Meaningless power games

Published June 12, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE budget for the next financial year was always going to represent a near-impossible balancing act and that is what it looks like but, given the rising global energy and food prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rather short tenure of the government, there was no other option.

The ‘priority’ of each government over the years was to live beyond one’s means, borrow and spend, and as the direct tax base remained pretty much constant, disaster was always looming, with mounting debts/debt-servicing, as well as defence needs.

Of course, an already critical situation was exacerbated by the utterly mindless, unfunded fuel subsidy announced in February of this year as the government then was reportedly informed by intelligence that a vote of no-confidence may be in the pipeline, threatening its rather smug existence.

This fuel price subsidy or cut coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February. Already high oil prices shot through barriers not touched for nearly a decade and a half. In a ‘battle for survival’ mode, the government persisted with the subsidy in a seemingly insane gamble.

This budget and the next 12 months will be like treading a minefield

Although Imran Khan and his party continue to protest over their ouster from office, citing all kinds of bizarre, implausible regime change conspiracy theories, they should actually be pleased that they have not had to shoulder the blame for the spiralling inflation.

Their economic team members cite the six per cent growth rate as a huge success story in their last financial year in office, without mentioning the burgeoning current account deficit and the rising unemployment rates during the same period. All this while the value of the rupee was also sliding.

The present government may have removed the subsidy and also talked about the planned resource generation from energy levies, ie on fuel and gas in an attempt to restart the suspended IMF programme so the plummeting foreign exchange reserves can be bolstered, along with other economic stabilisation measures. But the rising fuel and food prices which continue to be northbound due to the ongoing war in Ukraine will obviously put immense inflationary pressures on economies such as Pakistan’s. The whole world is seeing inflation unprecedented in recent memory.

One difference. The developed world in particular does not have the multitudes that live in a precarious state on either side of the poverty line. The slightest rise in inflation for millions in our country translates into having to go to bed hungry.

I know even urban middle-class people, including journalists, making well under six figures a month, who have already had to take their children out of schools they feel provided a reasonable quality of education and move them to those costing less. Some have even mentioned having to move to cheaper accommodation. This, when most work more than one job.

The government has announced a Rs2,000 a month extra cash transfer to those earning less than Rs40,000 a month. At that salary level that is a mere five per cent when inflation is running in multiples of that percentage.

To be honest, I don’t think the government has gone far enough in making the very rich contribute their fair share to the economic stabilisation programme but I am also mindful of two facts: it did not storm into power in a revolution and its own majority in parliament is wafer-thin.

That said, it should also be aware that it has to face the electorate in a maximum of 14 to 15 months and that the shirtless who have suffered a crisis in terms of feeding their families even the basic ‘daal-roti’ will not have the patience to hear long, complicated and nuanced explanations of who was responsible. They are most likely to see who is in the saddle and pull them down.

This budget and the next 12 months will be like treading a minefield. It is not a secret that a significant part of the PML-N leadership, namely Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, was in favour of heading straight back to the electorate after toppling the PTI-led government, following parliamentary approval of the necessary electoral reforms.

They could see the minefield and hence were keen not to return to power for a short stint and take the blame for what they saw as the PTI’s follies. Shehbaz Sharif’s critics would say his dream of becoming prime minister came true and, therefore, he wasn’t going to leave office so quickly, regardless of the risks in staying on.

The truth would be somewhere in between. And the reason is the ugly reality of our country. Let me explain what I mean. After his ouster, Imran Khan has insisted that fresh elections are held by October. Why October? Because it precedes November.

There is no mystery about the change due in November in the most powerful institution in the country. Whatever role the Constitution assigns the military, who does not know the actual might its punch packs. Hence, every politician rather foolishly tries to gain some semblance of control over it via the appointment of its chief.

I say foolishly because, in the end, any army chief represents the interests of his institution. Even the smartest of salutes reminiscent of the one taught decades earlier at the military academy to the civilian leader appointing him soon fades into a rather distant memory.

Institutional interests, and lesser elements such as ego, come into play and the relationship is redefined. In this environment, even an election on its own won’t lead to the change every Pakistani hankers after. Only faces and the personal dynamics of players change. All else remains as it is.

This realisation fills me with despair for the millions of Pakistanis who work as hard as anybody but are unable to feed, clothe and educate their children and have any aspiration beyond wondering where and how the next meal comes from.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2022

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