Dawn Editorial 7 June 2021

Politics of numbers

WITH parliament going into budget session this week, the government and the opposition are preparing for some intense economic sabre-rattling in the coming weeks. Recent days have seen this sparring intensify in the wake of the government’s announcement that it has attained a GDP growth rate of 3.9pc. The claim is hotly disputed by the opposition and has triggered a debate among economists and financial commentators because it has upended previous growth rate estimates by the State Bank as well as international financial institutions. While a consensus on this surprising growth rate may wait a while, the government has wasted no time in advertising it as evidence that the economic turnaround has indeed commenced. From Prime Minister Imran Khan downwards, all officials and spokespersons are reinforcing the significance of this figure and claiming an even higher growth rate for the next year.
To counter this hype, the PML-N has launched its own economic offensive aimed at puncturing the government’s feel-good moment. At a pre-budget seminar last week, the party’s leadership provided a different data-based context to the state of the economy and how it compared poorly to the years that the PML-N was in power. These senior leaders used official data to show how inflation had skyrocketed, growth had stagnated, exports had barely moved up despite massive devaluation, tax revenues had shown negligible improvement, the tax-to-GDP ratio had gone down and poverty in real numbers had increased significantly. They argued that the PTI was being economical with the truth and using numbers and data without putting them in the larger context. This debate is now expected to go into higher gear as parliament becomes the focal point for the budget deliberations at a time when the government is promising more money for public-sector development and an emphasis on growth. Added to this mix is the political aspect of the economy in the larger context of the PTI’s performance since the party took office in August 2018. The budget debate will enable the treasury and opposition benches to argue their case for and against the government’s performance with actual hard data. It is an important debate at this juncture when figures tell a story that many believe is not translating into relief for Pakistani households. Those parliamentarians who can do their homework well, and who can arm themselves with credible and verifiable data to tell a convincing and digestible story will certainly be in a position to mould opinion and sway thinking.
The nation deserves to hear such an informed debate. Unfortunately, parliament has, in the last few years, rarely witnessed substantive debates, and has, instead, all too often descended into shouting matches and rowdy behaviour. Contextualising the state of the economy will help make sense of the data deluge that has started to flow into the national discourse.



Kashmir road map

THE road to peace in South Asia runs through Kashmir. This was the gist of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s message while speaking to a foreign newswire on Friday. “If there is a road map [on Kashmir], then, yes, we will talk”, the PM told Reuters while discussing Pakistan-India relations. Mr Khan added that if India was willing to revert to the status quo ante, before it moved to rescind the held region’s autonomous status in 2019, bilateral parleys could move forward. He also mentioned that Pakistan desired a “civilised” relationship with its eastern neighbour while observing that trade was the best path towards normalisation and poverty reduction in the subcontinent.
The prime minister was absolutely correct when he said in the aforementioned interview that India’s move in held Kashmir was “illegal, against international law and United Nations resolutions”. Pakistan has rightly raised the Kashmir issue in world capitals and international forums to highlight India’s brutality in the disputed region and give a voice to the oppressed Kashmiris, particularly after New Delhi rescinded the region’s special status. These efforts to give moral, political and diplomatic support to the Kashmiris should continue with full vigour until a just solution acceptable to the people of the occupied region emerges.
However, setting preconditions for talks with India may be counterproductive. The Pakistan-India relationship is an incredibly complicated one, and it is only through sustained dialogue that decades of mistrust and scepticism can give way to accommodation. Practically, we have witnessed in the recent past that quiet behind-the-scenes dialogue has paid dividends in avoiding a fresh conflagration in the subcontinent. Both states once again had come close to war in the aftermath of India’s 2019 Balakot misadventure.
However, today it has emerged that backchannel talks have been continuing — some say with the blessing of certain common friends — and a concrete example of the effectiveness of talks emerged earlier this year, after both states agreed to respect the 2003 ceasefire along the LoC, after numerous deadly exchanges. The peace process currently might be moving forward at a glacial pace, but in the Pakistan-India context, even talks about talks are better than bombastic rhetoric. Therefore, Pakistan’s emphasis on resolving the Kashmir question must continue and indeed be among the top agenda items in discussions with India. Yet flexibility and not insisting on preconditions may help carry the peace process forward and, in fact, work in favour of resolving the Kashmir imbroglio.



Advocating jirgas

GOVERNMENT representatives must choose their words carefully; they should not appear to be taking a stance contrary to established law. However, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid appeared to do precisely that on Friday. Addressing tribal elders during a jirga at the South Waziristan Scouts camp, Mr Rashid described the jirga system as an excellent alternative dispute mechanism and said that laws should be enforced in the region in accordance with local traditions. Perhaps the minister was simply trying to be gracious to his hosts, or maybe he indeed believes that jirgas have a role to play in delivering justice.
Whatever the case may be, the fact is that the Supreme Court in January 2019 declared jirgas/panchayats ultra vires the Constitution when they operate as adjudicative bodies in civil or criminal matters. The verdict stated they could function as arbitration, mediation, negotiation or reconciliation forums between parties to a civil dispute. However, the minister’s statement on Friday was a sweeping generalisation as to the functioning of jirgas. Moreover, there is one law for all, and it must take precedence over local traditions, not be subservient to them as he also seemed to suggest. After all, there are areas where women are disenfranchised as per ‘tradition’, or where swara/vani, the cruel custom of giving females to an aggrieved party to settle disputes is still acceptable. However, both practices are illegal and the authorities are becoming more effective at enforcing the law against them. By conceding anything to jirgas other than an extremely restricted role would be an irresponsible step. Such bodies, which completely exclude women even when standing in judgement in matters relevant to them, reinforce patriarchal social mores — often through brutal sanctions. There are numerous instances of individuals on the orders of jirgas even having been killed and women gang-raped in order to ‘avenge’ family ‘honour’. Now that constitutional rights have been extended to the tribal districts, the formal justice system must be strengthened there so that outdated mechanisms of so-called justice are weeded out.



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