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EDITORIAL: The prime minister clearly feels very strongly about the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which was issued by former president Pervez Musharraf and granted a blanket amnesty to politicians, political workers and bureaucrats accused of corruption and money laundering to prolong his own stay at the top. His frustration is understandable because it allowed the usual breed of politicians and civil servants, whom Musharraf had ironically earlier vowed and then tried to cleanse the system of, back into the game. Soon enough they were again in command, Musharraf was forced out, and then everybody got to see how over the next decade the economy collapsed and the country plunged into unsustainable debt. That is why he snaps at any offensive or defensive moves of the opposition that even hint at extracting some sort of concession from the government as an attempt to get a similar NRO out of him.

While there’s no denying that the NRO made for an unfortunate inflection point in our political history, it still needs to be pointed out that more than ruining the economy it provided shelter to the corrupt. That is no less acceptable, of course, especially since it also amounted to handing the reins of the country back to the people that ruined the economy in the first place and brought it to the brink of collapse once again. For the real blow to the economy, from which it did not recover for the longest time, was delivered when in 1992 Nawaz Sharif’s government promulgated the Protection of Economic Reforms Act (PERA), which ruled that “All citizens of Pakistan resident in Pakistan or outside Pakistan and all other persons shall be entitled and free to bring, hold, sell, transfer and take out foreign exchange within or out of Pakistan in any form.” Just for good effect, the Act was meant to override all other laws.

It meant that nobody could question the source of foreign exchange inflows or where they were routed to or even discrepancies between sources of income of individuals and their corresponding assets. That way it created what has since been called a parallel system of management of foreign exchange, one which gave a free pass to individuals and institutions to launder not just tax evaded but also illicitly obtained funds. And that, far more than the NRO, broke Pakistan’s economy. Since it gave a legal cover to an economically very impractical idea, especially for a developing country, it’s no surprise that Pakistanis have used it to, among other things, park hundreds of billions of dollars outside the country. And now there’s simply no legal way of bringing any of it back.

This is just one of the many ways in which our leaders have burdened the country financially and then made the exercise sound like some sort of initiative to protect reforms. And the PM is right to want to right some of those wrongs. But surely he understands that most such issues, especially ones like PERA, are perfectly legal and it would take some amount of ingenuity to plug some of the holes that have been so mercilessly and selfishly drilled into the system over so long. To do what needs to be done now, he would have to take the opposition along in what is after all still a functioning parliamentary democracy. That, unfortunately, will not be possible until he tries to soften up by diluting his anti-NRO rhetoric.

It’s one thing to identify all that is wrong, and the PM and his team do a fine job of putting the spotlight on how everybody before them handled just about everything poorly, yet so far they have been pretty short on actually putting things right. No doubt no NRO should ever have been granted, and one should never be granted again, but now that we know who did what it is time for the government to show us just what it intends to do about all the problems it keeps running into. After all, it may have taken some time to get a grip on things - as no less a man than the prime minister himself half-admitted - but it’s not as if it had no idea at all what it was walking into.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021