As Pakistan began easing its lockdown last week after a partial enforcement earlier to confront the coronavirus, the country’s future prospects in large part clearly lied elsewhere.
On Thursday, a long awaited detailed report of an investigation targeting owners of sugar factories and their manipulation of official policies was finally made public. The explosive findings have placed the spotlight on actors ranging from politically connected individuals to other influential figures across Pakistan.
The ‘sugar report’ as the document has been widely dubbed, names these powerful figures and/or their family members for having earned mindboggling returns for years. Their financial gains were further lifted just in the past year with official policy helping them through a generous subsidy on exports of sugar.
An honest investigation must also focus on ministers in Khan’s cabinet who allowed sugar exports and oversaw a generous subsidy in the first place...An independent investigation would only gain popular credibility if it's completely neutral and free of political leanings.
These revelation also carried a wider question on Pakistan’s ability to reform itself and emerge out of its sorry past. For years, stakeholders in some of the most vital sectors of the economy have been the beneficiaries of largesse driven by official policies. Such examples of high profile marriages of convenience have squared down eventually to an oft repeated malady - the rip off of common citizens.
In many of these examples, affluent individuals made generous financial gains without either paying their tax dues and/or presiding over unreasonable financial returns. The sugar report followed one of the sharpest increases in the price of this commodity late last year that prompted a widespread public outcry.
This was especially pertinent for Prime Minister Imran Khan who came to power in 2018, on the back of promises of taking on powerful economic interests in favour of the Pakistani public. But that promise of creating a ‘naya’ or new Pakistan is yet to be fulfilled. Though Thursday’s revelation came in tandem with official claims commending Khan for ordering the investigation, the story has far from reached its logical end.
Going forward, Khan faces the challenge of ordering decisive prosecutions of individuals connected to the sugar industry. That will be far easier said than done.
Imran Khan's dilemma
Part of the prime minister’s dilemma relates to a decision under his own government last year that allowed sugar exports backed by a generous subsidy. The subsidy was extended by the provincial government of the Punjab province, ruled by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) or Pakistan Justice Party. Naturally, a pertinent question is: How far can Pakistan’s prime minister target his own lot without provoking an internal dissent.
Once the follow up actions get underway, Khan and his government will have to inevitably bear a considerable political cost. This could range from increasingly intense attacks by their political opponents to cracks within the ruling structure.
Eventually, the exercise could well land in futility unless quickly backed by a similar push to target other vested interests with similar dominance over key sectors of the economy. Pakistan’s economic history has witnessed repeated examples of the country’s ruling structure conveniently supporting one sector industry and/or business after another, in the name of creating badly needed jobs and prosperity. Yet, a closer analysis will easily reveal the ways in which the benefits have gone mainly to the selected few.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that creating prosperity is deeply essential for Pakistan — a country with a population of more than 200 million including an overwhelmingly large population of younger people. Going forward, the burgeoning population burden led by younger people will require employment opportunities. This cannot be done by the government alone.
Yet, the opportunities that are framed to achieve prosperity must be neutral in allowing entrepreneurs from across the board without undue favour to any individual or group in particular. Unless Pakistan learns to make such a transition sooner rather than later, the country’s ambition to revive its economy from a deep slumber will remain in doubt.
A transition to a new way of thinking will require a ‘de-politicisation’ of the push seen so far. While Jahangir Tareen, a PTI stalwart and former close confidante of prime minister Khan has been named in the report, other names popped up include close relatives of key opposition leaders. For now, the PTI is seeking credit for Khan on the grounds that the sugar report has targeted one of his own too. Yet, this initiative must move away quickly from its political character.
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An honest investigation must also focus on ministers in Khan’s cabinet who allowed sugar exports and oversaw a generous subsidy in the first place. Eventually, an independent investigation of the sugar industry would only gain popular credibility if its completely neutral and free of political leanings.
Finally in seeking the way forward Khan must ask himself if he wants to be led by a yearning to stay in power or create a defining legacy for the future, irrespective of how long he remains the prime minister. Many of Pakistan’s previous leaders excelled the art of survival by succumbing to pressures, even at the cost of remaining clear of long overdue and decisive reforms.
Today, far too few Pakistanis remember the names or tenures of such former leaders. They are only present in history books with recorded dates of their arrival and departure in the ruling structure. Khan however needs to decide if he wants to join this long list of his predecessors or stand out in Pakistan’s history books as a leader who made a difference for his country’s future.
— Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters