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Dawn Columns: 16.07.2019


PTI's traits

July 16, 2019

 RULING regimes often get labelled in media by traits that define their key pluses or minuses. The defining trait of Trump’s regime is chaos while of Jacinda Ardern’s regime it is empathy and Narendra Modi’s bigotry. Hope and change were PTI’s defining traits before the polls. But those seem like distant dreams and it is now labelled often with many negative traits. 

‘Selected’ was the first trait it acquired (as a birth defect) based on opposition and even neutral views that ‘selectors’ had rigged the 2018 polls to aid the PTI. The bonhomie [پیا ر] seen in the meetings now between the establishment and the captain reinforces this view. The PTI reacts angrily to these charges by reminding the PPP and PML-N that their founders had both entered politics under dictators. But both parties later won at least one election each on their own. Critics say the PTI has yet to do that. In fact, they say that sans [بغیر]the support of the ‘selectors’, the PTI regime may even lose critical allies and fall quickly.

Incompetence is now a second defining trait. Pakistani regimes, elected or autocratic, are usually incompetent. But the PTI seems more so. Governance covers five functions: legislation, policy/strategy, projects, institutional reform, and service delivery. The PPP exhibited some competence in legislation and the PML-N in projects from early on. But both did poorly on all other functions. 

Even after six years in power (in KP, and now also at the centre), the PTI is yet to make even a single function its forte. If it can reform FBR and other public agencies, it may yet do so. But that is still a big if. Daily mess-ups reinforce the incompetence image, eg, the many U-turns and W-turns; odd and conflicting statements by higher-ups; and the Punjab paralysis. Unluckily, time is a remedy for inexperience, but not incompetence.

Pakistan has a struggling ruling team.

This incompetence has led to a third defining trait: disempowered. The ‘selectors’, alarmed by the incompetence, have slowly imported players for key posts. Ministers/advisers holding the top portfolios are often referred to as their men, with the core PTI team apparently running only lesser ministries. It would seem as if expensive house items have been put out of the reach of toddlers to avoid heavy damage. 

The fourth trait is autocracy. The party has clearly launched a major crackdown on the opposition, media and civil society on a scale usually seen under dictators. This too stems partially from its incompetence as the crackdown helps veil it. The opposition faces non-transparent accountability, while the PTI receives a virtual free pass. The NAB top honcho [in charge] , after his seedy video leaked, says he will focus first on older groups that have ruled for decades and not new ones. But this is faulty logic. 

Taken to extremes, it would be like saying that no action should be taken against the militant Islamic State group since it is a new terrorist group and the focus must still be only on Al Qaeda, which has existed for decades. But sanity says IS must be targeted too as it can commit more terrorism now than Al Qaeda, just as the PTI may commit more corruption than others as it controls most of the purses now. In fact, after the Panama leaks, Imran Khan himself had argued that accountability should start at the top, with the prime minister and ruling party.

How does the PTI compare with the last PPP and PML-N regimes? The two were not seen as being ‘selected’, or as autocratic towards the opposition and media, or as disempowered as the PTI. On incompetence, they seem similar — with perhaps the short-lived Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail and the Shahbaz Sharif team a bit more competent. Irked PTI fans may say the party is much less dynastic and corrupt. But it actually has more declared billionaires and persons with ongoing criminal cases in the National Assembly than the others. 

Meanwhile, the Khattak dynasty is the biggest one nationally now. Even singleton Sheikh Rashid now has a dynasty. Imran Khan has perhaps more ongoing cases than perhaps any sitting prime minister in our history, though they are not about sleaze [corrupt, sordid behaviour]. So the claimed absence of corruption and dynasty largely applies only at the top, to the prime minister himself. 

Pakistan faces huge economic, political and external challenges. But it has a struggling ruling team whose defining traits are selected, incompetent, disempowered, and autocratic. The blame for this lies with the selectors. Instead of trying to work with an elected regime, they chose to bring in a compliant one. Sans this, we could have at least had a genuinely elected, more empowered and inclusive, and slightly less incompetent regime. Even that would have helped in dealing better with these challenges. Inzamam and his co-selectors may soon lose their jobs due to the World Cup fiasco. What about our political selectors?

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan.



Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019


Simplify, cut, grow

July 16, 2019

 THE government has set itself a very ambitious revenue target for the coming fiscal year. More than that, it is generating serious momentum for changing the prevalent tax culture in Pakistan. For this, one must appreciate their intent and goal. As of now though, there are some glaring issues that threaten to make our current exercise not as fruitful as it could be in three years’ time.

By (rightly) emphasising the broadening of the tax net, I feel some of the tactics may make the execution of the strategy and achievement of the goal impossible. There is a fine balance the government must try to maintain whereby it does not end up killing the goose in an effort to get more of the golden eggs. I am, of course, talking about slumping business confidence and the reduced number of transactions taking place in the economy. This risks prolonging the recovery time which we can ill afford.

So far, the tactics have mainly been about the stick. Yes, the recent amnesty was a big carrot, but the real carrot has to be in incentivising those in the tax net and those joining the tax net. We must rationalise taxes and make the tax code simpler. 

The examples of the East European countries and Ireland may be ones to study and emulate[تقلید کرنا]. These countries introduced flat tax regimes which resulted in investment and employment being generated in a major way. There will be some who criticise such a regime for being regressive, but there is no point in having a progressive regime that encourages evasion and corruption, inevitably leading to indirect taxation and inflation, which is the worst thing for our poor.

The PM needs to grab a scalpel and trim the extra economic fat.

A flat tax regime simplifies the code. Currently, our tax code is deliberately a mess as it allows the taxman to be in control. This is the kind of major tax reform that will positively jolt the economy and our local investors overnight. This will lessen incentives for bribing tax officials and hiding economic activity.

We have just seen the impact of offering a lower rate in this year’s asset declaration scheme. Non-filers became filers in a substantial way. There will be naysayers [نہ نہ کرنے یا کہنے والے] from within the FBR arguing about how this will lead to a reduction in government revenues in the short term, resulting in problems with the IMF. However, this brings me to the most important reform act, one which inexplicably has been missing from this government’s agenda so far.

As we all know well, our governments have been living beyond their means. What has made matters worse is that much of this debt-financed, deficit spending did not contribute much to our productivity or competitiveness as an economy. This begs the question. When our government is bankrupt, then why is the main focus for fixing this on businesses and the common man of Pakistan? Why are we fixated primarily on increasing the tax-to-GDP ratio and not simultaneously decreasing government expenditures which are approximately 23 per cent of our GDP? 

During these tough times, when our armed forces are still in a state of war readiness, we see them take a cut in defence spending this year in real terms. We see the prime minister set an example personally in the Prime Minister House. We see ministers take a pay cut. Yet a budget deficit of over 7pc is predicted, that too provided the FBR can miraculously achieve their massive target from a slowing economy. This frankly beggars belief.

The prime minister needs to grab a scalpel and cut the fat off the governments by slashing current expenditure and letting go of state-owned black holes such as the Steel Mills or PIA. This will free up resources for his government to spend on PSDP, the Ehsaas programme, health cards, education, and our dire malnutrition issues. It will also signal to the people that the government itself is also taking upon itself some of the pain. Fixing these state-owned black holes in a sustainable manner is a pipe dream. Even Malaysia is revisiting its Khazanah model. 

Whenever the public sector is in control of an entity, the threat of patronage and corruption will remain, especially in developing nations such as ours. Reducing the deficit through expenditure cuts will mean less pressure on taxpayers, less loans to bridge the gaps, and a quicker return to a moderate interest rate regime — thus lowering our debt-servicing burden and increased economic activity. 

So far, the prime minister has shown great resolve and will. However, for him to deliver on his promise of making this IMF programme our last, he must cut the fat, simplify and rationalise the tax code to expand the tax net, and improve the ease of doing business. Only then will the current pain be worth it in two to three years’ time.

The writer is a business development consultant and a start-up entrepreneur.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019


Giving up is not an option

July 16, 2019

 YEARS ago, I heard Beena Sarwar (journalist and editor) narrate a story involving veteran journalist Aziz Siddiqui, who was part of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan at the time. Angry and frustrated at the turn of events (of which there are many in Pakistan), Beena asked him what the point was of all the effort people such as her put in for journalism, democracy and human rights — to name a few. He looked up and said, “Tau kiya karain, hathyar daal dain?” (What else can we do? Give up?”)

Twenty years on, the story never leaves me for it is a reminder to simply plod on[walk with heavy steps]. There is no other choice for most of us who have only one home — Pakistan — and no second passport for an exit strategy. 

It is also a story that is never far from my mind these days as we cope with the various challenges — financial and others — that confront journalism.

But the fact that one is not alone in this effort to plod on was brought home recently at a conference on the state of the media. Held in London, the first of its kind, the event featured journalists from everywhere including those who are worried about the pressures on the fourth estate. Speaker after speaker spoke of Jamal Khashoggi and his brutal death, which seems to have been forgotten by most of us rather quickly.

There is no other choice for most people, who have only one home and no second passport.

Indeed, the press is under fire everywhere, from the United States (where the leader of the Free World tweets against it) to the Middle East and Myanmar and beyond. In comparison, perhaps, what is happening in our neck of the woods may not even be all that alarming. If being muted is our major problem, let us consider those who are being detained in Egypt, or kidnapped in Gaza, or trying to report on Syria and Yemen, or surviving assassination attempts in Lebanon. (A speaker at the conference was a Lebanese journalist who lost her arm and leg in as assassination attempt.)

It is time we all tried to understand the shifts taking place globally. Even if we may differ on where exactly Pakistan fits in — the polarisation among us has even split opinions on the enormity [extent of seriousness] of what confronts us — it would do well to remember that our experience is not an isolated one. The challenges being faced here are not unique, but are part of the larger trend being witnessed worldwide. And it is important to realise this especially as we operate in a country that has always been vulnerable to outside intervention.

In fact, at an informal roundtable of South Asian journalists, it was interesting that we found common ground in describing covert pressures, which makes work difficult, but are hard to document and protest against. Those ruling us have discovered better, quieter ways of silencing voices while we have fallen behind times and are yet to find ways to resist this.

Indeed, in our part of the world and in others, more dangerous ones, the threats are legal and economic as well as physical.

At the conference, governments pledged money to set up a fund to support journalism, especially by providing legal assistance to journalists being tried. This perhaps can prove to be a much-needed step. Because as the world has become a harsher place for journalists, charges, trials and imprisonments have become more frequent. 

There are chances of Pakistan following this worldwide trend — not so much for reporting, but because of the haphazard world of social media. Unfiltered opinions on social media — unchecked and ungoverned — will be targeted with the help of new laws which cover cyberspace. It has already begun and will get worse (before, hopefully, it gets better).

But this is not the only aim behind creating the fund.

The idea behind the billion-dollar fund is to support media platforms, good journalism and individual journalists. As mentioned earlier, individuals are already in need of help and will welcome it, especially when embroiled in legal troubles.

But how easy will it be to support investigative journalism or institutions which can then strengthen reporting? If Pakistan provides any indication, support for national-level journalism from outside might not be too welcomed. After all, we live in times where isolationism has overshadowed internationalism. And a growing sense of nationalism and insularity[lack of interest in other people's culture etc] has increased suspicion of outsiders and their agendas.

At home, for a number of reasons, the distrust of the outside world and its ‘interest’ — or rather ‘agenda’ — for Pakistan has grown in recent years. This has been especially true in the post-Musharraf period when the romance with the West slowly began to fade away after 9/11. This distrust and suspicion has extended to Western outlets that can and do report on Pakistan, relatively free of the encumbrances[impediments, hindrances] faced by their local counterparts. Their reportage and intentions behind it are now suspect — in perception — as are many capitals once seen as close friends. This is different from the old days when the BBC and others were seen as credible institutions which had the strength to report what perhaps the rest of us were not able to do so.

Within this context, if there is reporting in Pakistan, for instance, which is made possible by donations coming from elsewhere, will it enjoy the credibility it requires to make a difference? Do similar sentiments exist in other countries also, where the press is under fire? It is hard to say for sure, but it may be a question that will be raised more than once before the answers are discovered.

Indeed, there are no easy answers to the changing times we muddle our way through. But we cannot give up, can we? Perhaps that is what the people who had gathered in London also wanted to say.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2019

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