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DAWN - Opinion; June 25, 2005

June 25, 2005

The question of image

By S.M. Naseem

THE way the Pakistani government has handled the case of the gang-rape victim Mukhtaran Mai reflects the gulf between high-sounding aims and ground realities. It also highlights the devious ways the government employs to keep itself in the saddle at all cost. The government’s credibility has reached a new low since the president’s announcement last December that he would not give up his uniform, despite his previously avowed intention to do so.

Even the government’s foreign friends are beginning to doubt the veracity of its statements with regard to security, surveillance and nuclear proliferation. At home, people are beginning to question the claims of an economic turnaround that appears not only to have surpassed all previous growth records but also to have overtaken dynamic Asian economies. By manipulating statistics and employing dubious research methodologies, the government has tried to show that poverty is falling, while all other indicators point to the contrary. A government which fudges rather than faces the facts must sooner or later forfeit the confidence of both those whom it rules and those on whom it depends to perpetuate its rule.

Meanwhile, the supposedly original, though pussyfooted and fuzzy doctrine of “enlightened moderation”, with which the government hopes to combat religious extremism, remains undistinguished. It is unwise to expect that General Ziaul Haq’s decade-long indoctrination of the military as the vanguard of Islamic jihad can be obliterated in less than half that period of General Musharraf’s politically spineless regime which takes two stealthy steps back for every step forward. Nowhere has this been demonstrated more clearly than in the case of women’s rights issues, which one would have expected to be the centre-piece of any “enlightened” programme of social reform.

General Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” is more a euphemism for weakness and capitulation to the religious reactionaries than about social progress. Thus while by making cosmetic gestures and enacting perfunctory legislation intended to improve the status of women, it provokes diehard religious elements into attacking women in the name of violating Islamic codes of conduct, leaving women to defend themselves. Instead of protecting a protest rally of women against the fundamentalist backlash, it lets loose the police on the demonstrators with instructions to “teach a lesson” to the doyen of Pakistani women’s struggle Asma Jehangir. It is a game which the regime has played time and again and it can now deceive only the most naive. It is about time that women’s rights activists in Pakistan challenged this six-year old regime. They do not need the helping hand of the government to fight the more radical religious elements. They, however, need to concentrate on the more basic issues of women’s rights, such as education, employment, housing and access to public resources. They should not allow the Mukhtaran case to be hijacked by the government and should make it a rallying point of gender and social oppression and exclusion in Pakistan.

The women’s struggle must be seen as part of a wider struggle against the civil and military elite, and in solidarity with the poor and the excluded. This is the only way that the women’s movement can shed the image of being elitist. The government’s fight against radical elements with whom it has a strategic political alliance in order to perpetuate its rule is a limited and tactical one. It is dictated by its need to convince its allies that it is doing enough to keep the fundamentalist spectre from raising its head and threatening its interests in this sensitive region. It is a mistake on the part of women’s rights groups to give legitimacy to the military-led regime by endorsing the doctrine of “enlightened moderation” which does nothing to weaken the forces of obscurantism and reaction.

The government’s attitude against the rising number of reported social crimes such as rape, karo kari, the misuse of the Hudood ordinance, police brutality, bonded labour and the commercialization of social services, including education and health, is bordering on the cavalier. It seems to deny their existence and lacks the political will required to deal with them, except in a rather formal manner.

The government’s record with regard to rape has been abysmal, giving the impression that it is acting in favour of the rapist rather than the victim as it pursues its convoluted “image-building” exercise, suppressing and distorting facts in the process.

The Mukhtaran Mai case and that of the rape of a doctor in Balochistan are two high profile events for which the government has engaged in aggressive “image management” to save its own face while the victims continue to suffer indignity. In the case of the latter, the president himself publicly exonerated the principal accused (a military man).

Mukhtaran Mai’s case is even more bizarre. This was a case, which, if the government was sincere and local NGOs sufficiently pro-active, could have turned into the flagship of a crusade against rape and other brutal practices against women involving feudal structures that threaten the liberation of women, not only in Meerwala but all over Pakistan. Her courage and determination should have been celebrated all over the country to inspire other women against gender and class oppression. Unfortunately, the present regime is so hamstrung by the need to seek the support of the worst elements of society that it does not dare take such a route. It fell to the lot of some well-meaning Pakistani expatriates and NGOs abroad and a New York Times columnist to give publicity to her case and to promote the cause of women’s emancipation in Pakistan, by inviting her to the US.

It seems that Pakistan’s ambassador in the US, a former army man, got wind of Mukhtaran’s impending visit. He advised the government to prevent the brave woman from leaving Pakistan to visit the US, where she would have been welcomed with more fanfare than General Musharraf himself. This was not the kind of script that Pakistani rulers had in mind when they prepared an ambitious image-building programme costing millions of dollars.

A commotion followed in the capital and the whereabouts of Mukhtaran Mai became a mystery as she was cut off from her family and friends and was held in some kind of a benign house arrest. The adviser to the prime minister on women development claimed that Mukhtaran had come to Islamabad to discuss a PC-1 form about a project in her area. She was persuaded to withdraw her application for a visa to visit the US, which the embassy of that country was more than eager to issue her, sparing her the many formalities and indignities that ordinary Pakistani applicants face on a daily basis.

The curtain was lowered on the drama when the prime minister, after severe prodding by members of his own party and the opposition, agreed to request the interior minister to withdraw her name from the Exit Control List. The US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, Christina Rocca, expressed displeasure on the Pakistani government’s action, and this was perhaps a strong catalyst in getting the earlier decision reversed.

While this episode has ended and will go off the radar screens of the media for some time, its long-term consequences remain uncertain. It is difficult to imagine that ordinary women in the rural areas of Pakistan will become more aware after the high-handed treatment meted out to the two high profile victims who reported their cases to the police and sought judicial relief. It will depend, of course, on how, if at all, the stories of these and other lesser known victims will reach women and their families living in rural areas and the way in which their conscience is aroused.

Unfortunately, the media focuses on such events only as isolated incidents of violence and discrimination. The systemic aspects of these events remain unexplored and unattended. The present Pakistani government is unlikely to support such an effort, much less to implement the findings of the cases, since this may lead to the demand for vigilance of its own activities. As pointed out by MNA Sherry Rehman in a recent article carried by this newspaper, the subject of the military, particularly its budget, has “become inured from public debate and exempt from any parliamentary accountability”. Indeed, the military would be unwilling for checks on its activities to be carried out by independent bodies. The “core” issue of Pakistani polity is the existence of the military as a state within a state, which is an unacceptable situation in a democracy.

Taking the high road

THE Bush administration is finally preparing to set new fuel economy rules. That’s reason to cheer, even if this hardly represents leadership.

Consumers already are avoiding gas-chugging SUVs and lining up for hybrids. The administration was quiet about fuel efficiency while gas prices were low and Detroit was making big profits on those SUVs; now that American carmakers have to retool for better mileage to meet market demand, Bush apparently feels safe to lead the “progressive” charge.

Bush will have trouble selling his larger energy policy, which is heavy on drilling and exploring in sensitive environmental areas, unless he adds at least a few nods to energy conservation. It’s odd that conservatives shy away from conservation, a concept that is so essentially conservative — tried and proved to reduce oil dependence. Fuel standards for passenger cars haven’t improved in 20 years. At least that has given researchers a long time to come up with new ideas.

—Los Angeles Times

Politics of budgeting

By Kaiser Bengali

THE budget is a political document. It determines how much money will be taken out of whose pockets and how much of that money will be put into whose pockets. Clearly, these decisions are largely determined by the balance of political power of the various groups in society.

In a perfect democratic polity, all groups command some leverage through the electoral process and are in a position to stake some claim on the distribution of national resources. In an undemocratic dispensation, powerful groups that control the levers of state power command a degree of monopoly over decision making and are able to determine the distribution of tax burdens and expenditure benefits without meaningful reference to the people at large. The latter scenario applies to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s political arena is dominated by an elite that comprises the military officer class, civil service executives, large landowners, large traders and industrialists, up-market professionals, capital market dealers, politicians as well as the ulema. To this lot may be added a new breed of Islamabad-based middlemen, who specialize in cultivating high-level contacts and can broker any deal for a price. Collectively, they might all be labelled as the ashraafia. At the other end of the spectrum are the people at large or the awam. The ashraafia has traditionally dominated the country’s polity and economy; however, the degree of their control has gained added strength under military dictatorships.

The euphoria among the ashraafia whenever there is a military takeover and the subsequent support extended to the dictatorships need to be understood in this context. The policies pushed forward by the ashraafia over the last half a century has created two parallel economies in the country: one of the ashraafia and one of the awam. The present military-dominated political dispensation led by General Musharraf is the most pristine representative of the ashraafia in Pakistan’s history. This is indicated by the budget for the year 2005-06, which caters almost entirely to the requirements of the ashraafia and blatantly ignores the needs of the poor.

There are two unique features of the budget for the year 2005-06. One is the tax measures relating to the textile industry. They are certainly bold and highly commendable. Faced with stiff competition from China, in the wake of the abolition of textile quotas from January 2005, the measures can be expected to enable Pakistan’s textile industry to fare better in the international market.

Given that cotton and textiles have a dominating role in Pakistan’s agriculture, industry and exports, the measures can be expected to sustain the growth momentum in other sectors as well. In fact, such measures need to be extended to other industrial sectors in order to enable the manufacturing sector to emerge as the engine of growth in the national economy.

The corresponding revenue losses can be made up through taxation of wealth and through reduction of current expenditure. That, however, would require a paradigm shift in the thought processes of the ashraafia.

The other unique feature of the budget is the rank insensitivity to the plight of the poor. The absence of consideration for the poor is part of a systematic pattern in the policy choices made by General Musharraf’s economic managers; with the bulk of the cost of macroeconomic adjustment of all economic policies pursued since October 1999 being placed on the poor. Not surprisingly, seven million people fell below the poverty line in less than three years; rendering it the fastest growth of poverty in the country’s history.

Analysis of available data over 1999-2002 has shown that while the purchasing power of the richest 10 per cent of the population rose 33 per cent, that of the poorest 10 per cent declined by nine per cent. The opposing movements in purchasing power trends between the rich and the poor has widened the income gap, with the richest 10 per cent of the population expropriating 34 per cent of national income and leaving less than three per cent for the poorest 10 per cent.

The insensitivity to the poor is again evident from the fact that despite a near tripling of the inflation rate over the year, the budget proposals are devoid of a single inflation control fiscal measure. At the least, one expected a modest reduction in gasoline taxes in order to mute inflationary tendencies in the economy. Given that households earning less than Rs3,000 a month face an inflation rate that is about 10 per cent higher than the average inflation rate, such a measure would have certainly helped the poor. And given that the rate of food price inflation is about 45 per cent higher than the average inflation rate, a pro-poor orientation of the ruling ashraafia would have provided for a wheat flour subsidy and public investment in a nation-wide distribution system. No such relief for the poor is in the offing.

Perhaps, government’s economic managers have chosen to absolve themselves of the responsibility for dealing with inflation on the grounds that it is imported through higher international oil prices. This is only partly correct. Partly, responsibility for fuelling inflation lies with the State Bank of Pakistan. It may be recalled that, till recently, commercial banks in the country were loaded with excess liquidity. Funds lying idle with banks are a recipe for losses; while they have to pay interest to depositors, they are not earning interest on loans that could have been extended to borrowers. The State Bank came to the rescue of the banks with a credit policy that opened the floodgates of credit for consumer purchases, houses, etc.; resulting in a record 21 per cent growth in the banking and insurance sectors during 2004-05.

The liberal flow of credit was instrumental in escalating land and stock prices by a factor of two to three over a period of just one year. It needs to be noted that the credit flow placed money in the hands of the rich and the upper middle class, given that only they could qualify for bank conditionalities for obtaining credit. The poor and the lower middle class remained excluded from the process. However, the credit expansion led to the aggregate increase in money supply and in the velocity of money, which fuelled inflation, with the larger part of the cost borne by the poor.

The income-demand driven inflation that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz is prone to highlight is demand for goods and services by the credit-rich ashraafia and not by the income-poor awam. The link between the balance of political power in the country and the nature of economic decision-making emerges clearly. The unrepresentative nature of the Musharraf regime and its links with the world of international finance — characterized by the fact that the regime’s economic team is led by ‘imports’ from the international financial and banking world — ensured that the demands of banking sector profitability prevailed over the imperative of economic security of the poor.

The 2005-06 budget is also silent on the employment front. The omission is meaningful, given that the 2.3 per cent growth in employment during 2004-05 has been cancelled out by the 2.3 per cent growth in the labour force. The stock of employed, concentrated in greater numbers in Balochistan and rural Sindh, remains constant. Elementary macroeconomics textbook dictum that growth must address the backlog of unemployment as well as cater to the employment needs of those entering the labour force appears to have been ignored. A regime committed to providing livelihood to the poor would have been induced to provide for some specific employment generation measures in the budget.

The cause of employment generation can be furthered through public investment in labour-intensive public works programmes that would also rehabilitate and/or create economic infrastructure. Unfortunately, the record of the regime in terms of development expenditure is dismal.

Democratic governments during 1988-99 were constrained by shrinking fiscal space, caused by the lagged debt servicing burden imposed by the erstwhile military regime of General Ziaul Haq and subsequently aggravated by the ill-conceived financial liberalization in the early 1990s. General Musharraf’s regime was blessed by the post-9/11 largesse from Washington, which provided much needed fiscal space. The year 2002-03 saw fiscal space of Rs59 billion on account of lower debt servicing expenditures and higher import duty and surcharge collections. Yet, not one single rupee of this fiscal space was devoted to development expenditure.

In fact, development expenditure during the year was Rs14 billion lower than budgeted, while (non-development) current expenditure net of debt servicing was Rs98 billion higher than budgeted. General Musharraf’s finance minister then attributed the failure to utilize the entire budgeted amount for development expenditure to ‘the absence of absorptive capacity in the economy’. This was preposterously ludicrous, given that the country’s rural and urban infrastructure needs are crying out for funds. One rural water conservation project in any one province or one urban renewal project in any one city could have absorbed at least 10 times the unspent amount.

The year 2004-05 has closed with nearly half the development budget unspent. The budget for the year 2005-06 has allocated Rs272 billion for development. However, this is merely of academic value, given that the amount is unlikely to be spent. On the current revenue-expenditure side, there is an over Rs. 100 billion deficit that is assumed to be met through improved revenue collections. If past experience is any guide, it is more likely to be met through cuts in development expenditures.

Statements have already been made to the effect that, if General Musharraf’s verdict on the NFC award necessitates additional resource transfers to the provinces, the amounts would be provided from the development budget. The pattern of behaviour with respect to development expenditure shows that the regime is committed almost exclusively to the goal of promoting the economic agenda of the ashraafia and has little or no commitment to development programmes related to the needs of the people.

Pakistan is a resource rich country and, among all the south Asian countries, is alone capable of abolishing mass poverty within the span of one generation. This would require a restructuring of the entire fiscal framework so as to ensure that resources are allocated equitably. However, the prerequisite for carrying out such an exercise is a reconfiguration of the balance of state power itself.

Where Hurriyat tripped up

By Kuldip Nayar

THERE must have been a communication gap between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his minister of state Prithvi Raj Chouhan. The prime minister said in a letter to Atal Behari Vajpayee that by inviting the Hurriyat leaders, Pakistan had violated an understanding not to let the Indian nationals go beyond Muzaffarabad.

But Chohan claimed at a function at Jalandhar that the whole world had appreciated the government for allowing the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan. Apparently, Manmohan Singh wrote the letter when his minister of state was away in Jalandhar.

Whatever the embarrassment to New Delhi, the Hurriyat delegation has not weakened the peace process in any way. Many options to tackle the Kashmir problem have come to the fore. At the same time, the UN resolutions and the demand for a plebiscite seem to have been thrown into the dustbin of history. Islamabad has, no doubt, shown again the cosy relationship it enjoys with the Hurriyat. The plus point is that Islamabad has realized the slogan for an independent Kashmir is what has taken the Kashmiris away from the pro-Pakistan sentiments. It looks as if Pakistan has made the Hurriyat give up the demand for independence and accept the status of an autonomous state.

This idea needs to be pursued. Article 370 of the Indian constitution guarantees a special status for Kashmir. Pakistan should accord a similar status to its part of Kashmir, something like Article 370. It can lead to New Delhi and Islamabad transferring all subjects, except defence, foreign affairs and communications, to parts of Kashmir they have.

Subsequently, borders between the two Kashmirs can be softened to mollify the Hurriyat and Islamabad which do not want to recognize the LoC. The unfortunate part is that the slogan for an independent Kashmir, if and when given up, may bring back the pro-Pakistan sentiments which dominated the valley before Hurriyat leader Yasin Malik raised the standard of a sovereign state.

People in India, however, expected the Hurriyat leaders to persuade the Pakistani establishment to demolish the training camps for terrorists. Yasin Malik’s disclosure that Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed trained 3,500 terrorists during the days of insurgency provided an interlude. But there was nothing new in it because Rashid had already boasted about it in a book that he wrote in Urdu a few years ago. However, the controversy over Rashid’s involvement made people miss something important that President General Pervez Musharraf said in Australia: no act of violence, however big, could derail the peace process. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said the opposite at a meeting with South Asian editors in New Delhi earlier this year. He had warned that any terrorist attack like the one on parliament would demolish the peace process beyond repair. Islamabad should not take it lightly.

Had the Hurriyat demanded the dismantling of terrorist camps or seen its destruction when its leaders were in Pakistan, they would have earned credibility in India which they lack at present. The Hurriyat was not able to meet even the jihadi leadership in Pakistan. The appeal to it to abandon terrorism was expectedly rejected because the jihadis had the support of the ISI, the government’s own arm. This dual policy of the establishment has not changed because those who are responsible for violence in Kashmir still have their headquarters of operation in Pakistan.

Indian opinion is, therefore, at a loss to understand the Hurriyat endorsement of Pakistan’s stand on certain matters. That the LoC would not be acceptable as the international border is on Islamabad’s agenda.

So is the demand for a chair for the Hurriyat at the meeting between the two countries during the talks on Kashmir. The Hurriyat leaders should realize that the closer they get to Islamabad, the farther they will go from New Delhi. One of their leaders has said that they are now going to attend to Indian opinion. They should have done it long ago. It is not too late but it will be an arduous process because India generally associates them with Pakistan and violence. They will have to present a different picture of themselves.

But why talk about the entire country when the Hurriyat has not been able to win over even Jammu. The Azad Kashmir leaders vainly searched for some representative from Jammu in the Hurriyat delegation. They had to conduct even their limited talks in Urdu because they spoke Punjabi which the Hurriyat did not understand. Still, whenever the Hurriyat talks about Kashmir, it includes Jammu automatically. How does the Hurriyat expect Jammu to join it when it has never taken into account the aspirations of the region?

The Hurriyat may have received an “official status” from Islamabad. But it cannot claim to speak for Jammu. In fact, it has yet to establish its representative character even in the valley. There are so many elected bodies which represent certain elements in the state. The Hurriyat has failed to take them along. Sheikh Abdullah is the only person who came to symbolize Kashmir. He represented the whole of Kashmir, including Jammu and Ladakh. He did not have to produce any evidence. He proved it when he swept the polls in 1977, the only fair election held in the state since partition.

The Hurriyat could have filled the vacuum after the Sheikh. But its insurgency reduced Kashmir to a law and order problem. It preferred to have contacts with Pakistan rather than India. One, it was out of necessity because of the Hurriyat’s dependence on arms and shelter. Two, the revolt against New Delhi was bound to alienate India. Yet, the Hurriyat could have sustained its lobby in India. Some NGOs stayed in touch with it. But they were never taken into confidence. That still is the attitude of the Hurriyat. They have hardly contacted anyone in India after their return from Pakistan.

They have gone the wrong way in the past. Indications are that they have not changed. One of its leaders has said that they will be meeting the heads of mission of different countries in New Delhi. This may not help. In fact, ambassadors of many countries were present at the opening ceremony of Hurriyat’s office in Delhi some years ago. The office was meant to explain the Hurriyat point of view to India. What the Hurriyat leaders do not realize is that they spoil their case by trying to involve outsiders. Indian opinion is important, not the western.

Nonetheless, the Hurriyat deserves appreciation for having retrieved the Kashmir problem from the Pakistani forays to make the valley its part. But they have frittered away the advantage by indulging in rhetoric that its doors are open if New Delhi wants to talk to them. This attitude is in sharp contrast to the Hurriyat behaviour towards Pakistan.

The writer is a leading columnist based in New Delhi.

Moments that matter

IN a memorable 1980 episode of Yes Minister, the wily mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby explains to hapless minister Jim Hacker that the purpose of British foreign policy for the past 500 years has been to create a disunited Europe.

“It’s the old divide and rule, you see, that’s why we want to break up the [European Union]. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we’re free to make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing.”

But if that is true, asks the aghast Hacker, why is the Foreign Office pushing for more countries to join? “I’d have thought that was obvious,” Sir Humphrey wearily responds. “The more members an organisation has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.” “What appalling cynicism,” Hacker sighs. “Yes, minister,” comes the ever-silky rejoinder: “We call it diplomacy.”

Plus ga change, they may angrily be muttering in parts of Europe. It is a fair bet that there are some capitals in which governments suspect that the spirit of Sir Humphrey is not just alive and well in London in 2005, but also purring with satisfaction at the confused condition of the European Union in the aftermath of last week’s French and Dutch referendums.

Enlargement of the EU, long promoted by Tory and Labour British governments alike, was the biggest rock on which the EU constitution foundered. French and Dutch voters felt the winds of change coming from central Europe and Turkey and did not like them. As a result, the old Franco-German dream of a cohesive and harmonious European third force in world affairs, an alternative not just to Soviet centralist socialism but also to American individualist capitalism, is slipping into history. Is that the sound of sniggering in Whitehall?

If it is, it may be understandable but it should stop right now.

—The Guardian, London