The change of guard
AFTER reigning and ruling as head of state and chief of the army staff for over eight years, today Gen Musharraf becomes a civilian president. His farewell to arms, telecast live on state-owned TV, underlined both his love for the institution and the power he drew from it. How his gradual distancing from the army will alter the balance of power in the country was aptly described by the general himself in a DawnNews TV interview as a reversion to the creation of a ‘troika’ comprising the president, the prime minister and the army chief — not necessarily in that order! Addressing the change in command ceremony held inside the Army Stadium in the GHQ, and with his voice betraying strains of emotion, General Musharraf said he had the privilege of commanding the “best army in the world”.
General Musharraf’s political role will continue to figure in public discussions for some time but, as his military career comes to an end, observers will look at his track record as a military leader and commander. It was within months of having been appointed COAS by the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif that forces under his command undertook the Kargil operation. Tactically, it was described as brilliant. Important heights — normally snowbound and inaccessible in winter — overlooking the Srinagar-Ladakh highway were captured by Pakistani forces before the thaw set in and the Indian forces arrived to take up their bunkered positions. What was tactically a masterstroke turned out to be a strategic nightmare. An operation designed to bring the Indians to the negotiating table in a weakened state had to be wound up as it incurred the wrath of the international community. It was feared that the spiralling violence could trigger a nuclear holocaust. But it was this misadventure that really propelled Musharraf to power. When the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tried to sack him, Mr Sharif was overthrown in turn.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Musharraf — the army chief — came post-9/11 when he had to swivel 180 degrees on Pakistan’s foreign policy cornerstone of support to the Taliban — a strategy largely authored and executed by the military. Quietly, he went from one garrison to another explaining to the men in khaki the dangers of ignoring the American demands of cooperation. But how successful he was in convincing every one of his soldiers was evident in the several attempts made to assassinate him which later turned out to be insiders’ jobs. It is not clear that the spread of Talibanisation in the northwest of the country owes itself to support in the security services, as the international media often say, or just the ineptitude of forces which were trained for a totally different type of war and, therefore, found wanting in the new counter-insurgency operations. Many army officers will tell you that they will take a long time to recover from the sad spectacle of witnessing more than 250 of our finest soldiers surrender to militants in South Waziristan. And there will be many an exercise, behind closed doors, of course, in the army to find out what went wrong.
Additionally, as the security services were assigned a greater political role such as overseeing affairs in Balochistan, something had to give. Although the security services of the most advanced countries have also found it difficult battling the Al Qaeda ideology and the sheer madness it can spawn, it is not known whether our security services would have done a better job had they not been distracted by other tasks. The outgoing army chief can justifiably take pride in inducting women into the services in operational roles which didn’t happen before him. He also kept the army together through a turbulent period as it started to discard some of its ideological baggage of the Zia years. But whether he was entirely successful will only be ascertained long after he ceases to be army chief. General Musharraf said he was leaving the army in safe hands in a named reference to his successor General Kayani. A nation that has often literally eaten grass to keep its armed forces well-fed and well-armed can only hope that the new full-time chief lives up to his billing as a professional soldier who is not distracted by the razzle-dazzle of the world of politics.
Keeping fuel prices in check
AN increase in fuel costs may seem inevitable given that international oil prices are skyrocketing. But there is an alternative. This paper reported yesterday that the government collected over Rs25bn in taxes on petroleum products in the first five months of the current fiscal year. In the short term, if the government chooses to forego even the 15 per cent sales tax component of these revenues, the proposed 15 per cent price hike could be offset at least partially and perhaps even in its entirety. Some other charges could also do with a degree of rationalisation. For instance the inland freight equalisation margin (IFEM) granted to the oil marketing companies seems to follow no decipherable rationale whatsoever. Ostensibly an allowance for covering transportation costs, IFEM on high octane rose by nearly 200 per cent between September and November 2007, while that on petrol decreased by about 40 per cent in the same period. This doesn’t make sense.
It is common knowledge that a rise in fuel prices triggers inflation across the board. When diesel and petrol become more expensive, transportation costs swell and lead to an increase in the prices of everything from essentials like vegetables and other food items to basic consumer durables. The cost of commuting also goes up, placing an increased burden on the poor and the middle classes already reeling under burgeoning food inflation. Electricity too can become dearer, adding to the woes of domestic consumers and increasing the cost of production across the country. Manufacturers, it stands to reason, will pass on these costs to consumers instead of accepting a drop in profits. Exports may also be affected as higher prices erode their competitive edge in international markets. The government would be well advised to take a temporary punch in the pocket book instead of putting economic growth at risk and further increasing the inflationary pressures already at work within the country. Poor management and profligate administrators tend to squander the taxpayers’ money anyway, and some enforced belt-tightening at the centre will not do irreparable harm to the country.
It is also high time to revisit the initiatives announced in 2005 and 2006, allegedly scuppered on both occasions by the oil marketing companies, to introduce a ten per cent ethanol mix in fuel consumed locally. The production facilities are already in place and the savings on the fuel bill could be enormous. President Musharraf and former prime minister Shaukat Aziz have both publicly backed the idea, but such is the clout of the OMCs that this financially sound and eco-friendly proposal has not managed to see the light of day. For once it is hard not to sympathise with the sugar barons. At great expense, they invested in the required infrastructure and set up ethanol distilleries after being assured by the government that the fuel-mix project would indeed go ahead. All these efforts have been in vain despite many an official pledge.
Two facets of state terrorism
THE year 2007 has been a politically eventful year for both India and Pakistan, especially the latter. While Pakistani politics has been volatile and preoccupied with the still unresolved political crisis stemming from the dismissal of the Chief Justice by the country’s president, India has been experiencing relative political stability.
However, an issue which has increasingly gained public attention has been the unrest in Nandigram, a small rural area of West Bengal, where the Communist Party of India Marxists (CPM) has ruled for three decades. Nandigram has become a fault line in the Communist rule of West Bengal which could have far-reaching effects on Indian polity as it currently rests on a coalition between the Congress Party and the Left Front of which the CPM is an important element.
Nandigram could even eclipse the Indo-US nuclear deal, especially since the issue is now also being obliquely linked to the presence of Taslima Nasreen whose presence in India has sparked riots in Hyderabad and more significantly in Kolkata. Nandigram could produce an explosive Molotov cocktail of Marxism, global capitalism and communalism.
Although the dismissal of a Chief Justice to maintain a military general in power and the forcible ejection of peasants in Nandigram to create a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), seem a world apart, the basic underpinnings of the two situations have some striking similarities. While Pakistan’s military dictator received billions of dollars from the West in pledging his country as a ‘frontline’ state in the war on terror, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the West Bengal Communist leader did a similar turn to the Manmohan Singh government in supporting an unequal Indo-US nuclear deal in hopes of reaping the fruits of globalisation by attracting foreign direct investment into his state.
Both incidents were linked to the desire of the two countries to become a more important satrap in the global imperium of the United States, even though the West Bengal Communists may have got involved in it only unwittingly in this post-Cold War game of international politics in which India wants to leap-frog from being a pawn to becoming, at least, a queen on the global chess board of power. (The point of Satyajit Ray’s film Shatranj ke Khiladi seems to have been lost on them).
Domestic politics, ideology, industrial strategy, land acquisition, Naxalite insurrection and other elements, including Mamta Banerjee, a break-away leader of the Congress Party, also played an important part in the Nandigram episode.
A significant common point in both situations is the desire of the incumbent governments to hold or increase their grip on power, by hook or by crook. Of course, many caveats are in order. Some would consider the comparison invidious. In the case of West Bengal there is a popularly elected regime which has ruled through democratic elections one of India’s most important states for over three decades and has carried out one of the most credible land reforms in South Asia. In the elections, held 18 months ago, it won a massive electoral mandate.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has had a military-led regime for eight years devoid of any popular support and guilty of the most egregious violations of the country’s constitution and the civic rights, including the imposition of quasi-martial law in the country, large-scale dismissal of superior court judges and arrests of lawyers and other activists.
Yet, as pointed out in a recent article by Ashok Mitra, the veteran Marxist economist, who was sworn in as the first finance minister in the West Bengal CPM Government in 1977, under the chief ministership of the legendary Jyoti Basu (whose present state he likens to the imprisoned Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan), that the Left Front Government led by the CPM has now become a ’wide open field for flatterers and court jesters’, who have hijacked the CPM’s ideological agenda.
The uninterrupted three-decade reign of the party in West Bengal and its recent electoral success, though considerably short of the peak gained in 1987, has bred a hubris and ineptitude in the leadership which was unknown before. Indeed, there is an increasing tendency to micromanage the affairs of society and the state, not unlike the Musharraf regime.
The Nandigram issue is part of state policy to create SEZs and goes back to an earlier incident in Singur in the Hooghly district, West Bengal on Dec 2, 2006 when police brutally assaulted peaceful peasants while they were protesting against the forced acquisition of their land for building a small car factory by Tata Automobiles.
The police resorted to a widespread baton charge and fired tear-gas shells and rubber bullets, entering the adjoining villages and mercilessly assaulting the residents.
Most evicted people continued to resist and seek the return of their land. But the CPM not only persisted with its plans for Singur’s automobile plant, it announced plans for acquiring land in Nandigram for the setting up of a chemical plant by the Salim Group of Indonesia, which immediately provoked protests from the affected people, most of whom were CPM members. As a result, Chief Minister Buddhadeb retracted by publicly admitting that the unilateral acquisition of land was a mistake and promised to return the land of those that had not consented.
Yet, out of vindictiveness against dissenters, terror was unleashed in Nandigram on March 14 (coincidentally, just a day after Pakistan’s ‘evicted’ Chief Justice was manhandled and lawyers and journalists beaten in Islamabad) all in the name of restoring law and order.
Most sympathetic observers of the Nandigram incident, including Left-leaning academics, have been appalled at the use of brute force to make some of India’s poorest people give up little pieces of their land. As the distinguished Indian economist, Amit Bhaduri, points out, the state acquisition of land is “the most obvious case of forcible transfer of resources from ordinary people to private corporations, destructing livelihoods, and displacing people.”
Equally, many have been outraged by the methods that were used to recapture Nandigram by CPM cadres from an alleged incursion of outsiders, including Maoists and Islamic fundamentalists who were said to be fomenting trouble. However, the CPM, which derives support from the country’s industrialist lobby, the Chamber of Indian Industry (CII), argues that if it had not acted in Nandigram then the entire process of industrialisation in West Bengal, as well as elsewhere in India would suffer as it would make it impossible for any state government to acquire land for industrial purposes.
Others, like Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, have warned that continuing Nandigram protests could harm Left unity in India. Nandigram has become an icon of civil resistance in India against the depredations of the globalisation project spearheaded by the multinational companies in pursuit of higher profits and rationalised by the neo-liberal paradigm of a new pattern of specialisation, based primarily on the movement of capital, rather than of labour.
In Pakistan its moral equivalent, although widely different in its political import, is the current civil strife in Pakistan which started with the first eviction of the Chief Justice in Mar 2007 the almost daily demonstrations by lawyers, joined by political parties (even if sporadically) and members of civil society, including students. If state terrorism in India has manifested itself as what Bhaduri calls ‘development terrorism’, then its most recognisable shape in Pakistan can be termed as ‘judicial terrorism’.
However, these struggles are being fought in the two countries on different levels and involve disparate segments of society.
OTHER VOICES – Middle East Press
Sharif’s return will alter poll equation
The political scenario in Pakistan is set for another U-turn with the arrival of Nawaz Sharif… Should the political mechanism be allowed to run in rationalised fashion — and Sharif be allowed to contest in what the rest of the world believes will be impartial democratic elections — the equation of the race for the prime minister’s office could be altered greatly.
Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has a deep-rooted power base and he has proved this twice before by winning the post of prime minister. A fair fight, in the parliamentary elections, could even see a setback for the Musharraf-backed PML-Q.
For the present, however, it would appear that Musharraf himself has proved his acumen by allowing Sharif back home. The vote between Sharif and Benazir now stands to be clearly split. And with the general firmly ensconced as president he will leave it to the rest to fight over the spoils. — (Nov 26)
Disturbing and inconsistent
‘Disturbing’ is probably the best way to describe statements from Minister of Social Security Ali el-Meselhi last week on his ministry’s vision of state subsidies on basic goods. Meselhi denied that the Government would cut the subsidy on flour, thus ending the days of cheap bread for the masses.
The Government has yet to decide whether to replace subsidies with direct cash help or not, the minister said. Proposals for direct cash help are still being examined and no agreement has been reached yet, he added. For more than four months, el-Meselhi has been dropping very loud hints that subsidies will soon be on their way out.
He said that the Government had already started to take action in this regard. El-Meselhi’s latest statement is most surely evidence of lack of coordination between the ruling National Democratic Party and the Government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. President Hosni Mubarak last week ridiculed the idea that the Government had plans for a new capital by 2012. — (Nov 26)
The Egyptian Gazette
|© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007|
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