Friday, 31 July 2015
What was it all for Mr Khan? KHURRAM HUSAIN
TODAY Imran Khan owes the country an answer to this simple question: what exactly was all that sound and fury last August all about? If the matter had been little more than angry speeches and walkouts from parliament we could have shrugged it off. If it was loud press conferences and hostile talk show appearances, we could have accepted it.
But no. In the name of their grievances, they laid siege to the capital city for months and caused a totally unnecessary delay in the visit by China’s president, who wanted to announce $46bn worth of investment projects for the country.
They called for a tax revolt, arguing from their container-tops that there is no obligation to pay taxes to a government that the PTI has deemed illegitimate. They called on people to not pay their electricity bills, threatened to cut power supply from Tarbela dam (as if that was within their power to start off with), and urged resort to illegal hundi channels for all cross-border foreign exchange transactions, in order to squeeze the country’s foreign exchange reserves and thereby push it towards default.
Refusal to pay taxes and bills and common resort to informal channels for foreign exchange transactions are grave ills that threaten the state’s viability in the long run.
They briefly shut down the two largest cities in the country, Karachi and Lahore, causing billions of rupees in loss to traders, and interrupting the movement of vital fuel supplies. Investment decisions were postponed, board meetings of important foreign investors were disrupted, and one CEO of a large multinational even took the highly unusual step of going public with his concerns (CEOs are usually a very cautious lot in terms of what they say in public).
Don’t damage Pakistan’s democracy story he warned, it’s the best thing happening in the country currently. “Some of my Pakistani friends do not appreciate the enormity of this transition and what it means,” he said, referring to the first historic democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.
“[W]e need stability in the system, people to follow the rules laid down to obtain their demands, not a revolution or any other yearning for ‘discipline’ that comes from outside the system created by the Constitution.
“What I see happening in Pakistan today worries me because if people on the streets can start calling the shots, then it would negate the positive story of Pakistan to possible investors” from all around the world.
It’s hard to underline how unusual it is for a CEO, particularly of a multinational company, to write words like this in a public forum, but that was the level of the anxiety that the dharnas created in the minds of investors.
People from the investor community told me back then that they had communicated to their headquarters abroad that the threat to Pakistan’s democracy has receded, and the reply they received was, “Sure, for now, but what about next year, and the year after that?”
The dharnas didn’t do much material damage to the economy, but the harm done to Pakistan’s only bright spot, its narrative, its democracy, was incalculable. With the judicial commission’s report, and the refusal of the armed forces to get involved, things are once again on the mend, testament to strong healing powers of our democratic institutions. Once more the skies have cleared and the next summit to be scaled — the general election of 2018 — is in view. But Mr Khan and his cohorts must answer a straightforward question. What was it all for? For what did they hurl such truckloads of dirt onto the country’s institutions and its historic journey towards the consolidation of democracy?
Refusal to pay taxes and bills and common resort to informal channels for foreign exchange transactions are grave ills that threaten the state’s viability in the long run. For what did he endow these practices with legitimacy, aggravating and magnifying the narrative of those who employ these means to derive for themselves ill-gotten gains?
Even today, the government is struggling with informal-sector players who are up in arms against a simple measure in the budget that penalises bank transactions by those who have not filed a tax return. Listen to the way those protesting this measure justify their actions, and you will hear echoes of the dharna speeches.
That is the nature of the harm that the dharnas did. Even as the real problems in the country reared their heads, the party which had championed itself as the party of change, of good governance, has been found missing in action, busy battling the ghosts that have haunted it ever since the tsunami it thought it was entitled to in 2013 never materialised. I refer to the massacre at the Army Public School, from which the PTI publically washed its hands with the argument that providing security at the school was not its job. I refer also to the floods that have devastated Chitral, the coverage of which has had to compete with the judicial commission report for space on the broadsheet and on the airwaves.
Pakistan must shed its infatuation with the saviour, with strongman rule, as the answer to its ills. No individual, no matter how charismatic, can set the ship of state back on an even keel. That job can only be done by a system of rule. And there is no system of rule better than democracy for a multilingual, multiethnic country teeming with diversities and cleavages of so many varieties. Let’s stop vilifying the only system of rule we have. Let’s work together to mend it. The PTI can start by doing its duties in KP province, and then turn to the electorate in 2018 with a story to tell.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2015