Punjab Chief Minister, Usman Buzdar’s photograph which shows him sitting inside a special plane with his family, on his way to Islamabad, simply went against the image of an austerity-focused Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government.
The austerity drive started by the newly elected PTI government has a strategic objective. PTI insiders say that through the austerity drive Imran Khan wants to give the message to the people that the public exchequer is in safe hands and that the taxes government collects from the public are not wasted on providing luxury to those voted into power.
Sakib Sherani, senior economist, tells TNS that during the past many years both government and private organisations have carried out opinion polls to ascertain reasons behind the low level of tax collection, “There are survey results which say that many people don’t pay taxes because they believe their tax money will be wasted or become victim to the corruption rampant in state machinery.”
It was with the objective of increasing tax collection that the PTI government started a media campaign to project Imran Khan as the simplest prime minister in history.
However, this was met by a counter campaign of showing the government wasting money on special flights — the prime minister’s helicopter carrying the first couple from Banigala (the private residence of Imran Khan) to the Prime Minister’s House twice a day being a case in point.
The government announced austerity measures in contrast to an ‘extravagant’ PML-N government in the past.
Abolishing the discretionary funds of the prime minister, ministers and other government officials was followed by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that he would not live in the palatial official residence and rather settle in the simple house of the military secretary inside the premises of the Prime Minister’s House.
The government has announced auction of bullet proof cars in possession of the Prime Minister’s House. Only tea and biscuits were served in the oath-taking ceremony of the prime minister.
Economic experts say the amount of money saved from austerity drive by the PTI government will not be huge. For instance, it is unlikely to make any dent in the fiscal deficit facing the country, “But optics are involved. I think the impact of Imran Khan’s austerity drive on the tax-paying culture will be huge,” says Sherani.
He says a number of private organisations have carried out numerous surveys which say that if the ruler adopts a frugal and simple lifestyle the impact on tax culture will be huge.
However, the reporting on television channels about the use of helicopters and special planes by leaders of the new government will not only be damaging for the future of the PTI government but it will also negatively impact the campaign to improve tax culture in the country.
Most of government procurement is carried out through bureaucracy. The government’s procurement cost runs into billions of rupees annually. “I expect that PTI has a plan in this regard and they will extend the scope of the austerity drive to all aspects of government expenditure,” hopes Sherani.
So far, there is little evidence that the PTI government wants to expand the scope of austerity drive beyond things which have recently attracted the attention of the general public due to a campaign on social media.
Most of the PTI government’s announcements relate to lavish official dinners, luxury cars, special planes and helicopters carrying government officials and foreign tours of the prime minister. For instance, it is announced that unlike Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Imran Khan will not take special PIA flights on his foreign tours and instead travel in club class.
The federal bureaucracy is expected to be affected by the austerity drive in two ways: they will have to travel in club class which is stated to be below the entitlement of senior bureaucrats, including Secretaries and Additional Secretaries. Secondly, most of the senior bureaucrats travel in their luxury vehicles provided to them by the government. They will not be allowed to do so in future.
“There is little evidence the PTI government will implement its austerity drive on the bureaucracy beyond the requirements of public relations exercise that is the political need of the present government,” says a recently retired bureaucrat.
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The PTI government has also announced that Prime Minister Imran Khan will not accept any extra protocol or security arrangement for himself. However, the government is facing resistance from the security agencies who are insistent that they cannot scale down prime minister’s security beyond a certain limit, “There is an essential level of security for the prime minister, which cannot be scaled down,” says Brig (retd) Mehmood Shah, a former ISI official. However, security agencies are not opposed to withdrawing extra protocols from the Prime Minister’s surroundings, “Protocol and security are two different things and excessive protocol is an obstacle in the way of effective security. Protocol could be cut down to reduce expenses,” says Shah.