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View from US: History hyped

June 23, 2013

The word ‘historic’ is Pakistani media’s post-elections new hype. It’s been elevated to a gala event that’s fleetingly sequestered press interest in serious matters yelling for notice. With little left to trumpet about, now that democracy is secure, why not then flaunt events like President Zardari’s address to the joint houses of the parliament or Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s budget speech as historic? To address the parliament six times or present a budget five times is worth applauding, that we all agree.

And certainly we should all clap.

Better still, the press should have tagged with the ‘historic’ events a somber list of losses caused to the country in the past decade and a half instituted by bad governance and corruption of the two civilian governments — PPP and N-League.

The fact that Zardari mounted the rostrum for the ‘sixth’ time to scatter his pearls of wisdom will go down in history. The fact that Ishaq Dar presented the national budget for the ‘fifth’ time will take him into the annals of history.

Zesty desk thumping and loud cheering by the jiyalas and others celebrating six years of democracy heralded the president’s address. There stood our grand seigneur, magisterially unrepentant of the economic ruin his misrule caused, lecturing the incoming prime minister how to govern. Did he tell us how to solve the Rubik’s cube that can magically transform Pakistan’s sick economy to a healthy one or did he share his dazzling formula on how to end terrorism?

With increasing load-shedding, daily ethnic/sectarian killings, heightened joblessness and serious threat of bankruptcy, to gloat about the president’s speech to the House for the sixth time is hardly anything to celebrate. As for Ishaq Dar’s budget presentation for the fifth time, we would have an occasion to rejoice if Dar had cracked the code in the past to make Pakistan an ‘Asian Tiger’ as his boss Nawaz Sharif never tired of boasting. But to trot out numbers with high aspirations for a rosier financial future is nothing noteworthy. Don’t all finance ministers present a wish list when they present the budget each year?

The finance minister, like the media, applauded his boss the prime minister, for his ‘historic decision’ to jettison two names of programmes introduced by the PPP government — the People’s Works and the Benazir Income Support. The new names for the programmes are Tameer-i-Watan and Income Support respectively.

Changing names around is not the perfect driver needed to fire up the economic engines badly damaged by the PPP government.

Cutting costs at PM Secretariat as announced by Dar is a smart step in the right direction. Lest we forget, Nawaz Sharif was the man responsible for the marbled domes and exotic interiors of the PM Secretariat in his first term. But he never stayed long enough to enjoy it. When Benazir Bhutto took over, she hired a relative (highly creative) to fashion ‘her’ secretariat wrapped in beauty. Money was no consideration. Mian Sahib in his second term changed the whole décor to suit his Lahori taste. Gone were the sultry paintings and the boudoir-styled furnishings.

Ishaq Dar vowed to cut the Presidency to size. Well, we’ll have to see … our president sits in splendid isolation atop his palace in Islamabad. He does not carry out the affairs of the state any more. Nor is he responsible for anything now going wrong in Pakistan. It’s like being on a fully paid vacation with all the princely perks thrown in. Never mind if most Pakistanis are blistering in the heat and going to bed on empty stomachs, the party must go on. Has anyone figured out the money going out of the national exchequer to maintain a lame duck president until his term ends?

Accountability has been reduced to a worn-out cliché. Even the Supreme Court’s orders mysteriously vanish in the rarefied stratosphere of power brokers after achieving prominence in newspapers. We rarely get a follow-up or a progress report of a judgement. Has anybody been keeping a count on the number of court rulings by the honourable lordships in the past five years on the government’s misrule? If so, how many got implemented?

Perhaps it’s time for the judiciary to change its tack too. The zigzag sailing course it adopted requires a rethink beginning with (dare I say it?) new people at the helm once the inmates’ terms are up. Frivolous petition by a member of the ‘Save Judiciary Committee’ wanted a 22-month extension for Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry after his retirement. Thankfully the Supreme Court didn’t entertain it. Retired judges should enjoy life with dignity rather than run after jobs wanting to return to active service. Let fresh blood flow.

While the media’s proclivity begins and ends with legislators, it needs to spread the net to defence enjoying a 15pc increase in the national budget. The people of Pakistan deserve to know where their tax money goes. We talk of corruption endlessly by the past government, but the big time corruption through arms deals and the kickbacks involved by people okaying multi-million-dollar transactions never see the light of the day. Why?

Replacing ‘historic’ with corruption as the media’s plug may inch the country towards the slogan ‘naya Pakistan.’ Reporting how each and every department during the last five years raked in big bucks through corruption does nothing more than make one feel disgusted.

Before making new appointments on merit as we are being promised, a national performance review is needed. Put the spotlight on the existing heads of public institutions, embassies, government departments, banks, regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan and Competition Commission of Pakistan, art and cultural centres like the Pakistan National Council of Arts and a host of Urdu academies and the Higher Education Commission.

The list above is just the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is a monolith headed by the chief executive of the country. A task force of honest men and women can in a couple of months scan through the rotten apples inhabiting every government institution. They must be pulled up or sacked. Period.

Move on to appointments. By mere advertisements for the posts is to invite a mountain of applicants, mostly undeserving, few capable. It can take up manpower and time, which the new rulers can ill afford. Unless there’s a smart system put in place to sift through them fast and chuck the rejects into a slush pile, little progress can be achieved.

The past track of the present government on appointments is abysmal. From ambassadors to naib qasids, the N-League appointed duffers, charlatans and guys on the take. Without sounding a damp squib, one recalls their pathetic performance that eventually pulled down the government. A repeat has to be avoided if not for the sake of democracy then for the sake of ‘naya Pakistan.’

An embargo on sifarishis is needed. But such a hope is already on its way to death: we hear a delegation led by federal Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Mohammad Yousaf came to Nawaz Sharif requesting the PM appoint his son-in-law chairman of Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority. The prompt obviously (are we that stupid not to guess it?) came from the man wanting the job which Yousaf gladly obliged, secure in the thought that his favour will one day be returned by no less a man than the gratified PM! It may still not happen.