A comedy of numbers

Bar bar us ke dar pe jata hoon; Halat ab iztaraab ki si hai

Ye bhi to ek andaz e ilaj e ghum e jan hai;

Ai chara garo dard barha kyon nahi daitay

Ishrat e qatra hai darya mai fana ho jana;

Dard ka hadh sai guzarna hai dawa ho jana

But helpless parts of the game he plays;

On this chessboard of Nights and Days; Here and there moves, and checks and kills; And one by one in the closet.

The two annual mundane documents, Economic Survey of Pakistan and the Budget, are nothing more than a numbers game to make it sound like a play. In fact, scam is an apt term for those misleading numbers concocted every year by our financial gurus that can make an elephant look like an ant and vice versa. Miftah Ismail, although owner of Candyland, could not soften the bitterness of the financial fathers (IMF) who rejected the budget in its entirety. They want Pakistan to provide a credible revenue plan and block the cancellation of all grants before knocking on their door for a staff level deal. Miftah can recite this verse from Mir Taqi Mir to vent his frustration: Bar bar us ke dar pe jata hoon; Halat ab iztaraab ki si hai. The other day Miftah was addressing a rally, part of which I heard on my TV screen. He sounded so pessimistic and literally scared of the economic turmoil leading to a possible default in the days to come that even Cassandra would have blushed listening to him.

It was outrageous to see Marriyum Aurangzeb a few days earlier on television gesturing with two fingers and vocalizing stress with an astonished look at the sum of two thousand rupees for the poorest of the poor as a targeted subsidy instead of the unprecedented hike in the cost of fuel, gas and electricity, which will very soon lead to a tsunami of inflation. But then the government relied on Faraz’s recipe: Ye bhi to ek andaz e ilaj e ghum e jan hai; Ai chara garo dard barha kyon nahi daitay. Ghalib formulated the same thought with a little more elegance: Ishrat e qatra hai darya mai fana ho jana; Dard ka hadh sai guzarna hai dawa ho jana.

Only a few figures are enough to reveal the financial health of our country. If I remember correctly, I have yet to see a balanced budget. The only question is: how big is the deficit this time around? On a lighter note, let me quote what a former US President, Ronald Reagan, had to say when commenting on his deficit budget: “It has become big enough to take care of itself.” But we are not the America that can print the dollars that are the fiduciary power to run the economy of the world, especially the third world countries also known as dollarized nations. Pakistan is definitely a favourite.

Pakistan’s total external debt has swelled to around $139 billion. I can’t imagine our country paying that back even after decades. The best a government can do is to tighten its belt and thereby close the trade gap between exports and imports. But unfortunately, our exports and our growth are driven by our imports, and no one has the wisdom and the ability to change this paradoxical situation in the presence of elite capture in Pakistan. Miftah presented a budget without being booed and hissed due to the absence of any opposition. Thus, his budget speech was a scathing critique of Imran Khan and the PTI, and a grotesque glorification of the PML-N led PDM as the saviors of Pakistan. What a travesty of democracy in Pakistan!

It is shameful to see paltry sums being allocated to education, health, water, transport, electricity and many other social sectors in need of urgent development and reform. Pakistan can never emerge from the whirlwind of debt until the fault lines in the economy are seriously identified and addressed with a sense of direction and determination. Makeshift measures will only suffice if the structural changes are made after the debris pile has been cleared.

Diet change replacing PTI with PDM is not a cure. Nothing can work if the model of the economy is not aligned with the priorities of the country. it reminds me of that ribbon (quatrain) by Omer Khayyam translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald: But the helpless pieces of the game he plays; On this chessboard of Nights and Days; Here and there moves, and checks and kills; And one by one in the closet.

Published in L’Express Tribune, June 18e2022.

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