Politics is not their business but the risk-averse private sector of Pakistan, aware of the country’s power dynamics, lets its instincts guide it’s positioning in turbulent times.
Blaming the civilian leadership for the hostile business environment, in a seminar, it stopped short of calling the supreme commander to assume charge.
Chief of the Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa speech was insightful. Did it reflect a fresh security doctrine? It is hard to say in the absence of credible information. However, the concluding remarks of Gen Bajwa contrasted both in content and formulation from the thrust of a daylong seminar. Was it meant to appear this way? Again, it is hard to be certain.
Commenting on the seminar later, Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) President Zubair Tufail, who co-hosted the seminar with the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), was uncomfortable with many observations of the writer.
“We would like to manage better next time by broadening the speaker base and more carefully managing organisational details. The general sat with us for lunch and gave us a patient hearing. He promised to take up some of our concerns with Prime Minister Abbasi,” he said.
Gen Bajwa in his speech made a case for centrality of security in the framework of economic progress in a post-modern, Trumpian world. “The need for realisation of, and respect for, the security-economic connect was never as great as it is today”.
While the COAS’s speech made a case for centrality of security in the framework of economic progress, the presentations and the conduct of most speakers appeared to be hinged on the traditional mindset
However, the presentations and the conduct of most speakers appeared to be hinged on the traditional mindset.
Speakers all through the day rang alarm bells, some going as far as predicting the wrap-up of the CPEC in March 2018 under IMF pressure. They believed that circumstances would force the country to request a bailout if the current set-up was allowed to continue.
They crossly blamed the wobbly civilian government for a “horrid economic scenario with debt rocketing, exports plunging and reserves bleeding; threatening the viability of not just the economy but the country”.
In his prepared remarks, the general snubbed the private sector for being too demanding without being sufficiently responsible. He mentioned the low tax-to-GDP ratio and meagre direct tax component within revenue collection. He hammered the need to change that.
The security situation has improved, he said, calling on the business community to start afresh to expand the economic base. “…The ball is in your court now,” he added.
Gen Bajwa flatly dismissed the alarmist economic outlook and drew the attention towards gains achieved in growth and infrastructure, particularly energy. He projected the CPEC as a “complete development platform with the potential to act as a powerful springboard for shared progress in the region”. Gen Bajwa saw ‘security’ as a prerequisite for the CPEC.
He promised to deliver external and internal security so the economic agents may realise their growth potential. Instead of focusing on threats from eastern and western neighbours, he justified his stance on the centrality of ‘security’ for economic advancement thus: “...in the past two decades, we have seen a reappearance of age-old fault lines and a reassertion of ancient parochial passion of race, language, religion and identity, hence security has once again become the foremost business and task of the state.”
He lamented that the circumstances (volatility in the region) did not allow the country the luxury to choose between economic viability and national security. He asserted that striking the right balance between the two is an intricate business and a viable balance needs to be evolved.
The seminar, held last week in Karachi, on the interplay of economy and security gathered the stars of retired Gen Musharraf’s economic dream team as speakers to share its assessment of the current economic situation and the vision for the future.
Former finance secretary Dr Ashfaque Hasan Khan, former State Bank governor Dr Ishrat Husain and former finance minister Dr Salman Shah — of the Musharraf/Shaukat Aziz team — were flanked by Dr Farrukh Saleem, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed and DG Frontier Works Organisation Lt Gen Muhammad Afzal.
They highlighted the lack of institution building, centralisation of power in the Ministry of Finance, inefficiencies and misplaced priorities for the current crisis-like situation.
Dr Saleem’s presentation, loaded with data, showed how missteps of the government had worsened the business environment for the private sector, mentioning multiple cost components
of business. He also highlighted how the government has neglected the security needs while military spending as a percentage of GDP in Pakistan has dipped.
The audience responded to Dr Ashfaque’s engaging narrative, who blamed the government paralysis for downward heading economic indicators without elaborating on factors that de-stabilised the system. He thought the creation of a CPEC authority could address challenges in an already top heavy bureaucratic set up.
S.M. Munir, former TDAP chief, was too occupied hailing hosts to explain the trade authority’s role in the widening trade balance.
Office-holders of chambers and trade bodies from all across the country representing second-tier businessmen and traders were in attendance. Executives of multinational companies and corporate heads of leading business houses were not invited.
A few such as Hussain Dawood of Dawood Group of companies and Bashir Ali Muhammad of Gul Ahmed Textiles who turned up were lost in the back of the hall while commanders and AKDs of the world occupied the front row and the limelight.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 16th, 2017