Dec 25, 2009

A decade of living dangerously

By Arif Nizami

The first ten years of this century are very likely to go down as the most traumatic in the history of the nation. The decade that started on a sour note with Pakistan under the dictatorship of General Musharraf is coming to an end with the country being run by a democratically elected civilian government. Despite this, there is an air of doom and gloom in the air.

The scourge of terrorism, squabbling amongst the politicians and state institutions, poor governance, endemic state-sponsored corruption and a shattered economy with little light at the end of the tunnel are eating into the entrails of our body politic. By all indicators the feel-good factor in the Pakistani nation at is at an all-time low.

But has it been all that bad through the decade? An era of democracy has been ushered in after the February 2008 general elections and the military strongman who ruined every institution in the country is licking his wounds in exile in London. Ironically, those he sent in forced exile are the rulers of today. The military is no longer running the country and we have a fiercely independent and free media.

As a result of the concerted struggle of the civil society, the media and political parties we have an independent proactive and assertive judiciary. Perhaps for the first time in Pakistan’s judicial history the courts have put a sitting government in the dock. By striking down the NRO the apex court has created history, forcing sitting ministers and government functionaries running helter-skelter to get bail before arrest .The highest office in the country has no option but to find shelter behind presidential immunity to avoid persecution.

The country, used to a pliant judiciary which in the past validated every dictator worth the name and endorsed executive excesses as a rule, is now witnessing the pendulum of judicial activism swinging too far against the ruling PPP. Some independent observers are alleging that the higher judiciary is on a collision course with the parliament and the executive by usurping functions that primarily are their domain.

To count the blessings, political polarisation that was the hallmark of the previous decade, has been replaced with a sense of accommodation and dialogue amongst politicians. Major political parties at least pay lip service to “saving the system.” Virtually all political parties represented in the parliament want to strengthen political institutions and keep the military out of politics. Mian Nawaz Sharif, in spite of the hawkish statements of some of his stalwarts including the leader of the opposition in the parliament, is accused of being too pliant and accommodating towards the ruling party, to the extent of being labelled as “the loyal opposition.”

Historic consensus on the NFC Award was made possible by concerted efforts of the federal government and its finance minister Shaukat Tarin and by the spirit of sacrifice shown by the chief minister of Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif. The Balochistan package is another first, which would not have been possible if there had not been an underlying and pervasive feeling amongst the stakeholders that the wrong done to the province for decades needs to be corrected post haste.

Although Mr Asif Ali Zardari in his negotiations with the opposition has earned the dubious distinction of not keeping promises, the stage seems to be set for repeal of the 17th Amendment. In the present circumstances, unless he wants to commit political hara-kiri it will be impossible for the president not honour his prime minister’s commitment made to Mian Shahbaz Sharif the other day to restore the sovereignty of the parliament by repealing the controversial amendment.

After becoming a nuclear state in 1998 Pakistan had became the most sanctioned country. Musharraf’s abortive misadventure in Kargil, followed by his coup against Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, made us a pariah state in the eyes of the world. However, 9/11 changed all that. Suddenly Musharraf, who was being shunned by all and sundry, became the darling of the West. In order to perpetuate himself he happily made Islamabad a lynchpin in George W Bush’s war against terror. The former protector of the Taliban was now playing both sides with all its appended negative consequences for the country.

As a cumulative result of the two military dictators Zia and Musharraf, the incidence of terrorist attacks in Pakistan is perhaps the highest in the world today, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Hardly a day goes by without a suicide attack taking place in some part of the country. So much so that even the GHQ is not safe from the terrorists’ long reach. It is no wonder that there is a pervasive sense of insecurity and uncertainty amongst the populace. Not only is the morale of the ordinary citizen at an all time low but confidence in state institutions has been badly shaken.

The Pakistani military has managed to clear Swat and to a large extent South Waziristan. The oft-repeated US oft mantra of “do more” mantra wants the army to expand its operations into South Wazirisatn. In this backdrop there are perceptions that the military and the civilian government are not exactly on the same page with the Zardari government seen as more pliant and pro-US than the liking of the military.

Coupled with worldwide recession that coincided with the Musrgwharraff’s from power terrorism and mishandling of the economy during the previous regime has taken its toll on the economy. Admittedly overall inflation although still in double digits has come down, but our economic managers have still to grapple with the more than 20 per cent food inflation. According to independent economists this adds a staggering 15 million of the populace below the poverty line that after touching 24 percent is back to 33 per cent.

Pakistan had always justifiably prided itself on its relatively higher growth rates as compared to India. Our economists mockingly dubbed it as the Hindu growth rate as almost for a quarter of a century its economy grew at an average rate of 3.5 per cent. Now the shoe is on the other foot as Pakistan under an IMF program is merely being able to keep pace with the growth in population with a projected growth rate of 2.5 percent. India’s buoyant economy notwithstanding worldwide recessionary trends is projected to grow at 7.5 per cent.

The economy under Musharraf considerably expanded in size. For example, tax revenues increased four times in a decade from Rs306 billion in 1999 to Rs1,200 billion in 2008-09. He boasted of manifold increase in the demand for motorcycles, automobiles, air conditioners, washing machines and a boom in the rural economy of the Punjab.

But with little or no change in the basic structure of the economy and with virtually zero addition of infrastructure projects, he left an economy plagued with perennial shortages and hardships. Strict IMF conditionalities have made fuel electricity and energy beyond the reach of the common man.

At the end of the decade Pakistan is a civilian democracy of sorts, but it is not certain whether the transition from a garrison state controlled by the military to a civilian setup has been successfully completed. Fissiparous tendencies in Balochistan are a major concern. Thankfully the present political dispensation is aware of the dangers and as a result serious efforts are afoot to bring the separatists back into the mainstream by allowing more provincial autonomy than the present 1973 Constitution allows. Hopefully it is not a case of too late and too little to save the federation.

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