DAWN Editorials 7th November 2022

Ishrat Jamal

Democrats, dictators & demagogues

THE system is imploding, spectacularly — collapsing under the weight of the multiple distortions created by decades of political engineering, not to mention outright military takeovers.

The unravelling is ugly, and judging by the events that transpired on Thursday at the long march, it could get deadlier still. No one quite seems to know how it will all end. But this much is clear; if chaos and anarchy are to be reined in, new rules of engagement must be drawn up — not only of engagement between the security establishment and the political leadership, but also within the latter.

In other words, another charter of democracy is called for. Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto put their signatures to such an agreement in 2007 — an outcome of their realisation that a dog-eat-dog political rivalry only strengthened the hand of unelected forces and left civilian governments at their mercy.

The pattern is discernible almost throughout our history: undermine the people’s mandate from behind the scenes by vilifying political leaders as ‘corrupt’ or ‘anti-state’. Let alone Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Mujeebur Rahman and many Baloch politicians, even Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the country’s founder did not escape the label of ‘traitor’.

The last few years saw the establishment come out from the shadows to shore up its latest brainchild, a ‘hybrid’ experiment with the PTI government. That ‘one page’, even by the standards of a country that is no stranger to combative politics, spawned unprecedented toxicity in the political arena.

Mr Khan is correct when he accuses several civilian leaders of being nurtured by military dictators, but — at least in the latter part of his political career — he is as much a progeny of the establishment. And perhaps as little enamoured of democracy as they are. Indeed, a one-party demagogy, manufactured by decimating the opposition in a sham accountability exercise and throttling freedom of speech, appeared a real possibility — until Imran Khan bit the hand that fed it.

But this time, a confluence of events, not least Mr Khan’s strategic use of populist slogans, has turned the playbook on its head. Those who believed they could indefinitely control the levers of power to their advantage find that the law of unintended consequences has caught up with them.

Also read: Army has nothing to do with the political process: DG ISPR

Now it is security establishment that is in the PTI’s cross hairs, facing the most vitriolic onslaught it has ever been subjected to from an ousted leader who enjoys the real and psychological advantage that mass appeal confers.

However, ‘people power’ — the very essence of democracy — is being cynically used to pressurise the powers that be to abjure their recent claim to ‘neutrality’ and again intervene in politics. Pakistan stands on the edge of a precipice. All parties to this conflagration must rein in their worst impulses, pledge to not malign each other and look to the Constitution for a path to coexistence.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2022

Revenue gaps

THAT the government is likely to soon take significant measures to fill the gap in its revenues due to shrinking imports during the first four months of the current fiscal year was expected. A report suggests that the finance ministry is considering different options shared by the tax authorities to bridge the shortfall in customs duty and sales tax at the import stage. Last year, the share of import taxes was around 52pc, which has come down to 45pc over the first four months of the present financial year. The revenue hole is projected to grow to Rs100bn because of the compression of imports to reduce the trade deficit and manage the current account gap if new measures are not taken. The increase in import taxes is also crucial to achieve the tax-to-GDP target of 9.5pc for the current fiscal year, hold down the overall fiscal deficit and produce primary surplus as required under the deal with the IMF. Some reports indicate that the IMF has already asked the authorities to implement measures to raise an additional Rs600bn in taxes.

The government is also planning to charge 17pc sales tax on petroleum products as agreed with the IMF. Unlike previously, the IMF is now exerting massive pressure on Islamabad to meet the programme targets despite the flood devastation. Even a small cut in the petroleum levy by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to reduce petrol prices didn’t sit well with the Fund. The increase in taxes is also necessitated by a much slower growth of 12pc in overall revenues when compared to the 28pc spike in expenditure, mainly due to the surge in defence-related expense and debt payments in the first quarter of the present fiscal. The current expenditure has increased at a faster pace of 36pc. Thus, the federal budget deficit has swelled to 1.3pc (1.026tr) of GDP. If this situation continues and the gap between revenues and expenditure further rises, it will not only widen the targeted budget deficit of 4.5pc but will also make it impossible to attain primary surplus as agreed with the Fund. The government’s budget is likely to come under more pressure and the pace of expenditure growth likely to surge drastically as the administration moves to undertake the rehabilitation of the flood-affected people and reconstruct damaged infrastructure. In the absence of any meaningful foreign assistance, we will have to rely on our own resources.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2022

Dispossessed in Karachi

THE PPP continues to trot out the ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ slogan whenever it wants to project a ‘people-friendly’ image. However, the party that rules Sindh is shamefully dragging its feet on providing shelter to the Karachi residents displaced by the Supreme Court-ordered demolition of their homes last year in order to revamp the Orangi nullah. Despite the passage of one year, the provincial government has not even determined a site for the people’s rehabilitation. Two local organisations held a joint protest on Friday outside the Karachi Press Club to draw attention to the authorities’ apathy. The SC gave the government two years to resettle those affected by the demolition exercise but considering that nothing has been done on that front, one may be sure that scores of families will continue to exist in limbo. Their lifeline for now is the rent payments the Sindh government is making to them, but the process has been inconsistent.

It is mind-boggling how those entitled to well-appointed government residences cannot spare a thought for those dispossessed of their homes, despite having documentation for their property in many instances. Pakistan has long been an inequitable society. But in recent years, the builders’ lobby in cahoots with those in the corridors of power has come to typify elite capture in the country. Unfortunately, some of the apex court’s decisions have further deepened the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. For example, it ordered that no action be taken against the influential characters, including provincial revenue officials, it found complicit in illegally acquiring thousands of acres of land on Karachi’s outskirts and the construction therein remained untouched. Meanwhile, the shops around the city’s Empress Market were bulldozed and Nasla Tower was torn down. It is about time the government took steps to allay the impression that unscrupulous builders are having a field day in Karachi at the cost of the city’s creaking infrastructure and its less-fortunate residents.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2022