Waging the data war

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When data starts to drive discussion, politics becomes even messier than usual. In Pakistan today, numbers, figures, graphs and charts are speaking louder than words. But are the people absorbing this alien language?
On Friday Prime Minister Imran Khan declared triumphantly that Pakistan was faring better than India economically and was on the path to progress. He cited the 3.9 per cent growth rate as evidence that the country was finally getting on track and the change he had promised was becoming visible. The PM’s words reflect the new narrative that the PTI government is now pushing aggressively, and it is centred on the economy gaining health. But there’s more to this economic narrative than mere figures and numbers.
To better understand the game, one needs to see what the opposition has been doing recently. While the PML-N and PPP may be clawing at each other’s throats, they remain united in their characterisation of the PTI government as ‘selected’ and ‘incompetent’. It is no secret that the government has struggled to deliver effective and coherent governance — especially in the Punjab — and is now burdened with the baggage of this mal-governance both in reality and perception. The successive defeats in the by-elections have substantiated the grim impression that the electorate is unhappy with the PTI.
The government tried but somehow could not create a convincing narrative that it was doing at least some things right. Its army of ministers and spokespersons filled hundreds of hours with press conferences and statements extolling the virtues of projects like Ehsaas, health cards, Naya Pakistan housing scheme as well as ‘wealth creation’ schemes like the Lahore business district and the islands project off the coast of Karachi. Nothing worked. The reason was simple: food inflation remained out of control and unemployment wreaked pain in households across the country. High-sounding macroeconomic indicators mean little when your grocery and utilities bills are telling their own torturous story.
The opposition pressed hard on this wound on the government’s body. Every time it drew blood. It was becoming obvious to the government that the only way it could succeed in neutralising — or at best diluting — the deadly perception of incompetence and mal-governance was to show some progress that was quantifiable, marketable and digestible. Voila! In came the 3.9pc growth figure. Now everything else that was not finding traction — increasing exports, growing large-scale manufacturing, rising remittances — could be pegged onto this central indicator of the economy’s health. The politics of economics had just become a tad bit easier to comprehend.
But could it be deceptive? Here’s the thing about data, numbers and figures: context makes all the difference. Numbers do not lie, but they can tell a partial truth. This cuts both ways. In the last two weeks, this one figure of growth, unbelievable as it may sound, has generated a new perspective about the PTI government’s performance. If the number is accurate then clearly it portrays an economy on the upswing. The growth figure has therefore done a strange and unexpected thing — it has for the first time since August 2018 put the PTI on the offensive about its performance.
Of course, the economists are not fully convinced. The growth rate figure may not mean an economic revival in a comprehensive sense. But does it really matter? The PTI smells blood. If it can overturn the narrative of its gross incompetence, and if it can somehow bring down the inflation — and especially food inflation — down into single digits, and if it can indeed collect greater tax revenues, ramp up official spending through PSDP and create jobs through well-performing sectors like textiles etc, and of course if it can somehow remain on the ‘one-page’ with the establishment, it could start looking very confident for the 2023 elections. Perception matters, and that one growth rate figure has done wonders for perception.
Which is exactly why PML-N’s pre-budget seminar on Thursday was so important. Their leadership could sense the danger this growth figure posed. The new perception needed to be neutralised before it grew legs and walked all over their carefully calibrated narrative. The speakers at the seminar therefore dragged in their numbers and charts — all official figures they repeatedly stressed — and painted a different context. The politics of the economy had started to generate both heat and light.
Former finance minister Dr Miftah Ismail brought a gun to this knife fight. He weaponised his presentation by making it simple and digestible. He spoke economics in a political language. On GDP growth rate, he compared his government’s numbers that remain higher than the new PTI figure; on gross public debt his graph showed PTI’s three-year debt far exceeding PML-N’s; on FBR tax revenues, his bar graph showed last two years’ collection almost equal to PML-N’s last year; on tax-to-GDP ratio, he showed PTI’s figure for 2019 and 2020 much less than the figures for 2016, 2017 and 2018; on exports he showed that the figures for the last three years were almost the same as the one in 2018 despite, as he stressed, 35pc devaluation of the rupee; on inflation he displayed a chart that showed the figures for the last three years towering over those of the previous four ones; on unemployment he showed the number for 2021 (8.5 million) dwarfing the 2018 figure (3.5m); and finally on poverty he displayed a chart that showed the figure for 2021 at 75m compared to the one in 2018 which was 55m.
It is now an all-out war of the economic narrative. In electoral terms, the economic performance of any given government boils down to inflation and unemployment while the experts continue debating fiscal deficits and interest rates. This time it is different. The PTI is fighting this dense war for its next election in a bid to rebrand itself away from the image of incompetence. The opposition knows it cannot allow the rebranding to happen in the final stretch and is therefore weaponising its own economics.