I have reached the stage where you completely lose the ability to learn new things. As a born economic-illiterate, therefore, one has no competence for judging the budgetary proposals, Finance Minister Miftah Ismail had presented before the National Assembly Friday afternoon.
The finance minister of the unity or the coalition government, replacing Imran Khan in April this year, had been a student of economics. He is a scion of an extremely successful business family from Karachi as well. But even the ardent admirers of Miftah Ismail’s engaging and charming personality were not expecting a ‘miraculous budget’ from him. Some of them rather felt, too worriedly, that by accepting the finance ministry in given circumstances he had put himself on a hazardous path that could ruin his reputation of an efficient deliverer in the end.
No wonder, before coming to elaborate details of the budgetary proposals for the fiscal year of 2022-3, Miftah Ismail consumed more than 15 minutes to build the case that the previous government, led by Imran Khan, had pushed Pakistan to doom and gloom during its three-plus years. He candidly confessed that instead of replacing it in the government, the then opposition parties should have preferred to seek the fresh election. But that, he insisted, could have led to further melting down of our economy with the frightening potential of going bankrupt. To prevent the same, the finance minister thundered with pride, Shehbaz Sharif agreed to lead an eleven-party government and prepare the first budget for it while bravely disregarding the temptations of expediency.
“Growth with responsibility” was declared the prime motto of this government. I am not sure about how Miftah Ismail’s proposals for revenue collection and expenditure would ensure effective execution of the pronounced intent. But some measures, he announced, apparently suggested as if he wants to regulate ‘growth’ in a manner where everyday needs of our consumers are met with locally produced goods and services. Clear attempts have also been made to tax the rich and furnish some relief to vast numbers of Pakistanis, feeling hopelessly stuck in lower and middle-income groups.
Notwithstanding the noble-sounding intent, the finance minister looked completely indifferent to the reality that the oil and food prices are set to rise and rise, if Russia continued to viciously pursue its obsession of overwhelming Ukraine by using all forms of deadly weapons under its control.
Instead of imagining the end of the Russian war on Ukraine, any time soon, most observers of the military conflicts were rather anticipating President Putin to even go for using tactical nuclear weapons. Like many other countries of the world, Pakistan is also deprived of the cushion and the space to deal with the blowback of such possibilities. But Miftah Ismail offered no contingency arrangements in the given context.
As a parliamentary reporter since 1985, I got addicted to witnessing noisy scenes, whenever the finance minister of any of the successive governments took the floor in the National Assembly to deliver the budget speeches. Friday’s sitting of the National Assembly proved a historic exception in that context.
Yet one sincerely desired that members, elected to the National Assembly on the ticket of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in July 2018, were present in full strength in the House. Around 123 of them had submitted collective resignations. And in their absence, Miftah Ismail certainly sounded as if delivering self-pleasing soliloquy.
If Imran Khan had decided to stay on as the Member of the National Assembly after losing the Prime Minister’s Office on April 9, he still had the right to occupy the office of the Opposition Leader. In that capacity, he could also have utilised the privilege of opening the general discussion on budgetary proposals. Taking advantage of no time limit for such speech, he could vigorously dissect these proposals with ruthless anger and energy. He certainly missed a perfect chance and now we have to wait for Shaukat Tarin to do the same while discussing these proposals in the upper house of our parliament.
The sole surprise to me on Friday was the sneaky return of Mir Khan Mohammad Jamali to the House. He had been elected to the National Assembly on a PTI ticket from Jaffarabad, Balochistan. He claims to have not signed on the collective resignations, 123 members of the PTI had posted to the Speaker’s office. But instead of sitting along with the rest of “dissident members from the PTI”, 22, Jamali preferred to sit on a seat that visibly conveyed the status of an ‘independent.”
Rumors were rife in parliamentary corridors that at least 30 more members from the PTI were also transmitting the intent of returning to the house to relevant quarters. If so, the PTI could lose at least fifty of its members. Their defiance has the potential of weakening Imran Khan’s case against the current National Assembly that must be replaced through the earliest possible new election.
Gleefully taking advantage of PTI’s absence from the National Assembly, the eleven-party government led by Shehbaz Sharif is surely indulging in speedily passing laws of its preference. The government had already turned the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) into a toothless monster by amending the law empowering it with draconian powers.
With obsessive zeal, the Imran government had also forced the Election Commission to prepare for using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for the polling and counting of votes in forthcoming elections. The government had thrown the said law in the dustbin. Also gone is the dream of providing digital Apps to overseas Pakistan for casting their votes while staying put in foreign countries.
There is no doubt that even after being removed from the Prime Minister’s Office, Imran Khan had not only retained his base and support but also recharged the same with amazing vigour. But if assessed from the standards of hardcore politics, he visibly is losing ground to his opponents by staying out of the National Assembly.