Sep 1, 2010

Right thing at the right time

The government needs to make a full pitch for unconditional cancellation of a significant portion of Pakitstan's external debt

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Given that only one of Pakistan's (legitimately) elected regimes has completed a full term, it is actually quite a feat that it has taken the best part of two and a half years for pro-establishment politicians and media persons to start openly inciting a military takeover. One could argue that Altaf Hussain's blunt invitation to General Headquarters (GHQ) is but the logical end to the innuendo that has been doing the rounds since soon after the February 2008 election. Be that as it may, the self-anointed 'Quaid-e-Tehrik' (and others who quickly followed suit) has now put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.

It is not as if a military coup is likely to take place anytime soon. The military is quite content to remain in the shadows, for now. The Obama administration has more or less continued the policy of the Bush regime in according GHQ a privileged position vis a vis political institutions; the military's image has been dramatically rehabilitated within the urban mainstream, while politicians' credibility has taken a public relations beating; and the elected regime appears to have recognised its limits on crucial national security questions. The self-proclaimed guardians of the state are surely keen on letting things fester for a little while longer.

But this does not make the words uttered by Altaf Hussain, Pir Pagara, and most disappointingly, Imran Khan, any less significant (or objectionable, for that matter). Pro-military constituencies have always insisted that politicians themselves invite military coups; they are now back in business. Meanwhile the media-drunk urban public will become even more convinced that Pakistan awaits a messiah to wave his magic wand and wish all of our troubles away (in recent times the luster of the Chief Justice has worn off and so a good, no-nonsense general is flavour of the month).

To be sure, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP's) so-called 'politics of reconciliation' has now reached a crossroads. It is difficult to understand how PPP high-ups can continue to excuse some of the behaviour of coalition partners. It is true that Pakistan's chequered political history explains the patently undemocratic ethos that pervades many of our mainstream parties. And it is also true that it will take a considerable amount of time, and an uninterrupted political process, to throw up new political alternatives that are not burdened with a history of mediocrity. Yet that does not mean that we should necessarily be condemned to a second-rate political discourse and politics in the here and now. If ever there was a time for the elected leadership of this country to rise to the occasion, this is it.

As ever, everything boils down to a question of courage. The elected regime surely recognises that the challenge that has been posed to it in the shape of this summer's floods is unlike anything else that it has faced to date. The sheer magnitude of the devastation and the fact that the fallout will be long-term requires a commensurate response from government. As it turns out, there are a number of problems: first, the elected regime has little meaningful control over the institutions of the state; second, the state's capacity to meet people's needs is limited; and lastly, the financial resource crunch is acute. I would suggest that the government can do very little about the first two problems, at least in the short-run. It can, however, do something historic on the last front.

I am not a fan of 'disasters present an opportunity' school of thinking. Yet the floods should compel the government to muster up the courage to confront its external creditors and tell them that something has to give. In the initial instance, the finance minister made hay about begging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for some leeway in meeting commitments that are tied to the release of loan money. However, this is neither here nor there. Something much more comprehensive is required.

Only a couple of days ago the information minister was reported as having said that any form of debt relief would be welcome. This is more like it, but is still only scratching the surface. The government needs to make a full pitch for unconditional cancellation of a significant portion of Pakitstan's US$55 billion external debt. There are plenty of recent precedents: after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, international aid agencies conceded that there was a case for a writing-off of at least some of Haiti's debt. It should not be forgotten that there is also an internationally recognised principle of cancellation of illegitimate or 'odious' debt; in our case three military dictators are primarily responsible for the economic mess that we are in, and there is every reason to claim that the debt taken on by Generals Ayub, Zia and Musharraf was neither should be written-off; the people of Pakistan neither approved the taking of those monies nor did they benefit in any meaningful way from them.

Debt re-scheduling is not the answer either. In 2001, Musharraf and his cronies patted themselves on the back for re-scheduling a portion of the country's debt. By the end of Musharraf's tenure, the debt burden had grown by close to 40 percent and in the next few years it will grow even faster: it is projected that our total external debt will be almost US$74 billion by 2014-15.

That there is a case to be made for a debt write-off is beyond doubt. That the government has the will to take up the case is far less clear. But there is no question that a campaign for a debt write-off could bring together a very fractured populace, and hopefully our political parties as well. It could prove to the naysayers in the media and urban middle class that our leaders can do the right thing at the right time. And perhaps, most importantly, it will provide a modicum of relief and respite to the long-suffering people of this country. The army cannot do any such thing. The Altaf Hussains of the world would do well to remember that.

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