Comrade Stalin and the sugar question

Published May 26, 2006 12:00am

WE know how Stalin would have addressed the sugar question. The entire federal cabinet would have been lined up and the matter entrusted in the capable hands of Beria, his chief of KGB.

We also know how Beria would have dealt with it. His interview with the cabinet would have taken place in the cellars of the Lubyanka, KGB HQs in Moscow, or whatever passes for those cellars in Islamabad. In less than 24 hours the price of sugar would have crashed, to the amazement of economists.

But you may ask, why line up the cabinet, why not sugar producers? Because the biggest sugar barons are also the biggest names in the federal cabinet. The cabinet may be good for nothing else but it sure knows how to play around with the price of sugar, now selling at an unprecedented Rs 40 if not above a kilogram.

And no one is ashamed. Instead of apologising or hiding their faces, the sugar barons through their upfront organization, Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA), are brazening it out, suggesting that extraneous factors like the international price of sugar and so on are responsible for this price hike, nothing that they may have done themselves.

From the half-page newspaper ads PSMA has been taking out, you would think that the sugar barons were the most mistreated and impoverished community in Pakistan today. “Honourable President,” the latest PSMA ad intones, “you are a leader with a vision. It is because of your vision that Pakistan is on an economic take-off. We leave the verdict to you as to who is to be blamed for this crisis.”

It also asks a question, “Why is the sugar industry being knocked out?” To drive the point home, a boxer is shown smashing his opponent. Taking a leaf out of the book of strategy, PSMA obviously thinks attack is the best form of defence.

A cartel is usually thought to be made up of producers or traders: big guns getting together to keep prices artificially high. Policy is usually in the hands of other people. The Pakistani situation, however, adds a twist to this equation: producers, by virtue of their political position, being policy-makers and therefore, among other things, determining sugar policy.

Conflict of interest can’t get any murkier than this or more obvious. But no one is complaining and certainly no one is doing anything about it because, as all the signs suggest, this is a distracted if not beleaguered government, up to its ears in a range of troubles it can seemingly do nothing about.

In any case, how can the government take on the sugar barons when the sugar barons themselves are the government?

The recently-inducted NAB chairman, Lt Gen Shahid Aziz, however, seemed to nurse some illusions about his authority. He initiated an inquiry into the sugar crisis only to abandon it more quickly than he had begun it when the sugar barons turned on the heat. On their approaching Army House, NAB was given to understand that discretion was the better part of valour. Since then NAB has lost all interest in sugar and its various ramifications.

The sugar industry provides an interesting insight into the lineaments of Pakistani politics. Like no comparable industry, with the exception perhaps of cotton, it straddles the political divide, with sugar barons to be found both in government and the opposition.

The who’s who of the sugar barons is impressive. In the Q League, the Chaudries, today’s leading power brokers, Production Minister Jahangir Tareen, Commerce Minister Humayun Akhtar, Chief Whip Nasrullah Dareshak, and many more. In the PML-N, the Sharifs themselves who are amongst the biggest sugar barons of all. In the PPP, Zaka Ashraf, the president of PSMA and a central executive member of the PPP, and Zulfikar Mirza, a Zardari crony whose wife Fehmida Mirza is currently an MNA. This list is not exhaustive but it indicates what we are dealing with.

Had PSMA not been such a rainbow coalition, the government would have had a field day accusing the Sharifs or the PPP of being behind the sugar crisis. But for obvious reasons this recourse is not available to it. Members of PSMA may have their political differences but when it comes to guarding their core interests, they speak with one voice.

PSMA thus has proved more powerful than NAB and why not? NAB lost its credibility long ago, indeed precisely at the moment when the Chaudries, against whom various banking matters were pending, escaped the accountability net. Now it is just another organ of the government headed by a retired lieutenant-general. There are scores of organizations headed by generals. Why should anyone take NAB seriously?

But PSMA is also proving more powerful than the people of Pakistan. They know there is no shortage of sugar because it is available in abundance. It’s just a question of paying the right price for it. But they can do nothing about it.

A fifty paisa increase in the price of sugar way back in 1968 was the spark which lit the agitation against Field Marshal Ayub Khan. We have come a long way since then. The price not only of sugar but of other items of daily use is hitting the roof but no one is pushed, certainly not PSMA which is raking it in while the good times last.

If I had to choose between the two, I would rather be a member of PSMA than of the cabinet. PSMA can at least protect its interests. The cabinet can only dance to PSMA’s tune.

As for the Army House, we can sympathise with its anxieties. Causing it nightmares is the thought of the next presidential election: how to go about the conjuring trick of getting the president another term even as he stays in uniform, the cement and armour of the present dispensation. Even Balochistan and Waziristan, for all their grimness, are being pushed out of the presidential radar. In such a predicament no one has time for sugar or the price of pulses.

It increasingly looks as if there is no one at the steering wheel. Things seem to be slipping out of control. The privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills was a big thing. Great care and adequate homework should have gone into its preparation. But from the figures which are emerging it seems that we have managed to bungle one more thing.

The Supreme Court, mercifully, has stepped in, doing what the government should have done in the first place: scrutinising the deal thoroughly.

A strange situation we are witnessing: the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry slowly picking its way through the ruins and retrieving some of its lost honour and credibility. People have lost faith in other institutions. They have lost faith in leadership. The very desperation this situation creates is making people look to the Supreme Court as the last station on the line, the only forum capable of providing relief.

Sure, it can’t redress every grievance. For that we would need a thousand supreme courts spread across the country and a thousand upright chief justices working through the night. But it is setting an example for others to follow.

We are heading into uncertain times. All sorts of questions are likely to come to the fore in the next year and a half: the president’s uniform, the question of his re-election, from fresh assemblies or the present ones, etc.

Ideally, such questions should be handled by political institutions. But we know what has become of them. In previous crises, a section of the political class looked to the army for deliverance. That’s now the last thing anyone wants, the army having proved once and for all its unsuitability to lead the country. This is the one good to have come from our tumultuous history.

Who then will be the nation’s compass to guide it through the raging storms which lie ahead? I think when that time comes all eyes will be on the Supreme Court. Let us pray it is able to live up to the heavy burden of expectations placed on its shoulders.

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