tightening around its neck all the way to the election.

Perhaps the only novelty in PM Shehbaz Sharif’s strategic roadmap is that it forces a number of ministries to work as one under each key area, which will at the very least keep all of them on their toes.

The PM also built something of a reputation for himself for his lightning speed and constant vigilance when he was chief minister of Punjab. If ever he needed those qualities and characteristics, it is now. For, Pakistani heads of state have seldom stared into a darker night. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s many dilemmas when he took over after the dismemberment of the country, and Pervez Musharraf’s shock when he got to know that the country barely had a few days’ import cover, come close.

But this time it’s worse. Over the course of the next year alone Pakistan must make close to $40 billion in debt repayment. When we’re falling all over ourselves for a mere trickle from the Fund, how are we going to arrange all that money in such short time? The fuss over fiscal reforms, SOE reforms, energy sector reforms, and FBR reforms has gone on for far too long. Now we’ve come to the end of the road. And if we still can’t sort them out, we will simply fall over the edge.

Whether or not this PM’s special plan can make any difference will become clear soon enough.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022


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