Apr 182008

The leaders of the ruling coalition have been saying repeatedly since the Murree declaration that real judiciary will be restored. They reiterated this on Tuesday. Yet, there is no shortage of cynics trying to pick holes and build a story of dissension on the flimsiest of evidence. One newspaper went so far as to post a headline calling the Tuesday talks a failure whereas the PPP and the PML-N spokespeople are going blue in the face arguing otherwise.

The fact is that Mr Musharraf’s entire house of cards is built on the shaky foundation of judiciary’s non-restoration. Khawaja Asif is right that if the real judiciary is restored the game is up for him. He is therefore counting on the PPP to stall and somehow subvert any serious move towards it. So are his overt and covert supporters including a few in the media. But, while everything is possible in politics – meaning it is a pursuit without principles – the logic of the situation dictates that the PPP will disappoint Musharraf and his cohorts.

The reason is simple. The PPP just cannot afford to fracture the current coalition because alternative partnerships are less than palatable. The MQM is already giving it a hard time in Karachi. Its demands for a share of the pie in Sindh are so high that the PPP just cannot meet them. The other possible partner, the Q league, is despised by the people. An alliance with it also amounts to giving Musharraf leverage over the new coalition. Why would the PPP want that!

Also, it is not easy for real political parties to ignore public opinion. The thrust of the popular vote in the election was against Mr Musharraf. It was therefore natural for parties opposed to him to come together. Any other arrangement would have been a violation of the popular mandate. This situation has not changed over the last two months. The people want this coalition to stay. Eighty-one per cent, according to the latest Gallup survey, also want the judiciary to be restored. It will therefore happen, perhaps within the next fifteen days.

The exact mechanism of restoration is not clear but it will most likely be through an executive order after the national assembly has passed a resolution calling for it. The Islamabad administration will implement this order as it implemented Musharraf’s extra-constitutional sacking of superior court judges. At the end of the day, sadly, it amounts to who controls the instruments of power.

Mr Musharraf ignored the decision of the seven member bench of the Supreme Court – that held his imposition of emergency to be illegal – and had the judges physically removed and put under house arrest. When the coalition government orders the reversal of these actions, the deposed judges will also assume office under the umbrella of executive authority. Those who imagine that the armed forces will be dragged into this controversy are mistaken. From all accounts, they have no desire to interfere.

Once the judiciary is restored, will we then be able to live happily ever after? I wish I could say yes but the reality is otherwise. There are huge problems ahead for the government and none more serious than the food crisis. Reports about the wheat crop are not encouraging. Its area is less than last year’s and the size of the wheat kernel is small due to water shortage during the maturation process. The short fall is expected to be over a million tons.

This poses a massive problem for the government. We saw glimpses of what popular anger can be when people rioted over power shortages in Multan. Imagine the rage if there are serious atta shortages. We have had deficit years before but this time, the problem is compounded by food shortages the world over. This means that not only availability of wheat is low but its price is exorbitantly high. The first problem would be to find enough wheat internationally and then to pay for it. With a huge budget deficit already staring us in the face, this is going to create a serious predicament.

The provincial governments would also have to make tackling the food crisis their number one priority. This means a number of things. First is the issue of procurement. There are reports that the farmers are reluctant to sell their wheat on the government support price because flour mills are prepared to pay them more. This is only possible because the millers are able to smuggle, through an elaborate network, wheat to Afghanistan and Iran. With international price much higher than domestic, they are making windfall profits.

Is it possible to stop this smuggling? There is an argument that administrative measures are at best inadequate and that the only way to really stop it is to let the prices float according to the international market. No one can deny this but we will have a revolutionary situation if we let this happen here. The people would just not be able to buy atta at high prices and there would be trouble. Shahid Kardar is absolutely right when he says that if we can find a way of making cash transfers to the poor, the worst of the inflation can be combated. In India, they are still continuing with ration cards, which is another method of cash transfer. Whatever method we adopt, the price of atta cannot be allowed to rise unless the poor are protected.

We therefore come back to the problem of smuggling. If we can retain our crop within the country, some of the hardship can be alleviated. The federal and provincial governments would have to band together and put in place serious administrative measures to curb it. Then they will have to make sure that hoarding is checked. A number of distribution issues will also have to be resolved and this is only possible if serious focus is given to the food situation.

Another bit of bad news is that the Americans have started to squeeze the government by leaning on international financial institutions to stop disbursements of already committed funds. I believe that the World Bank has put its previously made pledges on hold and there is pressure on other bilateral donors to do likewise. The purpose is to make sure that there is no backtracking by the new government on its commitment to the war against terror.

With the financial situation already bad and getting worse, this creates another major challenge for the government. It also means that any new approach to the problem in the tribal areas would be constrained by American perceptions. If we chart an entirely new course that they do not approve, we will have to pay a serious price in the shape of restricted resources to begin with and more later. It would require deft handling to bring the Americans on board and still continue with a fresh approach to the insurgency on our western border.

The list of issues before the new government is long and I have just mentioned a few. It is imperative that the issue of the judiciary is resolved as soon as possible so that focus is shifted to tackling the real problems that confront us.

Source: The News, 18/4/2008

 Posted by at 1:03 pm

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