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Archive for June, 1997

Read His Lips, No New Taxes!

The best from the finest must come at a critical point at the worst of times. The very believable economic survey that preceded the Federal Budget was scary, the sustained economic crisis it portrays in 1976-1977 equals if not surpasses the political crisis that broke the country in two in 1971, coincidentally almost 25 years apart and coming during the Golden Jubilee Year when we should be celebrating development and progress since independence. 1971 was the year our leadership across the broad spectrum failed us at a critical moment of truth, for all purposes till Friday June 13, the year 1997 was economically going down the same tube despite some glimmer of hope with the advent of the Mian Nawaz Sharif regime. With the chips really down, this government has risen to the challenge. By enunciating a pragmatic supply-sided no-new-tax budget, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s regime has confounded critics and believers in status quo. The acid test of leadership is to choose your managers with care, the right person for the right job, as well as the courage and ability to take calculated risks. In putting confidence in Senator Sartaj Aziz and going with the overturning of traditional logic in budget-making, Mian Nawaz Sharif has come up trumps.

The gameplan inherent in the Budget proposals is simple, decrease taxes per capita and thus encourage increasing of volume on the whole. The idea was to give relief on both ends of the spectrum, to the common man as well to business and industry. By reducing the burden on industry, manufacturing costs would become lower, within reach of the additional funds available for spending by consumers. As the Leader of the Opposition grudgingly conceded, it is an incentive-oriented, relatively tax-free budget, but as she peevishly did not concede, it is a brave, innovative and challenging set of budgetary proposals to meet a very bleak economic picture. The business community that was anticipating belt-tightening, is virtually speechless, as one newspaper put it, agog. The Opposition, armed to the teeth with statements about the anticipated increase in taxes, has been set adrift spluttering with frustration. To put it bluntly, they have no case to propound.

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First 100 days, next 100 days? Business as usual

Mian Nawaz Sharif need not necessarily be faulted for the sense of disappointment being felt by his supporters in both the intelligentsia and the masses at his government’s performance during the first 100 days. Blame can be levied at us in the media for projecting him as an economic superman he was not (and on the strength of what we have seen in his second tenure is dependant more on circumstances beyond his control), blame can be levied at the public for having such high expectations when they should have been more content with a much lower threshold that equalled the sum of Sharif’s actual achievements during his first tenure and finally blame should be levied at Benazir’s government for being as bad as they were so that nothing could have been worse and anything in comparison to the previous regime would seem to be spectacular. Relative to Bhutto, Sharif’s credibility, in the economic field has been heightened of men of character, integrity and purposeful intention like Sartaj Aziz. Nawaz Sharif’s performance in the first 100 days is a mixed bag of innovation, consolidation and compromise with his excellent economic team crumbling to keep us afloat after the disaster inflicted on us by the Bhutto regime. While we are far better off than we were in early November 1996, we are far from where we expected to be six months later. Perhaps we should be content with the fact that we could have been far worse had Leghari not had the courage (and the legal recourse) to send Bhutto into temporary oblivion.

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Reza Shah, Marcos and Mobutu

Reza Shah, former Shah of Iran in 1979, Ferdinand Marcos, former President of Philippines in 1986 and now Mobutu, former President of Congo (formerly Zaire) in 1997, have much in common. All three are crooks who, having looted the Third World countries they professed to love but ruled as absolute despots without allowing any hint of democracy, went off to seek safer sanctuaries before the people could get their hands on them as they did with the husband-wife combination of the Ceaucescus of Romania. At today’s rate, adjusted for inflation, all three were US ten billion dollar men. More important, at the fag end of their sordid lives, despite all the wealth they accumulated, country after country refused them a bare six feet of earth as a final place of rest. In an ultimate insult to their beings, the countries that were most supportive of them during their years of absolute rule and where they had stashed their looted wealth, refused to allow them entry to enjoy the ill-gotten gains. The ex-Shah of Iran was eventually buried in Egypt (at a price), Ferdinand Marcos’ body remained in an air-conditioned crypt till very recently and stricken with cancer, Mobutu is still searching for a safe haven. For Reza Shah, the exploitation of his wealth two decades ago was relatively easy, not that easy for Marcos about a decade ago and almost impossible for Mobutu presently. At the request of the new Government of the Republic of Congo, countries like Switzerland, France, etc that had his wealth stashed away, conservatively estimated at US$ 10 billion, have frozen all his assets, bank accounts and real-estate, etc included.

While one can have the satisfaction that all three crooks met their comeuppance in not getting to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth, the fact remains that the poverty-stricken population of their respective countries got no real solace. Iran recovered only a fraction of late Reza Shah’s wealth in foreign countries. While Philippines was luckier inasfar as the process they adopted to recover the loot was on a systematic and legal basis, even they managed to get a portion only of the Marcos wealth. However the Filipinos set in motion a process that has changed the world environment inasfar as looted wealth is concerned, it has become that much harder to stash away and have access to looted wealth once not in power. This environment has been made much better by the end of the cold war as the west’s reliance on tinpot dictators has ceased. In Mobutu’s case, despite the recent civil war that preceded his downfall and the precarious ascent of the Kabila regime, Congolese Justice Minister Lawangi moved fast to approach countries like Switzerland, France, etc. where Mobutu’s wealth is mostly located, US$ 5 billion in Swiss Bank accounts alone, and had a quick response to the official request by the newly installed government. Like Reza Shah and Marcos before him, Mobutu is now engaged in an odyssey for a place to die peacefully in, finding it much more harder than Reza Shah and Marcos to find a place in the fading sun, finding it that much harder to gain access to (and thus exploit) his fabulous wealth. Oil-rich Iran, resource-rich Philippines and mineral-rich Congo, all have the capacity to recover from the excesses of their erstwhile leaders, most Third World countries do not have that luxury. Population-rich, economically almost-bankrupt Pakistan neither has any room to manoeuvre or the time to afford such an exercise. Fully US$ 30 billion is estimated to be in the foreign accounts of our politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, former armed forces and police officers, etc. That is more than the estimated US$ 28 billion national external debt. Recovery of even a quarter of that amount, about US$ 7 billion, would tide us over our debt crisis for three crucial years i.e. US $ 2.33 or Pak Rs 100 billion per year. That is about the amount of the deficit in the Federal Budget. Today the Mian Nawaz Sharif regime has made the right noises about recovering the ill-gotten wealth, yet their moves have been confined to lip-service and have been half-hearted enough to be suspect as to their sincerity. It will need much more commitment on their part and an objectivity in targeting known political criminals, not just those who are in the Opposition (or are not with the government, which according to Chanakhya’s rules” about relationships means the same thing). A definite process of law is required, the rhetoric is meaningless as rhetoric alone cannot fill the empty coffers of the country.

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