DAWN - Opinion; November 15, 2008

Published November 15, 2008

A marriage is arranged

By A.G. Noorani


THE annals of rigged elections in Kashmir provide no precedent for the polls that will begin there on Nov 17. Even the Unionist parties, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, are opposed to them.

The Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami admitted on Oct 10 that “we have taken a risk”, adding, “If the political parties are not ready, then how can we conduct elections now?”

The right to advocate a boycott of elections is as integral a part of the democratic process as is the right to vote. He conceded that the political parties “can call a boycott” provided they did not use force. This right has been systematically denied by New Delhi through the arrests of leaders like Shabbir Shah, house arrests of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and curfews and arrests of activists to prevent peaceful rallies and processions.

The president of the PDP, Mehbooba Mufti, said on Nov 10: “The polls have been thrust on the people and the PDP.” In the valley, which has 46 of the 87 seats, public opinion is inflamed after the upheaval there and in Jammu in August. “Public meetings cannot be held in the manner they used to. The people are not coming out.”

The NC’s president, Omar Abdullah, said: “The timing is not ideal for elections. We had said this to the Election Commission and in our statements”. Why then did the EC go ahead and why did the NC decide to participate in the polls?

The EC obeyed the wishes of elements in the Government of India who felt that a change was necessary. In 2002 the NC was ditched in favour of the PDP. In 2008 the roles are reversed. Farooq Abdullah, the NC’s patron, did not contest the polls then. He will do so now. But he revealed, on Oct 28, that “Omar will finally take over charge.” The confidence that he will, indeed, become chief minister is a giveaway.

The game plan was revealed on July 9 by A.S. Dulat, a former RAW chief and for long an adviser on Kashmir affairs. “If I have to bet on anybody as the next chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, then I will bet on Omar Abdullah, because only the mainstream parties are going to fight the elections and the National Conference has an edge.”

No wonder the PDP’s president Mehbooba Mufti said on Oct 28 “an impression is being created that New Delhi has decided to select the National Conference for governance”. She added: “We won’t give a free hand to the parties claiming victory in advance”.

The manifestos of the two parties on the state’s governance are revealing. Unprecedentedly Farooq Abdullah has asserted emphatically that the polls concern issues of governance alone. The solution to the Kashmir dispute lies in the dialogue between India and Pakistan, he said, while releasing the NC’s ‘Vision document’ on Oct 31.

The PDP published two documents on Oct 28. An ‘Election manifesto — 2008 make ‘self-rule’ happen’ and ‘Jammu & Kashmir: the self-rule framework for resolution’. The two overlap. The NC had spelled out its views in detail in 1999 in the ‘Report of the state autonomy committee’. As Kashmiri contributions to the debate, the rival documents on autonomy merit analysis later. We are here concerned with their views on governance.

The most striking thing about them is their studied restraint on some issues that vex the people, e.g. discrimination in the services. “No commissioner or secretary in the state government is a Muslim,” The Hindustan Times reported on Aug 17. “There have been only two Muslim DGPs — ever.” Most top police posts are with non-Muslims. Most senior civil servants and police officers are Hindu. Here is an issue on which the PDP and the NC could have gone to town legitimately without compromising their stand on Kashmir’s accession to India. But neither risks annoying New Delhi. The same holds good for torture, release of detainees, withdrawal of the army from prized lands, including orchards, etc.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah consistently wrecked the centre’s moves for a rapprochement with the Hurriyat made by three successive prime ministers as Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed supported them. The PDP seeks to balance support to the Union with espousal of some Kashmiri causes.

The NC’s vision document makes promises on panchayati raj, rehabilitation of militancy affected people, planning, unemployment, power, tourism, agriculture, horticulture, women empowerment, and ‘balanced development’. Its emphasis is on ‘good governance’. Much the same ground is covered in the PDP’s manifesto. Its emphasis is on its ‘governance and development agenda’; but in the context of ‘self-rule’.

Elections are little affected by words alone. Perceptions are decisive. On May 2, 2003 the state’s former deputy chief minister, Muzaffar Hussain Beigh, belonging to the PDP, revealed that he had told the centre’s interlocutor N.N. Vohra that “the Government of India has always been purchasing the leaders of the State. That can be done even today.” A former governor B.K. Nehru noted in his memoirs Nice Guys Finish Second that the CMs “had been nominees of Delhi” who won power “by the holding of farcical and totally rigged elections”.

Today N.N. Vohra is governor. For the Abdullahs it is now or never. Defeat spells oblivion. Yet, victory will earn added disrepute. New Delhi will have to talk the Hurriyat and to Pakistan. The impact on the peace process of this farce can well be imagined.

The writer is a lawyer and an author.

Why do we love to hate the IMF?

By M. Ziauddin


I PUT this question to a number of knowledgeable people. Most blamed the IMF conditionalities. According to one economic writer, regimes in Pakistan without exception prefer nice and easy money that can easily be diverted to their comforts.

In the opinion of a former top banker who negotiated the last two Fund programmes on behalf of Pakistan Islamabad has no option left now but to go to the lender of last resort. He advised the president to stop listening to sycophants who, he said, are not telling the president the truth. A former IMF staffer echoed the same sentiments and said time was running out.

One senior economic journalist said it is the Fund not the government which is reluctant to have anything to do with Pakistan because of its past experience with the country and also because of what he described as the very low financial credibility of the current political leadership.

A banker shot back: what do you personally believe?

Well, I confess I have yet to come across a real IMF success story. And in the case of Pakistan at least Fund programmes, more often than not, have acted more like the proverbial touch of Midas. The one-size-fits-all IMF prescriptions are supposed to entail all-round but equitable hardship during the implementation phase lasting three to five years.

As the Fund-prescribed reforms bite into subsidies and increase the user costs of social services, the poor undergo a lot of hardship. The rich on the other hand are obliged to endure their share of hardship by paying their taxes honestly, without any exemptions or exceptions, with evasion and avoidance holes plugged and pilferage of utilities stopped completely. Meanwhile, expenditure is to be kept on a tight leash.

Since Pakistan’s policymakers and official economic managers both belong to the ruling elite comprising the civil-military bureaucracy, big business and the feudal aristocracy, they readily comply with that part of the Fund programme reforms which involve increasing the hardship of the poor — slashing subsidies, spiking prices and hiking tax rates.

But they drag their feet on Fund conditionalities that demand extracting equitable hardships from the rich — cut in defence budgets, broadening of the tax base, rationalisation of profit margins and eradication of rent-seeking practices. And by the time the second tranche is due the programme is abandoned on one excuse or the other.

That the Pakistani ruling elite takes the Fund management on a ride every time the country finds itself cornered into an IMF programme is no more a secret. But the Fund has never been able to do anything about it because it is not geared for such a role. And there are reasons for this sorry state of affairs.

From the managing director of the IMF down to its lowly officer cadre they are all appointed on a quota basis rather than on merit. To make the recruitment policy even more meritless the civil services of member countries are offered the quota jobs. That is the reason why the Fund has never been known to have come up with anything more creative than its now infamous one-size-fits-all prescription to solve economic problems that differ in nature from recipient to recipient. That is also the reason why the Fund had no clue about what was going on in the global financial market until banks in the rich countries started collapsing.

Secondly, the US has been known to have used the Fund on occasions to promote its own global political agenda. So, depending on what the US wanted at a particular juncture the Fund has either been too generous with Pakistan or has tightened the screws without any economic rhyme or reason.

Take for example the three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) which was signed in December 2001 but abandoned after two years with claims that Pakistan had at last broken the begging bowl. But in fact by that time the 9/11-related free lunch had been served and the ruling elite found it in its self-interest to ease out of the PRGF before the next generation of reforms affecting the rich was due.

We did the same in the early 1980s as well. As soon as the first Afghan war-related dollars started flowing in a very generous IMF programme (the Extended Fund Facility) was abandoned after the first tranche was released in return for denying the poor their two square meals.

And the two Fund-sponsored reschedulings of the 1970s and the two Standby Agreements (SBAs) of the 1990s could not be completed because the economy on all these four occasions had gone into a tailspin as a consequence of Fund-imposed recession, high unemployment and rising inflation.

Pakistan has never ever completed an IMF programme. Even the one that is touted as successfully completed — the SBA of 2000 — achieved that distinction only after a number of waivers, mostly concerning taxation and expenditure, were allowed.And paradoxically every time a Fund programme (there have been as many as seven in the last 35 years) was curtailed after making the life of the poor more difficult and that of the rich more cushy, the national economy slid farther down the pole.

And where did all the US billions that came in, first in the 1980s and then in the current decade, go? Well, most of it was used for purchasing sophisticated weapons systems and the rest was pocketed by the ruling elite, especially big business, mostly stock brokers this time.

The writer is Dawn’s special correspondent in London.

North America — polls apart

By Maheen A. Rashdi


LAST week we saw what history looks like. And it looked awesome. We can only sit on the sidelines and honour their triumph, but for the entire African-American community, who didn’t even have the right to vote in America till 1965, it is a reality which was barely believed.

Jesse Jackson’s unabashed show of emotion, Oprah’s indefatigable energy which she had lent the president-elect throughout his campaign trail, and the overwhelming presence of the media at any and every location of significance made the awe-filled moments all the more palpable.

Interestingly though, while history was being made in the United States, its neighbouring North American nation had just resettled the same government after elections. Yes, many would be unaware that while they were following the US election debates, Canada went to the polls and re-elected the Conservative Party leader as its prime minister, just 19 days before America voted for historic change to bring in its first black president. And while the interests of the two neighbouring nations are much intertwined, there was nothing similar in their election style.

The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, quietly and sedately led his Conservative Party to victory, being the first major world leader to face voters since the global financial meltdown was officially declared by President Bush. But even at the time when Canada was voting, most Canadian eyes remained more interestedly fixed on their neighbours to the south and their electoral outcome.

The last crucial debate between all the party candidates for the PM’s office in Canada which should have garnered Canadians’ interest to decide whom to vote for, ended up clashing with the one and only debate that took place between the two US vice-presidential candidates, Biden and Palin — same day, same time. It isn’t difficult to guess who the TV audiences tuned into. For who in the world would miss the opportunity of viewing America’s glamorous VP nominee who was bowling over presidents the world over with her air-headed charm?

And so it happened that while the world was involved in all that hullabaloo, Canada got on with it and chose its parliamentary leaders. Though joined at the hip as the two North American nations are, their approach to many issues differs greatly, and the people of the two nations hardly lose an opportunity to mock each other. When Stephen Harper — like Blair — became Bush’s close ally, many Canadians were pained each time the Bush administration would arm twist their premier to acquiesce to its demands.

But now with Obama taking up the US reins of power, Canadians are hoping that Obama’s sane approach will give due respect to Harper’s government in dealing with critical issues like capping greenhouse gases and shifting the focus of military involvement from Iraq to Afghanistan, even though Obama’s stand differs from Bush on the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Canada might be the US’s staid, unexciting and — with Harper at its head — compliant neighbour, but that does not mean it may be treated as its poor relation. When Bush was declaring America’s financial collapse, economists were praising Canada for having the most stable fiscal policies and banking systems. Its electoral system and the election process too are remarkably different. The ballot paper only required the simple marking of one preferred candidate — deposited manually, without risk of any electronic hitches.

The voter turnout was 53 per cent and it was primarily Harper’s leadership in the face of the financial meltdown across the border that got him re-elected. Harper’s early call for an election made in September was attributed by analysts to the fear of a worsening economic trend in Canada and the US elections. With Obama’s growing popularity the fear was that a democratic government across the border would encourage Canadians to vote for a Liberal in Canada, cutting out Stephen Harper’s Conservative seat supported by the Republicans.

In the end, the Canadian elections turned out to be prosaic and predictable with most Conservatives being re-elected and winning about 37 per cent of the popular vote, up one percentage point from the 2006 election. The Liberals’ popular vote dropped to 27 per cent — one of the lowest levels in history for a party which has formed a government in Canada for most of its 141 years. The reason for the drop was mainly the split vote picked up by the contender from the New Democratic Party (NDP) which won 37 seats and which shares many of the Liberal party’s ideas like being pro-Kyoto Protocol, independent of American demands and liberal on social concerns.

Canada’s re-elected parliament could not have created a bigger contrast from the dynamic change occurring across its borders. A Canadian voter’s words on CBC summed it up succinctly, “What a waste of money; a 300-million-dollar election which told us what we already knew.”

maheenrashdi@yahoo.ca

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