Will Pakistan’s grandiose economic revival plan fare well?

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pakistan economic crisis
Representative photo

Flashback

On 13 June 2019, the government of Pakistan issued a notification approving the creation of National Development Council [NDC] comprising 13 members under the then Prime Minister Imran Khan, which included the serving Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. The ‘terms of reference’ assigned to this newly created body were, “set policies and strategies for development; formulated and tailor policies to achieve accelerated economic growth; approve long term planning for national, and regional connectivity and provide guidelines for regional cooperation.”

While inclusion of ministers and bureaucrats in NDC was understandable, given the purely economic nature of its mandate, incorporating the Army chief as a member didn’t quite fit into the scheme of things. Pakistan watchers will agree that nothing in this country is taken seriously unless and until the Army is incorporated in the said initiative. However, by contending that a country’s sovereignty and security was linked to its economic progress, Gen Bajwa indirectly justified his own inclusion in NDC.

Except for Gen Bajwa interacting with business honchos and talking about taking ‘tough decisions’ , what exactly did the NDC achieve is not known. With Khan as well as Gen Bajwa gone, and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s unveiling of an ambitious “Economic Revival Plan” [ERP] for turning Pakistan into a $ 1 trillion economy by 2035, it would be fair to assume that despite Gen Bajwa’s  intervention, Khan’s brainchild fell woefully short of the expectations and has been shelved.

The Present

As per The Express Tribune report onthe ERP, “the government has established a ‘Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC)’, which will serve as a streamlined interface for investors and remove all the bottlenecks in investments with the help of the army.” [Emphasis added]. While this initiative aimed at reviving Pakistan’s economic downturn is indeed welcome,  just like in the case of NDC, it’s unclear as to how exactly will the Army facilitate removal of “bottlenecks in investments.”?

Pakistan Army chief Gen Asim Munir [who was present during the ERP launch at the prime minister’s residence], has been quoted as having “assured [the] army’s all-out support to complement the government’s efforts for the revival plan considered to be fundamental to socio-economic prosperity of the Pakistanis and reclaiming Pakistan’s rightful stature in the comity of the nations.” Rather than clearing the air, this statement has only created more confusion.

Old Wine, New Bottle?

Though much hasn’t been revealed about the ERP, the newspaper has quoted “ government sources saying that since “security and economy were closely related to each other “that’s why the Pakistan Army will spend all its energy in the management, coordination and the success” of the project. With Gen Bajwa having articulated the same logic just four years ago, this viewpoint gives a strong feeling of déjà vu and raises apprehension regarding the success of this plan.

The newspaper also mentioned “a key cabinet minister” saying that the “army will play a key role  in the coordination of the projects,” and clarifying that “the army will provide only management and technical support in this initiative to successfully complete the project.” What special expertise or skills does the Pakistan Army have in providing requisite “management and technical support” to an economic programme that has no connection or link whatsoever to matters military escapes comprehension.

The ‘Game Changer’ Syndrome

It was on 5 July  2013 that Pakistan signed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] deal with China and this project was touted as a ‘game changer’ that would permanently rid Pakistan of its perpetual financial woes. However, this so-called ‘game changer’ has turned out to be a damp squib and 10 years down the line, Islamabad is facing an economic meltdown of gigantic proportions. With Islamabad unable to honour its own commitments, Beijing has rightly become wary of committing more funds into the CPEC project, shattering Pakistan’s ‘game changer’ dream.

With a whopping external debt standing at $125.7 billion in Mar 2023, it’s abundantly clear to everyone that only a miracle can save Pakistan. Express Tribune has quoted an unnamed minister saying that “The [ERP] project is a “game-changer” for the development of Pakistan”, and this declaration comes as no big surprise. With the CPEC dream turning into a nightmare, Islamabad has conveniently presented ERP as a repackaged ‘game changer’ fantasy to its people.

Army and Pakistan’s Economic Revival

Sharif has made his announcement regarding Pakistan Army’s incorporation in the ERP as an ingenious and path breaking step. However, Rawalpindi’s phenomenal influence over judiciary, legislature and executive remains Pakistan’s worst kept secret,  and just six months ago, former Army chief Gen Bajwa had himself admitted that “Pakistan Army has always remained a dominant player in national decision-making.”  So, it’s but natural that the decision to rope-in the Army to set Pakistan’s economy right hasn’t inspired public confidence.

Furthermore, despite its unquestionable authority over all other organs of the state, Rawalpindi remained a silent spectator even as the country headed towards an economic disaster. Gen Bajwa and Gen Munir have been publicly expressing serious concerns about Pakistan’s precarious financial condition, but the Pakistan Army has failed to come out with any recommendations or plans to arrest the country’s economic downslide. This is understandable as an Army can least be expected to offer solutions to rectify economic anomalies bedevilling a nation.

So, while rationalists are convinced that inclusion of the military in Pakistan’s Economic Revival Plan means little, cynics are having a field day making snide remarks on Rawalpindi. Some contend that with the Pakistani armed forces successfully running more than 50 commercial entities, which by conservative estimates are worth $ 20 billion, it can teach economists and industrialists a lesson or two in how to make money.

Detractors also argue that with Rawalpindi doubling up as the country’s judiciary, it could adjudicate on legal issues and take elusive economic offenders to task! Then there are others who feel that Rawalpindi could use the special skills of its spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] in abducting and ‘disciplining’ those who can’t be brought to book. A few also feel that having failed to annex Kashmir, save East Pakistan and tackle home-grown terrorism, Rawalpindi needs a face saving device, and what could be better than becoming part of Pakistan’s economic revival programme by playing a cushy role without any accountability!

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