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Archive for May, 1996

Nothing official about it?

According to a UN Report, endorsed by no less an authority than the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Israeli shelling of the UN Peace Keeper’s post at Qana, sheltering more than a 100 Lebanese civilians from the Israeli “Grapes of Wrath” offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas in South Lebanon, was a deliberate act of pre-meditated violence. In all fairness there is evidence that the guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets from positions close by but given Israeli high-tech capabilities and the remote pilot-less drone overhead, the dozens of shells that slammed into the post seemed a cynical reaction, an extension of the general policy of State terror that the Israelis use vis-a-vis Lebanon’s population. The half million refugees that fled northwards were pawns propelled by repeated Israeli exhortations to “flee from the war zone”, the Israelis hoping that war-gaming a twin combination of anger and insecurity would force the Lebanon (and their Syrian mentors) to rein in the Hezbollah guerrillas and sue for peace. The game plan backfired because of the carnage at Qana, bringing such adverse world media attention that the Israelis had to beseech US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to help broker a peace and get them out of the public relations quagmire.

Terror has been employed for both tactical and strategic purposes as a part of State policy through the ages. In today’s world, a combination of high-tech and mass media force-multiplies terror’s effectiveness as a weapon of both peace and war. Terrorists rely on massive publicity to spread fear, the mayhem and violence is noisily staged to underscore the human being’s instinct for survival, a devastating assault on the psyche of the individual that overwhelms his/her capacity for logic and reason in the face of the threat to one’s existence. The common perception is that terror as a weapon of war is used only by those intent on overturning the established way of society, of warring against authority, but in fact it has historically been misused by the State as a weapon for maintaining its own authority. By the end of the Crusades, the ruthless cruelty of the German Teutonic Knights had carved out for themselves a special loathing in history’s pages. Their own German people wary of their terrible reputation, the Teutonic Knights were invited by the Polish King to settle in Poland near the borders of Germany and Poland. These ungrateful guests first turned on their Polish hosts, putting the people to the sword and fire with such vicious cruelty that their encampments were avoided by friend and foe alike. No tears were shed for the fact that the people who were being subjected to rape, arson and torture were all Christians who had made them welcome in the first place, this deliberate policy of terror was meant to ensure their unviable and unquestioned authority in the region.


Horse Trading

One of South Asia’s problems is the ridiculous claim that our democracy is moulded according to the “genius of the people” while in actual fact it is an imperfect electoral exercise that is copied from western models with very little relevance to the local environment. This type of democracy bedevils good governance, particularly because the low rate of literacy provides opportunity for a high rate of malfeasance. The voters in India having given a mixed verdict, parties and individuals in a “hung Parliament” have been engaged in compromising ethical principles in the scramble to acquire the seat of power. The commonly used term for this ambiguous post-electoral exercise is “horse-trading” and except in Sri Lanka, which delivered a complete mandate for change, things are the same in Pakistan, Nepal, India and in the near future will most probably be the same in Bangladesh. With every passing election, the verdict of the electorate is increasingly being blatantly corrupted, with a commensurate loss of public confidence in the electoral process. The crossing of the ideological floor is not confined to post-election power plays only, candidates and parties now search for each other pre-election to determine the best electoral winning combination. One begins to wonder whether a commitment to any party line can survive serving the motivated interests of one’s personal self, materially more important than ideology.

A hung Parliament sets in motion forces that are morally repugnant to the exercise of the free vote. To attain a majority Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP government is now engaged in a scramble to influence smaller parties and individuals, who on their part want a binding commitment from the would-be suitors for their special interests or more directly, money and lots of it. This democratic farce of “horse-trading”, is not confined to India or South Asia but is a common practice in most third world countries. Accountability, which is at the heart of the democratic process, is lost at the very outset when stepping into the governance mode. Having violated ethical principles and compromised on election promises to accommodate potential allies in reaching for power, the incumbents are ill-suited as responsible mentors of any exercise in accountability. The result is that increasingly governments rely on the rewards of corruption for survival. In some countries it has become a socially acceptable thing to be blatantly corrupt i.e. the Marcos Syndrome where the rulers brazenly flaunt illegal wealth knowing that a significant part of the gullible public will keep on believing their denials about corruption. Faced with retribution in various forms if they do not conform, senior government functionaries are now finding it more profitable to join in with the loot, some even falling over themselves to ingratiate themselves with the political rulers by teaching them how to increase their looting of the public till while carefully skirting around the laws of the land. A democracy without accountability is akin to dictatorship, a dictatorship that does not compromise on nepotism and corruption would then logically be better than such a democracy. Given that dictatorship almost never accepts accountability about itself, the whole thing slides into a Catch-22 situation.


Recurring Song, Fresh Singer

Confirming widespread speculation, cricketing hero turned social worker and philanthropist, Imran Khan finally took the plunge into politics in Pakistan. Addressing a crowded Press Conference in the historic city of Lahore a few days after the bomb blast that destroyed the OPD of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital (SKMT), he launched a political movement Tehrik-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice), ostensibly to change the much-disfigured face of Pakistan politics. Most nations face a moral crisis of sorts in varying degree, blatant nepotism and corruption has made our particular descent rather precipitous to a level once associated with the so-called “banana republics” of Latin and South America. With the track record of our political parties rather bleak and without moral authority as a check, excess has reached new heights. With the Opposition repeatedly failing to mount a credible challenge to stem the decay of the fabric of the nation, Imran Khan’s advent into politics thus fills a vacuum of sorts. We are in such desperate straits that any person or organization willing and able (with his/her eyes open) to take us out of this morass is more than welcome to try.

By opting for a movement instead of a political party, Imran wisely stays above the political fray in pursuit of a greater cause than narrow political ambitions in simply chasing after political office. Despite appropriate public pronouncements, his appearance on the political scene has not been well received by either side of the political spectrum. If the bomb was a crude warning delivered by the “more loyal than the Queen” Brigade on the Becket pattern of “who will rid me of this mad priest?”, it had the opposite effect. In an actual exercise of adult franchise, analysts say he would wean away more votes from PML (N) than PPP, for the moment his campaign against various wrongs will help PML (N) put enormous pressure on the incumbent PPP Government. Riven with avarice and greed, the soul of our political parties is encapsulated in the ever increasing outrageous demands of our Parliamentarians, taking us deeper into an economic black hole. Desperate to cling to office, principles of ethical governments have been compromised by successive incumbents lacking the moral strength to take a tough stand. The theoretical touchstone for advancement in a merit-based society is competition, here it is a farcical sop meant as a palliative for the masses since only a privileged few with connections take prized appointments irrespective of performance. The latest example are the 60 cadet pilots chosen for PIA, notwithstanding the fact that flying passengers is a discipline where it is fatal to compromise on skill and experience. Some people do advance in the face of the prevalent norm (a la Gen Jahangir Karamat, the present COAS) but these are exceptions, in his case not only because of sheer merit but because the “court favourite” was too horrible an alternative for the public (and the Army) to stomach. Merit is not only a disqualifier it is also suspect in an environment where the few with merit who do rise find themselves on the receiving end of jealousy and suspicion, being perceived as a threat by those who have risen on the nepotism-route and refuse to accept that success can be possible without favouritism and/or manipulation. Quotas in Pakistan are meant to protect the rights of the minority, instead they are flagrantly misused to perpetuate the dominance of a privileged elite and their clientele, an extension of the feudal system into democracy. The vast majority within Parliament are a privileged elite of tax-exempt feudals who have the effrontery to impose legislation to tax the not-so influential salaried class and the self-employed. Unless this feudal gridlock on the country’s spine is broken, this country is doomed. The major objective of contriving to position the wrong people in the right places is to checkmate any opposition in the wholesale looting of the public till at will, corruption being the Siamese twin of nepotism. Dr Mahbubul Haq, former Finance Minister in Junejo’s cabinet and world technocrat, estimated annual loss to the national exchequer due to corruption conservatively at Rs.40 billion in 1988, today it could be well over Rs.100 billion. A decade or so ago one had to pay a bribe to get something wrong done, now in utter contempt of the law even something that is right can only get done by greasing the right palms. Ill-gotten wealth was kept hidden in overseas accounts, now it is flouted openly and proudly in luxury trappings by the nouveau rich. The silent majority may not be corrupt but compromise their self-respect to pay homage at the feet of those in power, institutionalizing corruption by making it socially acceptable to be corrupt. Those who abrogate their right as citizens (and functionaries) to voice their protest in the “see no evil, hear no evil and do no evil” syndrome are a pathetic lot beneath contempt. Wearing blinkers behind the flimsy fig-leaf of “Constitutional obligations” does not make them any less culpable, their fawning empathy makes them as much guilty as those whom it helps to loot this nation.


Handle Kashmir with care

Several days ago the President of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Sardar Sikander Hayat Khan, resigned his office a few months before his term expired. By the terms of the AJK Constitution, a new President has to be voted for by the AJK Assembly within 30 days, to that effect the date of Wednesday May 22, 1996 has been stipulated for the Presidential Elections. While the AJK President set in motion a chain of events which can blow up into an embarrassing Constitutional crisis, the first shots were actually fired by the Government of Pakistan (GOP) or more particularly, its political ally the PML (J), when they influenced a few members of AJK PM Sardar Qayyum Khan’s AJK Muslim Conference (AJKMC) to change their loyalties. Incidentally these were representative of the seats of Kashmir refugees settled in Pakistan, as such more prone to electoral interference than the constituencies within AJK, i.e. if such an exercise was under contemplation.

For his part, Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan maintains that he did not consult his party colleague Sardar Qayyum Khan, the AJK Prime Minister and thus nominally his junior in the party structure (but in fact the party boss), about his rather sudden decision. This should be taken with a pinch of salt. Since the AJK Assembly’s political life was due to expire shortly, the resignation of the AJK President means that the old Assembly, where despite the defections, the Muslim Conference can still elect their nominee as President, would choose the new President-elect for five years. Logically this would not be fair as this should be the prerogative of the new Assembly. With a PPP Government in power in Pakistan, the AJKMC could not be so sure about the result of the General Elections and they probably resorted to this stratagem to frustrate PPP’s aspirations. President AJK is a largely symbolic post without the powers under the 8th Amendment that the President of Pakistan enjoys, despite repeated claims by President Farooq Leghari that he does not like them. As such the resignation of the AJK President at this stage would seem a clinically perfected cynical ploy by the superb politician that Sardar Qayyum is to either (1) get political advantage pre-elections by having a President (belonging to AJKMC) already elected for five years (2) block further moves by the PPP regime in power in Pakistan from attempting to shift the loyalties of more AJKMC legislators and (3) frustrate possible moves by GOP to influence the vote in the forthcoming AJK General Elections.


Loan Default

The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) had to invoke on short notice little-used sections of the Banking Ordinance to change the management of United Bank Limited (UBL). Great fanfare had been made about UBL being privatised. Government of Pakistan (GoP) had already accepted an offer from Saudi Basharahill, a little known company owned by Saudi magnate Dr. Basharahill, capitalised at ú 2000 in an off-shore UK tax haven. For reasons suspected but not really known, the UBL privatisation deal seems to be in doldrums and SBP’s drastic action, ostensibly on behalf of GoP, seems to be a desperate move not only to shore up UBL’s defences against depositors’ run on the bank that was gathering momentum but also to divert attention from the privatisation debacle. Despite UBL being systematically looted by its own managers and by its powerful Union over the years, the strong foundation and inherent strength of the bank had ensured that the bank remained profitable till 1993. With the advent of the Ms Benazir regime, a sustained campaign began to induct only “loyalists” into the UBL hierarchy without any thought given to their integrity and competence or its adverse effect on UBL’s credibility as a financial institution. The appointed functionaries started dishing out questionable loans that far exceeded mismanagement and malfeasance (M&M) pre-1993. Haemorrhaging badly, UBL was put on the auction block for privatisation in what really amounted to be a rather motivated fire sale. That the whole edifice of cards was bound to come down on detailed scrutiny was a foregone conclusion that only the most optimist of GoP’s decision-makers could have been hoping to camouflage and/or avoid.

Pakistan’s Nationalised Commercial Banks (PNCBs) and Development Finance Institution (DFIs) are suffering from chronic bank default. If UBL is seen as an offender, it is only because privatisation has brought it into focus. Default has been taking place for over two decades. Probably the worst case of financial bungling may be in Habib Bank Limited (HBL) where excesses by banking executives, both professional and non-professional, reached such alarming proportions that in comparison Younus Habib (remember him) seems to be a petty thief. Once this scribe himself approached VA Jafarey to intercede in what was clearly an outrageous scam by the present bank management, Younus Dalia included. VA Jafarey, PM’s Advisor on Finance replied he could only advise the Pakistan Banking Council (PBC) to look into it but was powerless to take any action himself. With such toothless tigers in charge of financial monitoring, what does one expect? Put VA Jafarey out to pasture and/or put him out of his misery. One hopes that the saying “the bigger they are, the harder the fall”, does not come true for Pakistan’s biggest retail bank. National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) seems to be in a healthy state but figures (like appearances) can be deceptive, only time will tell whether NBP is doing as spectacularly as M B Abbasi is professing or whether the media projections are just another window-dressing for poor banking practices that may have fooled all (including this scribe) into glorifying him personally. As far as the DFIs are concerned, the lesser said the better, almost all of them are in trouble of some kind or the other due to loan default. Some like the NIT, ICP and NDFC are facing a liquidity crunch in being caught up themselves in the share market whirlpool or in trying to bolster a sagging share market on behalf of GoP.