Pakistan ’s Woes
By Dr. Shafik H. Hashmi
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Georgia Southern University
I have just returned from Pakistan after staying there for five weeks. The following is a report on the basis of what I saw, heard, and read.
During my previous visits to Pakistan, I never saw so much despondency, pessimism, anger and frustration among the people as I did this time. The reasons are many. The country has a president, who has a shady past, is extremely unpopular and is known to be corrupt. His prime minister and other ministers do not enjoy a better reputation.
The unprecedented floods have made a bad economic situation worse. While sky-rocketing inflation has made the life of ordinary people unbearable, men with power enjoy luxuries at the expense of the government treasury and borrow huge amounts of money from the banks and get them written off. There is no harmonious relationship between various organs of government: the federal government is at loggerheads with the Supreme Court; the army is concerned about the inefficiency and corruption of politicians in power. People in general, with the exception of the supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), want a change of government; some want a military takeover, others would prefer to even have former president Musharraf back in power. However, unless some dramatic developments take place, the PPP may continue to remain in power till 2013, the year when the term of the present National Assembly expires.
As I have said, the main target of criticism is the federal government; president Zardari, prime minister Gilani and his ministers. There is a general feeling that while the country is suffering, those in the government are enjoying the luxuries of power and are making money right and left. President Zardari has also given the impression of callousness and indifference concerning the value of the ordinary people’s lives. While the floods were ravaging the countryside, he was busy acquainting his son, Bilawal, with his properties in Europe, acquired through ill-gotten money. He called these his “ancestral properties,” a baseless assertion as the only known property his father, Hakim Ali Zardari, had was an ordinary cinema house in Karachi. Another example of his indifference to the loss of life is with regard to the civilian casualties caused by American drone attacks. As stated by American journalist, Bob Woodward, Zardari was reported to have said about the civilian deaths resulting from drone attacks that maybe the Americans were worried about such “collateral damage,” but he himself was not.
Pakistan ’s perennial economic problems have gotten worse under the present government. According to a New York Times editorial, General Kayani, Chief of the Army Staff, was reported to have warned President Zardari last month that “the country was on the verge of economic collapse.” Also, because of the poor law and order situation and the continuing terrorist attacks, there is hardly any capital investment in the country and foreign enterprises are folding their tents in Karachi. Even the small shopkeepers have lost business, as the common Pakistani people have little money to spare and the foreigners living in Pakistan seldom venture out to do any shopping, afraid of a possible terrorist attack. The worst of all the problems facing the common man is crushing, spiraling inflation. Prices of commodities of daily use have skyrocketed. Those who are unemployed — and their percentage is high and rising — and the poor cannot afford to buy even basic food items such as ata, dal, sugar or cooking oil.. Consuming meat or fruit is way beyond their means. According to a newspaper report, approximately 4,000 to 6,000 people commit suicide every year because they cannot afford to feed their families. These figures are shocking and a disgrace for the ruling classes and other members of “high society” who continue to live lives of luxury and opulence,
While the ordinary people are suffering, the government continues to splurge money on itself. Prime minister Gilani presides over a jumbo cabinet of 61 members --- 43 ministers and 18 ministers of state --- the largest in Pakistan’s history and probably the largest in the world. According to newspaper reports, the expenditure on the office of an individual minister -- not the whole ministry, just the establishment maintained by a single minister – is about 100,000 rupees per day. Enormous amounts are similarly spent on running the offices of the president and prime minister. For instance, for the prime minister’s foreign travels, the budgetary allocation is three million rupees per day. Also, there exists a “langar” in the Prime Minister’s secretariat, where every day as many as 199 employees eat their lunch and dinner free, provided by the government exchequer! I may point out here that to convert rupee amounts into US dollars would, of course, give a distorted picture of the situation since currently the US dollar is equal to 86 rupees. The conversion rate is irrelevant in the daily life of a Pakistani who earns and spends in rupees Thus, for a peon in a government office, three hundred rupees are not three and a half dollars, but his daily earnings. And the 100,000 rupees spent daily on the minister’s office represent what he might earn in a year.
The present government is considered to be the most corrupt in the country’s history, and corruption seems to have become a fact of life. In fact, Abdul Qayum Jatoi, a minister, publicly argued that corruption should not be the monopoly of a few but that every one should have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of corruption! The prime minister himself is involved in several corruption scandals. His wife had borrowed millions of rupees from a bank, an amount that the bank was made to “write off.” It is only the powerful, who get away with not paying back their loans. The ordinary people are chased mercilessly by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) for the return of very small amounts. In one such case, a man without powerful connections, had borrowed a relatively small amount from a bank and was unable to repay the money. The FBR chased him so mercilessly that he committed suicide. Another case of misappropriation by the prime minister is his distribution of hundreds of thousands of rupees among his PPP loyalists, from the fund earmarked for distribution among the poor. Law minister, Babar Awan, one of the most corrupt in the cabinet, has distributed millions of rupees from a public fund among the loyalist lawyers in Lahore to stage demonstrations against the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court. These lawyers were unhappy with the Chief Justice with regard to the appointment of a lower court judge, who is considered to be honest, but was not to the liking of the black coats.
A major current scandal is a purchase order worth eight billion rupees given by the government to a Chinese company to buy 75 railway engines. This company had sold Pakistan Railways 69 engines in 2001 out of which about 70 percent have now been dumped in a junkyard. The railways technical committee and the railways minister, Haji Balour had opposed the purchase of the locomotives from this company a second time and the prime minister had stated publicly that “he did not want to go to jail by approving this project” as he believed that such a purchase would be in violation of the government’s own rules and regulations. Ignoring all negative comments and rules and regulations and statements, the president’s house went ahead and placed the eight-billion- rupee-order with the company. Obviously, someone received a big kickback from this deal and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who it was.
It is ironical that in Pakistan’s history, with the exception of its early period, the country’s elected governments have been more corrupt than those that came into power without being elected. The most corrupt of all have been the two Benazir governments, the two Nawaz Sharif governments, and the present Zardari government. Evidence of their corruption is the huge assets these “political leaders” have amassed in foreign countries. Whatever other criticism may be leveled against military dictatorships, those dictators were, on the whole, not highly corrupt. There have been no serious charges of corruption against Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq or Pervaiz Musharraf. The same cannot be said about Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif or Asif Ali Zardari. Social scientists need to study and analyze this phenomenon. It may be hypothesized that both the civil and military bureaucracies retained some tradition of the British-Indian managerial ethos in which probity was highly prized, although there has, no doubt, been a gradual erosion of this ethos in these bureaucracies and they do not have the same unblemished record as their predecessors did in the 1950s and 60s.
As for the politicians, in the indigenous political culture of Pakistan, of which they are a product, misuse of power has somehow been tacitly recognized as a kind of a privilege of the powerful. Another important aspect of the backgrounds of most members of the National Assembly is that they are wealthy. (The poorest member of the present National Assembly is worth 29 million rupees and the richest member is worth more than three billion rupees.) Normally, a person of average means can hardly afford to contest an election in which he has to campaign in a constituency of hundreds of thousands of people, which entails considerable travel and often the need to win votes by providing bribes such as free meals. Many members of the legislatures regard the expenditure incurred for their election as an investment, hoping that after being elected, they would be able through different ways, legitimate and illegitimate, to get back many times what they have spent. According to the figures provided by members of the National Assembly (MNAs) to the Election Commission of Pakistan, the average value of the assets of MNAs was 27 million rupees in 2002-2003, whereas it went up to 81 million rupees in 2008-2009; a three-fold increase in six years. It would take a financial wizard to achieve this feat, and the MNAs possess no such skills. The goal can also be achieved by indulging freely and boldly in all manner of corrupt practices.
.On the equally trouble ridden political side, a major battle has been going on between the Zardari government and the Supreme Court. This is with regard to the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) promulgated by the then president, Pervez Musharraf, pardoning Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari and many others, mostly PPP, politicians for their acts of blatant corruption. This ordinance was issued by Musharraf as part of a bargain between him and Benazir. Behind this deal were the intense efforts of the then British ambassador to Pakistan, and the US State Department as they wished to give the Musharraf government a popular face by bringing Benazir to Pakistan with the hope that she would win the elections and become the prime minister, while Musharraf would continue as president. The scheme failed because of Benazir’s murder and the withdrawal of the American support for Musharraf, resulting in his resignation. The present Supreme Court has declared the NRO as unconstitutional and has asked the law minister to request the Swiss court to reopen the cases against Zardari. These cases relate to the illegal acquisition of US$60 million by Benazir Bhutto and Zardari, deposited in Swiss banks. The law minister has so far refused to honor the Supreme Court’s decision. Islamabad was agog with the possibility that Zardari was planning to dismiss the Supreme Court judges through the devious method of repealing the ordinance he had promulgated to bring them back into office. Had he done so, the judges would have automatically lost their jobs as the legal basis of their re-appointment would have been invalidated. Somehow, the press got wind of this sinister plan and published the whole story.
The Supreme Court judges went into action immediately and in a sitting of the full bench, that lasted till midnight, they unanimously decided that the repeal of the above-mentioned ordinance by the president would be tantamount to treason. This decision was followed by a united demand by the lawyers, including many PPP supporters, that any action against the Supreme Court judges would meet stiff resistance by the legal community. In recent years, the lawyers have played an important role in political events including i the ouster of Musharraf and the reinstatement of Iftikhar Choudhry as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Apparently, General Kayani also advised the president and the prime minister not to take any action against the judges. Thus, for the time being, a crisis has been averted, a crisis that could have had serious consequences for the Zardari government and for Pakistan’s political future.
The Zardari government not only has problems with the Supreme Court, it also has a shaky relationship with the army, which is concerned about the overall inefficiency of the “democratic” government. This was particularly evident during the large scale floods in the country. The army is also aware of the popular belief about the extent of corruption in the Zardari administration. It was reported by the New York Times that in one of the regular meetings with the president and the prime minister, General Kayani presented them a list of the most corrupt ministers and asked the president to get rid of them. Zardari has so far defied this “advice” and has said publicly that he would not be intimidated by “outside interference.” The press, however, has reported that plans are afoot to curtail the size of the cabinet and the number of ministers may be reduced from 61 to 40.
In order to placate the army, the government has increased the military budget by 25% and the salaries of the military personnel have been raised by a whopping 50%. This largesse has also been bestowed on civilian employees and educators. The Zardari government is spending money like a drunken sailor. According to Salman Bashir, Secretary, Ministry of Finance, the national debt in 2007-2008 was 60 trillion rupees; within two years, the present government has increased it to an incredible 90 trillion rupees; 45 trillion in domestic borrowing and an equal amount in foreign loans. Another easy means employed by the government to engage in deficit financing is to print more paper money. Naturally, the effect on the economy, already plagued by high inflation, of printing uncontrolled amounts of money would be in the form of further spiraling of prices of commodities of daily use and further lowering of the value of the rupee.
With the exception of the PPP supporters, there is a widespread desire among the people for change of government. There are many who want the army to take over. It seems that General Kayani, for various reasons, does not want to topple the civilian government. Behind the scenes, however, he would continue to prod the top leaders of the government to adopt the “rah-e-rast” (the right path.) He, supported by the corps commanders, may change his mind if the situation deteriorates from worse to worst. However, before taking any radical action, the army would also take into consideration the possible public reaction to such a move, particularly that of the lawyers, political leaders such as Nawaz Sharif, and influential international actors such as the US government, IMF and the World Bank. One alternative could be to force the Zardari government to conduct mid-term elections. But why would Zardari agree to hold such elections, knowing fully well that these elections would result in the end of the PPP government? The government is therefore determined to cling to power till the end of the National Assembly’s normal term of five years i.e. till 2013.
There are many in Pakistan today who believe that even Musharraf would be preferable to the present set-up. Musharraf has started his All Pakistan Muslim League in Britain. For the inaugural meeting some of his loyal supporters had flown to England. His speeches are given wide coverage by the Pakistani media. He has been particularly critical of Nawaz Sharif, has made personal attacks on him such as suggesting that he needed a brain implant more than a hair implant since he is brainless. Musharraf’s attacks have been taken seriously by the Sharif brothers and both of them dashed to England to boost their supporters’ morale and to shore up any erosion of support among their followers.
As far as Musharraf’s future is concerned, it would be almost suicidal on his part to return to Pakistan at the present time. His enemies are already sharpening their knives — Nawaz Sharif and Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry being the most bitter among them.. If Musharraf returns to Pakistan, it is highly likely that charges of treason would be brought against him for violating the Constitution and most probably he would be convicted. Many of Musharraf’s major supporters have already deserted him. Recently, Choudhry Shujaat Husain, Mushrraf’s right hand man, and Mushahid Husain, a former minister, went to see Pir Pagara, the Oracle of Sangharh, and agreed to merge Muslim League (Q) with the Pir’s Muslim League. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is also taking keen interest in Pakistan’s political affairs and is reported to have encouraged Nawaz Sharif to try to forge different factions of the Muslim League into one. Nawaz Sharif has followed a shrewd strategy: instead of being a part of the PPP-led federal government and sharing the blame for the mess the country is in, he has kept his men in opposition in Parliament. He is waiting for the political demise of PPP, and hopes to win the next elections and form his own government. In the future elections, whenever they are held, it is highly likely that the PPP would lose badly in the whole country with the exception of rural Sind. Nawaz Sharif is expected to win in Punjab and form the government. His Muslim League (N) is eager to have mid-term elections and the PPP is determined not to oblige them. So, unless some new dramatic developments take place, the country would continue to be at the mercy of the PPP rulers.
Although Pakistan’s woes have considerably worsened under the PPP rule, they are not exclusively the creation of the present government. Its many economic, political, and ethical problems have been endemic. While the population continues to grow unabatedly, thanks to the mullahs who have been instrumental in the failure of population planning programs, the economic growth has not kept pace. Public corporations such as Pakistan Steel Mills and Pakistan International Airlines and many others have become white elephants, being run by political parties’ cronies and being a big burden on the public exchequer The military consumes a big chunk of federal spending, always justifying its disproportionate demands to the danger from India, not realizing that trying to compete with India, whose military budget is equal to Pakistan’s total national budget, is a losing fight.
What can be said about the future? The optimistic view is that Pakistan has faced several crises in the past and has come out of them. Thus, perhaps it is not unreasonable to hope that unless those who are in power, including the army, make some major blunders, Pakistan will somehow “muddle through” the trouble-filled present and manage to survive.