Uncertainty amidst apathy-By Tariq Fatemi

THE spectacle of the prime minister, as well as his key ministers and aides, being summoned by the party chairman to Dubai to discuss national issues, especially at a time of increasing turmoil at home, has left most Pakistanis angry and dismayed.

Political analysts could not help but recall the fanfare with which Prime Minister Gilani had spoken of introducing wide-ranging changes, on multiple fronts, within the first hundred days. Even if we knew that he was no Franklin Roosevelt (who though confined to a wheelchair embodied extraordinary physical courage and political resolve), the return of a democratic government had given rise to considerable hope and expectation.

Admittedly, the Gilani government assumed office in a crisis situation, with the country confronted by extremely serious problems on both the political and economic fronts. There is therefore some merit in the claim that the challenges confronting it would have tested even the most determined and resolute leadership. Nevertheless, since Gilani’s arrival signalled the restoration of an elected political dispensation, after nearly a decade of authoritarian rule, there was understandable pride and genuine happiness amongst people. The national euphoria was further reinforced when the two mainstream political parties that had been erstwhile rivals joined hands on a common platform in furtherance of democratic objectives.

It is however not only the PML-Q, as the current opposition party, that is critical of the Gilani government, going to the extent of issuing a White Paper cataloguing its alleged failures. Independent political analysts too are reaching the same conclusion and joining the many Cassandra-like voices proclaiming the government’s failure to come up with meaningful initiatives or to honour major commitments.

In the perception of civil society, it was the judges issue that had galvanised the opposition and accounted for the massive rejection of Musharraf’s supporters. It remains the one issue that could unravel this coalition, as Mian Sahib considers it the litmus test of the PPP leadership’s sincerity. The latter has however shied away from a meaningful initiative, seeking refuge in a constitutional package that is likely to open a Pandora’s box of fresh controversies rather than settling existing ones. This has not satisfied either its allies or civil society and left itself open to the charge that it is reneging on the much-heralded Bhurban Declaration.

However, according to credible analysts it is its conduct of the war on terror and handling of the economy that has exposed the government’s fundamental weaknesses and set alarm bells ringing. On the first count, the Gilani government appears torn between its desire to be tough with the militants, especially as this would improve its credentials with the Bush administration, and the need to cater to its coalition partner — the ANP — which favours a policy premised on negotiations with local extremists. We have therefore alternated between launching military operations and announcing ceasefires, leaving both sides equally confused.

Worse, there appears to be no sense of urgency at a time when Washington has sharply ratcheted up pressure on Pakistan, with major US officials claiming that America may need to carry out strikes on alleged “terrorist bases” in Pakistan, irrespective of whether we agree to it or not. Even Karzai appears to have joined the chorus of warnings. More worryingly, India too appears to be fishing in troubled waters, if the violation on the LoC is indicative of a change in Delhi’s thinking.

As regards Gen (retd) Musharraf’s future, there has been considerable vacillation on this as well. Statements such as the one in which Asif Zardari referred to Musharraf as a “relic of the past” were welcomed by the democratic forces, but their expectations were dashed by other statements indicating Zardari’s willingness to compromise on this issue.

The situation on the economic front is no less worrying, as it has impacted most negatively on millions of people who are barely surviving. Observers fear an economic meltdown, spurred no doubt by galloping inflation that has sent prices of essential food items through the roof. The budget deficit for 2007-08, targeted at four per cent of GDP, has actually increased to eight per cent while the balance of payments is also about eight per cent of GDP, which is the highest ever. The much-hyped foreign exchange reserves have also fallen from $16.5bn in October 2007 to about $11bn today while the trade deficit has soared to $20bn. Not surprisingly, international credit rating agencies have downgraded Pakistan and it currently ranks 87th in the list of countries with business prospects. This is reflected in the KSE index which has fallen by about 30 per cent. With an end to Shaukat Aziz’s ‘smoke and mirror’ economic policies, the chickens are coming home to roost.

As if in confirmation of this trend, Gen (retd) Musharraf has re-emerged, chest thumping, from his self-imposed break which he claims was the result of a well thought out strategy. He is obviously delighted at the negative press coverage of the democratic government, which he believes could help burnish his own record. Frequently referring to his commando past, he denies any intention of quitting office while asserting that the army would not abandon him. His performance was classic Musharraf, contemptuous as ever of the people and their views.

As if the stew being cooked wasn’t poisonous enough, the Bush administration stepped in to muddy the waters even further. Assistant Secretary Boucher, a frequent visitor to Pakistan, abandoned the usual pretence at diplomatic propriety when he warned our leaders to focus on the economy and terrorism rather than on Musharraf.

While the need of the hour is unyielding resolve and uncompromising commitment, sadly the government is lacking in both. There even appears to be a failure to recognise the dangers stalking it. Let the politicians recognise that they are on trial; their mistakes and errors could discredit democracy itself. If the people were to become disillusioned with the politicians, their faith in the democratic dispensation could be seriously shaken, in which case it will be the country much more than the politicos that will be grievously hurt.

Source: Daily dawn, 17/7/2008

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