Confidence tricks

Published March 25, 2022
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IN political discourse, we sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees. It is important sometimes to zoom out and truly appreciate the forest, ask why it is currently aflame, why it is even otherwise prone to ignition, and why such fires are certain to repeatedly occur until they become an existential threat.

By 2050, Pakistan will become the third most populous country in the world with 380 million mostly poor people. The Pakistanis working towards making those future millions a reality, are doing so today fuelled by largely imported foodstuff. Before you start screaming at the fromagers and the chocolatiers, they are not really to blame. Our daal is from abroad, and so is the oil it is cooked in. Our broiler chicken is fed foreign produce and even our naan dough is supplemented with imports.

We are already a food-insecure country, even though agriculture is supposed to be our backbone. Our once formidable cotton produce struggles to keep up with the region. Without investment in seed quality and technology, our cotton crop is now only fit to make coarse materials. Farmers have no incentive from the state to support essential crops, so they plant fields upon fields of water-hungry sugarcane, producing a crop which goes into a regressively controlled and speculative sugar industry and comes out as per the whims of billionaires with private planes.

Read: PM's only hope of avoiding being ousted remains the non-neutrality of those who should be neutral

Pakistan earns about eight thousand billion rupees a year in tax and non-tax revenue. Let’s try and approximate this as a single naan. About half of that naan is put together with sales tax and customs duties — indirect and retrogressive taxation which extracts without discriminating between the poor buyer and the rich. An eighth of the naan is income tax, which is paid in large part by a million-odd poor souls caught in the net of ‘deductions at source’, who are either too weak or too caught in the net to get away with tax theft. These poor souls do silly things, such as subscribe to English-language print dailies like this one, whilst their trader neighbours rely on WhatsApp videos for their news stories, drive flashier vehicles, and write odes to their fictional poverty for the taxman and get away with it. A quarter of the naan is non-tax revenue; a final eighth is put on the table by federal excise duties and miscellaneous levies such as those on petroleum.

From the first day of work, we are in fresh debt, eating borrowed naan.

When it comes to spending this money, Pakistan gives just under half the naan away to its provinces, who have many more responsibilities after the 18th Amendment but have not expanded their own revenue portfolios, nor devolved power or funding to local government. We then give away three-eighths to debt servicing. Those adept at math will guess that we have about an eighth left. Most of that goes to the military. We then borrow some more to run the actual government and pay pensions.

From the first day of work, we are in fresh debt, eating borrowed naan. Our economy is propped up by the sustenance sent home by unskilled labour, who toil to make foreign deserts green in conditions of modern-day slavery.

Countries break from such fatal cycles through improvement in their people — education and inclusion. Our basic public education system has been reduced to the worst possible state while our higher education system produces unnecessary degrees instead of focusing on skill-based diplomas. Our doctoral circuit is best known for being an elaborate diploma mill, where dummy publications print you onwards to hollow PhD glory.

If you consider the threat of violent force to be a commodity, it is our major produce and international bargaining chip. We bring to the table our possible nuisance value and take back whatever the world is willing to give us if we promise to keep it in check. At the head of the institutions which regulate our use of force are people who realise that their own powerful hand spins the roulette wheel which determines many fates, including their own.

Meanwhile, the pinnacle of the established order in our country enjoys millions of dollars’ worth of retirement packages and is bestowed with state land as service gifts and depreciated duty-free luxury vehicles as buy-offs. Golf clubs are carved out of mountains for their subsidised leisure; lakeside vistas become their sailing clubs.

Our country’s largest corporate players are owned and run by the military. I would say our country’s largest political player is also the military, but then this paper might not print it and, as penance, I might have to go to a seminar at Lums, where, a satirical publication noted, a management scientist recently turned up to speak for the whole day.

When you throw a no-confidence motion against a prime minister into this mix, it seems minor in scale. A sleight of hand compared to the larger circus that is the running of our country. When you factor in that the process through which he is being removed is itself riddled with the same interference from unelected quarters which had drawn condemnation from across the aisle when he was first brought in, the farce is highlighted further.

The opposition, previously being unable to remove the Sadiq Sanjrani pony from the merry-go-round that is our political arena, has now realised where the ticket booth is. Everyone is now jumping the queue to exchange their lofty slogans for a ticket on the ride, while the ringmaster promises larger and larger horses as long as the circus stays in town.

If I was part of the management science team which ran Pakistan’s circus, I would encourage my colleagues to wake up and smell the urgency in the air: the poverty which encircles the circus’s manicured boundaries. It is not long before the only solution to all evils will once again present itself as a gross permutation of religion and violence. Unlike last time, when we went after the Russians with it whilst taking American money (which ended up in Swiss banks), this time it threatens to burn without direction or order, and without a care for how much of the forest will remain when the flames are finally doused.

The writer is a lawyer.
Twitter: @jaferii

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2022

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