Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

Spearhead Opinion-23.09.2019

By Faraz Jehangir
Managing Director, Spearhead Research

We have hope therefore we continue. We have fight still left in us therefore we continue to persevere. We have needs and desires therefore we continue to dream.

Almost a little over a year ago, Pakistan celebrated a new beginning. Though I was not there at the time of the partition and creation of our country over seven decades ago, but I believe the euphoria that the people of Pakistan experienced, when Imran Khan and his party were declared victorious in the national general elections, must have been quite close to what the people must have experienced when they got independence from India.

We have always seen Imran Khan as a man of conviction and principles. A man who has proved how success follows hard work. A man who has delivered what he promised. Be it state of the art cancer hospital, winning cricket world cup for Pakistan, setting up universities for the common man.

When civil and military leadership of our country failed to deliver on their promises to the nation, Imran Khan became a ray of hope for the common Pakistani. His street protests and dharnas in Islamabad that lasted for months, almost brought down the ruling government and paralyzed the country. It was during this time that Imran Khan proved that he was the real and only challenger to the throne that had for a long time been shared by PML-N and PPP and in-between (for decades) by the military.

Fast Forward to one year post election victory: Imran Khan and his party have been in power for over a year now. Nation is moving from hopefulness to mixed feelings to almost hopelessness. This time it is not just the common man but the entire spectrum of economic diaspora that is feeling the pinch and the punch. According to UNICEF report “the survey revealed that more than 50 percent of Pakistani families cannot afford even two meals a day out of poverty”.

Since the PTI government has gained control of the country, things have not progressed as people had expected. General perception has changed from a government for the people to a government against the people. Main reason of discontent seems to stem from two core issues: 1.) extreme slowdown of economic activity and 2.) extreme rise in cost of living. Almost every citizen of the country has been impacted by these two issues at varying scales. This in turn gains downward momentum as the top down trickle effect starts.

To make things worse the government is sticking to at least one of its promises it made before coming into power, the fight against corruption and accountability. PM Imran Khan’s first speech focused on these very promises and warned the nation that there will be some very difficult times ahead and the people should be ready to face these challenges. But he also promised that there will be great times beyond these trying times. The nation was ready to make the sacrifices that their chosen leader had asked of them. Pakistan, it seemed was finally on a course correction trajectory. PTI’s political opponents were in a state of shock and fear. They knew what was coming their way, political foes of the past became political allies overnight. All political differences were sidelined for the greater cause of saving a few top political individuals even if meant political death of their parties.

Fight against corruption and accountability is good. Nobody can deny this. But how aggressive does the state have to be in this fight is something that people can differ upon.

Quick Rewind to pre PTI government era: Major part of country’s economy was part of undocumented and informal economy while a smaller part was partially and loosely documented formal economy. Together the informal and formal economy was helping keep the country’s economic wheel spinning. That’s the way it was. People knew it was wrong but it was the accepted way for most if not all. It made life simple and easy for all. Some benefited more than the others but everybody got something out of it. It was a system that had evolved through decades of poor governance. It was an institutional failure at the national level. Everybody was operating and trying to survive in this faulty system that seemed to work. The system that was in the end part of the state machinery. Businesses had no choice but to be part of this system but they did not create these systems. In the end it was the state that was responsible for all this.

Fast Forward to present: Imram Khan is right about holding people in power accountable for their actions and destroying the systems for their own political and economic gains. Past political and military governments have manipulated the state institutions to achieve self serving objectives. Any entity (whether an institute or an individual representing an institute) which is compromised becomes weak and susceptible to exploitation from all.

Imran Khan should continue with political and economic accountability of those who were responsible for damaging the state institutions and systems but that is where it should have all stopped for now. Going after small and large business owners for their past misuse of systems should have remained off limits. Moral cleanliness drive should have been inside out. Fixing systems without targeting officers who were under political pressure, restoring dignity of the government employees and improving public confidence in government machinery should have remained the focus of Imran Khan’s government.

Today, the informal economy remains hidden and out of circulation. Neither the state nor the people are benefiting from it. There has to be a long term plan to allow all this informal economy to be integrated back into the formal economy without penalizing those who possess it. Capital drain needs to be capped by incentivizing the declaration of assets through long duration amnesty schemes. Keep doors open for people to step in as they gain trust in the government. PTI must not forget that this nation has been for decades and generations been exploited by the governments and political leaders of the past. They need time and some constructive efforts by the government before they will realize that things can change if the government and people can trust each other.

Don’t make the victims into suspects. Only by building bridges of trust and confidence will we actually start to see the faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.