Most objective listeners to President Asif Ali Zardari’s speech to parliament would tend to disagree with the rather rosy picture that he portrayed of the PPP government’s achievements over the parliamentary year gone by. However, there are some positives, foremost among them the finalisation of the Seventh National Finance Commission Award and the passage of the 18th amendment which abolished the Concurrent List. As for the president’s statement that the tax net had been widened, this has not come via the reformed general sales tax, as should have been the case, but rather by the imposition of a one-time surcharge on income for financing the 2010 flood relief and rehabilitation effort. A few items previously exempted from paying sales tax have now been brought under the tax net, but the incidence of this levy will fall on ordinary Pakistanis and not on the relatively better-off trader/business classes. Remittances may be at record levels but that is a function of incomes earned by Pakistanis overseas, and is not really indicative of policies by governments in Pakistan.
The president did point out that the floods of last year caused damages of 10 billion dollars which is almost six per cent of GDP (at current prices). Many of those affected by the floods have yet to return to their homes, so progress on dealing with the country’s worst-ever natural disaster has been painfully slow. Mr Zardari also made it a point to refer to the Hydra of extremism and intolerance, and condemned the murders of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. While certainly welcome, such unequivocal condemnation should have come from the head of the state much earlier, right after when the two men were so brutally murdered, and should have been followed up by the PPP-led government in letter and spirit. Instead, what was seen was a veritable capitulation to such forces, because instead of going after the extremists and signalling to the minorities that it would protect them, the government bent over backwards to appease the religious right, especially on the blasphemy law issue. There is much that needs to be done and the government needs to understand that the best way to strengthen civilian institutions and democracy is to deliver on its promises and pledges.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2011.
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