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Tuesday August 16, 2022

Reforming Pakistan

June 29, 2022

As Pakistan goes through the toughest economic adjustment since its creation, the riddle over the country’s long-term future remains unresolved. The recent storm of inflation unleashed by large spikes in the costs of basic needs has already begun to translate into political, social and economic turmoil.

Imran Khan’s promise of fresh protests over prevailing economic trends, notwithstanding his own regime’s contribution to that end, and warnings over the fallout from unprecedented and rampant inflation fall under the umbrella of recent and upcoming turmoil. Ultimately, however, a yawning gap remains in the shape of an unresolved question: exactly how will the cause of reforming Pakistan stand best served in these difficult times?

The challenge of reforms has haunted Pakistan for roughly half of its history as an independent state – an era that is best remembered for the collapse of key institutions, haphazard policy choices and above all a failure to create and sustain ruling structures armed with progressive agendas. Consequently, an increasing failure to embrace rule of law across the board has progressed in tandem with a failure to reform Pakistan.

Fundamentally, the idea of reforms must be anchored upon establishing rule of law as a central pillar, which remains the missing element across the board in today’s Pakistan. From everyday traffic conditions on urban roads to the happenings along the top echelons of politics and the economy, breaking the law has increasingly become the norm.

Even the recent introduction of some of the heaviest taxation measures for the next financial year must not be equated with tax reforms. The exercise now underway promises to yield more revenue without a clear-cut way to a more reformed Pakistan. Instead, reforming the tax collection system will be more about forcing more taxable Pakistanis to enter the assessment and tax payment network. One of the biggest setbacks to this cause came years ago – a brainchild of former finance minister Ishaq Dar – when a distinction was brought in between ‘tax filers’ as opposed to ‘no- tax filers’.

The state thus decided to close its eyes to further pursuing a tax dodger as long as the individual chose to pay twice as much as a ‘filer’ for excessive spending such as the purchase of an expensive vehicle. The proliferation of some of the world’s most expensive cars on the streets of increasingly impoverished Pakistan mainly owes itself to the loophole created for ‘non-filers’.

Today, the pursuit of taxes appears primarily a search for more revenue than the basis for a credible and long-term reform exercise. At the same time, the agenda of reforms requires a revamp of key institutions ranging from the police to the judiciary at the lowest level that caters to the daily needs of ordinary citizens. Above all, Pakistan urgently needs to rebuild its administrative capacity to carry forward a new reform agenda.

This requires a revisit to the devolution exercise undertaken about two decades ago that resulted in reducing the authority of the country’s civil service, inherited from the British colonial days. Though the idea of reforming the civil service carried some justification, its replacement with a still dysfunctional new order has just not inspired confidence in the ability of the state to undertake a bold reformist agenda.

And last but not the least, a credible reform agenda can just not proceed successfully unless carried out in isolation from pressures – notably, political ones. In other words, a reform agenda requires to be pursued independently without consideration to influence from any individual or group with a vested interest.

It is also imperative for the success of a reform effort that it is taken to its very end to make a visible difference. In Pakistan’s history, previous reforms were undertaken but abandoned half way through. In the words of a respectable former minister, “if you have to perform a brain surgery, you can’t do the job to 90 per cent and leave the rest. You can well imagine what the result will be”.

Today’s Pakistan tragically presents a case of the country’s mainstream leaders presenting no evidence of either their commitment or their ability to undertake watertight and uncompromising reforms to overcome some of the acutest challenges faced in the nation’s history. Along the road to undertaking credible reforms, the big toes of influential individuals and groups will have to be trampled upon as never before, all for the cause of turning around Pakistan’s destiny for the better.

In this journey, the top leaders of the ruling structure will come under stress from all sides, raising the danger of a reversal midway through the exercise. Fundamentally, that would be the moment of reckoning for Pakistan and its leaders to decide if they can detach themselves from a sorry past and embark towards a progressively new and a very long-awaited future.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs. He can be reached at: farhanbokhari@gmail.com

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