View Full Version : Handling the money - Shahzad Sharjeel - 6 July 2018

6th July 2018, 11:59 AM
AS a young country with a nascent democracy at the cusp of another general election, we are obsessed with the question ‘who will be the prime minister?’. Not taking anything away from the importance of the top office in a parliamentary system of governance, who among us has not heard of the dictum: ‘it is the economy stupid’?

Electioneering season brings with it a flood of disclosures thanks to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s requirement that candidates submit their personal and financial details along with their nomination papers. The amount of income tax paid by leaders of political parties and the chosen few they decide to reward with party tickets makes it clear that something is gravely amiss.

A modern state needs its tax-to-GDP ratio to be somewhere around 15 to 17 per cent to run its affairs smoothly. Ours hovers around 11pc to 12pc. With less than two million tax return filers, how do we propose to take care of a 200m-plus population? We need to export more than we import and increase the number of taxpayers rather than further squeeze those already in the tax net. This needs a team of economic managers headed by a finance minister.

Can political parties name their choice of finance minister?

Since we pride ourselves in not being baniyas and above the lowly concerns of the economy and the like, we restrict our mental game of musical chairs to ‘kaun banega prime minister?’ (who’ll be the prime minister). However, martial nation or not, we cannot continue to handle the economy recklessly.

It is high time for the electorate to tell political parties that we know who their contenders for the prime minister’s slot are, and demand to know their picks for finance minister. After the 18th Amendment and with responsibilities transferred to the provinces, who is in charge of the provincial kitty becomes equally important.

In case the leading political parties cannot come up with names other than Naveed Qamar and Saleem Mandviwalla of the PPP, Ishaq Dar and Miftah Ismail of the PML-N, and Asad Umar of the PTI then they must think harder about not just the choices they currently have but more importantly about what needs to be done to attract professionals with the right credentials and nurture them over a period of time to endear them to the party hierarchy and cadre alike.

Experiments of importing technocrats from the market as finance ministers have not had good results for various reasons. The stigma of being an ‘outsider’ cannot be eradicated. The party leadership expects them to show eternal gratitude for being anointed and be the fall guys for politically expedient policies that usually are economic disasters.

The second-tier leadership treats them with disdain for having no battle scars sustained during police baton-charges while in opposition and no prison record to speak of. The ‘outsider’ finance minister is treated to almost a daily dose of vitriol by the blue-eyed boys and girls of ruling families who demand to know why funds for pet projects are not being released immediately. One self-proclaimed Pindi boy is on record as boasting, that he ‘told the finance minister what is the purpose of the forex reserves if they cannot be released for public schemes’. For him, any other purpose of the forex reserves could only be ‘to lick them’.

Political parties need to bring in people with the required academic and professional track record who rise through the party ranks to enjoy the leadership’s confidence and party cadre’s respect. Only this will enable them to stand their ground when harebrained ideas and pie-in-the-sky schemes are floated.

No one is suggesting that prudent economic policy will trump the rough and tumble of political ground realities every time. However, the two need not be mutually exclusive all the time either. A finance minister who is constantly taunted by colleagues and reminded by the leadership about not having a constituency cannot really perform the balancing act expected of her/ him.

A seasoned party member who has the potential to win a directly contested election stands a much better chance of explaining the trade-offs involved in policymaking with any degree of confidence. Imagine someone totally dependent on the party leadership’s political capital trying to explain the trade-offs between short-term political gains of subsidies and long-term benefits of desisting unnecessary interference in the market mechanism. S/he will be immediately rebuked for trying to damage the party’s chances of re-election and living in an academic’s paradise.

In a parliamentary democracy, political parties need to attract, groom and retain qualified individuals and help them come into their own in the world of electoral politics. Winning the popular vote has to be the means, the end being improvement in the people’s lot. Please tell us who your finance ministers will be in case you win.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2018