Gilani’s Tough Agenda
By Ahmad Faruqui, PhD
The dénouement was swift and sudden. A man who had won his re-election less than a year ago resigned when faced with impeachment. Was it the absence of the “second skin” that did him in? Was it the studied neutrality of his handpicked successor as army chief? Was it the lack of US support? Historians will debate these issues for years to come and it is too early to say what will be their verdict.
What we do know is that a major sore point in the polity has been cleared up. It is time to move on. In the immediate future, a new president has to be selected. He or she should hold the titular position of head of state, not the executive position that Musharraf wielded. Even then, the choice is rich with symbolism and should be made with care.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is the man of the hour. He needs to announce his policy agenda. What should be on it? First and foremost is the unfinished business of restoring the judges. If this is not done, the political cauldron will stir again and Pakistan cannot afford more instability.
Beyond this, several other issues loom large on the horizon. Some demand attention in the near-term attention, some in the mid-term and some in the long-term. All are “front burner” issues.
Depending on who you ask, you will get a different agenda. Mine comprises five points which, in order of priority, are Security, Economy, Energy, Polity and Society.
Security. This subdivides into local, provincial, national and international dimensions. Local security means that individuals in a community or neighborhood are free to go about their daily lives without fear of assault, robbery, kidnapping or murder and that businessman can operate without fear of being held hostage for a ransom or being forced to bribe government officials.
Without local security, life comes to a standstill. But one cannot just have local security and function productively. The next level involves the ability to live and to do business at the provincial and national levels. Without this, movement of people across different parts of the country is stymied and inter-regional commerce cannot be optimized.
Finally there is the international dimension of security. Pakistan has to co-exist with its neighbors, most notably Afghanistan and India. It also has to co-exist with the Arab World, China and most importantly, the United States. The most immediate manifestation of this concern is the need to resolve the problems in FATA and rein in the terrorists who are unleashing the biggest wave of suicide bombings in the country’s history.
Economy. This subdivides into managing the budget and trade deficits, attracting foreign investment and raising the domestic savings rates. The budget deficit is spinning out of control and currently clocks in at over 7 percent of GDP. This, along with a global shortage of food and fuels, has pushed the rate of inflation above 25 percent.
Putting bread on the table has become a Herculean task for the typical family man. Government spending has to be lowered but how does one do that when subsidies for food and fuel compromise a large portion of the budget?
Eliminating subsidies immediately will trigger a political backlash. The transition has to be managed by negotiating foreign aid on favorable terms from friendly countries and international banks.
In the long run, unproductive government expenditures have to be curtailed, including those on defense. The military needs to be reconfigured for its new mission, counter-insurgency operations. The war with India is over. There is no need to maintain a force in excess of six hundred thousand supported by a similar number of reservists.
Loopholes in the tax collection mechanism have to be closed off by bringing the black money into the mainstream economy, by extending the reach of the tax system to encompass agricultural incomes and by stringent enforcement of the existing tax code. Policies have to be formulated to raise the domestic savings rate. This is a long-term challenge.
On the trade front, imports are running far ahead of exports, and the imbalance on the current account is at 9 percent of GDP. This is causing serious pressure on the rupee. The dollar, which has taken a beating against the Euro, looks like a hero when compared to the rupee, being worth around 75 now compared to 60 just last year.
As budget and trade balances are restored, and security is restored on the streets, the flight of capital that is in full swing right now will be arrested. The country will not only be able to keep its capital but attract new capital, both public and private. This would put ballast back in the stock market which has fallen by more than 40 percent in dollar terms since the start of the year.
The US Congress is set to vote on a bipartisan resolution that would triple the amount of non-military aid flowing to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year. If this materializes, this should be of tremendous help.
Energy. A power shortage of some 20 percent afflicts the electrical grid, causing load shedding, brownouts and blackouts. These are very costly to businesses and demean the quality of life at home. What is required is a two-pronged approach which builds power plants to expand supply and rationalizes prices to conserve demand.
Polity. All the deposed judges have to be restored and along with them the rule of law has to be brought back into the polity. There are three branches of government and each has to respect the rights of the other two. The checks and balances that are endemic to democratic government have to be institutionalized so that division of power and not unity of command becomes the operative paradigm. And under no conditions should the military be considered a fourth branch of government.
Society. A culture of tolerance and respect for diversity that cuts across ethnic, sectarian and gender lines has to be incubated. Emphasis has to be placed on educating the population, especially the children. And the tiger of population growth has to be tamed.
Even under the best of conditions, the five-point agenda constitutes a tall order, especially for a coalition government. However, it is difficult to see how Pakistan can survive its myriad challenges, let alone survive, unless the agenda is attended to.
(Ahmad Faruqui has authored “Musharraf’s Pakistan , Bush’s America and the Middle East,” Vanguard Books, 2008. Faruqui@pacbell.net)