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DAWN - Opinion; September 10, 2008

September 10, 2008

The new tenant in President House

By S.M. Naseem

MR Asif Zardari’s sudden ascension to the presidential office is now being hailed by unexpected quarters, including those who had imagined it to be the precursor to the country’s demise.

It would have undoubtedly been better if Mr Zardari and his supporters, notwithstanding that his election was likely to be a foregone conclusion, had waited for a consensus to emerge around his candidacy by allaying the various doubts and fears that had gained currency.

His continued resistance to restoring the chief justice not only put in jeopardy the coalition he had so painfully put together, but also increased suspicions about his willingness to live with an impartial judiciary, just like Gen Musharraf who twice illegally dismissed the chief justice. An acid test of his claim that he had accepted the proposal to contest the office in order to save the country from political instability would be to bring to a closure the long-simmering issue of the restoration of the judges.

The piecemeal restoration of the Supreme Court and high court judges — save the chief justice — is a tragic saga and does not remove suspicions about his intentions. Moreover, it demoralises all men and women of conscience who were inspired by the courage displayed by the chief justice on March 9, 2007 when he stood up against Gen Musharraf. It would be a pity if the judicial revolt were to be remembered in history as a mere blip on Pakistan’s political screen.

The prolonged process to deal with the judges issue seems to be an attempt to wear out the judiciary and the legal profession and to teach them a lesson that they should never take the road shown by the deposed chief justice.

It is still a mystery as to what led Mr Zardari to change course and jettison Mr Nawaz Sharif and his colleagues who had helped him and his party achieve such political pre-eminence and also facilitated the opening of the doors to the presidency by forcing Musharraf’s resignation. What is even more intriguing is why he made his peace with the MQM, the PPP’s traditional rival, at the expense of the PML-N, which had joined in framing the Charter of Democracy, while the MQM had been excluded from the exercise because of its collaboration with Musharraf.The accommodation he will have to make with the MQM at the expense of his Sindhi constituency will prove much more costly than what he would have had to do to placate Nawaz Sharif. The PPP was far more likely to increase its political base in Punjab by sharing power with the PML-N, than it was likely to gain at the expense of the MQM in Sindh with its impregnable urban base.

The MQM’s decision to vote in favour of Zardari, who though not himself a feudal is hardly middle-class, instead of voting for Justice Siddiqui (who also happens to be a Mohajir) or Mr Mushahid Hussain (whose spouse is also a Mohajir) and who belonged to its former electoral partner, the Q-League, shows that it was based on opportunism.

Political ambition and temptations of office apart, there seem to be other compelling explanations. The judges issue was, however, a red herring. There was no serious danger that Mr Zardari would have been dragged to the courts, since in any event the Sharif brothers were just as vulnerable, with or without the NRO. An amicable and equitable solution of the judges issue would, however, have earned the goodwill and respect of civil society and would have reassured the people that the prevailing lawlessness in society would be reined in to some extent.

Another factor that probably led Mr Zardari to opt for his chosen path was the fact that even though Musharraf no longer rules the roost, the military is not yet reconciled to the supremacy of civilian authority and still insists on a degree of autonomy in its affairs which is incompatible with democratic governance and the exorcising of its latent political ambitions.

In order to re-establish the civilian writ firmly, the presidency had to be empowered at least for the present. In the longer run, however, Mr Zardari will have to work himself out of his present job and reduce the presidency to its titular role.

This will also be his last chance to redeem his besmirched reputation in politics by proving himself equal to the task of saving the country from the severe economic and political crises it is faced with.

But a more likely explanation is pressure from the US, which although having reluctantly agreed to let him resign wanted Musharraf to be spared an inquisition and to remain in Pakistan to ensure that the war on terror strategy to which he committed himself for the long-term remained undisturbed.

Musharraf’s large network in the army and intelligence agencies remains beholden to him for bringing in American military and economic largesse which they have a stake in seeing uninterrupted. Zardari, who is a savvy intermediary, wants to see this largesse funnelled through him as president, who after all is also the supreme commander of the armed forces and chairman of the not-yet-defunct Security Council. He will now be in a better position to oversee the intelligence apparatus which he failed to capture in his earlier attempt to get the ISI under the interior ministry’s control. Whether the Americans will trust him with delivering on the war on terror as much as they did Musharraf remains to be seen. If he fails to deliver, the Americans will be inclined to adopt the policy of shock and awe through land and air attacks in pursuit of Al Qaeda operatives and which have been in evidence lately in the tribal areas.

It is not unlikely that as the US election heats up, the Republican administration may try to intensify these attacks to give an advantage to the McCain-Palin ticket. With the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, the new Zardari administration will be hardly in a position to withstand US pressures and incursions into Pakistani territory while it seeks more money from Washington.

Both his friends and foes must give him the benefit of doubt that he is sincere in taking Pakistan forward on the path of peace, progress and prosperity which his party symbolises. Most of all, it is to be hoped that, as promised, he will not pursue a policy of vendetta against his enemies and will help realise the Bhutto dream of roti, kapra aur makaan which has become ever more distant in the last decade.

The anti-column

By Cyril Almeida

I APOLOGISE. I lied. I don’t believe it’s a question of if but when and who will stick the knife in whom first. Asif and Nawaz will not be able to make this arrangement last five years. I don’t know when and I don’t know how but I do know it won’t work.

If it does, I’ll buy Nawaz and Asif the finest meal I can afford. I say this even though I probably cannot afford anything to satisfy either’s tastes. That’s how sure I am that this will not work.

What will happen when this latest exercise in democracy comes crashing down? Your guess is as good as mine. For all I know a Paul Bremer-type proconsul will soon be stamping through the ruins of a bombed-out presidency. We could see a new King’s party — a PML-US or PML-A — with the Mushahid Hussains of the country swearing to stick by their democratic party to the bitter end, or at least until a better offer comes along. At least an American invasion would sort out that business about ownership of the war on terror: the US owns Pakistan; the US owns war on terror; Pakistan owns war on terror. QED.

What has brought on this doom and gloom? I blame TV. I was doing fine, chewing over the various permutations and combinations and the potential pitfalls of the transition to democracy. If Asif does A and Nawaz does B, X will happen. But if Asif does B and Nawaz A, Y will happen. So on and so forth, all charted out, factoring in the unfactorable. Then, the mistake. I tuned in to the TV coverage of the presidential election.

There they were, the otherwise sneering, cynical talking heads of Pakistan bloviating about the momentousness of the day that was unfolding. They intoned gravely about the multiple crises that afflict the state. You know them by rote by now: tanking economy; rampaging militants; unrestored judges; mangled constitution; omnipotent president. The talking heads asked and answered rhetorical questions. Was Asif up to the challenges? He had handled the transition well so far but then he had also hung the judges out to dry. Was Asif experienced enough? He is BB’s widower and was a political prisoner for many a year; then again, he has no experience leading anything other than an army of lawyers defending him in courts the world over.

What those talking heads — every last pundit, every last anchor, every last false prophet of hope — really wanted to do was grab the camera and shake it and scream: the whole thing is about to go to pieces. Can’t you think, you country of bleating sheep? That and wanting to smack silly all the jiyalas crowing about democracy and revenge. But the swaggering conquerors of Musharraf remained cautious — and hopeful. That’s when I knew I had to tear up my script and call it as my gut tells me. Read no further if you expect erudition.

Pakistani politics has much in common with one of the stranger thought exercises I have come across. As a student of law grappling with the seemingly innocuous question ‘what is law?’ I was asked to imagine that an alien descends from the heavens above and exits his space capsule next to a traffic signal. By observation alone the alien will be able to deduce the rules of traffic: stop when red; slow down or get ready to go when amber; go when green. But what the alien will never be able to figure out is the reason that people stop stop, day or night, traffic or no traffic. The alien observer is an outsider to the system of rules, so while he can discern a pattern he isn’t able to understand the reason people follow it.

This being Oxford the state of Pakistan’s roads was never really considered. If that poor alien landed besides a traffic signal in Pakistan, he would scarcely be able to avoid being run over — let alone figure out the rules of traffic. That’s Pakistani politics: no rules and plenty dangerous for anyone trying to discern any.

At one level, everything from March 9 last year to date is part of a recurring tumultuous process of transition from authoritarian rule to a more democratically elected form of government. We’ve seen it at least twice before. On every other level, the events of the last year and a half are, to put it mildly, unprecedented. President Zardari is simply the latest confounding, mind-scrambling event in a period of intense turmoil. Driving the motorcar of transition now is Asif, with Nawaz a potentially dangerous backseat driver. Will they stop at the red light or run through it? Or will they careen out of control and crash into that silly little alien wondering what’s going on?

History suggests that the presidency is a poisoned chalice — at the very least you leave without dignity. There is only one president who emerged from the presidency more powerful than he went in: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He of course became prime minister under the freshly minted 1973 Constitution, the same one Asif has vowed to bring back. Could Asif, who was living in the annexe of the prime minister’s house until this week, be planning an eventual move into the main residence? Nothing is impossible anymore — but Asif emulating ZAB? That’s the problem for me — and Asif, I suppose.

For Asif to come good, he will need to do something so stupendous, so unbelievable, so staggering as to put every other leader of this country in the shade. And Nawaz the Pious? So wounded and principled is he that I’m almost inclined to believe him. Until you realise that if true he’s a rubbish politician. If you don’t want power there’s always someone else who does, usually someone inside your party. When you take a greyhound to the races, expect it to tear after the rabbit. Whatever thoroughbreds there are in the League, their instincts are to relentlessly pursue power. Stand in their way long enough and they will devour you. 2013 will mark the fourteenth year of the N-League being out of power in Islamabad. Nawaz would be mad to try and keep the Leaguers on a leash until then. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has accused Nawaz of being mad.

Five years is a lifetime in politics anywhere. In Pakistan, it’s an eternity. There’s no way Asif and Nawaz will make this last.

Doing without the IMF

By Dr Pervez Tahir

WHEN the finance minister of an economy in trouble persistently denies reports about a possible recourse to the IMF, the popular perception is that the arrival of the dreaded IFI is imminent.

But it seems Naveed Qamar has not been bluffing. There appears to be an indigenous adjustment programme taking shape, though its main contours have not been elaborated on systematically. At a time when the IMF is very nearly out of a job and may well be looking for customers by offering ‘discounts’, the temptation is still worth resisting.

It is, however, important to clearly lay down the main objective of the strategy to do without the IMF. In some sense, the IMF conditionalities are now the general conditions for proper economic behaviour in the globalised world, particularly for economies such as Pakistan with a high degree of openness to the world. Even if the economy is not under an IMF programme, not very dissimilar conditionalities can be expected from the WTO, other IFIs and, most important, the non-debt-creating foreign direct investors. Sustainable fiscal and external deficits are the key barometers for all global economic players.

So it will be hard to argue that lowering these deficits is not in the national interest. What is against the national interest is the loss of freedom to choose which deficit is more important, its reasonable size, the policy instruments to deal with the deficits and the sequencing and the time frame of reform. Under advice, Pakistan systematically dismantled the much-needed subsidies on agriculture. Another piece of advice put the cart before the horse by liberalising the capital account of the balance of payments first. Yet another act of subservience was the lowering of tariffs at a much faster rate than the WTO would have required. Income taxes were also brought down sooner than the economy could afford, again under prescription. This is what has given us a flat tax/GDP ratio. So eager was the Shaukat Aziz team to enter into an IMF programme that it accepted the maximalist position placed on the table for negotiation without any question.

This experience of a low-quality economic team makes it clear that the main objective of doing without the IMF is to retain the freedom to act, which is restrained by the IMF’s one-size-fits-all approach, and not to shy away from adjustment.

Signs of it are there already. Credible efforts have been made to turn off the tap from the State Bank of Pakistan. Alternative sources of borrowing are being tapped. National Savings Schemes, subjected to thoughtless reform under prescription in the past, are being revitalised to access household saving. Domestic debt, even if costlier, is preferable to external debt because we owe it to ourselves. Tax collection in the first two months following the budget is satisfactory. Falling oil prices have also provided some respite. The PSDP is being cut significantly. All PSDP is not investment which leads to growth.

There is still a lot of room here. Frequent CDWPs (Central Development Working Party) and ECNECs (Executive Committee of the National Economic Council) were held in the last days of the previous regime to approve projects in indecent haste and without proper technical and economic appraisal to accommodate cronies. Growth in the near term can only come from agriculture. Here, the freedom of action has already led to needed subsidies, price policies and credit. The current budget is proverbially rigid but expenditure-cutting, like charity, should begin at home.

The fall of the rupee continues. It is good for exports but a poorly diversified export structure fails to benefit. It is bad for our debt servicing. And it is worst for our economic image. Belatedly, imports have been restricted and concerted efforts are underway to mobilise external inflows. The reality is that private sector earns the foreign exchange it needs for imports and the deficit arises from the government requirements for foreign exchange.

I continue to believe that the free-falling behaviour of the rupee has had more to do with political uncertainty than economic fundamentals. The market knows that the war on terror is not about to end and that there is no escaping from it for Pakistan. This entails massive inflows from abroad. But these inflows have to be hosted by a stable political framework.

With a smooth and democratic exit and entry at the presidency and the beginning of judicial restoration, the political roadblocks in the way of a stable rupee have been removed. It is unlikely to revert to Rs60 to a dollar, but would settle around Rs70. Inflation is likely to recede after Ramazan. The stock exchange will follow the behaviour of the rupee and inflation.

Some fresh thinking is needed on inflows related to the war on terror. Thus far these have taken the form of budgetary support and reimbursement of expenditure incurred by the military. A democratic regime should look for long-term benefits to the economy. Pakistan still owes some $15bn in bilateral debt to Paris Club countries, the list broadly coinciding with the coalition members engaged in the war on terror. With the backing of a parliamentary resolution, Pakistan should seek cancellation of this debt. This, together with Senator Joseph Biden’s proposal of $1.5bn in annual US assistance for the next 10 years, should bring the economy back on the rails.

Pakistan should say thanks but no thanks to the IMF. As my friend Meekal Ahmad, himself ex-IMF, wrote in a letter in this paper last month, IMF is never a choice. Countries drift towards it. If Pakistan can have a decent adjustment programme of its own, why bother? For at least two years it is this programme, rather than the Planning Commission’s plans for a freshly learned five-year plan from India, which can steer the economy back to its potential growth.

The writer, a former chief economist of Planning Commission, teaches at GC University, Lahore.

How Musharraf missed the point

By Niilofur Farrukh

MR Musharraf’s last speech took the nation through a winding road and some very dark alleys of his nine-year rule till he finally said the ‘R’ word. He seemed to have brought us all to one conclusion: that he had missed the point altogether.

He spoke of many brick-and-mortar achievements like bridges, roads and the National Art Gallery (NAG) in Islamabad like some modern-day Shah Jehan building monuments to his power. But somewhere in between he forgot to build institutions and in the end even tried to destroy established ones that stood between him and absolute control.

Speaking of NAG, that he claims to have given to the nation, the record must be put straight that it was not Mr Musharraf’s brainchild. It was a project with a chequered history of three decades. Several governments put aside funds for it which for some mysterious reason were never enough so that the completion was repeatedly stalled. Surprisingly, one of the bigger contributions of Rs20m came from Ziaul Haq.

Legend has it that while surveying the fiefdom of Islamabad when he was still in his crisp khakis, Mr Musharraf noticed the eyesore of a half-constructed building on the raised land across Parliament House and sent his lackeys to investigate. When they informed him it was the incomplete building of NAG it appealed to his whims and soon Rs540m were made available from the national exchequer to complete the project.

A question that needs to be raised here is: where was the debate that sets national priorities for such a large amount in a developing country? If initiated, the national debate on art and culture at every level of society through the media and various organisations at that point would have taken us closer to a consensus even if the liberals and conservatives agreed to disagree on the project. Today the liberals as they stand shoulder to shoulder at lawyers’ rallies have begun to realise that it is better to engage in a dialogue among ourselves than to be divided by power agendas.

One would gladly give Mr Musharraf credit for his ‘generosity’ towards culture if the contradictions between action and stated intention were not so glaring. The first contradiction was revealed at the inauguration of NAG when it was delayed by several months. This showed a president who was keen enough on the visual arts to invest such a large sum but was suddenly not available for months to publicly launch the project.

Was it because once the edifice was completed he had lost interest in it? Maybe he found it easier to deal with the grand monument than the multiple dissenting voices within it that questioned tyrannies and championed the rights of the people.

The inauguration turned out to be a very frustrating time for hundreds of artists who had lent their works for the 16 inaugural shows and its curators whose life was on hold due to the constantly shifting deadline. Perhaps the most regrettable fallout of the delay was that the exhibitions, first of their kind in the country and a befitting tribute to its immense talent, had to be wrapped up in a short period due to the lapse of insurance cover for the displayed work, thus depriving a large audience of the opportunity to view them. This was an act that defeated the very purpose of a national gallery where the visually articulated collective memory of a nation is one of the building blocks of unity through shared pride.

If it had been the inauguration of a national gallery in any country seriously committed to the visual arts and driven by the larger national vision then the focus would have remained on contextualising the exhibitions through presentations and discussions with artists exploring the various trajectories in art that are linked to our evolving identity.

Such an initiative would communicate the true enlightened spirit of a nation that has refused to die despite repression and upheaval, and given the world a credible window on Pakistan. This was not to be, for Mr Musharraf, once in the galleries, hurriedly walked through making few stops and did not even bother to cover all the shows. Some curators found him visibly uncomfortable as they discussed works with obvious elements of protest.

The fact that roughly an hour was spent in the galleries (that comes down to barely five minutes per show for which artists and curators had invested over a year) does not reflect enthusiasm for the visual arts. The irony is that Mr Musharraf spent several hours listening to run-of-the-mill musical performances. We speak of the opiate of the masses. Here music it seemed was the opiate of the leader.

What does a nation make of the policies of a president who sets up the National Academy of Performing Arts, is known to host musical evenings regularly at his official residence, but does not heed the repeated requests of artists to revoke the draconian practice of obtaining a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the local magistrate to hold a dance or theatre performance?

Script censorship and NOC practices are the legacy of colonial laws for monitoring subjects by curtailing free expression and speech in the public realm. After six decades, Pakistani leaders apparently have few qualms about replicating the same methods to humiliate their artists and abuse the citizens’ rights to select their own entertainment.

Any critique of the state of the arts in the last decade must take into account the opportunities missed as the superficial promotion of the arts did not even begin to touch the weighty issue of long-term reform. All the public funds spent to build a public perception of enlightened moderation focused on the personal preferences of the leadership with little regard to the serious and multifaceted uplift of the creative fields.

Historians may judge Mr Musharraf’s use of culture to push his ‘enlightened moderation’ objectives as no different than Ziaul Haq’s. They shared the same intentions with their selective promotion in order to meet anti-people goals. This time the face of culture got a cosmetic veneer of glamour but was further leached of substance.