Dealing effectively with the financial crisis would certainly be one of the first tasks of the newly-inducted government. Seeking an IMF package and obtaining loans from friendly countries, especially China and Saudi Arabia, are the likely choices in the near future, as reports indicate. The larger question looming over the government is how to develop policies to strengthen Pakistan’s economy in the long term and reduce, and eventually end, foreign dependence.
Imran Khan gave a broad overview of his plans in his first television address to the nation after assuming office as PM. His pledge to launch a crusade against corruption, reduce state expenditures and improve governance if implemented faithfully should contribute to improving the economy.
Internally, the country’s deep polarisation among political parties and externally the hostile relations with the US, India and Afghanistan are serious challenges that will have to be confronted to achieve the economic goals that the PM has spelled out.
There is a general consensus among saner elements that the PM’s high priority should be to seek a level of cooperation from the opposition so that the affairs of the state and parliament can be conducted in a relatively peaceful manner. To what extent Imran Khan succeeds in achieving it is a question mark.
The success of the PTI government would also depend on how well it conducts foreign policy. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in his first press briefing assured that it would be the civilian government that will formulate and conduct foreign policy. It would, however, give due weightage to the inputs from all major institutions, especially the defence establishment and the Economic Affairs Division. It is to be seen how the military’s perception of India’s designs and their views on Afghanistan will converge with the PTI government’s policies.
The authority of the elected government and parliament has to be established if Pakistan is to find a respectable place in the community of nations.
For improving relations with the US, India and Afghanistan, a more stringent regime to deal with non-state actors would have to be implemented. Apart from resolve, this would require a major shift in policy. Moreover, these relationships in the backdrop of the China-US and India-China strategic rivalries have acquired greater complexity.
There are other areas that need simultaneous attention to boost the economy. Keeping in view the great potential of tourism, it has to be given top priority. Improvement in the overall security situation is the first requirement for attracting visitors. For tourism to succeed, the current visa policy will have to be reviewed. It should be made less bureaucratic and cumbersome and prospective visitors should be able to get visas in a relatively shorter period. The current visa policy is illogical by any standards. In fact, it is a two-visa policy — one to enter Pakistan and specific to a city or place. The second visa is given to allow the visitor, tourist, official member of the diplomatic community to visit only dedicated places and mostly under scrutiny. This is self-defeating and demeaning and suggests a paranoia mindset. For one wonders what exactly do our officials fear from citizens of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand or Germany, France or Russia, Norway or Sweden and say Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Iran! For them only an official engagement, business interest or a strong tourist passion to visit the beauty of Northern Areas or historical sites will bring them to Pakistan. They would otherwise have least interest in Pakistan. If any of the countries were to fight their proxy wars in Pakistan, their people would generally not come through official channels. And as experience shows that category of applicant is easily identified by our intelligence agencies. Even for citizens of India, we need to relax the visa regime. Businessmen, ordinary citizens, relatives and tourists from India should have greater freedom to visit Pakistan. The processing of visa should not take that long. Travel restrictions imposed by Pakistan on US diplomats are a major source of friction between the countries. This has resulted in Washington imposing similar restrictions on our diplomatic staff.
It makes perfect sense to protect the country’s strategic installations, sensitive research organisations, offices, etc. But this does not mean the government should not open rest of the places to diplomats and foreign visitors.
Pakistan is not a unique nuclear power. France, Britain, the US, Russia and China — all nuclear powers — are flooded with tourists and it is a major component of their economy. India too is a great tourist attraction due to its open policy. Last year, France recorded the largest number of visitors while ensuring the security of its nuclear and defence establishment.
Most of the previous governments in Pakistan have tried to attract foreign investment. They failed essentially due to lengthy bureaucratic procedures, a restrictive visa regime and controls on movement of foreigners within the country, and fear of possible terrorist attacks. The government would have to address these shortcomings to attract foreign investment and facilitate tourism.
The process of security clearance by government agencies for intending visitors is fairly antiquated. It is too stereotyped and left to low-ranking employees to assess the credibility of the individuals or organisations. Clearly, security checks of individuals and organisations are an essential element of a modern state and should remain in vogue, but it also needs to support the overall goals of stability and economic wellbeing. The entire process of clearance needs to be completed in reasonable time without compromising security. There is an underlying suspicion of foreigners that is reflected in Pakistan’s ruling psyche. This is not to recognise that there are countries and forces hostile to Pakistan that will not exploit every opportunity, including tourism for advancing their nefarious designs.
Unless, the PTI government removes these barriers, foreign capital and tourists would find other destinations. Increased revenue generated from tourism should help in beefing up the security of tourist spots. More important it must contribute towards the wellbeing of the residents of these generally poverty-stricken areas.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2018.