Making Tough Political Decisions Easy

RGST tax

There are few issues that illustrate the current political stalemate better than taxes. Pakistan has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world, and it’s expected to stay in single digits until at least 2014. The answer to this problem is apparent – “broaden the tax base by netting potential taxpayers and withdrawing exemptions”. So why doesn’t the government just do what is necessary to get the national finances in order?

The answer of course is politics. President Zardari has extended an olive branch to Nawaz Sharif in an effort to get opposition parties to back tax reforms, only to have PML-N spokesman Ahsan Iqbal reply that his party could not support the measure.

Mr Iqbal said the PML-N would not support the RGST bill because it considered it against the people. “Instead of extending a hand of friendship towards Mian Nawaz Sharif, the government should utilise its energies for the elimination of corruption,” he added.

Ayesha Tammy Haq expresses the frustration common among our educated middle class – that parliamentarians are putting their own political futures ahead of the national interest.

They agree that reform is required, that it is inevitable, but in the time-honoured tradition of Pakistani politics they seek to delay the inevitable. At the very least, until after the next election. This logic resonates with the political side of government, which knows that unpopular measures, no matter how critical, do not win you elections. And it is all about staying in office. No one agrees that the need for reform is dire enough to merit losing an election.

Tammy Haq is correct in her observation, but I fear that she misses an important part of the equation. What good is passing a reform that is politically unpopular? The next elections will simply replace the ‘courageous’ politicians willing to make unpopular decisions with those who promise to undo them. Then the country is left where it was before.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on seeing these reforms take place. Rather, I think the answer is in another part of Tammy Haq’s piece.

We know what is needed to develop the rural economy, we know that we need to generate more power, we need to cut our fuel bills, we need to manufacture, produce and export more and import less. We need to build competitive capacity and to do that we need access to capital. We know what it is we need; the number crunchers tell us it is doable. Our issues aren’t commercial, they’re political; to survive we need to start making tough political choices.

Notice that she uses the term ‘We know’. Here is something to think about – who is ‘We’? Actually ‘We’ in this case tends to be the educated middle-class who understand the economics behind the proposed reforms and how changes to the tax laws will benefit rather than hurt the economy. But this is but a small part of society. When media describes tax reforms as threatening the masses through increasing price of essentials and balancing the budget on the backs of the awam, it creates a political environment where reforms will not happen precisely because the people do not want them to happen.

The first step to reforms is explaining to the masses why they’re important to make. Until the masses understand the need for specific reforms, we will be building on a foundation of sand destined to shift under the weight of the next political storm. All politicians are going to take the path of electoral self-preservation. If we want politicians to make tough decisions, we need to help them by transforming those decisions from ‘tough’ to ‘easy’. When the people demand reform, reforms will take place.

Salmaan Taseer: “This is a man-made law, not a God-made one.”

The following discussion between Governor Salmaan Taseer and Ayesha Tammy Haq was published on a few short weeks ago by Newsline Magazine. As you can see, Salmaan Taseer approached the topic with reason, tolerance, and intellectualism. He advocates working within the political and legal system to protect the rights of the nation’s minorities.

Q: Why did you take up Aasiya Bibi’s case?

Salmaan TaseerA: Aasiya Bibi’s case is particularly relevant. She is a woman who has been incarcerated for a year-and-a half on a charge trumped up against her five days after an incident where people who gave evidence against her were not even present. So this is a blatant violation against a member of a minority community. I, like a lot of right-minded people, was outraged, and all I did was to show my solidarity. It is the first time in the history of the Punjab that a governor has gone inside a district jail, held a press conference and stated clearly that this is a blatant miscarriage of justice and that the sentence that has been passed is cruel and inhumane. I wanted to take a mercy petition to the president, and he agreed, saying he would pardon Aasiya Bibi if there had indeed been a miscarriage of justice.

Q: When do you expect the president to issue the pardon?

A: The case will come before the High Court and be heard, and if for any grotesque reason the judgement of the Sheikhupura district judge is upheld, then she will be given a presidential pardon.

Q: You have been criticised for circumventing the legal process.

A: Yes, particularly by a television talk show host. I would like to ask that host if some maulvi accused her of blasphemy and she spent a year-and-a half in jail and was then offered a presidential pardon, would she turn around and say, “no wait until my appeal has been heard.” This kind of ‘mummy daddy’ approach is probably fine for others, but I wonder if she would apply it to herself. I don’t think I have circumvented anything; all I have done is to draw everyone’s attention to this case. I have also showed my solidarity with minority communities who are being targeted by this law and, in doing so, I have sent across a strong message.

I have received thousands of messages from people from all walks of life. The result can only be good. This law that no one dared speak about is now being discussed, criticised and its repeal sought. I have heard anchors, journalists, members of civil society, people like Ghamdi, Imran Khan even Rana Sanaullah and many more saying amendments are required. The important thing to remember is that this is a man-made law, not a God-made one. What I find particularly distasteful is that when you speak of amendment, people assume you condone the crime. If I am against the death sentence, it does not mean I condone murder.

Q: Do you advocate repeal of those provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code better known as the Blasphemy Law?

A: If you want my personal opinion, I don’t like this law at all. I understand we are working in a coalition government and that being the case what we can do is to amend the law in such a way that the maker of a false accusation is tried under the same law. There should also be a proper filtration process where someone like a DCO should confirm that there is a case to answer. This will help ensure that pressure from maulvis and fanatics does not result in the victimisation of helpless people. One of the maulvis demonstrating against me said that they killed Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a judge who released someone accused of blasphemy. Surely, at the very least, he should be tried for incitement to murder.

Q: Yes, but the perpetrators get away…

A: The real problem is that the government is not prepared to face religious fanaticism head on. This also gives us a bad name in the world.

Q: Babar Awan, the federal law minister, has said there is no question of repealing the law on his watch. How do you respond to that?

A: Well, I do not agree with Babar Awan, it is as simple as that. That opinion is not a majority opinion in the party. Sherry Rehman has tabled a bill to amend the PPC. Most people in this country – and I am not talking about the lunatic fringe – are moderate. They do not like this law and have demonstrated against it.

Q: Will the PPP support Sherry Rehman’s effort?

A: President Zardari is a liberal, modern man; most people I know in the PPP are liberal and modern. I think the MQM, ANP and most of those in the PML-Q have the same point of view. So if push came to shove and there is no bowing to pressure from the lunatic maulvi, then it can very easily go through. And I think if Nawaz Sharif will show a little bit of moral courage for a change and keep away from his constituency of religious fundamentalism and place himself on middle ground, that too would be a very positive thing. This amendment should come through not on a party basis but across party lines. So you vote with your conscience.

Q: People may have demonstrated against Aasiya Bibi’s sentence, but fatwas have been issued against you.

A: People also issued fatwas against Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They issued fatwas against basant. These are a bunch of self-appointed maulvis who no one takes seriously. The thing I find disturbing is that if you examine the cases of the hundreds tried under this law, you have to ask how many of them are well-to-do? How many businessmen? Why is it that only the poor and defenceless are targeted? How come over 50% of them are Christians when they form less than 2% of the country’s population. This points clearly to the fact that the law is misused to target minorities.

Q: How do you think the media has handled this issue?

A: I am very impressed. Nearly 90% of the media in Pakistan has spoken out against this. I have watched talk shows, spoken to anchors, read numerous columns and opinions, and barring those with a deliberate agenda, not just every media person but also guests on talk shows have openly condemned the Blasphemy Law. They all say it should be amended, which is something which has been the most encouraging result of my move. Because I took a stand, many people have lined up and taken a stand and that, in turn, will empower judges and law-enforcement agencies to the extent that they may not bow to pressure. I think that now a policeman registering a case of blasphemy or a judge hearing a case will investigate before registering or at least think twice before hearing such as case.

Q: What kind of perverse pleasure is there in oppressing the weak and vulnerable?

A: Unfortunately and sadly there are people who feel bigger when they pick on someone who cannot fight back. It’s called bullying. I went to Sheikhupura jail to stand up against a bully and it has encouraged others to do so as well. That’s what taking a moral stance is. I am honestly happy to say that I am heartened by the huge response from ordinary folk. Even people who are deeply religious have spoken out against this black law. Ghamdi, for example, has stated clearly that this has nothing to do with Islam – Islam calls on us to protect minorities, the weak and the vulnerable.