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Archive for June, 2003

Midsummer Realities

From June 21 to 23 the World Economic Forum (WEF) which traditionally holds it’s Annual Meeting at DAVOS in the winter (except for the 9/11 Special held in 2002 in New York) organized an EXTRAORDINARY Annual Meeting at the Dead Sea Resort (400 meters i.e. 1300 ft below sea level) near Amman in Jordan in the middle of summer. His Highness King Abdullah 2 of Jordan graciously put the full resources of the State to making the Summit a success, the location was an inspired choice, all the major religions of the world commenced in this region. Close to the crucible of civilization a sense of history permeates through the senses. One would expect insecurity because of the proximity of the West Bank and suicide bombings, the audacity to hold the event in such circumstances not only underscored the confidence and courage of the young King but the attendance bestowed a positive vote of confidence by the world’s elite. Even though the normal complement of Heads of State and Government were missing, second string leaders from the region were in attendance.

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Geo-Political Fail-Safe

With the US demanding after 9/11 that its friends stand up and be counted, Pervez Musharraf came through at risk of personal life and limb, not to speak of the credibility of Pakistan as an independent sovereign entity. The weekend at Camp David recognises the Pakistani President’s pre-eminent role (and performance) as a US ally at a very troubled time, it is also a brilliant US diplomatic sleight of hand meant to keep everyone happy. While bestowing a rare privilege meant for the most trusted of US friends, it avoids receiving a Head of State still in uniform with all the pomp and show associated with the White House. This mechanism assuages domestic US sensibilities about democratic mores, externally it salves India’s feelings in the light of the developing US-India relationship.

Musharraf expects the US to “reward” Pakistan more for its still continuing support for the war in Afghanistan and against the cells of international terrorism imbedded in Pakistan. A generous US gesture is expected with about $1.8 billion debt forgiveness (and some debt re-scheduling) besides outright grant and aid, this will shore up Pakistan economically and Musharraf politically, mollifying those critics who feel Pakistan has been short-changed. Trade bargains are also in the works, these could eventually lead to a Free Trade Agreement. The icing on the cake would be two squadrons of F-16s to bring the PAF to a credible conventional air defence capability. The relatively “small” economic support that we did get earlier was a good enough signal for other western donor countries as well as Japan to give us succour across the board. Pakistan’s economy became a net-gainer because of 9/11, a few more days and we would have been in the “default” category.

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A Reasonable Budget

Annual Budgets always arouse expectations, the Budget being presented before the National Assembly after four years (and that also with the confrontation over LFO as a backdrop) added to the anticipation. The good thing about the Budget is that no new taxes have been levied, either in the form of direct taxes or change in administrative/utility prices. This goes towards the business community’s demand of a consistency in government policies. For the first time the government has more or less achieved the target of the tax revenues i.e. Rs.459 billion against the revised Rs.460 billion figure. An important achievement has been that the number of income tax-payers has been rising, now close to 2 million (at one time a few years ago it was only 1.1 million). There is some improvement in bringing down the size of fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP. The advance tax regime for foreign investors is a good initiative, this should be expanded to include the domestic corporate sector.

Incentives to the housing sector give multiple benefits to Pakistan across the board. Firstly, it provides much needed ownership of housing to our needy citizens, secondly it reinvigorates the economy. Enhanced “housing starts” means that more cement, brick, steel, sand, steel plumbing and electrical material, household gadgets, etc will all be needed. Since almost everything is available or made in Pakistan, jobs will not only be created in construction but the whole lot of support industries will add more and more jobs and turn out additional material resulting in economy of scale and bringing down prices, force-multiplying consumer sales of many household products i.e. there will be spin-offs in all directions, a very direct infusion to the economy. Banks have to be careful in verifying applications and spreading the installment /mark-up in payable lots, we cannot afford to go down the way the “Savings and Loans” (S&L) schemes did in the US, it took a trillion plus US dollars to bail out the banks. Moreover with increases in sales, competition will become intense, thus enhancing the quality of the products. Care also has to be taken of constructing small housing colonies in rural areas to encourage the farmers that their quality of life can be enhanced in their own rural environment rather than moving to the comforts of the urban areas and putting pressure on the urban areas, adding to multiple problems because of unemployment, including law and order.

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Contradiction and Confrontation

When the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) came together as an electoral entity, the ideological differences separating the six parties forming the alliance made it a practical incongruity. Skeptical as one was at seeing Islam’s warring sects rent apart by years of mistrust uniting under one banner, this could only be possible because of genuine compromise. That fact alone was enough to lull us into believing that MMA’s conduct, whether in governance or in parliamentary opposition, would mean consensus and tolerance would be prime motivating factors in keeping them in line with democratic norms. From time to time MMA did show some signs of intractability, but for most of the six months or so theirs was stable governance. The Mullahs have now discarded their cloak of tolerance, dashing any hopes that they would remain democratic and liberal in the tried and true spirit of Islam at its birth, and not act arbitrarily and convoluted according to their own narrow interpretation of religion. Having seen the Talibaan regime across the border come to grief because of their excesses in enforcing their brand of Islam in Afghanistan, one had hoped (vainly it seems) that the MMA would have learnt some lessons and been more discreet and circumspect.

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