No progress without stability

The state needs money — and lots of it. Five and a half trillion more to be precise

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif interacts with oppostion members during a session of the National Assembly, in Islamabad on June 26, 2024. —PMO
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif interacts with oppostion members during a session of the National Assembly, in Islamabad on June 26, 2024. —PMO

This cruel budget settles like dirty smog across the land. It feels awful now but its long-term impact is even worse. People tenuously hanging on to a simple but decent life will be pushed to the edge of poverty. And those already there will go under.

The state needs money – and lots of it. Five and a half trillion more to be precise. This is a 45% increase of total revenue in just one year. Even if everyone is squeezed tight, which they will be, this is not happening. It is simply beyond state capacity.

Enough pressure though will be generated on the tax machinery to perform. It will do so by making life miserable for those already in the tax net. A special torture chamber will be established for small enterprises because the corporates have been protected. The salaried class will be helpless because of deduction at source but others will have to pay a heavy price for unrealistic expectations.

Is the IMF satisfied or pretending to be? We will soon know, but in the meanwhile, this without-mandate government has done something never seen before. Governments would normally deny that their budgets are dictated by outside agencies. This one, PM included, has loudly pinned the entire blame on the IMF. While passing the buck shamelessly, it has also thrown any notion of sovereignty overboard.

There is little doubt that we have to fix our economy, particularly the role of the state in it. It has consistently earned less and spent more, for decades. No wonder we are up to our ears in debt. But the nostrums that will cure this illness, and others related to the economy, are beyond one party, one government, or one institution. It needs a whole-of-the-nation approach.

Such a national approach is impossible without stability, and this is clearly recognised by everyone within the country and by our foreign friends. China has articulated it clearly amongst others. The branding of a new initiative by the military as Operation Azm-e-Istehkam is also a clear recognition of this. In English, it could be translated as a pledge or vow for stability.

The terminology used appears to indicate a military operation and that is why it has evoked such a reaction. But, after carefully parsing various statements coming from different quarters, it is obvious that this operation/plan is much more than that. Military operations are already ongoing but this particular initiative is to harness all elements of national power to create stability.

Stability is not just surface calm – although that is what some of our rulers in the past imagined it to be. Real stability digs deep into state and society with collective ownership of all its trials and tribulations. It is only then that the nation as a whole can take challenges head-on, even if it leads to pain and suffering. The Vietnamese are a recent example of this indomitable will against a superpower, but there are others in history.

Alienation, on the other hand, erodes even visibly strong states. The Soviet Union is often quoted as a template, but it can be extended to others held together by force. In all of them, there was no ownership by the people and no common purpose. It did not take long for them to disintegrate. For example, Yugoslavia split into many parts, as did Czechoslovakia. East Germany quickly merged into the western part for historical reasons but also because its people were totally alienated from the makeshift state they were forced into after the World War.

Without delving further into history, let us accept that stability is only possible if the people are wedded together by a common purpose. Democracy in a modern state helps to do that. While its parliamentary form is by definition adversarial, this only acts to course correct towards common national goals.

Pollution of democracy erodes national purpose because the people do not accept the legitimacy of the arrangement placed on top of them. Leave alone being wedded to common goals and required to give sacrifices for them, lack of legitimacy leads to severe alienation. In such an environment, tough economic circumstances, especially the piling on of taxes as is being done now, act as fuel to fire and lead to disobedience if not open defiance.

Force is not an option in such circumstances, but dialogue is. That is why every thinking person has been advocating a grand national dialogue as the only means to confront the challenges facing us. Unfortunately, such a dialogue seems a distant dream because at the heart of it is a conundrum that cannot be easily solved. This is the legitimacy of the February 8 election and the consequential political arrangement arising out of it.

Foisted PM Shehbaz understands this and that is why he freely gives invitations for a dialogue. He knows that if the opposition accepts his invitation, it will amount to a tacit acceptance of the fake political order he sits on top of. So, his invitations for dialogue make him look good without any danger that the opposition would accept it.

The PPP, protestations to the contrary, is also very comfortable with the result emerging out of the rigged election. Asif Zardari sits again at the top of the perch, his nominees rule Sindh and Baluchistan and also control the Senate. His party, while having a negligible presence in Punjab, has apparently blackmailed the N-League to get some goodies for itself.

So given all that, why should the PPP be bothered about any change in the political arrangement? It has no problem with Shehbaz being PM as it waits for Bilawal’s turn in due course. Best of all, it can publicly disown anything it does not like and give a false impression to the people that it is not a party to this or that bad decision. Beyond the bright lights, it fully stands behind whatever steps the establishment takes.

Leaving the PTI aside, the only other significant voice is that of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. He has called for a fresh election but there is a hidden conundrum in this also. The JUI’s electoral contest is with the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The PTI is in effect its main political rival in a fair and free election and if past results are any indication, has an electoral edge over Maulana’s party. Political logic thus does not dictate an alliance between the two.

The establishment would have no objection to a grand national dialogue but on its terms. At the very outset, it would demand an apology from the PTI for May 9 which is unlikely. It will also ask that the results of the February 8 election be accepted. In rejecting this, the PTI will not be alone.

So given these ground realities, a national dialogue does not seem likely in the near future. This means no common approach to economic problems, no accord on good governance and, hugely important, no advocacy by popular parties to the people to give sacrifices. Sad is the nation whose circumstances do not allow for the correct decisions to be taken.

Tough as it is, the establishment is still the only entity that can break this logjam. It should take the lead for a national dialogue without preconditions. To improve the atmosphere, all political prisoners should be released including Imran Khan. The PTI on its part should be ready to sit with all stakeholders.

Istehkam requires everyone to take a step back.

The writer served as the federal minister of education in the PTI’s federal government. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer's own and don't necessarily reflect's editorial policy.

Originally published in The News