The first budget of the new government brings no surprises. It was expected to be a difficult budget given the gravity and magnitude of the crisis of governance and economy inherited by this government as a legacy of the past 14 years of dictatorship and kleptocracy. It has been a terrible legacy of disaster that, perhaps, no government anywhere in the world, not even in war times, could have been left with. Pakistan today is simply a ‘basket’ case and has even been described in successive global ratings as “junk territory” - meaning a country with no trust or credibility among world lenders and investors. This says it all. And yet, we expected miracles from a government that had hardly been in office less than a week. Instead of blaming this government or its Finance Minister, we just need to look at ourselves as a nation in the mirror. It is a tainted picture showing a mutilated and disjointed mass of people leaning together as a paralysed body making gestures without motion, and reflecting an image of what T.S. Eliot had described as “shape without form and shade without colour.” We see in the mirror a country looted and plundered by its own people, debilitated physically as well as spiritually. It is a mastless nation left with no sense of direction or common purpose. What we are doing to ourselves has no parallel anywhere in the world. We have made our country a killing field. We are killing ourselves. In this grim scenario, within days after the new government was sworn in, we started looking for miracles. Grumbling is our tradition. One does not remember any single budget in our history that did not evoke similar outcry. We must understand that our crisis is too deep to be redressed through a switch-on switch-off process or even in one fiscal year’s budget. We should at least allow the government to settle down to be able to unfold its larger economic vision. Its unpalatable legacy, in fact, goes back even beyond the last two governments. It is a cumulative product of our entire independent statehood marked by governance miscarriages. We are already on the brink of an economic disaster and social disarray. Our foreign currency reserves are down to a level not enough to cover even one month’s imports. We are also the only country in the world today fighting a full-scale war on our own soil, paying a heavy toll in terms of socio-economic crunch, trade and production slowdown, investor hesitation and a worsening law and order situation. To bring the country out from its abysmal governance crisis and economic chaos is going to be a protracted and painful process. This fateful recovery will entail hard decisions and a paradigm change in governance patterns. The gross inadequacies in governmental handling of serious problems affecting the common man, including continuing food and energy shortages, skyrocketing prices, unabated violence and extremism and countrywide lawlessness today represent the worst crisis of our history. This warrants a holistic systemic change in our governance patterns. Unfortunately, since independence, the politics and governments in Pakistan have remained hostage to the feudal and elite classes that have been inimical to any systemic change in Pakistan. For a better future, the system that breeds corruption, tax evasion, kleptocracy, abuse of power, lavish governmental spending, a VIP culture, and violence and lawlessness will have to be rooted out from our body politic. Papering the cracks will not do. Going beneath the surface and taking out the disease is what is needed. Recovery of looted money or plundered resources, voluntary halving by the Prime Minister of his office’s budget and abolition of secret funds are welcome gestures. But they address only the symptom, not the disease. In fact, more tightening of belts was needed. The new fiscal year’s budget, seeking to reduce the deficit, seems to cater to the hard realities only by marginally curtailing governmental spendings. Instead of increasing the burden on lower income groups, much bigger cuts in governmental spendings could have served the purpose. The GST increase and expanded tax range constitute only a small step towards revival of the economy and growth momentum. Perhaps, to some extent, these measures were also necessary to restore Pakistan’s international credit ratings and rebuild investors’ confidence. In sum, therefore, this budget should be seen as a ‘bitter-pill’ necessity, rather than a cruel burden. In any case, this budget had already been in the making at bureaucratic level as part of the outgoing government’s fiscal work plan long before the present government took over and should, therefore, be seen as continuation of commitments made by that government to bilateral as well as multilateral economic partners to seriously address the economic mismanagement and resultant macroeconomic imbalances through the tightening of fiscal and monetary policies. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who announced the budget within a week after assuming his office, could have only fine-tuned the document giving his own professional economic touch to the balance-sheet in line with his party’s economic vision. We should also not be looking at the budget document as the ‘be-all and end-all’ of PML-N’s long-term vision for sustainable economic growth. We have to wait and see how resolutely this vision is implemented in the coming months and years in pursuit of sound macro-economic policies, optimum utilisation of the country’s natural and human resources and full exploitation of its industrial, agricultural and technological potentials. Given the seriousness of our problems, we surely need deeper structural reform agenda and home-grown solutions to our economic problems, rationalising GDP targets, restoring macro-economic balance, banning non-essential imports and luxuries, and, as a matter of priority, reviving our industry to reduce the trade gap. An economic recovery blueprint requires judicious planning to match national needs and resources as well as capabilities. Our weakness is economic discipline. We need an iron-hand to curb this weakness. Loot and plunder of national exchequer and resources must stop. The culture of perks and privileges must go. The plot culture must be abolished. The buck must stop somewhere. The country has to be put back on the path of “self-reliance”. This would require working full time on domestic growth and production. Materially, we are a rich country in terms of human and natural resources. Let us capitalise on our resources. Capital does not grow on trees, nor does it come through loans. Loans are not capital; they are a liability. We should avoid depending on this liability as a matter of habit. Let us learn living within our own means with dignity and self-esteem. 

The writer is a former foreign secretary.