Intently following the recent moves of the opposition, Pakistani tycoons are not particularly anxious. They do not foresee the political disruption assuming a scale that could threaten the current setup. Singing a different tune and praising democracy, they want Prime Minister Imran Khan to complete his term.
Concessions and monetary incentives doled out to support businesses this year have diluted their hostility towards Prime Minister Khan’s team that was earlier detested for its economic failings. The data depicting falling GDP growth and investment along with rising inflation, debt, unemployment and cost of doing business was cited repeatedly in conversations in business circles before the pandemic.
In his press conference last week, State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Governor Reza Baqir explicitly mentioned the value of concessions to the business class. The benefits of soft credit, loan deferment and interest rate cut (from 13.25 per cent to 7pc) since March translated into a whooping Rs1.5 trillion. This was in addition to Rs150 billion tax refund settlement to exporters diverted from the Rs1.2tr relief package announced by the premier soon after the lockdown.
Aware of the public discontent over falling family income and opportunities, businessmen want the political elite, on either side of the divide, to grasp the danger of bringing their battle to the streets.
‘Politicians must not let politics take precedence over the economy’
“The world is still in turmoil. The pandemic has yet to subside. After almost six months of lockdown, businesses in Pakistan are just starting on the recovery path. The political instability is the last thing we need right now. If the country is allowed to drift towards another cycle of political instability, it will stall the arduous journey to put the economy back on track to revive growth,” the head of a major business group visiting Islamabad told Dawn over the phone.
“For more jobs and higher family income, businesses will have to succeed and expand. Any politician, in or outside the government who claims to care about people, must not let politics take precedence over the economy,” he warned.
Mian Anjum Nisar, president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), was preoccupied with pressing issues that businesses are confronting currently. “Covid-19 has dealt a massive blow to services, trade and industry. We are currently too busy readjusting to the changed environment to care about political theatrics.”
He criticised the authorities for prolonged power outages in Karachi and urged the government to work for resolutions instead of stating problems. “Why does the government not arrange to increase the import of LNG instead of issuing warnings about a gas shortage in the winter?” he made a point.
Rana Sikandar Azam Khan, a business leader from the Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and industry (FCCI), found the conduct of the opposition objectionable as it can further compromise an already challenging business environment. “I wish better sense prevailed and Prime Minister Imran Khan could complete his term in peace.
“No, all is not well. The cotton output has shrunk from 14 million bales in the past to 8m bales this year. The country needs a cotton policy and a textile minister. To justify the government’s favours, there is an urgent need to trace and track the performance of the recipients of subsidies and concessions,” he said, commending the current government for being more accessible than any other in the past.
Malik Tahir Javed, former president of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), felt the instant reaction of the capital markets to the opposition’s plans speaks of the market sentiments loudly.
“The verbal aggression of the opposition has already scared investors. In the first two days after the opposition moot addressed by defiant PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, the KSE-100 index tumbled by over 700 points. It did impinge on the behaviour of overseas business partners who are already reluctant because of our turbulent history and difficult geography. Even local customers withdraw and sales of consumer durables such as cars fall when the political friction grows,” he said. He also believes that the sitting government deserves to complete its tenure.
Majyd Aziz, former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), felt that the leaders across the political spectrum need to forge unity on issues of the economy and national security. “We believe a consensus document or the charter of economy is absolutely necessary to harness the potential of growth and development in Pakistan.”
He did not see a change in Islamabad before the next election in 2023.
Another former president of the FPCCI was critical of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) that he thought hurts more than it serves its purpose. “People are not blind. They can see through the smokescreen. The way NAB chased and harassed political opponents is too obvious to miss. Its adventurism has paralysed the bureaucracy. For businessmen, a dysfunctional government is a major impediment.”
He equated the abuse of power to the worst form of corruption. “Who can justify an operation that instead of healing sucks the life out of body?” he said, urging the government to relent for the greater good of the majority.
“If they actually care about the country and its people, they would do all in their power to ensure that the recovery process is not disrupted. It is stupid to test people’s trust in democracy and the opposition’s capacity to endure revenge endlessly. In the end, it is the government that is responsible for ensuring the stability and delivering on the promise of a better life for the electorate.”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 28th, 2020