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DAWN - Opinion; November 21, 2008

November 21, 2008

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BJP is playing with fire

By Kuldip Nayar


THE Indian armed forces are a holy cow. We do not question their expenses, nor has there ever been any parliamentary committee to look into their budgetary allocations.

Why they purchase a particular type of weapon has been left to the defence ministry to decide. To take one example, the navy is bent upon buying the Russian aircraft carrier Gorshkov even though Moscow has been periodically raising the sale price, which now stands at $3.2bn.

Once in a while a case like the Bofors guns scandal has shaken the nation, but that information came from outside and the ruling party did its best to hush it up. Even the Italian go-between, Quattrochi, was pursued up to a point and then allowed to go scot-free, despite CBI protests, because of his high-level connections.

So our trust in the armed forces has been implicit since independence and never did we suspect that some officer could be ideologically contaminated. All of a sudden, we have been hit by one case, that of Lt Col Srikant Prasad Purohit. He is the senior serving officer who has allegedly played a key role in the Malegaon bombings of Sept 29. The blasts took place in mostly Muslim localities, killing 31. As usual the initial suspicion fell on Muslims. Malegaon is a small weavers’ town near Nasik in Maharashtra and this is the second time in two years that the Muslims of this run-down area have been victims of similar blasts.

Strange that the military intelligence had no clue that one army officer was involved with local Hindu extremists. The credit goes to the Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) that unearthed the information that those responsible for the crime were Hindu terrorists. The ATS interrogated Lt Col Purohit and arrested him after getting permission from the army.

The question anybody will ask is why military intelligence failed to discover that a senior officer was involved. Military intelligence has a large set-up in all the three services and has its men all over the country. When they fail in their job of uncovering extremists in their own ranks, this suggests that they are taking their job nonchalantly.

It is all the more disconcerting that no such previous case has come to light since independence. It may well be an aberration. Yet it is difficult to imagine that a Purohit has been born only in the last few years. An in-depth and overall probe is required.

True, in a recent interview Chief of Army Staff Gen Deepak Malhotra has revealed that the army high command is now profiling officers. This is a knee-jerk reaction. A thorough profiling of 31,000 officers is simply not possible and picking up a few at random will not be fair. What the services have to eliminate is the suspicion in the minds of the people that even the military is not immune to communal contamination. For the common man the armed forces are a bastion of security and protection.

I concede that the military does a credible job in hiring recruits from a society that has all the ills and converting them into an apolitical force. But this is a field where the nation cannot afford to go wrong even in one case.

I do not think that a secular India will ever face a situation of communalism in the armed forces even if the rulers were to connive with fundamentalists of a particular community. The armed forces themselves have such an ethos that they would not allow such a situation to arise.

I know how upset the army was when a senior officer was taken to the BJP office in Delhi for a briefing when the Vajpayee government was in power. The mistaken impression given to the army high command was that some MPs wished to be briefed about ongoing operations.

Still, the worrying point is that many retired military officers are joining the BJP, or propagating on its behalf. Indeed, the party has an association of ex-military men. A few days ago this association sent out invitations on BJP stationery to a press conference about Assam scheduled to be addressed by a retired lieutenant general.

This does not come as a surprise because the BJP has said that Hindus cannot be terrorists and that the armed forces are a part of Indian society which has been horrified by the pusillanimous and apologetic approach of the UPA government to terror attacks. In fact, party president Rajnath Singh has said that the party will bear the legal costs of those apprehended in the Malegaon case.

The BJP is playing with fire when it communalises a case that should be looked into objectively and the guilty punished severely. The problem with the party is that it is trying its best to polarise the country for the purpose of elections, five of which are in progress in the states and then for the Lok Sabha, which is scheduled next March-April. The party is so power hungry that all other segments of society and the institutions will have to take steps to protect themselves.

I do not know why the regimental centres have to have a temple, mosque and gurdwara on their premises. These places of worship exist in those towns and cities where the regimental centres are located. Those who seek the comfort of religion are perfectly free to go there. Why should the army allow religious worship in its places?

Yet much depends upon political parties. They cannot disturb the nation’s faith in the ethos of pluralism. This is our heritage from the national struggle and this is what we have enshrined in the constitution. Playing the Hindu card to counter Muslim fundamentalists is hitting at the very foundation of India. The nation even before winning independence said that it would have a secular polity and that is what we have been following, although not as firmly at times as we should.

Purohit or persons like him among Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims are a symptom of diseased thinking. They are a danger to the country’s integrity. It’s a pity that for the sake of votes some political parties are encouraging them even at the expense of the country’s unity. My experience says that they will not go very far.

The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.

A regime-less change

By Ayesha Siddiqa


DO you remember playing musical chairs? The sound of hurried feet echoing the anxiety of runners trying to find a chair to sit on once the music stopped? In Pakistan we experience this game of musical chairs every seven to 10 years.

It is no surprise that after every intermission in the shape of democracy a military takeover follows. Perhaps the only surprise is the name of the Bonapartist general or the group of politicians that succeeds a military government.

The beauty of this game is that no regime change takes place; there is just a change of face or type of governance. Call it anything: a game or the system controlled by those with real power.

The contours of the system have remained the same throughout the 61 years of the country’s existence. Since the game started in the early 1950s, ruling the state has not been about governing with responsibility but about cultivating the external and internal powers that be for the extension of a particular type of rule.

A general who takes over believes that with help from the US and support from domestic partners he can continue ruling. The political leadership also moves within the same parameters to extend its rule once the general is out. The duration of any one face depends on how long he or she can remain legitimate.

Like in a game of musical chairs other forces are constantly trying to oust the ruling oligarchy at any given time. The mechanics of the game remain the same. An incoming military general will plead greater legitimacy on the basis that he and his coterie of generals and the army alone know how to save the country from disaster. And that it is the politicians who destroy the country with their corruption.

The outgoing political leadership claims that it has been wronged and will prove it once it returns to power, which it does once the general loses political legitimacy in a few years. The common factor between the two types of government is that both engage in corruption and have little intention to be held accountable to the common man or act in the nation’s interests. Moreover, the major players all have some part to play in the establishment which is a permanent feature of the state.

As far as a political government is concerned, a lot depends on the relationship of the different players with the establishment and the military. The longevity of a political rule depends on the individual ruler’s relationship with the establishment and his own behaviour. An unwise politician engages in massive loot and plunder without considering the high political cost of his behaviour. Thus, the government is gone even before it can stabilise.

The politicians continue to make the mistake of using an unstable system based on a three-pronged approach to consolidate their power: domestic patronage, sweeteners to the establishment and close ties with foreign patrons. Prizes of all sorts are distributed among local cronies and those who are not part of the gang are threatened and pushed out of the game. The cronies are important as they are the people who will go to jail and protest against the ouster of their leader.

Simultaneously, the state bureaucracy is kept happy so that it doesn’t react while the foreign patron is kept in sight to keep the local competitors at bay. The external patron is a neutral referee because every time it is decided within the country that a leader has lost legitimacy the foreign patron gives a nod to push the leader out. The method of ouster varies: from dismissal on charges of corruption to forcing a voluntary withdrawal and exile and from hanging to assassination to a mysterious air crash.

What successive politicians and military leaders have not understood is that the system of patronage only strengthens the kingmakers and their brokers in the system. So providing opportunities for corruption to cronies eventually helps these clients rather than the leader at the helm at any given time. Before you know, it is time for a particular top leader to move out.

It will not be any different this time either. The present government’s well-wishers and those who want democracy strengthened are getting anxious with the antics of top policymakers. President Zardari is busy distributing prizes amongst his cronies some of whom are new to the PPP’s patronage politics and owe their allegiance to the party’s co-chairman. Considering that Mr Zardari wants to transform the party to his taste the new set of cronies doesn’t come as a surprise.

Moreover, he appears complacent about his power, perhaps due to his understanding of American support. Not surprisingly he wants to make contact with the Israelis as Musharraf did to ensure that the US supports him against any other actor as a reward for his seeming enlightened moderation. There is nothing wrong with the plan except that there is no substitute for domestic political legitimacy. The added threat is that if he pushes the patronage system too far he could even terminally damage the PPP which is the mainstay of his and his children’s power. (Moral of the story: don’t slaughter the cow that gives milk).

Thus the duration of the government really depends on the time it will take the military to recover its image which depends upon the mistakes the present government makes. Once the GHQ is back on its feet it might not take a lot of time to convince even an Obama-led administration that the military will deliver better than any other stakeholder.

As in the past the kingmakers might opt to insert another politician before the military is brought back. The kingmakers will most certainly keep the window open for the PPP’s next generation to remain in the game for some later time. After all, political symbolism and emotionalism and some types of political leaders keep the state alive which is the ultimate objective.

The two problems are that this system will ultimately weaken the state and be a source of its undoing, and that the civilian leadership never learns. Images of domestic popularity, a sense of invincibility and continued American support are three mirages that often lead to disaster. This time round the clock seems to have begun to tick again. All that remains to be seen is the exact timing of the next change.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

ayesha.ibd@gmail.com

Crystal-ball gazing

By Cyril Almeida


MANY are thinking it, but no one wants to talk about it. Come March 2009 a confluence of three unrelated events may jeopardise the existence of the assemblies and Asif Zardari’s government.

Waiting in the wings, ready to pounce, is Nawaz Sharif.First, on March 11, 2009 the terms of 50 senators, 22 from Punjab, will expire, clearing out much of the PML-Q and MMA dead wood. While this may appear to be a boon for the PML-N which has only four senators at the moment the February elections concentrated the party’s gains in Punjab, where the PPP also holds a significant number of provincial seats. So the big winners of the March Senate elections — unless they are scuttled — will be the PPP and its coalition allies, the ANP and the MQM, all of whom made substantial gains in the provincial assemblies which elect senators.

Sharif will be alarmed by such a possibility. It will fix the party positions in the Senate until March 2012. Asif Zardari is already secure — at least as secure as any elected politician can be — until September 2013. The Senate numbers matter because Sharif needs to get at least two things done via a constitutional amendment: remove the two-term limit on prime ministers and retrieve the powers that Musharraf arrogated to the presidency now occupied by Zardari.

If — when — Sharif emerges from Fortress Punjab and marches on Islamabad he will need a clean sweep in his home province in an early election. Punjab has 148 of the 272 directly elected seats in the National Assembly. Sharif’s personal appeal is limited outside the province so to get to the magic two-thirds he will have to carry all of Punjab, including the impoverished south which has so far not been seduced by the Sharif brand. But with Shahbaz Sharif working diligently, chipping away at the local government structure, rearranging the police and the bureaucracy, and wooing proven vote-getters, planting the PML flag in every corner of Punjab is not beyond the realm of imagination.

If it sounds a stretch then Sharif is aware of it — and will know he can’t afford to mess up. A Zardari cloaked in 58-2(b) would leave a Sharif government dead on arrival. Two-thirds in the National Assembly and a sweep in the provincial assemblies with the help of smaller allies, especially the Islamists, will have to be Sharif’s goal if he forces early elections. After that Sharif can set about electing new senators and amending the constitution to his liking. Pakistani politics isn’t for the faint-hearted.

The second event of significance in March will occur on the 21st when Chief Justice Dogar, the embodiment of the PCO-Musharraf court and a hated symbol for the lawyers’ movement, retires. Following Naek’s machinations the judge set to replace him is Sardar Mohammad Raza Khan, who refused Musharraf’s PCO oath last November but did take a fresh oath in September and thus was restored to his position on the seniority list behind Dogar.

There is no apparent reason for Sharif to be worried about a Chief Justice Khan other than the fact that it will mark the end of the lawyers’ movement, which has stayed a useful thorn in Zardari’s side beyond all expectation. When Chief Justice Dogar hands over his gavel to Chief Justice Khan, yet another nail will have been driven into the backdoor through which Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is hoping to sneak into the Supreme Court. Nothing is impossible in Pakistan but a non-PCO, restored judge becoming chief justice will make it harder to argue that the movement for the restoration of the judiciary is still alive.

More importantly the pressure from the media and civil society, which have a magnified effect because of their international linkages, will abate, allowing Zardari to credibly argue internationally that he is rolling back the spectre of civil disobedience. Sensible voices — there are still some out there — will then begin to be heard questioning the motives of those destabilising a system that will in effect be only six months old. If Sharif doesn’t make his move before Justice Khan becomes Chief Justice Khan, he may have to wait for another crisis to boil and leave the Zardari government’s credibility in tatters in the eyes of the media and civil society.

The third factor is Obama. By March his administration will have had six weeks to settle in and will be ready to roll out his new Afghan strategy, which will emphasise a regional solution. In Afghanistan itself the winter will begin to recede, giving way to speculation about the Taliban’s annual spring offensive. Obama will send some of the up to 12,000 new troops he’s promised for Afghanistan; however, he is unlikely to shut down the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that the Saudis are mediating.

For Sharif, who just 12 months ago was an untrustworthy, peripheral figure close to the Saudis, the stars will align. A PML-N government supported by the Islamists will be a credible interlocutor in the Saudi-mediated talks. At home, as someone who is closer to the centre-right pulse of Pakistan and its army, Sharif can be a better salesman of America’s military demands. On India, a vital part of Obama’s regional solution, Sharif has already said all the right things, including calling for visa-free travel between the two countries, and kept quiet about the bad stuff (the peaceful mass uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir and the rise of Hindu militancy in India proper).

And Sharif will be no roadblock to Obama’s economic vision for Pakistan: he is business-friendly with an eye for populist measures and an ear for farmers. The IMF will find him just as palatable as the PPP and the $7.5bn Biden-Lugar windfall will not be jeopardised.

So the Senate-Dogar-Obama confluence in March may well convince Sharif to make a bid for power. He will have many reasons to be confident; others will have reason to be afraid.

A right-leaning or an outright right-wing government of the PML-N and the Islamist parties will still have to fight some militants somewhere, at the Americans’ behest and for their own survival. Since this will be at odds with the parties’ pre-election rhetoric they will resort to the usual trick: a round of Islamisation. Nothing will be off-limits, especially with a two-thirds majority in hand. Say what you will of the PPP, and much has been said since it made ministers of the misogynists Zehri and Bijarani, but it is unlikely to embark on a puritanical legislative spree.

Threatened too will be democracy itself. If Sharif ploughs ahead and dislodges the government there is absolutely no reason to believe he will be any better at governance. For now the army has stayed away from politics. But if the two largest mainstream political options fail in quick succession yet again? Worse, rather than Round Five for the military, the next time it may be something else. What that something else is — your guess is as good as mine.

cyril.a@gmail.com

An agenda beyond the IMF

By Dr Pervez Tahir


NOW that an agreement with the IMF has been reached and all plans have culminated in the inevitable, it is important to take it seriously. The adjustment should be focused on getting us back on normal economic rails. While it is under way, thinking beyond the IMF should start in right earnest. The relationship with the IMF should end with a standby arrangement.

A medium-term facility like another Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) of the IMF must be avoided in the interest of preparing and implementing a locally thought up blueprint for reforming the structure of our economy for self-sustained growth and equitable development.

Pakistan faces three equally lethal threats: extremism, an economic meltdown and a tussle over provincial rights. Luckily, though unusually for this God-gifted state, the framework best suited for the consensus resolution of seemingly irreconcilable issues exists in the form of a democratically elected parliament. A joint session on extremism has already delivered a consensus which the powers that be, here and away, can ignore only at their peril.

The economy, in my considered view, should be the subject of the next joint session of the parliament. Our economic crisis had started well before the second great crash of the world economy set in. It is of our own making and the political leaders of all persuasions have to come together to resolve it. The real economy is endowed with the basic ingredients of high and sustained economic growth. The problem is that growth is not self-sustained and institutionalised. This reflects persistent structural deformities. The result is that the economy hits a macroeconomic bind every now and then.

A joint session is our best hope to come out of this bind once and for all. Bureaucratic, military and political party agendas have failed to build a constituency for reform because their efforts have been perceived to be opportunistic, partisan or foreign-directed. Parliament is the arena where winners, losers and even spoilers are represented. They have to work out maintainable compromises.

It does not require a panel of super-eminent economists to suggest the menu for economic reform. The agenda for the joint session can easily be identified by ordinary citizens. Who does not know that the government spends a lot more than it earns? The term fiscal deficit is used to limit the discussion to a small group of financial wizards. Everyone knows that our imports are miles ahead of our exports and we pay out to foreigners much more than we are paid by them. Calling it a current account deficit hides it from public view and keeps the terms of the discourse restricted to macroeconomists. The net result is that as a nation we are unable to appreciate that our domestic savings, the real staying power for self-sustained growth, is shamefully low.

The agenda for reform has to focus on three areas of our negligence as well as two principles. The areas are: current expenditure, taxation and development expenditure — in that order of priority. The two principles are: everyone with the ability to pay must pay and every expenditure must be made with the greatest good of the greatest number in mind.

There is now no escape from breaking decisively and finally the rigidity of the current expenditure budget. The joint session should fix by law the desired percentages of expenditure on defence and civil administration and stipulate that all savings will be earmarked for education, health and social transfers. The current expenditure must never exceed revenue. As for revenue, the distinction between incomes from agriculture and non-agriculture for the purposes of income tax should be abolished. All other exemptions should also be abolished.

Capital gains and property gains should be taxed and wealth tax should be brought back on the statutes. The services sector is the major sector and must be made to contribute accordingly. The principle for the development budget should be that borrowing should only finance fixed investments and projects with a reasonable financial pay-off. All other projects must be undertaken only from surplus revenue. Finally, the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act should be amended to incorporate the proposals agreed in the joint session on the economy.

The writer, a former chief economist of the Government of Pakistan, now teaches at the GC University, Lahore.