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Balancing the Costs

When the Indians went public with their series of nuclear blasts in May 1998, we were already in serious economic straits. This is an enduring legacy of many past governments but more recently a gift of the Bhutto-Zardari combine that ruled over us from 1993 to 1996, the Mian Nawaz Sharif regime has since been fighting a losing battle. The Indian nuclear blasts presented us with an opportunity to come out of the nuclear closet but it was quite clear that the western powers would make us pay an economic price for the luxury of exploding the bomb. Even then, we could have perhaps survived on the strength of repatriation of salaries from Pakistanis abroad but the foreign exchange freeze of May 28 simply blew us apart. In one surgical strike on ourselves we stopped the in-flow of foreign exchange and destroyed our financial credibility for the future almost irretrievably. Take for example, the innovative US Dollar Bond Scheme recently unveiled by the PM, very lucrative but few takers. Not that the in-flow from Pakistani expatriate earnings has been eliminated altogether, it continues on the basis of “Hundi” but that credit is not counted officially in the exchequer’s data, remaining a part of the parallel economy. That the country has not come apart economically is very much because we are kept afloat by the unofficial sector.

Having shot ourselves in the foot with respect to one of the major props of our foreign exchange reserves, economic sanctions imposed on us by the US and other developed nations affected us in varying degree. Thanks to Indian belligerency after their own nuclear explosions, this proforma application by the US and others did not have much enthusiasm. However, if it had not been for China to start with, and then Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait providing critical “bridge-financing” funds, we would have been bankrupt and in default, in fact we are already almost at the end of the grace period. At the same time IMF, bent on extracting its own pound of flesh, set conditions guaranteed to make the common man come out in the streets in violent protest. Such harsh terms would be unacceptable to any self-respecting government in Pakistan, caught in an economic vice, between the devil and the deep sea, we had few choices but to opt either for seeming confrontation or roll over and play dead. One may or may not agree with either Mian Nawaz Sharif or Ms Benazir, as different from each other as chalk from cheese, on any number of counts but they have one feature in common admirable in any leader, both not only have plenty of courage but on vital issues can stand their ground even to the perils of the seats — and their lives. It is only when they take up confrontation on extraneous issues less than a matter of life and death that one questions their judgement. On the core issue of routine IMF conditionalities like raising electricity tariffs, etc Mian Nawaz Sharif took the route of populism, lowering the tariffs by as much as 30%, positioning himself as a champion of the masses. This reduction was also meant to serve as a factor to stimulate the economy by lowering the price of production across the board. That premise fell apart at the altar of the greed of our industrial bosses who have not responded in kind, opting for profit-taking rather than passing on the benefit to the consumer.


Born-again Muslims

The government of Mian Nawaz Sharif recently moved a Bill in the National Assembly (NA) for the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (popularly known as CA15). Certainly the government could not have chosen a worse time to launch another initiative. On a number of major fronts, the Mian Nawaz Sharif regime has been facing disaster, starting with one certainly not of its making. It is incumbent on any government to maintain control over the tension level, each major initiative has raised apprehensions as well as the stakes, polarising society along the way at a particularly critical time in our history. Has anyone in the regime’s camp heard of such a thing as a “trial balloon?”

A number of major contributing factors encompassing decades of bad governance and malpractice went into the economic crisis that we were immersed in at the beginning of May 1998, culminating in the hands-on looting of the public exchequer during the Asif Zardari-Ms Benazir regime circa 1993-1996. Despite widespread institutionalised reforms and the putting in place of supervisory controls by Mian Nawaz Sharif’s economic team, the economy continued to deteriorate but displayed some early indicators of possible recovery. Then came May 8th and 11th and our world changed overnight. Suddenly we were under immeasurable domestic pressure to counter the Indian blasts and under severe external pressure not to go ahead with a response. As we stood between the devil and the deep sea, the Indians launched a most vicious propaganda campaign, designed to rub our noses in the dirt, to wreck the nation’s morale, “to win a war without bloodying swords,” to quote Sun Tzu. The proliferation of vitriol decided our May 28 nuclear response at Chagai, we were left with no options but to either “eat humble pie” or to “eat grass.”