MAKE what you will of these telling signs: one huge scam after another and no one seems overly concerned. Equally to the point, no one seems to be in charge. The apparatus of government couldn’t be more impressive.
President/prime minister travel — all too frequently, it must be said — and entire cities come to a standstill. But for all the good this apparatus is doing it might as well not be there.
The sugar and cement scandals — some of the biggest sugar barons sitting in the cabinet and the cement cartel making millions/billions, no questions asked — would have caused an implosion anywhere else. Not here where the government continues to soldier on regardless. Welcome to the republic of complacency.
The shockwaves emanating from the attempted privatization of the steel mills would have rocked any other government. Not this one which continues to stand tall, not the barest hint of an apology coming from any of its leading lights. Far from expressing any regrets, some of them have been trying to salvage something from the wreckage, saying that the Supreme Court verdict while declaring the privatization deal null and void had not questioned the ‘process’ of privatization which remained on course.
Indeed, on paper it remains on course but it is going to be some time before we sight any big-time foreign investor rushing to buy a public utility in Pakistan.
Despite the induction of army management — which should tell us something about what the army can do and what it cannot — Karachi Electric Supply Corporation was posting huge losses. So its selling off to German investors was considered a good thing. Not any more. Karachi has experienced some of the worst power shortages in its history, with the Germans (astonishingly) proving to be worse managers than our own lot.
To ease Karachi’s plight, WAPDA has siphoned off power from Punjab and given it to Karachi. The consequences could have been imagined. Punjab was already in the grip of a power crisis. Now it has worsened. (Ask the people of Gujar Khan, next to Rawalpindi, whose anger got the better of their patience last week when they ransacked WAPDA offices and blocked traffic on the Grand Trunk road for nearly five hours).
Privatization was being hailed as one of the government’s signal economic achievements. Now it seems a subject best avoided.
You would think the situation couldn’t get worse. Wrong. As if to prove that when it rains it pours, explosive allegations have been levelled by a former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), Dr Tariq Hasan, against the country’s top finance managers — finance adviser, Salman Shah, state minister for finance Omar Ayub — for having links with powerful stockbrokers responsible for manipulating the Karachi Stock Exchange — once hailed, along with privatization, as one of the leading symbols of the government’s economic performance.
Share prices worth billions of dollars were wiped off when the stock market crashed in March 2005. It again went down in May 2006, resulting in further losses.
Hasan has gone so far as to say he was even under pressure from Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to keep close contacts (whatever this means) with the same stockbrokers.
Rebutting the charges, Shah and Ayub have said there was not a shred of evidence to support them. This may be true and Hasan may have his own axe to grind. But it bears remembering that in Pakistan it is hard to find ‘proof’ against anyone, even patwaris and thanedars (junior revenue and police officials) whose corruption we all take for granted.
If proof or the conviction of the corrupt were the only yardstick of judging right and wrong, Pakistan would be amongst the cleanest countries in the world. Usurpers of power, embezzlers of public money, land grabbers, scam artists, shady stockbrokers: — there is not much certifiable proof against any of them. By this logic they are all clean.
This doesn’t mean Hasan is necessarily correct. After all, he was head of SECP from 2003 until 2005. For all that happened under his watch he was to a great extent responsible. What did he do, what preventive measures did he take to avert the crash of March 2005? He now suggests his hands were tied. We need an independent probe to get to the bottom of this.
There is nothing unusual in share prices rising or falling: happens all the time. But it is certainly unusual for a senior regulator, Hasan Tariq, to be saying that finance high-ups (Shah and Ayub) were protecting leading insider traders.
Shah and Ayub are Shaukat sidekicks. The finance czar remains the prime minister, very much his own master in this domain. He lets no opportunity go by without taking credit for the government’s economic ‘achievements’. As the country’s supreme financial manager and regulator, doesn’t he bear responsibility for the ‘mis-achievements’ as well? Or do different rules apply in his case and he can have his cake and eat it too?
Anywhere else such charges would be dynamite. Here they have caused ripples and some embarrassment — it would take exceptionally thick hides not to feel embarrassed — but no heads have rolled and none seem about to roll.
Indeed, if information minister Durrani is to be believed it is all much ado about nothing. “This (the market crash) is a political issue. The federal cabinet has not discussed it as it is not a public issue.” Priceless logic: if a multi-billion dollar share price scam is not a ‘public issue’, what is?
Durrani remains a master of the surprising statement. As reported in this paper, “He said the stock market issue was also related to those who preached the ‘charter of democracy’ and were frustrated over the popularity and good performance of the present government.” This is enough to render anyone speechless. Still, you have to admire the tenacity of the government. Sugar, cement, steel mills and now the Karachi stock exchange but business goes on as usual.
Is it that bad and is all lost? By no means, there being a silver lining to the darkest clouds. When Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain — the military-picked head of the comic opera known as the Q League — gets booed and jeered by Pakistani doctors in Chicago you can entertain the modest hope that enough is enough and things finally might be moving in the right direction.
An e-mail from Dr Omar Ali MD describes it all: “Something unusual happened at the meeting of the Association of Pakistani Physicians in North America (APPNA)... Pakistani-American doctors hooted down their association office-holders when they tried to introduce Chaudhry Shujaat at their annual meeting in Chicago!
“Pakistani doctors have a reputation for conservatism and in the US most tend to be politically inactive. Their associations do a good deal of charitable work in Pakistan, but in the US they also function as lobbying arms of the military dictatorship and prominent Pakistani doctors have been accused of having an undue fondness for photo-ops with every visiting crooked politician and general from Pakistan. True to this tradition, some office-holders of APPNA invited Chaudhry Shujaat to the annual APPNA banquet this year. In the presence of about 3,000 people he was introduced as ‘former prime minister of Pakistan, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’, and the attendees were asked to ‘give him a round of applause’.
“To the evident shock and amazement of the lackeys on stage, the hall erupted in loud boos and shouts of ‘shame, shame’. The speaker tried one more time, saying political disagreements were one thing but he was an honoured guest of APPNA, at which point the hall echoed again with boos and catcalls. So the APPNA officials finally gave up and no more was heard of Chaudhry Shujaat or his services to the nation.”
Dr Omar asks: “...if even the North American Pakistani physicians are not willing to applaud the current military regime and its hired guns, then will (someone) have to pack his bags sooner than expected?” Intriguing question and good phrase: ‘hired guns’.