Shopkeepers will be shopkeepers

  • Imran Khan’s toughest test yet


Shopkeepers are the same everywhere. And it doesn’t matter what lofty name– trader, businessman, dealer, distributor, mill-owner, supplier– a shopkeeper is dignified with; he is still a shopkeeper. So, it’s hardly surprising that the Pakistani shopkeepers aren’t overly keen to give away the decades-long tax holiday they have been enjoying. Where the Pakistani shopkeeper stands out amongst his counterparts in other parts of the world, however, is the quality of his gall which makes him impervious to any shame in openly refusing to submit to documentation of his business– an ignominy rather than which he would much rather shut down his business. At least he claims so, although it would be interesting to call his bluff on this one.

As expected, all the right noises are being made about the poor customer, the slowdown of the economy, the increase in unemployment and the like; but the main issue, of course, is the refusal to document sale and purchase, which would make incomes transparent. If made mandatory, the ordinary man will give a copy of his ID card (like he already does if it’s a piece of land or an automobile he is buying). The real issue which is not letting the shopkeeper sleep peacefully, is of course his horror of revealing his own true income, and that of making the whole sale-chain transparent. Any wonder that one constantly keeps hearing announcements of strikes on the part of the textile– or some other– industry?

One thing in Khan’s favour is that with his back squarely against the wall, he doesn’t have any other option. Sometimes it’s good not to have the luxury of backing down

Shopkeepers will be shopkeepers. But this scuffle is not about under-invoicing or false accounting– ‘legitimate’ tricks among the international business fraternity. Instead, it’s flat-out refusal to get their businesses registered, or to agree to demanding ID card copies from their customers for sales in excess of Rs50,000. And no wonder, because while a large number of businesses don’t pay any taxes on account of being unregistered, those that are registered pay paltry amounts in taxes: according to the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs, an annual average of Rs20,000 and Rs30,000 per shop at Hall Road and Brandreth Road, respectively!

Shopkeepers will be shopkeepers. But this is a poor country where, leave aside hard-core capitalists, even the self-proclaimed leftists and socialists can be found cheering for the shopkeepers and against anybody that even looks like taking their collective might on. Those who have a soft corner for the PPP for its much-vaunted leftist bent, and even members of the Awami Workers’ Party: the likes of Ammar Ali Jan who do so under the guise of concern for, you guessed it… the slowdown of economy. The things bias against a personality can make one do! No wonder that where the left is in a sorry state worldwide, it’s an outright joke in Pakistan.

Shopkeepers will be shopkeepers. But why single out shopkeepers when many other sectors behave like shopkeepers? Lawyers and doctors, for example, who earn millions of rupees and yet pay negligible taxes. That’s the next battle– expect a huge clamour and commotion when that one ensues. And one can predict the slogans that are sure to be pressed into service then: ‘Leave the Messiahs alone to heal the sick and the weak!’ and ‘Justice for justice-givers!’

Shopkeepers will be shopkeepers, and they always were. What’s different in the New Pakistan is that the government seems to be in earnest to document the economy. When was the last time a Pakistani government looked to seriously broaden the tax net beyond salarymen whose taxes are perforce deducted at the source? When was the last time a government took on the might of the shopkeepers, who everybody knows evade taxes, but who are too strong as a group to be taken on? Indeed, as things stand today, united by their greed, and backed by many influential quarters, they seem to be winning. That said, if anybody can lock horns with them, it’s Imran Khan.

It’s true that like the Greek heroes, Khan has a tragic flaw: hubris. That’s why he was so consistently written off as a politician. Of course, he has shown his critics what he is capable of, despite this flaw (or perhaps because of it); but in a fight like this one, his single-minded resolve bordering on insanity may precisely be the quality that could help him be a match for anything the shopkeepers throw at him, and more. The second thing in Khan’s favour is that with his back squarely against the wall, he doesn’t have any other option. Sometimes it’s good not to have the luxury of backing down. It will be an uphill task, regardless.

If Khan loses this battle against rent-seeking– as many circles, even outside the shopkeeper community are so desperately hoping he does– somebody will still have to wage the same war against the same mafia, and win. If Pakistan is not to end up like sub-Saharan African states, that is. This is for those who are cheering for the shopkeepers purely because they hate Khan’s guts. Better now than in future, for time is running out fast (some say it’s already too late). Because the cycle of borrowing short-term to keep the dollar artificially down (a criminal thing at the best of times) is not sustainable anymore. Meanwhile, the time-bomb keeps ticking…