Mr Hanif Abbasi, President of the PMLN Rawalpindi, has faced harrowing months of incarceration courtesy the ANF because he had the audacity to petition the courts regarding a personal matter pertaining to the prime minister. Rana Sanaullah is also paying the price for alluding to similar issues. Some troublesome journalists, too, never tire of pointing out inconsistencies in the record of ownership of the prime minister’s Bani Gala estate. This issue acquires a degree of irony because the PTI government has just seized large tracts of valuable urban lands ostensibly belonging to ex-President of Pakistan, Asif Zardari, and PMLN’s Senator Chaudhry Tanveer which are listed as “benami”. Many more opposition politicians are likely to be targeted. Another journalist has been stopped from airing the contents of an interview of Asif Zardari in which he predicts trouble for the prime minister in a case unfolding in the UK and USA.
Increasingly, it seems, that the government is resorting to the use of state institutions and national security organs for repressing the opposition and media and pressurizing the courts and commissions. Ominously, therefore, these “national” institutions are losing their constitutionally ordained political neutrality so critical to their efficient and credible functioning. Anti-state slogans and sentiments that were once heard in disgruntled or alienated peripheral regions of Pakistan like FATA and Balochistan protesting state repression are now common even in the heartland of Punjab whence over 70% of state organs are recruited. By any stretch of the imagination, this meltdown of the steel framework of the state cannot be good for the stability and longevity of Pakistan.
The greater tragedy is that this repression of political opponents and hounding of journalists and civil servants is inimical to the economic reforms of the PTI government that are desperately needed to put the country back on track.
The resort to the IMF and international donors, however belated and controversial, could not have been avoided, given the desperate straits into which the economy was about to plunge. Tax reform was equally necessary, even though we can disagree with some details and timings, to stop the government and country going bankrupt. The PTI’s tax amnesty scheme, too, is welcome, no matter that Imran khan had opposed the PMLN tax amnesty scheme in 2018 that netted about Rs 140 billion in additional revenues from about 90,000 new and old tax filers. The new scheme has generated about half as much in revenue records. In all, both schemes have recorded about Rs 6 trillion in hitherto undeclared assets and added over 100,000 new tax payers. The law against “benami” assets is also good. This was an outrageous anomaly that facilitated money laundering by the rich. It is, of course, unfortunate that the rupee has greatly devalued in the reform process and will hurt many sections of the population whose standard of living is linked to cheap imports of food, medicines and industrial raw materials, etc. But it was about time we learnt to live within our means instead of banking on foreign handouts to maintain an artificially propped up lifestyle.
To be sure, economic or political reform is always painful for vested interests that stand to lose their perks and privileges. Inevitably, such vested interests will resist their losses by resorting to protests, strikes and lockouts. The poor, especially, will be hard pressed to keep their head above water. Naturally, they will be angry, alienated and prickly. In such a situation, a single spark can light a prairie fire and bring the government down and doom the reform program.
National consensus, political stability, media accountability and economic certainty are a necessary condition for economic development that breaks the chains of external dependence and internal mismanagement. That is why, instead of beating the opposition black and blue, stifling reasoned criticism and bringing state organs into disrepute, the prime minister would be advised to offer principled reconciliation in the national interest.