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Tuesday June 18, 2024

Who will help find a solution?

CPEC may yet not be the shining star it was meant to be but the investors have not lost hope

By Shafqat Mahmood
May 22, 2024
Pakistani flag can be seen fluttering in front of the parliament building in Islamabad. — AFP/File
Pakistani flag can be seen fluttering in front of the parliament building in Islamabad. — AFP/File

It is difficult to pick positives, though the stock market thinks otherwise. Those astute heads putting their money on the line are breaking new records daily. Obviously, they think an IMF deal is certain as are Saudi investments. CPEC may yet not be the shining star it was meant to be but the investors have not lost hope. Positive spins on Dar’s journey to Beijing may be the usual drum beating after foreign visits but the market is in a mood to believe.

This is the good news – though economists keep warning us that the ups and ups of the stock market are not necessarily indicators of an economy on the rise. But perennial optimists like me, without much knowledge of what goes on in the back rooms, like to think otherwise. The market players obviously know something we don’t – or so we believe, and silently curse ourselves for not putting our meagre amounts on the line to make a quick buck.

The rest of the picture sadly is not even a mirage to delude and give hope – unless you take pride in Pakistanis coming second with investments of twelve billion dollars in Dubai. It is interesting that just in two days the story has almost disappeared from our screens and our papers. This is the power of the elite because almost everyone who is anyone has properties abroad. Thus, no umbrage is being taken by the FBR, no notices issued yet and, most importantly, no promises being made of asking the one critical question that overshadows everything: the money trail.

Declaring properties to the FBR and ECP and even paying taxes on them is not enough. The real question is: where did the money come from to invest such huge amounts abroad? Was the source declared to the FBR as income and was it then transported to the UAE through banking channels? Minister Naqvi says that he is a businessman and has every right to invest his legal money anywhere in the world. True and no one questions that but it has to be done according to Pakistani laws; income tax paid and through banking channels. Whoever has done this is entirely kosher but how many have, and isn’t this the right question to ask?

It is unlikely that it will be asked, and we will soon forget. Difficult moments overtake each other with such regularity that a story two days old can easily be dumped into the bin of history. Our attention span is limited because there is so much else to worry about. Case in point: the unrest in Azad Kashmir which came as an uncomfortable surprise. It is the last place one expected to erupt. Some quick fire-fighting has diffused the situation, but it is an indicator of how troubled the state is in at the moment.

Conflicts in parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa we have come to expect but this by itself is a bad sign and reflective of our current predicament. When the element of surprise goes and the painful becomes the new normal, it is a gauge of where we stand. In the last year, terrorism has resulted in the martyrdom of our many brave soldiers and policemen but how many can we recall off-hand? It is a dull pain not the raw wound it should be.

This proclivity to a new normal is not confined to terrorism in remote areas but true of Karachi too. Daily stories of muggings, killings, counter-killings and more have dulled the senses. The surprise is not the mayhem so visibly on display but our acceptance of it. No heads roll, no midnight cabinet sessions, no responders held to account.

The Sindh government carries on blithely ignoring the chaos in its streets, and its jungles for that matter, claiming this performance or that. Civil society groups raise the occasional red flag but they have other concerns to worry about. The daily gory details keep assaulting our senses, causing momentary discomfort, but life goes on.

Life goes on but no one can build walls high enough to stop the onslaught of reality. We are in trouble and urgently need solutions. And solutions that almost everyone agree on. A total consensus in a country as diverse and now as polarized as Pakistan is virtually impossible but sometimes process can be a half way road to salvation. What will this process be and how can it be set in motion?

The process has to be a national dialogue among all stakeholders and on this a consensus of sorts has emerged. The basic argument is that unless everyone who matters – in government, politics, institutions, business, civil society, media – can agree on the basics of a way forward, we will not get very far. The reason is simple. Policies require continuity to be effective and in our case with so much catching up to do, the continuity has to be long term.

This is true of every area of governance but particularly in the realm of the economy. Unless there is a long-term consensus among all stakeholders on basic issues such as revenue generation, privatization, right environment for investments, agriculture and more, there is no way our economy will ever come out of the debt spiral it is on. A charter of economy with everyone signing on to it is therefore critical. Same is true of many other areas of governance.

While the need for a national dialogue is now being widely recognized, little thought is being given to how it will come about. Who can create the conditions for everyone to sit together?

In another time and place, parliament could have been the right forum but the current one is a part of the problem rather than a solution. With most of its seats disputed, who will listen to it or accept its consensus building role? It also has not added any gloss to its image by putting on a horror show every time it meets. With abuses flying around and ever-present possibility of fisticuffs, it is not a sober enough entity to play any constructive role.

The other option could be the government but this one is ecstatic just being in office through a fake mandate and its interest lies in furthering polarization rather than reducing it. This is visible by the antics of its ministers who are daily stoking fires of conflict. They think they are winning brownie points where it matters but are actually pushing the nation deeper into a debilitating conflict.

This leaves two premier institutions of the state, the judiciary and the armed forces. The judiciary could contrive some sort of a dialogue by stretching its powers (won’t be the first time) but it currently has its own bag of woes to worry about. Its internal fault lines are clearly visible, making any kind of concerted push by it for a nation-saving dialogue nearly impossible.

This leaves the armed forces – or, more appropriately, the army. It does not have the constitutional platform to initiate such a national dialogue but it has immense power within the system to make it happen. The key words are within the system, within the constitutional framework. Time has come for it to play such a role. When the nation is in a crisis, it must do everything possible to find a solution.

The writer served as the federal minister of education in the PTI’s federal government. He can be reached at: shafqatmd@gmail.com