The final full fiscal year of the current government’s tenure has been kicked off with a whimper, with the Finance Minister Ishaq Dar presenting a budget that was so lacklustre and uninspiring, even parliamentarians belonging to the PML-N had to be regularly roused from their collective stupor to greet the proposed economic plan with insipid applause. Bereft of new ideas, the PML-N’s latest budget represents little more than an acknowledgement of the party’s own lack of ambition, perpetuating the stagnant status quo with little to suggest any interest in promoting a broader agenda of growth, development, and economic justice.

No special expertise is required to understand the reality of Pakistan’s economic situation. For starters, it has been well-documented that the current government, perhaps more so than those that have come before it, has a penchant for fudging economic data, providing donors, analysts, and itself with fraudulent indicators upon which to base economic planning. That such a strategy, borne out of a desire to have PR trump performance, is self-defeating should be obvious. The problem is compounded by the lack of a census, with the government essentially engaging in policymaking without any real idea about the number of people affected by its interventions. Poor data, and a lack of input from independent analysts other stakeholders, makes for poor policy, and it should be utterly unsurprising that, year after year, the government has failed to meet the targets it sets for itself.

Consider the case of tax collection. Since coming to power, the PML-N has repeatedly emphasised its desire to broaden the tax base and raise revenues. This is a commendable objective and one that, if achieved, would go a long way towards addressing many of the problems of governance Pakistan continues to face (for example, through the reliance on aid to fund deficits, and the lack of accountability of the state to its citizens). However, while the PML-N has presided over a marginal increase in the country’s tax-to-GDP ratio, it is pertinent to remember that this improvement has been made possible through greater amounts of indirect taxation, and by increasing the tax burden on those forced by conscience or circumstance to actually pay their taxes and file returns. In terms of actually broadening the tax base, or taxing a privileged, propertied elite that continues to evade scrutiny, the government has failed to accomplish anything and has, indeed, conceded as much in its tax proposals for the coming fiscal year. While this could be attributed to more fundamental capacity constraints on the part of the state machinery, or even to a lack of will on the part of a government dominated by elite interests, the fact remains that little has been done to reform the tax structure by the current government.

Consider also the government’s approach to social development. All year, the government and its supporters have been trotting out an array of figures to put a positive spin on the PML-N’s economic performance; growth rates in excess of 4%, inflation kept below 3%, and a decline in absolute poverty regardless of how it is measured. Putting to one side concerns about the quality of the data collected and employed by the government, it is important to pay attention to a crucial point raised by the economist Faisal Bari writing in Dawn a few weeks ago; if poverty has decreased, and if growth has indeed been taking place, why do Pakistan’s social indicators remain stagnant, with levels of educational attainment, infant and maternal mortality, and overall welfare being amongst the worst in the world? The answer lies in how, even if levels of poverty have been brought down, levels of public service provision in health and education have failed to keep up with population growth, and have also not registered the kind of quantitative and qualitative increase that might otherwise be expected to take place with rising levels of economic prosperity.

Put simply, the government has simply not invested in health and education in any meaningful way. The new budget is no exception; while continuing to wrongly insist that its pro-business measures will eventually help the poor, echoing the failed mantra of trickle-down economics, the government has once again succumbed to the dictates of the IMF, slashing development spending in the name of austerity and deficit reduction. Blaming the IMF here would be pointless since it is the government that, time and again, approaches it for bailouts to fuel unsustainable expenditure on vanity projects, the system of patronage that girds Pakistani politics, and a military that has received an 11 percent increase in its own official budget (which does not include expenditure on military pensions, the nuclear programme, and the War on Terror).

The fundamental problem in Pakistan has always been one of prioritisation. Governments have always been faced with the choice of doing the hard, politically difficult work of collecting taxes to fuel expenditure, or simply borrowing/printing more money with little thought for the future. Similarly, governments have always had to choose between protecting the interests of a small, propertied elite and the system of patronage/corruption over which it presides, and using what resources it has at its disposal to help the poor (sometimes at the expense of the rich). Historically, governments in Pakistan have largely made the wrong, easier choices, protecting the rich while paying little heed to the future. The PML-N is no exception and regardless of what stories it tells in parliament, the grim reality of Pakistan is easy to see for the toiling millions who bear witness to it every day as they lead lives defined by deprivation. As always, roads and missiles, and jargon about inflation and growth rates, means little to people who watch loved ones die of easily curable diseases, and who endure the scorching summer heat amidst constant electricity shortages.