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Archive for March, 1998

Imperfect Democracy, Insoluble Problems

Any exercise in democracy without the participation of the people at the grassroots level is an exercise in futility. Democracy enjoins the continuous freedoms of expression and action, the process does not end by simply exercising the right to vote and giving away a mandate for the leaders to administer. Above all, only the absolute majority formed by that vote in any entity, may it be a constituency or the entire country, have a right to exercise that mandate. When a mandate is exercised by a minority faction having a majority due to an imperfect system as is usually the case, problems not only proliferate they multiply. The inter-action of insoluble problems in turn leads to disunity as each minority faction bands together in a bid for power and when they cannot get that power then out of sheer frustration, they try to secede from the union.

While nothing in life can really be perfect, unless we try and make our exercise in democracy close to near perfect, at least at the grassroots level, we may cease to exist as a nation. The aspiration for excellence can happen as an evolution of the present mandate i.e. if the rulers set about their task in a concerted manner and not spend their entire energies in seeking longevity. For the existence of the nation a period of authoritarian rule may well be necessary, it is better to have that rule than cease to exist as a national entity. There is a dire need to reform the system, particularly the electoral process. The idea should be to ensure that every individual in the country must feel that his or her participation is important and constant, that after exercising the vote once every four years, he or she does not become meaningless, at least till the next elections come around. This can only be done by making a pragmatic nation-structure that does not give lip-service only to democracy but inculcates the modicum of accountability that democracy enjoins along a broad spectrum at the very base of the system.


Democracy and Corruption

Because of the lack of accountability, totalitarian rule creates an ideal breeding ground for corruption even though the risks may be greater. Why is it then that democracy, whose touchstone is accountability, a prey to rampant corruption, particularly in the developing world? As the third world rid itself of colonialism, quite a number of the “free world’s” leaders were military dictators/absolute monarchs who not only looted their country blind but revelled in it. The west mostly looked the other way, it being convenient to support them in the name of “democracy” and “freedom” in the fight against communism. Money laundering, evasion of taxes, flight of capital, etc very much frowned upon in the west, were all conveniently ignored. The 60s and early 70s saw leaders like the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia, Mobuto of Zaire, etc as the darlings of the west, the leading edge of the cold war. As this era wound down in the 80s, these leaders became embarrassments for their former mentors. Their riches were deposited in banks in places as diverse as Switzerland, Luxembourg, Cayman Islands, Isle of Man etc, their real estate holdings and other investments spread all across the world through a myriad network of dummy corporations, off-shore companies, front-men, etc. The developed world had accountability because of a free media, systemized documentation and public knowledge because of the high percentage of literacy, this accountability was denied to new found “democracies” where demagogues and so-called populists held sway, misusing their mandate to make financial bonanzas while making their future bright, in some cases attempting to also make their past bright.

Among the worst cases at the present time are the Suhartos of Indonesia, everyone of the siblings is a billionaire in his/her own right while the country is bankrupt. However the Suhartos do not make such a pretense of democracy as do the leaders of South Asia. The Bofors scandal in India is an open-and-shut case against the late Rajiv Gandhi. One of the major reasons why Italian-born Sonia has abandoned her recluse-like existence and stepped into politics is to have a nuisance value to keep the Bofors case-file from going public. The son of late Bangladesh President Gen Ziaur Rahman is a slur on the known honesty of his father while former President Lt Gen HM Ershad is still a democratic force despite the fact that it is widely believed, even by his supporters and friends, that he diverted millions in public money for his own private use. Pakistan’s great democratic hope, Ms Benazir Bhutto, has been discovered to be a looter-extraordinary, glib rhetoric and smart remarks notwithstanding, courtesy mostly of her incarcerated husband. Not only is the loot well-documented but thanks to an extraordinary effort by Senator Saifur Rahman and his lot, much in variance to his Mr Hyde personality, the foreign banks where some of the loot landed up have been detected and in many cases the accounts frozen. Brazen-faced the former PM had the gall to first deny their existence even, well knowing that she is not telling the truth. What is more extraordinary is that mature political leaders have fallen for her misleading spiel. If other leaders, even with little political standing, get in alliance with her it gives her credibility with the masses, such is the sham that goes for democracy in Pakistan.


National security imperatives

Fifty years into Pakistan’s existence, the omissions of our fathers, as much as their sins, are visiting us with a vengeance. Having learnt no lessons from the political crisis that engulfed us in 1971 leading to the break-up of Pakistan, we are now in the midst of a series of crises, economic, political and geo-political, in that order and of differing magnitude in a very difficult period of time.

At the moment our major problem is an economic slowdown that refuses to pick up despite a great effort by our economic team. The net result of rising deficits is the increasing prices of utilities, cutting deeply into tax incentives given at the beginning of Mian Nawaz Sharif term. These tax incentives were in keeping with standard initiatives to revive the economy but they only succeeded in widening the deficits as businessmen took advantage of lowered taxes to make windfall profits but studiously avoided re-cycling that extra amount into the economy or paying even the lowered government dues. While being pampered by the present regime, the business community has not responded in any degree whatsoever, if anything their attitude on the GST issue is abhorrent. Faced with open insurrection amongst what he considers his base constituency, Mian Nawaz Sharif has faltered, to the detriment of Pakistan. Whereas he needs to be tough with traders to get them into the tax net, he has succumbed to their blackmail that they would pull down their shutters. The fixed tax to be levied may be some progress but unfortunately it detracts from a principle and that sets a precedent for others. While this government has certainly curtailed expenditure, most of it has been in the development mode, the aura of an imperial governance persists. While collection of revenues is a major problem the new Chairman CBR (now being re-organised as the Pakistan Revenue Service – PRS) seems to be upto his task, in a deliberate and methodical manner. Unless we enhance revenue collection, this nation will go further into debt. The No. 1 problem facing this nation in the economic field is that less than 1% of the population is expected to pay for the modern living standards of the balance 99%.


Parameters of the national census

Despite many contradictions and opposition from vested quarters, the national census, due since 1991, has finally taken place. While the government vacillated till the last minute due to pressure from various quarters, psychologically this is a giant step for Pakistan. Lack of a population count gave an impression of a free-for-all wild west type society that was gradually becoming unmanageable in the Somalia-Rwanda sense. Traditionally a crossroads for humanity in the region, Pakistan’s fertile land and economic potential has become a haven for migrants, not the least being the Muslims of India, who battered by years of brutality at worst and benign neglect at best, have been streaming to Pakistan in more or less a constant flow. Because of the Afghan War and its long duration, most of the Afghans who came as refugees have now become Pakistanis by virtue of corrupt documentation. The National Identity Card (NIC) which was supposed to deter migrants has become the easiest thing to acquire, a Pakistani passport follows even more easily. The net result is that migrants are mostly registered as Pakistanis and locals, on the other hand, may or may not be registered at all. This has led to lop-sided documentation having no basis to actual reality.


Re-thinking naval strategy

As opposed to the wars of 1965 and 1971, when there was a dire requirement for a blue-water navy, extending over the expanse of the Indian Ocean to cover the Indian Coast, the strategic aim of the Pakistan Navy now is to defend the maritime interests of Pakistan encompassing the Arabian Sea from the Rann of Kutch up to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Our war experiences are imperfect examples because of the geo-political change since 1971 in territorial status. However, some home-truths are still self-evident when we examine the naval posture, viz (1) the next war will primarily be a air-land battle and may well play a secondary role to the main war effort (2) the naval war objective effort will be served by protecting Pakistan’s Coast and keeping the sea lanes to the Gulf Ports open and (3) by interdicting Indian sea lanes to prevent free movement of both military and commercial vessels. It should be accepted that it will be almost impossible to keep all of Pakistan’s commercial sea lanes open, we have to rely on land routes traditionally and profitably used by smugglers.

Senior military hierarchy, whether they belong to the Army, Air-force or the Navy must think in terms of an all service war in terms of country strategy. Loyalty to one’s own service may be laudable, to insist on pure service considerations at the cost of the country is not only immature and selfish but for the nation this attitude can be dangerous. We have seen in the matters of submarines different motivations, by one Chief of Naval Staff serving sincerely his service effort and by his rather corrupt successor serving his own pockets. It will be in the country’s interest to get rid of such people, sooner rather than later. Since the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Second World War, the Korean conflict, the six-day Arab-Israeli War in 1967 and very recently the Gulf War, air power has assumed dominant influence over the course of battle. This dominance must engage our military strategists in evolving a pragmatic war plan for the defence of Pakistan, involving all the three Services in objectives within their capacity as limited by the paucity of resources.


Achilles four

Recent articles in the domestic and international print media analysing the PML’s first year in office sing a common refrain, of governance, economy, credibility and Sindh. Friends, neutral observers and foes alike, harp on the same weaknesses viz (1) failure of governance (2) a sluggish economy (3) loss of credibility and (4) lack of government in Sindh. Supporters and sympathisers of the ruling regime suggest remedial measures, neutral observers analyse dispassionately the reasons for falling short in performance while foes, as foes are apt to do, trumpet what they hold to be truths with a mixture of half-truths and outright lies, asking for the termination of the Sharif government’s mandate as soon as possible. The alternative possibilities, given the various permutations and combinations, are either (1) without a proven track record and still not credible and/or (2) are too horrible to contemplate. While the style and mode of governance can be changed, it would be wrong to lay the blame for the lousy state of the economy on the present government. This was an inherited disaster area and credit must be given to the regime’s economic team for slowing the headlong slide downwards to manageable levels. However the factor of impaired credibility is alarming since this factor is crucial to any leader and is very much within his/her control to correct. Also within the PM’s control is the relationship with PML’s regional allies, ANP in NWFP and MQM(A), etc, particularly concerning governance in Sindh.


Governor’s Rule

As Pakistan’s only functioning commercial port and as the hub of a major percentage of the nation’s commercial and industrial activity, Karachi commands an inordinate influence in domestic politics. The dominant ethnic community are primarily Urdu-speaking Muslim migrants (about 4.5 million) from India, followed by the Pathans (about 2.0 million). Punjabis and Bangladeshis are in fair number (1.5 million plus minus each) but they are not organised at all. These are followed by Afghans, Iranians, Burmese Muslims, etc. Other than the vastly Muslim majority violently divided in certain areas (other than racial) into Shia and Sunni communities, Christians are in significant numbers followed by Parsis, who though not large in number wield considerable commercial influence. History is witness to the fact that with such an ethnic, religious and sectarian mix, anything can ignite trouble on a fairly large scale. As the population has grown larger, conversely the economic pie has become smaller, leading to friction as the communities have got increasingly involved in battling for survival.

The recently re-named Muttahida (for Mohajir) Qaumi Movement (MQM) gained ascendancy in 1985 after the Bushra Zaidi incident when the Mohajirs united under one political vehicle. MQM legislators have been elected to Parliament, both for the Centre and the Provinces since 1988, but without the transfer of power at the grassroots level their hopes have been frustrated. As often happens, in the process of transformation from street power into governance, their militants came into cross purposes with each other and civil strife has gone on since. Trying to assert their supremacy through the gun, collecting “Bhatta” or protection money in the process, the MQM fell afoul of the population of Karachi in general. In addition, the deteriorating law and order situation (kidnappings, car snatchings, dacoity, etc) was tailor-made for the launching of “Operation Clean Up” in 1992. However, the then military hierarchy made a major mistake in (1) creating the Haqeeqi faction MQM(H) (2) targeting only the mainline Mohajir party, known as MQM Alpha in military circles after Altaf Hussain, the leader i.e. MQM (A) and (3) not dissolving it after its use as a Trojan Horse at the start of the campaign. No doubt MQM (A) had a very large number of militants, but militancy was fairly well sprinkled through the broad spectrum of all the political parties, this singling out was most unfortunate because it smacked of victimization, which it was. The other parties and groupings who had militants in their midst should have also been targeted. Public perception is a very fickle opinion medium. It will rail against a man who commits murder but will be mildly sympathetic to the murderer when he is brought out to the gallows for hanging. On the other hand, if the murderer is beaten or otherwise brutalised on the way to his hanging, public perception will radically go over to his side. While people in Karachi were genuinely afraid of the excesses of the MQM(A), they wanted others to meet their come-uppance as much as their more visible tormentors.