Economy will improve once all black holes are plugged

We'll just have to keep an eye on a few pointers. How's he handling the economy? How's that anti-corruption drive, which he talked about for 20 years, going?

By Shahab Jafry (Postscript)

Published: Tue 13 Aug 2019, 9:12 PM

Last updated: Tue 13 Aug 2019, 11:16 PM

You didn't see the usual hustle and bustle on Lahore's streets this chand raat, the night before Eid, or in the run up to Independence Day. Perhaps the youth didn't choke the streets with their loud bikes, breaking laws by doing motorcycle stunts and harassing everybody else, because such celebration has become an unusually expensive enterprise over the last year. Just see where petrol prices have gone, for starters.
Indeed, as fathers and husbands told reporters doing Eid fillers, the job losses, high prices, and excessive taxation has forced them to be a little more conservative than usual with holiday spending this time. Hence all the concern in business pages about 'reduced footfall' at the city's famous shopping centres. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) wants people to stimulate consumer spending, and they're just not listening.
But there's more to this somber mood. Remember how last year Independence Day nearly coincided with the new government being sworn-in? Prime Minister Imran Khan's Naya (new) Pakistan finally created.
And, sure, a lot of people had a lot of problems with the results - especially parties that lost - but any journalist covering the reaction on the ground will tell you that the average Joe liked what he saw. Some old timers said they hadn't seen such hope since Zulfi Bhutto's stellar rise way back in the day, then wondered if that was a healthy comparison.
Whether the creation of Pakistan and Naya Pakistan around the same date was just coincidence or some sort of prophecy, as some of Imran's more committed admirers really seem to believe, time shall tell. But it did set an important benchmark.
Up until last year Independence Day was really just another day to take stock of how much closer we, as a country, come each year to the bottom officially dropping off. Now we can see if Imran's Naya Pakistan is really any better than the old Pakistan we've had since partition.
We'll just have to keep an eye on a few pointers. How's he handling the economy? How's that anti-corruption drive, which he talked about for 20 years, going? And, perhaps most importantly, what about the billions (dollars) of looted wealth that he was going to shake out of the corrupt old guard?
One year into Naya Pakistan and it's already pretty clear that, barring a miracle, there will be no dramatic turnaround in the economy. In old Pakistan life was tough for the common man because all the loot and plunder at the top let little, if anything, trickle down. In Naya Pakistan it will be tough because common people, for some reason, must pay for everything Sharif and Zardari stole.
The crusade against the corrupt, on the other hand, is on track and at full speed. Every few days everybody gets to know about yet more millions and billions that mysteriously poured into bank accounts of the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) and the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) royals and high priests over the decades. It's taking a while to set in, but it does seem that some of our old presidents and prime ministers might spend a long time in jail. At least until Imran's running the show.
Yet - it might be too early to say - it doesn't seem that any of the laundered billions will be routed to state bank vaults anytime soon. So far, then, it's one hit and two misses. Simply put, it means that you can forget about the economy, or even repatriating some of the stolen wealth, but you can be sure that some of those really responsible for this state of affairs will at least be incarcerated for as long as the legal system allows.
There may well be something to take away from all this for the common Pakistani. Fine, the failure on the economic front has been a very bitter disappointment so far. And Nawaz and Zardari rotting in jail makes for a fine, even ironic headline, but unless you squeeze some of those kickbacks out of them they're only worth so much for ordinary people.
But there's already a good chance that a particular bunch of feudal-industrial barons that lorded over this country like mafia chiefs will never come back to haunt us. If Naya Pakistan stays long enough, they will be nowhere to be seen. Foreign money, literally bought on the international market at very high markup to pay back maturing debt, will no longer buy premium London real estate for our politicians' children.
Just like doctors take out tumours at Imran's cancer hospital so patients can slowly recover, the economy will also improve once all black holes are plugged. And then everybody can afford to celebrate on the streets and buy festive gifts again.
That, fortunately or unfortunately, is the only silver lining in the cloud this Independence Day.
Hopefully this time next year we'll have a better idea whether finally, so long after independence, we're able to gain freedom from enemies who have exploited us from within.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore

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