At times, very small episodes and observations go unnoticed; especially when stereotypes prevail in the information domain and the post truth environment makes it difficult to conduct any incisive analysis.
Renowned Indian poet Javed Akhtar sahib drew a lot of flak from the Pakistani community on his remarks on terrorism during Faiz festival in Lahore. After witnessing the “Faiz Festival” in Lahore, Akhtar’s first interview in India was for a publication in Mumbai, hosted by Chetan Bhagwat. “Given that Pakistan’s economy is in shambles and its reserves are depleted”, the host, Chetan Bhagat, took a chance and asked Akhtar, “Did you witness the impact of the rising inflation there?” Javed Akhtar replied that during his numerous trips to Pakistan over the past three decades, he saw “no visible poverty” in Pakistan.
“Unlike what you see in Delhi and Mumbai, I did not see any visible poverty in Lahore.” Akhtar responded. “ The reality is that in India, the poor live right in front of us and right next to the rich. However, I believe that Pakistan has restrictions that keep its poor people outside of the towns, where only those who are in need are permitted to live, he said.
These interactions involving Javed Akhtar say a lot about how Pakistan has been stereotyped and why our tendency to wash our dirty linen in public has resulted in a negative perception about Pakistan within and abroad.
Yes, the state of Pakistan may be having problems in managing debt and foreign exchange reserves; yes, our elite is corrupt and crony capitalism is adversely affecting the life of masses, but declaring Pakistan as a failed state is something which is not based on facts on ground.
Then we have a cabal of doomsayers who would leave no stone unturned to highlight, 24/7, of what is wrong about the country and that Pakistan was about to collapse like Sri Lanka. Some are even suggesting cutting the defence Budget, reducing the size of defence forces and sell the official residences of houses of senior bureaucrats to pay for the debt.
The defence budget is a favorite topic of all and sundry, it’s convenient and fashionable and the so called poor friendly, non-practicing Marxists and liberals find it easier to scapegoat the army whenever the opportunity arises.
Let’s go to Ukraine, a country of the geographical size of Pakistan, with per capita income thrice of that of Pakistan. Ukraine had a defense budget in the range of $3.5 billion dollars in 2014. As Russian threat escalated, the budget was jacked up. In 2023, the budget has been increased to almost ten times of 2014 to $30 billion. The US and EU have injected approximately $110 billion into the Ukrainian exchequer with the bulk of it going into weapons, equipment and training of military. Despite all that, the country has lost almost one fifth of its productive area, conservative estimates suggest that the loss to Ukraine has crossed 1.3 trillion dollars.
Lessons learnt: Need for defense budget cannot be ascertained through barbershop gossip; it depends on threat estimates (internal and external), geostrategic environment and hostility in the neighborhood. Wars come unannounced and without a time table; if in doubt, ask Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s threat spectrum hasn’t changed much, with a hostile neighborhood and geographically surrounded by giants, can it afford a reduction in defence budget? India had a skirmish with China across the LAC in 2020, this has forced Modi government to increase the defence budget to almost $76 billion.
Since we have short memories, we have simply forgotten the last decade of War against Terror where Pakistan suffered a direct loss of $150 billion. If this money was available to Pakistan, it could have grown at a pace of 7-8%, the fastest in South Asia.
There is a need for an honest and incisive debate on ‘What is right about Pakistan’. Despite mismanagement by successive governments in past decades, Pakistan’s GDP in purchasing power parity stands at $1.5 trillion. It is the 23rd-largest in the world in terms of GDP based on purchasing power parity and 43rd in terms of nominal GDP.
Should a $1.5 trillion economy worry about the debt payment of a couple of billion dollars?