THE context in which the idea has been mooted most recently is revealing. Prime Minister Imran Khan's call to establish a welfare state is a laudable enough ambition. A modern, progressive, people-oriented state is surely the direction in which the country ought to be headed. Yet, Mr Khan's latest call for the establishment of a welfare state came in a meeting with a PTI MNA, Riaz Fatyana, who has earned the ire of the PTI rank and file for appearing to defend Saad Rafique, the PML-N leader ensnared in a NAB inquiry. Seemingly to demonstrate his continuing confidence and trust in Mr Fatyana, the prime minister has ordered him to draft a parliamentary bill that will make Pakistan a welfare state. Perhaps the prime minister was hoping to kill two birds with one stone: express confidence in a PTI parliamentarian under attack from within the party and kick-start the PTI's legislative agenda with a populist bill. If so, that is the prime minister's prerogative - but it still leaves unanswered the contours of the welfare state that Mr Khan wants implemented in Pakistan.
The prime minister, as reported in the media, has sought representation of all segments of society in parliament and improvements in the agriculture sector. To the extent that Mr Khan has envisaged representation of disadvantaged groups, for example, labour or agricultural workers, in parliament, it could help shake up the parliamentary status quo. A welfare state, however, goes far beyond ideas for improving the agricultural sector. Indeed, most political ideas for improving the agricultural sector have involved inefficient subsidies and tax breaks that do little to help the poorest and most vulnerable individuals in the sector. In a meeting with PTI MNAs from D.G. Khan division on Tuesday, Mr Khan repeated his call for the creation of a welfare state, but this time referenced the abundant natural resources in the country. Perhaps Mr Khan ought to consider a more structured approach to the creation of a welfare state.
At a minimum, a welfare state is about the provision of basic health, education and justice. It can quickly be expanded to take into account adequate housing, mass transport networks and income support. Within the constitutional structure of Pakistan, even a barebones welfare state would cover responsibilities by all three tiers of government. And every service has a cost - the critical other side of basic service delivery being the state's ability to fund those services. It is welcome that even rhetorically a prime minister is concerned with the plight of all Pakistanis, especially the most vulnerable. But if Mr Khan intends to translate his rhetoric into delivery, a more purposeful approach to governance and reforms is needed. More often than not, a government that seeks to do too much ends up achieving little.