PDM’s leaders are using economic hardship and hyperinflation as a rallying cry at their protests – pinning the blame squarely on the PTI. A few year ago the same slogan was raised by the PTI; this time the target being the PML-N. Another few years before that, PML-N protested the PPP using the exact same contention; economic mismanagement.
We take a look at previous mass protests in Pakistan’s recent history against incumbent governments and analyse what narratives have been used in the past to mobilise the public.
At 10am on Friday morning, Maryam Nawaz visited the protest camp set up by Baloch students outside Punjab Assembly at Charing Cross; the students had marched from Multan to Lahore to protest against the reduction of reserved seats for Baloch students in universities across Punjab.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground with young students surrounding her, Maryam looked like a picture of a grassroots leader, and sure enough, the praise followed. Leftist circles celebrated the moment as a vindication of their politics by mainstream parties, others claimed that PDM, and especially PML-N, was truly standing with the most vulnerable and disenfranchised segments in society.
However, the detractors weren’t far behind either. PML-N and Maryam had never raised this issue before, nor had they provided support to Baloch students when it was needed the most, they contended. This was just a convenient photo-op – the protest was happening in PML-N’s backyard after all – and a bid to push PDM’s discontent narrative even further. This was opportunism, plain and simple.
While the controversy rages on in the background, one can ask: Do the actions of these parties change when they go from the opposition to the government, and are all parties like this?
“We speak for the downtrodden masses”
In early 2012, PML-N started a campaign against the PPP government with fiery speeches by Shehbaz Sharif against the economic mismanagement of the government. The narrative used against the Gilani administration argued that the negligence of the PPP towards the economy of the country was harming the public. PML-N held mass rallies in 2012 against inflation and rising prices of food and utilities in major cities across the country, May 4 in Taxila, in Gujranawala on May 7, Bahawalpur and Sargodha on May 8, Multan and Rawalpindi on May 10, Sialkot on May 11 and Gujrat on May 12. The party built a popular discourse that promised a change in the economic condition of masses, including issues such as purchasing power and electricity for domestic consumers.
The next mass protests – against the Nawaz government and led by Imran Khan’s PTI – were built on the narrative of corruption and financial mismanagement of the PML-N government. In 2014, PTI held a massive dharna which locked down Islamabad, where Imran Khan made speeches from atop his container against the alleged corruption of the Nawaz family. He claimed this mismanagement had led to the rising national debt of the country, which in turn had led to rising prices for fuel and imports, reducing the purchasing power of the salaried class.
Imran Khan thundered that governments only need to raise prices when leaders are corrupt and are stealing money, a narrative that resonated with the middle-class constituency of the PTI.
Now PDM is protesting on the same issues and accusing the PTI government of financial mismanagement and gross incompetence while administering the economy. Inflation, food prices, fuel prices, unemployment; all of the same issues are on the dock again, only this time the protestor and the incumbent have switched places.
It looks like much of the mass political mobilisation in Pakistan happens on the same issues, but then how do these parties govern once they are in power?
From Opposition to Treasury benches
The PTI government recently terminated more than 60 employees of Radio Pakistan and PTV without any prior notice. In the same period, the government reduced the funding for the Family Planning and Basic Health Programme. The Sugar Inquiry Report found that a “cartel” of 88 sugar mills had exported sugar during a low yield year, underpaid growers, faked records, and manipulated prices; which contributed to an ongoing crisis in sugar prices that began in late 2018. In all of this, the PTI government was found grossly negligent, and many argue it was complicit as well.
On the economic policy front, PTI has followed IMF directives for less public spending and subsidisation. The cutting of employees from state institutions (PTV, Radio Pakistan and Family Planning Programme) or the calls for privatisation of PIA and the Steel Mills have been in line with an economic plan with less and less social security for an increasing number of people. This has been coupled with rising inflation where drug and pharmaceutical prices were raised by 260pc for 94 different love saving drugs, the biggest price hike for pharmaceutical in recent history. This decision was taken by the cabinet on 22 September 2020, and has been followed by a consistent rise in prices.
PML-N had better control over inflation and price hikes but that does not mean the economic growth was evenly distributed throughout different socio-economic strata. PLM-N is largely popular in the industrial and business classes all over the country because they follow a supply-side economic model. The idea is that better facilitation of industry in terms of subsidies and tax-cuts to producers make products cheaper which can replace spending on consumers (the people) in form of cutting welfare support for people and lessening public spending.
In tandem with such policies, the PML-N government also reduced spending on education and health and giving a disproportionate share towards transport and infrastructure. Which resulted in literary rate falling from 60% to 58% in 2016 as compared to 2013 when the government took power. Similarly, health expenditure fell to 0.46 of total GPD in 2017 as opposed to 0.56 in 2017. The inevitable end of supply-side policies is the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, according to a 2016 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, Pakistan had rising inequality to the point where the richest 20pc consume seven times more than the poorest 20pc. Which means even in the Nawaz tenure when policies were relatively stable and the country was not plagued with hyperinflation, the working poor were still earning less than their share in the economy.
The faces change, the process remains the same.
The people on the streets and in protest rallies of the PDM are there particularly to find a cure to their economic woes and the opposition is dutifully playing the knight in shinning amour, pretending that their policies have always been pro-poor and doing public spectacles of solidarity with the down-trodden.
But such is not the case, every politically led protest movement has focused on the same issues of inflation, rising prices and rising poverty. But not much seems to change even when those in power change.
The political carousel keeps going round and round.