Miftah Ismail is expressing his differences on economic policy with the PML-N top leadership openly and in a rather challenging tone, having been relieved from ministership of finance four months ago unceremoniously. His defiance must be appreciated unconditionally. On 15 January, in two sessions of the ThinkFest in Lahore, his talks clearly represented his views.
In the first session, the question under discussion was: ‘Are Politicians the Real Problem in Pakistan?’ He said, leave out the years there had been martial laws. Also, whenever politicians were in the government, they were not allowed to rule peacefully and there were dharnas (sit-ins) by Tahir-ul-Qadri, Imran Khan. He pointed out that it was clear who was orchestrating the dharnas. There are a number of reasons he identified why politicians did not deliver in the manner they should have delivered.
The greatest reform would be reducing the size of the government and cutting its expenditure. Selling our loss making SOEs (state-owned enterprises) and cutting the military budget – now that would be reform worth praise.
His conclusion was that it would be grossly unjust to blame only politicians for where Pakistan stands today, though he admitted that Pakistan is not working.’ He said that when MPs move among the people, their pockets are filled with job applications. He wanted local governments’ representatives to share the burden of these job applications. As far as politicians’ corruption is concerned, he said that NAB exists only for politicians and bureaucrats, assuming they are the only state officials that can be suspected of being dishonest and corrupt, while others have immunity.
The topic of the second session Miftah participated in was ‘Pakistan’s Political Economy: Is There A Way Forward.’ S. Akbar Zaidi, from IBA Karachi, was in conversation with him. Through the entire talk, Miftah continued to repeat what the state economists of Pakistan have been writing about since time immemorial. The gist of a state’s economics revolve around taxation. He said that he wanted to tax the retail sector. There are 2.2 million shopkeepers in Pakistan; he wanted them to pay PKR 3000 per month, a paltry 100 rupees per day. He was not allowed to enforce that decision. ‘If that’s a difficult reform, then the situation will remain the same,’ he said in desperation.
That’s all the prescriptions they have in their tool-box: continue to extract more and more money from the pockets of the citizens. It is these things they call “difficult decisions,” and Miftah Ismail takes pride in being able to make difficult decisions.
He defended the economic measures he had to take during his short tenure as the finance minister. That is, his increase of the petroleum price, his return to the IMF and the restoring of its program.
Our hybrid regime survives owing to the complicity of its politicians. Whenever there have been martial law governments, politicians have collaborated with military dictators in the power struggles that ensue. Politicians have helped the military amend the Constitution, and never dared to try the leadership of the military for their violation of the Constitution. Even when there have been movements against martial law governments, they have been short-lived and have fallen victim to opportunistic impulses. No one has really dared challenge the military’s hegemony. Even Nawaz Sharif’s recent adventurism was no systematic attempt to challenge and weaken the military’s influence. The PML-N’s politics are also complicit.
The NAB, the target of Miftah’s ire, was instituted by his own party – the PML-N. Politicians have continue to formulate its rules, laws and procedures. Even when they have the constitutional mandate and authority to hold the judiciary, military and the bureaucracy accountable, they have not bothered to do so.
Our hybrid regime survives owing to the complicity of its politicians. Whenever there have been martial law governments, politicians have collaborated with military dictators in the power struggles that ensue.
But perhaps, most dangerously, the political party Miftah represents has little in the way of substantive vision for how a broken Pakistan needs to be fixed.
Go to the IMF; borrow from friendly states and as well as from local banks. Print more and more currency. Levy new taxes. Raise the rates of these new taxes. Increase the prices of petroleum products, electricity, gas, and raise various levies and taxes on them. That’s all the prescriptions they have in their tool-box: continue to extract more and more money from the pockets of the citizens. It is these things they call “difficult decisions,” and Miftah Ismail takes pride in being able to make difficult decisions.
Miftah advocates for cutting the size of the government and attempting a reduction of government spending. He should perhaps also push a little harder on policies to encourage growth and productivity in export-oriented industries.
Why is it that in the midst of an economic crisis, created partially by the government, government spending increased by 15% in the budget? Why was it that the burden of this expenditure was shifted to the shoulders of the people. In short, it is always the same recipe – transfer the failures of the state economy on to the civil economy.
The greatest reform would be reducing the size of the government and cutting its expenditure. Selling our loss making SOEs (state-owned enterprises) and cutting the military budget – now that would be reform worth praise. Even though Miftah has personally argued for these reforms, the PML-N leadership has never seriously sought to execute these in good faith.
Why is it that we shy away from asking exactly what the government provides to its citizens in return for the taxes it collects from them. The security of life, property, dignity, and income seem to be alien concepts for most Pakistanis. Justice, and law and order are also rare. Quality social services – unheard of.
Pakistan’s citizens exist to pay for the state’s aristocracy to live off their taxes.
The critical fact everyone ignores is that the state exists to facilitate its citizens. Citizens do not live to enrich those who run the state on their behalf.