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Saturday May 18, 2024

Pakistan can make a fresh start

By Muhammad Waqar Rana
April 25, 2024
A representational image showing a security personnel sanding guard beside a ship carrying containers at Gwadar port. — AFP/File
A representational image showing a security personnel sanding guard beside a ship carrying containers at Gwadar port. — AFP/File

The meltdown of Pakistan’s economy needs immediate attention. Political unrest and instability are causing tremendous loss to the economy and straining the federation.

An unremitting wave of terrorism has resurfaced that now seriously undermines peace and stability. Soldiers and officers of the armed forces are laying down their lives to protect the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan. This marathon war on terror that started with the American invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 spilled over to Pakistan’s soil and continued with brief intervals of peace in the troubled areas alongside north-western borders. Initially, a coalition support fund partially covered the cost of this war, but it was discontinued.

The economic impact of this war broke the back of the country’s economy and pushed it into a debt trap. This debt now poses an existential threat. To pay off foreign and local debt, Pakistan needs more debt and also needs to further tax and increase the cost of utilities which a recessive economy can hardly afford. The state is focused on the war on terror and does not have the resources to cater to social and economic uplift and the well-being of the people, particularly the burgeoning youth that needs education, jobs and a decent living.

The cumulative and consequential effect of all these multiple problems is political instability and an undefined discontent that finds its way into political agitations and social polarization that pose a challenge for policymakers.

Pakistan’s economy and politics are intertwined. Since 1947, hardly any political government has completed its tenure. There was either dissolution of governments or midterm orchestrated changes. Economic growth is dependent on political stability and rule of law which pave the way for economic planning.

Prosperity comes from economic growth which helps in mitigating discontent. The most critical aspect of Pakistan’s political economy is ownership, legitimacy and accountability for policy decisions. There has always been confusion in this area because of an overlap and conflict of interest between civil governments and the establishment. For the large part, Pakistan has had authoritarian regimes and even after the transfer of power to civilian setups shadows of authoritarianism continued to linger over the policy domain.

Owing to its geopolitical location and a willing role in the cold war due to economic vulnerability, water disputes with India, and the wars over Kashmir, Pakistan became a security state for which it heavily depended on foreign military aid and loans. Its limited economy could not sustain a huge military apparatus. There was no industrial base to meet the defence requirements.

Consequently, Pakistan witnessed a permanent presence of the establishment in politics and its influence on economic and foreign policy and also in the allocation of resources. Moreover, the lack of sincere political leadership with the competence to share responsibility and handle these complex issues of economy and security had a cumulative effect on stability. There is a perennial trust deficit amongst the institutions and politicians. Pakistan is now wholly dependent on foreign loans – at a time when economic standing and democratic credentials are the new measures of respect among the comity of nations.

But every challenge also brings an opportunity for reflection and consequent change. Civil-military relations are a complex area. In the interest of Pakistan, however, there is a need to converge conflicting interests. The whole policy domain needs to be reviewed and reformed. In the first place, it requires separation of the decision-making process from the implementation domain. All past experiments to manage and control this tricky area, judged from their results, have utterly failed because of an unwillingness to correct the beaten course. It is thus imperative to recalibrate the roles of different stakeholders through dialogue and most certainly to involve the people of Pakistan with their political judgment.

The world has changed. It is time to reassess all fundamental presumptions that hitherto have been applied while making decisions. Pakistan’s future lies in a true and real democracy, rule of law and supremacy of the constitution and civilian institutions.

When the time for change has come, sticking to beaten paths never leads to the destination. A paradigm shift is needed in the approach. Trust in people and their abilities is required to bring Pakistan out of the ongoing economic and political crises because that will strengthen civilian institutions.

In an interdependent world, state institutions should endeavour to create an investment-friendly atmosphere. Concrete steps should be taken to secure peace, security of persons and investment for which rule of law, independent judicial system and freedoms of the press and speech are to be ensured to encourage new ideas.

History is not wanting with examples of when nations faced with similar situations entered a grand dialogue and all stakeholders agreed on and charted a future course that led them to horizons of success. South Korea, Indonesia, South Africa and many European countries did that. It is, therefore, necessary that the primacy of the constitution is accepted and recognized, and the roles of all stakeholders are clearly brought within it. Once a national economic agenda and policy are defined and agreed upon, Pakistan is bound to prosper.

The following steps are suggested for a fresh start: one, the dichotomy of de jure and de facto power needs to end. The habit of outright denial of facts and truth causes error of judgment. The legitimacy of actions and requisite trust for attracting foreign and local investment demands that the primacy of the constitution is not only accepted but implemented with sincerity. No deviance is justified under any kind of necessity.

Two, foreign and economic policies are thoroughly reviewed and redirected. Parliamentary oversight is ensured to create checks and balances. A culture of deliberation and debate is to be encouraged to stop autocratic rule. Relationships with all neighbours are normalized and a policy of non-interference is strictly followed. This is an age of soft power. Mutual economic interests are the new weapons to secure territorial integrity.

Three, the constitution of Pakistan used to be a consensus political document but due to several amendments made therein during the past military regimes it has become unworkable in many areas, causing a strain and hindering its obedience which does not come only from reverence but also when it actually guarantees protection to all. It needs review to create a balance in favour of civilian power.

Four, the federal and provincial governments must cut down their sizes by changing their roles from managers to regulators. The sole purpose of forming a civil government is to secure the life, liberty and happiness of the people. When people live in abject poverty and under constant fear and are burdened with heavy taxes to finance inefficient governments then freedom has no meaning. Freedom can only be secured through truth which remains elusive in our society.

Five, we need laa w for taxation. There is no law for appropriation. Money can be expended with the simple authentication of the prime minister or the chief minister. Hundreds of billions of rupees are expended on false and fake development schemes. The attitude towards public money is of plunder and not of trust. This area needs to be fully revamped.

And finally, education, health and industries are provincial subjects. Provinces receive hundreds of billions of rupees out of federal revenue under the National Finance Commission Award and almost 57.50 per cent of revenue goes to the provinces. There are no provincial finance commissions. Chief ministers can spend all money in one place. There is an inequitable use of public money. It is time to provide for separate taxation powers for the federal and provincial governments with checks and balances on the spending power.


The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court and former additional attorney general for Pakistan. 

He can be reached at: mwaqarrana@yahoo.com