Debating the budget

Published June 15, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

HAVING spent 19 years editing stories in this newspaper or that, I have to confess that the budget ‘days’ are my least favourite. Come to think of it, reading the paper, during this period, is a close second. Of course, this is mainly due to my illiteracy, or innumeracy, where numbers of any kind are concerned, a fatal flaw if there was one for a sub-editor to have.

Our written-for-experts-coverage doesn’t help. The receivables, slippages, surcharges and SROs have been my Waterloo since the day I slipped into a chair in front of the Apple computer in the offices of The News, almost two decades ago.

But I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one. Most ordinary readers, aside from the finance ministry bureaucrats, consultants and economics graduates, were just as confused — they just had the luxury to ignore these stories, unlike me.

Over the years, our papers have added a few graphics — just a few — to add a bit of pizzazz to our news pages, though the old-style stories are still there. Television has brought some change to this coverage with its focus on ordinary citizens and the budgeting woes of the ordinary housewife or the single earner with a large family but for the large part it continues to be a jumble of arabs and kharabs being spouted by anchors such as Shahzeb Khanzada (if I ever get reincarnated, I can only hope I return with his grey cells and comfort with numbers) and finance whiz politicos, with nary a pause. But on a more serious note, there has been considerable change too in the recent past. In some ways, the debate on our economy has become more meaningful as we discuss the budget.

The debate on our economy has become more meaningful as we discuss the budget.

Indeed, Pakistan is no stranger to IMF programmes and boom-and-bust cycles but rarely before did we discuss this in such great detail and dissected it in such depth.

Consider the 2008 election: in the time leading up to this key election, the then government, helmed by Shaukat Aziz, had artificially propped up the dollar, frozen utility prices and focused on growth through borrowing. Despite Pakistan’s relatively warm relations with the US, the incoming PPP-led government had to put in place an adjustment programme similar to the one implemented by the PTI, which too led to high inflation and considerable pain for the people, but somehow the discussion then rarely focused on our toxic policies, and few asked why we begin negotiating with the IMF with nearly each election cycle.

The blame was simply put on the bad, bad, non-democratic government run by a dictator and the rest went to the PPP, whose governance skills, as perceived, are second only to the PTI’s. Indeed, for many, the inflation back then was mostly seen as a failure of the PPP.

The PML-N came to power and also went to the IMF, quietly and without much fuss. Perhaps, the only issue seriously highlighted in public debate during these five years was the NFC award passed in 2010 that increased transfers to the provinces, and how debt and borrowing was becoming a serious challenge. This was because of the PML-N which raised this issue, highlighting the need to address it in the long run.

By the time, the PTI took over, politics had become extremely polarised. This coupled with its confusion over going to the IMF led to a heated political debate and perhaps for the first time, there was a wider questioning (and understanding?) of our unsustainable growth and constant dependence on the IMF.

Budget Special: The forgotten middle class

Thanks to prime-time news shows where equally vocal government and opposition figures were compelled to blame each other for the economic mess, a range of technical issues turned into drawing room discussions — the exchange rate, government spending, current account deficit. Indeed, the major contradictions in our state policies (pursued by government after government) became a topic for widespread discussion. For once, even our long-held policy of asking ‘friends’ to deposit foreign exchange in our bank became headline news, something which earlier was rarely noticed.

The PTI was forced to acknowledge that it was easier to talk about reform than to implement it and how it dumped its earlier ‘idealism’ to bow at the IFI altar. On the other hand, the PMLN also — quietly — distanced itself from its policy on keeping the dollar stable. Parties, too, have grown, it seems, and are being compelled to think about their problematic economic policies.

Hence, on Friday, when the budget was presented, relatively new questions were being asked — about sustainability, about how we would pay for this ‘growth’ and how this was different from what the previous government had done. Questions were asked about exports and why the government had projected higher numbers but was falling short, all reflecting the larger awareness about our need to grow exports.

Perhaps, it wasn’t just the polarisation or the channels which led to this awareness but also the dire straits we were in and the reluctance of the IMF to write us a cheque without expecting much in return (now that our relations with the US are not as warm as they were in the first decade after 9/11). Perhaps, it was a combination of all. But despite its shortcomings, the debate on the economy and the budget has moved far beyond simply discussing income tax slabs, pensions, subsidies and the inevitable side story on the allocations for the Prime Minister and President House.

But there is more to this growing debate for the polarisation was also there when Musharraf was ruling. It is about three elections, three changes of governments and space for the supporters and critics of all colours to ask questions of the political parties, who are here to stay. If the 2002 government made wrong policies which created problems in the long run, it is no longer around to be questioned, and no one is being forced to confront its mistakes. But the PML-N is, perhaps the PTI will be also (if it makes it to the opposition benches as a unified force). Do we need further proof that democracy and elections, however flawed, can and do make a difference?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2021

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