FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 11

2021 – The year that was

The year 2021 is now part of history. What were its most distinguishing features? How Pakistan fared during the year? What we gained and lost? And what happened in the wider world beyond?  Let us have a look at the major developments.

The year 2021 was the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic whose virulence had begun to curve down a little. The initial reaction of panic and fear was over and with the intensifying race at the world level to develop anti-coronavirus vaccine, hopes of conquering the menace had begun to curl up. However, the news of emergence of newer and more infectious variants came as an unexpected setback. As the year wore on, vaccines began to be administered around the world, including Pakistan. Towards the end of the year, another coronavirus variant – Omicron – hit, putting a damper on New Year celebrations.

Developments in Pakistan: 2021 was a challenging year for Pakistan. With the raging pandemic and large scale economic disruptions, the PTI government had a hard time controlling the situation.

Dealing with Covid-19: Along with the whole world, Pakistan also faced the deadly virus attack. But in Pakistan the situation turned out to be much better than in other countries. Both the infection and fatality rates were lower than the world average. The government moved quickly to stop the spread of the virus by imposing smart lockdowns in affected areas, instead of total shutdowns resorted to by other countries. The government also lost no time in launching a mass vaccination campaign for various age groups. The economy remained partially active with the government starting a monetary aid programme for the most vulnerable segments of the population.

Political situation: The political situation remained chaotic and directionless. The government continued to face challenges from the opposition parties which held public meetings denouncing government policies and asking PM Imran Khan to resign. The PML-N leadership especially adopted an aggressive approach both during public meetings and TV talk shows. But despite all the brouhaha and talk of a long march, the opposition failed to bring down the government which it said it would do. Later, cracks developed in the opposition alliance PDM, with the PPP going its own way. On the other hand, the PML-N was unable to reconcile its internal contradictions and was unclear whether it wanted to pursue a confrontational or conciliatory line.

Dwindling popularity of PTI: Due to lack of good governance, the PTI continued to lose its political capital among the masses. The government’s failure to deliver on its promise of a better life and contain inflation continued to disappoint all and sundry. The mantra of corruption no longer worked as it did in the beginning. People faced serious hardships but no relief was in sight. The authorities concerned totally failed to control the price situation. Big increases in power and gas charges further added to the woes of the consumer.

Parliamentary performance: The performance of the parliament was much below par for which both the government and the opposition are equally to blame. The parliament was mostly used as a rubber stamp by the ruling party with the opposition, frequently walking out of the House. In November, the government was able to get over 30 bills passed, including an electoral amendment to allow the use of electronic voting machines, in a matter of just hours, with the opposition failing to put up any meaningful resistance.

Inflation: Despite its repeated claims the government failed to stop the upward climb of prices. There were wide fluctuations in the market and most articles of daily use went out of the reach of the common man. The rates of sugar, chicken, medicines skyrocketed, with the administration miserably failing to regulate the market and break the nexus of hoarders and black marketers. According to the Consumer Confidence Survey by IPSOS, a Paris-based research firm, 87 per cent of people felt the country was going in the wrong direction.

Economy: The macroeconomic indicators showed a slight improvement during the year. Exports began to inch up while the current account deficit was cut by a big margin. Remittances registered a hefty rise and the State Bank of Pakistan’s dollar reserves almost doubled as compared to two years ago. The textile industry saw a revival, with local car manufacturing and sales recording a big jump. Negotiations with the IMF hit several snags, with the latter imposing stringent conditionalities entailing a severe political cost to the government. The year ended with talk of an IMF-imposed mini-budget on the way. The outgoing year also saw mounting government debt, both internal and external, with public debt rising to over 90pc of GDP. Power sector debt also rose exponentially, compounding the circular debt problem. The rupee lost much of its value against the dollar, reaching the lowest point in the closing weeks of the year. However, two initiatives by the government made a positive impact on the situation – expansion of the Ehsaas programme and introduction of the health card in Punjab.

Fight against corruption: The government relentlessly pursued its campaign against corruption with a series of high profile cases before the NAB. The cases have lingered on for more than two years now but no final convictions have resulted such as in the case of Shehbaz Sharif, Sharif family members, Sharjeel Memon, Asif Zardari, Dr Asim and many others. It not only indicated a weak prosecution process but also brought a bad name to the government.

OIC conference on Kashmir: In the closing days of December, Pakistan hosted a conference of OIC foreign ministers to deliberate on the emerging humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and find ways to tackle it. Two major decisions taken by the conference were the creation of a trust fund to funnel aid to Afghanistan and a food security programme designed to deal with the looming threat of mass poverty and hunger in the war-battered country.

India & Kashmir: Under the BJP rule, India remained intransigent and hostile towards Pakistan as ever. This is despite the fact that PM Imran Khan, on several occasions, offered a hand of friendship to Delhi. The plight of Kashmiris and Indian Muslims further deteriorated during the year. The human rights and democratic freedoms of the people of occupied Kashmir saw further erosion during the year as indiscriminate arrests and killings continued. Delhi intensified its policy of subjugating the people of the Kashmir valley by force. Over 800,000-strong Indian security forces have turned the Kashmiri valley into a big prison house, with its inhabitants confined to their homes and deprived of the basic amenities of life. Kashmiri youths are arrested and killed on a daily basis. However, how hard India tries, it cannot deflect the world’s attention from the Kashmir problem and the suffering of the people there by putting the blame on Pakistan.

Ties with China: Relations with China continued to grow, given the high level of mutual trust and commonality of interests between the two countries. After some delays, work on various CPEC projects gathered speed. The next phase of the CPEC would commence soon, which would further strengthen the foundations of the national economy.

Clashes in Ladakh: A series of clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at the Line of Actual Control made world headlines. The Ladakh border with China remained hot for several months after which both sides agreed to de-escalate and withdraw their forces to agreed positions. However, the basic dispute regarding control over large border areas has not yet been resolved. As a result, tension between the two Asian neighbours remains high.

US-China rivalry: On the world chessboard, both the US and China continued to make their next moves. While China made further progress with its economic diplomacy and expanded the BRI to include Iran and other Asian nations, the US launched AUKUS in parallel with QUAD as part of its ‘Contain China’ policy.

Arab world and Israel: The process of transformation of the political landscape of the Middle East gathered pace as more Arab countries decided to normalize relations with Israel. The year saw a cavalcade of Israeli delegations visiting the UAE and other Arab countries. On the other hand, Saudi Arab opened its doors to Western and Indian artists who performed to packed halls.