Renaming BISP: PTI’s art of turning non-issues into controversies, because any publicity is good publicity

Published: April 7, 2019
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BISP has consistently provided relief to underprivileged women, especially in rural Sindh. PHOTO: FILE

The art of turning a non-issue into a controversy seems to be a favourite habit of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. From the moment it came to power, PTI has only been good at changing the names of projects initiated by former governments and trying to re-launch them under its own name.

The inauguration of the Lahore to Multan Motorway and the opening of the Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim in Karachi are examples in this regard, for the latter was already inaugurated while the former was a project almost completed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government.

As the prime minister is a media-savvy person, he is aware of the importance of staying in the news, even though more often than not it is for controversies and not achievements. And Imran Khan found yet another controversy over the non-issue of the name of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP). Asked by a member of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) to change the name for the program due to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) allegedly using it for political gains, Imran stated that BISP’s name was being amended.

It did not take long after the news broke for the backlash to begin. In his speech in Shikarpur, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari termed this a conspiracy to end support to the poor and one against the legacy of his late mother, Benazir Bhutto. He told the media,

“Imran Khan will first change the name, and then he will close it. At the very outset, they stopped BISP funds and now they want to change its name. He is victimising his political opponents. This government is anti-people.”

But it wasn’t just the PPP leading the criticism against the move; all mainstream parties as well as the civil society at large felt this was a petty and unrequired move. A government failing to come up with legislation and struggling with one of the worst economic crises in recent memory cannot afford such controversies, but this is the era of PTI, a party that strictly believes that any publicity is good publicity.

BISP is a program designed to help poor women in the country through an unconditional cash transfer directly into their hands. It was initiated by Yousaf Raza Gillani in 2008 and the PML-N government kept funding it throughout its time in power. In fact, former finance minister Ishaq Dar specially allocated funds for BISP.

This program is not only a tribute to the late Benazir, who fought for the supremacy of democracy her entire life, but is also the largest aid program in the country. By casually indicating that his government actually planned to change its name and politicise a program meant to benefit the poor, Imran proved that his critics are right and that he is actively insecure when it comes to the legacy put forward by the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. Meanwhile, the corruption in the BRT Peshawar project – a project of the PTI government that caused a loss of Rs7 billion to the public exchequer – is not an issue Imran or his fans would like to focus on.

One does not have to move beyond PTI to see that this was the wrong move to begin with. PTI’s own leader and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is a veteran politician and thus recognises a bad decision when he sees one, shared his concerns with the media and stated that the name should not be changed.

But Imran seemingly ignored the dynamics of politics, particularly in Sindh, where the Bhutto legacy still prevails and the poor relate themselves to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir. If PTI thought a move like this would have worked in its favour and helped end the decades-old Bhutto dynasty, well, it couldn’t have been proven more wrong in such a short amount of time. If dictators like General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf could not take out the Bhuttos, Imran certainly stands no chance at doing so, and definitely not through petty manoeuvres over actual politics.

Perhaps the prime minister also did not realise that BISP was created through legislation passed by the National Assembly and hence its name could not simply be changed because Imran wished for it to happen. He may be unfamiliar with it, but due process would require a majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate. Given the government’s current position in both houses, it is clear this motion would not have passed.

This attempt was clearly the wrong political move; one that failed badly and caused Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry to promptly take yet another U-turn and state that the name would not be changed. It’s good that the PTI has clarified this, but the fact remains that this was something the party actually wanted to do and was actually processing in the first place until it moved outside its echo chamber and realised this is the most inconsequential matter it could focus on right now.

Chaudhry also revealed that PTI’s program ‘Ahsas’ will be expanded at the national level and run alongside BISP, calling it a similar social protection project. The question arises: why do we need ‘similar’ projects when BISP already exists? Why not add funding for this under BISP itself? After all, initiating a new project would take time and require more resources diverted to it, while simply adding to BISP would be a more cost-effective way to actually help the poor as the project has been running successfully for a decade and has an experienced team.

Once again, for Imran and his party, the goal is optics and publicity, not the social cause they advocate. PTI is clearly not ready to rise above political enmity by showing the statesmanship that was promised.

BISP has consistently provided relief to underprivileged women, especially in rural Sindh, which remains one of the poorest regions in the country. BISP is thus hailed as one of the main positive legacies of the PPP government, for while the PPP deserves criticism for its sluggish performance in a province it has ruled for over a decade, the people of the region still cherish the memories of the Bhuttos and feel seen and supported through this program.

Ultimately, PTI’s position on BISP’s name can be described as much ado about nothing. What would the party even achieve from such a move? Would it end the actual suffering of the masses as they deal with the skyrocketing prices of basic necessities? Would it help the economy?

By announcing and then backtracking from another statement after backlash, PTI has once again proven it is not ready to come out of its narcissist mindset. Leadership is about giving credit to political opponents where it is due, and not creating unnecessary controversies to divide people when the public is already losing faith in the government due to its performance. On that front, the PTI has failed yet again.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar

The writer is a columnist and writes for various English and Urdu publications. He tweets at @rjimad (twitter.com/rjimad)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.