Confronted with a big slowdown in economy, the pressure seems to be building up on the government to do something to generate economic activity to avert public backlash.
Though much of the slowdown is attributed to the global economic slump but tough taxation measures as well as reported high-handedness of the accountability sleuths is also considered to be a major factor in scaring private investors to park their capital in Pakistan.
Last week, a delegation of country’s top businessmen met with Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa separately to apprise them of their worries. Both the top executives assured their full support in addressing their grievances. Interestingly, Chairman National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Justice (R) Javed Iqbal met with another delegation of their businessmen to listen to their issues.
The Prime Minister told the businessmen the government was fully aware of their complaints about NAB and a plan of action has been chalked out to resolve these matters.
The PM said a team of businessmen is being set up which would interact with the NAB for the redressal of their problems. He also said the government believed in strong partnership with the private sector of the country to revive the economic activity in the country.
The prime minister also told business tycoons the government was simplifying the taxation and other laws to ensure ease of doing business in the country.
General Bajwa on his part also held out assurances to the business leaders. Flanked by economic managers of the government, including Advisor on Finance Abdul Hafiz Sheikh and Chairman Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) Shabbar Zaidi, the army chief hosted the business delegation at the Army Auditorium.
He briefed them on the improved security environment of the country after a series of military operations over the past few years particularly in the northwestern areas bordering Afghanistan.
These operations uprooted militant sanctuaries in these areas, which led to a marked improvement in security situation of entire country.
The government as well as businessmen needs to take benefit of the improved security situation by ensuring increased economic activity in the country.
“Accessibility and responsiveness of government economic team to business community and displayed understanding between public and private institutions is a good sign for intended positive trajectory in economic activity,” the military statement quoted army chief as saying.
“The national security is intimately linked to economy while prosperity is a function of balance in security needs and economic growth.”
The NAB chairman in his interaction with the businessmen said, “His institution does not employ harassment tactics against their community”. “The NAB has nothing to do with the tax evasion cases and these are dealt by the FBR.” However, he said, the money laundering was not a tax-related issue and it was a crime.
The increased interaction between stakeholders including government, security institutions, businessmen, and the departments dealing with business-related matters is a good step and such discourses should be encouraged to remove misunderstandings, if any, and to address grievances of the business community.
Private investment is vital for running the wheel of economy which has virtually at a standstill.
The government seems to be caught between devil and the deep blue sea. It now appears to be feeling this heat as slowdown in growth, rising inflation and joblessness could create political problems for it. A political government cannot risk inviting public backlash. But, while addressing these concerns, the government should not compromise on vital structural reforms needed to put economy on strong footing.
The government instead of coercing business community into submission has very correctly chosen the path of negotiations with the business leaders. While it as well as other stakeholders are assuring full support and protection to the private investment, holding firm ground that there would be no backtracking on vital economic reforms also needs to be ensured.
The business leaders reportedly have held out assurance at the meeting with the army chief that they would facilitate the implementation of long-delayed structural reforms including taxation measures.
It is heartening that the opposition parties too have not tried to extract political mileage over the business community concerns.
However, there is a fear that political instability in the wake of a growing chasm between the government and opposition might take the government’s focus off the implementation of its economic reforms agenda as happened in the past too.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) JUI (F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman has threatened to storm Islamabad with his workers later this month.
Though the two major opposition parties –Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan People’s Party – are yet to decide whether to join JUI (F) protest but such agitation could lead to a bigger political crisis.
Therefore, the government, though seems comfortably in saddle in the parliament and also enjoys full backing of the state institutions, still needs to take political steps to defuse political tensions and reach out to the opposition parties to bring down tempers within and without parliament.
The opposition protests may not pose a serious threat to the government politically but they have the potential to derail the economic reform process.
Therefore, the prime minister should take personal initiative to address these concerns. While there should be no two opinions with regard to holding of a ruthless, fair, and transparent across-the-board accountability but it must be ensured this drive should not turn into a vendetta campaign against political opponents.
The government, which is trying to assuage business community concerns over accountability process, should also ensure political victimisation of opposition is not perpetrated in the name of accountability.
The government should ensure that the accountability is credible and genuine otherwise it would deal a serious blow not just to the credibility of the institutions responsible for this process but would also raise questions about the impartiality of the government.
These concerns could only be removed by improving the accountability laws through parliamentary legislation. Though treasury and opposition both have reservations over accountability laws framed during the dictatorial regime of General (retired) Pervez Musharraf but no serious attempt was made in the past to remove those lacunae. Time has come for the government and opposition to remove those shortcomings to ensure a credible accountability process in the country that would ward off a major obstacle towards political instability.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad