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Archive for June, 1994

A den of evil

Over the years the problems of Sindh have not only multiplied but have become more complicated. During the years 1977-1988, ethnic Sindhis, particularly the unemployed youth, became fertile ground for exploitation by hostile intelligence agencies, mainly RAW, in seeking to destabilize Pakistan. Having a fair percentage of Baloch in their population, during the height of Soviet Union’s Afghan war the Sindhis became a target of opportunity also for the KGB through their Afghan KHAD surrogates. While a fair amount of subversive activity took place in the interior of Sindh, most terrorist action was focussed on the virtually open city of Karachi. To further compound the situation, the metropolis became one of the world’s safest conduits for heroin, the disorder force-multiplied by the proliferation of weapons that flowed in because of the open borders resulting from the Afghan war. Those who would foment anarchy in Karachi thrived in its embrace. Looking back over the 80s, one is astounded by the fact that Karachi did not rapidly degenerate into a Beirut-like situation. One reason for not descending to anarchy is definitely the rise of MQM as a disciplined political force in the major urban cities of Sindh, the other is that despite its targeted status during Zia’s Martial Law, PPP did not disintegrate but remained, to its credit as a political institution, a potent force that very deliberately veered away from its militant wing, thus isolating them.

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A Mature Exercise with Credit to Both Businessmen and Govt

In response to the tough conditions imposed in the proposals for the Federal Budget, the nation’s business community observed a token two-day’s strike throughout the country. The protest was largely successful and remained peaceful. Transport plied normally, banks remained open and small businesses such as restaurants, bakeries, pan shops, medical stores, etc., were not affected. On the government’s part, except for some ludicrous attempts at disinformation and the occasional threat, there were no real ham-handed attempts to break the strike call. Within the limits imposed on its credibility parameters, Pakistan TV grudgingly acknowledged the success of the strike. All in all, this was a very mature exercise on which credit must go to both the sides, the businessmen in maintaining unity in registering its protest in a civilised manner and GoP for restraining its normally more baser urges. Notwithstanding the open-ended provocative threat made by the PM the night before the two-day strike, the expected bite did not follow.

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The Emperor and His Clothes

The Mehran Bank scandal continues to devour reputations in its oily, inky embrace. On May 31, 1994, the previously unassailable credibility of the President of Pakistan, Farooq Ahmad Leghari, become its latest casualty, accused by the Leader of the Opposition of being involved in a less-than-meets-the-eye land sale transaction supposedly structured by the now most infamous Habib, Yunus of Mehran (and Habib) Bank fame. The President was said to have received Rs. 15 million in two instalments of Rs. 7.5 million in September and November 1993, just prior to the General and Presidential Elections respectively, at Rs. 32,000.00 per acre a fair price for 531 acres of his ancestral land in D.G. Khan. As Kamran Khan has suggested there is a balance of Rs. 19,92,000.00 (almost Rs. 2 million) which seems to have been delivered in cash. For good measure, the PML (N) leader also castigated the President for spending Rs. 150 million (Rs. 180 million according to an aroused FPCCI) of the tax-payers money attending his son’s graduation in the States in what should have been a private visit and what in fact seems to have inadvertently become a semi-official junket with a lot of unnecessary frills thrown in.

The immediate reaction of the Government on both counts was predictable, bordering on hysteria. Not before 2-3 days had elapsed did present GoP’s spin-masters get their act together and a sustained “damage control” operation was initiated. Clearly on the defensive and stung by the accusations of his critics, the President produced documentary evidence to prove that the land sale was a genuine transaction. GoP machinery went into overdrive to show that the President’s official rounds in USA were in the greater interests of Pakistan and, therefore, reason enough to spend the tax payer’s money. There is no doubt that the dialogue with the US, at a crucial crossroads, had to be continued and the simultaneous visit of the Indian PM had to be countered. The President’s meeting with potential US entrepreneurs, particularly in the energy sector, was another plus point.

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The Federal Budget – Mixed Nuts

At the best of times, balancing the Federal Budget is a Houdini-like thankless exercise in any country of the world, the populace yearning for more services and facilities while the national exchequer has less and less (on a pro-rata basis) to pay for them. The Federal Finance Minister (or of State) is thus usually faced with a Catch-22 problem and it is rarely that innovative changes providing genuine relief to the common man have been proposed or enacted. Makhdoom Shahabuddin’s plight reminds one of the various examinations of the Army where it was required that the officer certify that he did not know the contents of the Question Paper BEFORE he took the Examination. Capt (Retd) Asghar A. Jilani, pushed into doing his “Lower Urdu” Examination, “certified that he did not know the contents of the Question Paper BEFORE, DURING or AFTER the Examination”. So let it be with the Makhdoom, who did a reasonable task of presenting the Budget but remained blissfully oblivious of the real facts, as did most of us, contained in his eloquent Presentation.

In the economic circumstances prevailing, successive Finance Ministers over the years, barring the salutary and honourable exception of Senator Sartaj Aziz, have been fairly predictable in providing the bureaucratic recourse of draconian answers to the mounting column of red ink as regards the Federal Debt. For political governments to take tough steps that would alienate the masses is a difficult proposition and as such an exercise in camouflage routinely becomes more important than the substance of the Budget propositions. In sum, while the economic circumstances were bad enough to warrant stringent measures, the political circumstances are worse. Given such overtones it is hard to condemn such tactics, all being fair in love and war! In a neat PR ploy, the rhetoric of the PM had prepared the masses to be ready for the worst, by not going the orthodox route with her implied threats she temporarily diverted the attention of the masses and thus stole the thunder from the Opposition. This has only delayed the inevitable, both with respect to mounting deficits and street reaction. What we have is much less in perceived taxation than we had expected but certainly much more than what is presently prevalent. For the moment the battle is one between perception and reality, for the moment perception has won out but reality will catch up sooner than later. If Ms Benazir cannot hold the line in the face of mounting Federal Debt we may eventually end up far worse than we would have been than if she had taken the avowed tough road. However even the greatest cynic has to acknowledge that she seems to have drawn first blood by not giving the Opposition immediate tangible evidence, in the first-reading the taxation is so well camouflaged that even experts have had trouble unravelling them even many days later. The PM gambled with the fact that by the time the people finally get to read between the lines as well as the fine print and begin to feel the sharp edge of the hidden steel it may be too late for the Opposition to take the masses to the streets. It shall be interesting to see whether Ms Benazir gets away with it. However A’s are in order to the PM both for packaging and sheer audacity. Whether she can sustain her proposed indirect taxation measures through the NA and “Special Interest Groups” is another matter. If she fails in getting her indirect measures approved, she (and the country) will have a splitting red headache. The Catch-22 is that if she manages to get it through the NA, the economy will suffer.

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