When Pakistan began reducing its lockdown last week after partly prior enforcement of the corona virus, the country’s future prospects were for the most part clearly lying elsewhere.
On Thursday, the long-awaited detailed report about an investigation targeting sugar mill owners and their official policy manipulation was finally announced. Explosive findings have highlighted perpetrators ranging from politically connected individuals to other influential figures in Pakistan.
The ‘sugar report’ as this document has been widely dubbed, names these powerful figures and / or their family members because they have had surprising results for years. Their financial gains have only been lifted only last year with official policies helping them through generous subsidies for sugar exports.
An honest investigation must also focus on the ministers in Khan’s cabinet who allow the export of sugar and oversee large subsidies in the first place … Independent investigation will only gain popular credibility if it is truly neutral and free of political trends.
This revelation also brings broader questions about Pakistan’s ability to reform itself and emerge from its sad past. Over the years, stakeholders in some of the most vital economic sectors have been beneficiaries driven by official policy. Examples of such high-level comfort marriages have in the end been reduced to a disease that is often repeated – the hoax of ordinary citizens.
In many of these examples, affluent individuals make large financial gains without paying tax contributions and / or leading unreasonable financial returns. The sugar report follows one of the sharpest increases in commodity prices late last year which sparked public anger.
This is particularly true of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power in 2018, behind promises to take strong economic interests in the interests of the Pakistani public. But the promise to create a ‘naya’ or a new Pakistan has not been fulfilled. Although Thursday’s revelations came along with official claims praising Khan for ordering an investigation, the story was far from a logical end.
Going forward, Khan faces the challenge of ordering the strict prosecution of individuals connected with the sugar industry. That will be much 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 to be supported by generous subsidies. The subsidy was extended by the provincial government of the Punjab province, ruled by Khan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) of Pakistan or the Pakistan Justice Party. Naturally, related questions are: To what extent the Pakistani prime minister can target his own destiny without provoking internal dissent.
After the follow-up action, Khan and his government must bear substantial political costs. These can range from increasingly intense attacks by political opponents to gaps in the ruling structure.
Finally, the exercise can land in vain unless it is quickly supported by the same drive to target other personal interests with the same dominance over the main sectors of the economy. Pakistan’s economic history has witnessed repeated examples of the country’s governance structure that easily support one industry and / or business sector after another, in order to create much needed employment and prosperity. However, a closer analysis will easily reveal ways in which the benefits have gone mainly to the selected few.
At the same time, it must be recognized that creating prosperity is very important for Pakistan – a country with a population of more than 200 million including a very large population of young people. Looking ahead, the burdens of a growing population led by young people will need job opportunities. This cannot be done by the government itself.
However, the framed opportunity to achieve prosperity must be neutral in allowing entrepreneurs from all levels of the board without undue assistance to any individual or group in particular. Unless Pakistan learns to make such a transition sooner than later, the country’s ambition to revive its economy from deep sleep will remain doubtful.
The transition to a new way of thinking will require ‘de-politicization’ of the encouragement seen so far. While Jahangir Tareen, a PTI supporter and former prime minister close confidant of Khan was mentioned in the report, other names emerged including close relatives of key opposition leaders. For now, PTI is seeking credit for Khan on the grounds that the sugar report also targets one of his possessions. However, this initiative must move quickly from its political character.
An honest investigation must also focus on the ministers in Khan’s cabinet who permit the export of sugar and oversee large subsidies. Finally, an independent investigation of the sugar industry will only gain popular credibility if it is truly neutral and free of political tendencies.
Finally, in finding a way forward, Khan must ask himself whether he wants to be led by a desire to remain in power or create a decisive legacy for the future, regardless of how long he remains prime minister. Many former Pakistani leaders excel at the art of survival by succumbing to pressure, even with the obvious costs of a long-delayed and decisive reform.
At present, too few Pakistanis remember the name or term of office of such a former leader. They are only present in history books with the dates of their arrival and departure in the ruling structure. But Khan needs to decide whether he wants to join this long list of predecessors or stand out in Pakistani history books as leaders who make a difference for the future of his country.
– Farhan Bokhari is a commentator based in Pakistan who writes about political and economic issues
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