Old wine, new skin-By Cyril Almeida

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EVERY political season produces its own mascot, a figure for comic relief amidst the darkness. ‘Tis the season of Shaukat ‘Over my dead body’ Tareen. Like Superman, Tareen is everywhere; unlike Superman, he can’t seem to save even himself from spouting rubbish, let alone the country from an economic meltdown.
Call him the violator-in-chief of the public record. His statements defy belief.

The floor of the stock exchange will be removed; unless it isn’t. Electricity tariffs will be raised; unless they aren’t. We need $4bn; until we need $10bn. Make that $15bn on a rainy day. Or $100bn if you’re taking cues from your political godfather, President Zardari. (Funny thing, in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery a clueless Dr Evil tries to hold the world hostage with a nuclear weapon for a $100bn ransom. Life imitating art? You decide.)

There’s more from ‘Over my dead body’ Tareen. Money will pour into our coffers; unless it doesn’t. The Saudis will give us oil; or perhaps the Iranians will. Banks have money; unless they don’t. Petrol prices will be decreased; until they aren’t. Power outages will decrease; unless they increase. The incidence of poverty is five per cent or 44 per cent or 26 per cent or 70 per cent — or whatever you want it to be really since accuracy is only important if the poor matter. They don’t. Inflation will be down to five per cent in nine months; unless it’s 95 per cent in five months.

The government has decided, yes, decided, according to ‘Over my dead body’ Tareen, to increase the tax-to-GDP ratio to 15 per cent. It will also tax agriculture and force investors to pay capital gains tax on real estate and stock market earnings. And, in case you missed it, a crack team of flying pigs will swoop in to take charge of the economy and overtake the Chinese by 2015, or within the next millennium. Oh, and those upstart Indians with their fancy rockets? We’ll put them in their place by growing a mountain of wheat and simply climbing to the moon.

What exactly is Tareen up to? How would he react if a VP at one of his banks stood up and spouted pie-in-the-sky figures and ideas? I’ll bet he would fire the man on the spot. Then why are we being treated to such fantastical ideas? Tareen isn’t fooling the market or the IFIs or foreign governments with his bluster.

It’s obvious Tareen hasn’t gotten to where he has by being naïve — so he’s clearly pandering to someone. Question is, who? Perhaps he’s concluded that the president likes to hear good news? Which would be very bad news for the rest of us, for the surest way to economic hell is to have the people in charge say the things their boss wants to hear.

Turns out, Pakistan is a poor country. Yes, really. Forget what your flat-panel TV, shiny new car, laptop, top-of-the-line mobile and gold credit card suggest — we were living the future these past few years. It’s a good future, one where the middleclass is rewarded for working hard. The sin wasn’t of the consumers coveting a better lifestyle, but of the financial architects who gave them a dream without knowing how to pay for it.

Now that we’ve seen the future, we have to figure out how to go back to it. The problem is that our government is like a rich man in a mansion who steals from his servants to keep up appearances. Tareen’s pabulum misses the point: rather than locking up the valuables, the solution is to take the rich man to a doctor. But therapy isn’t easy. Same goes for the economy: if reform was easy, Pakistan wouldn’t be prostrating itself before the IMF yet again.

You hear it all the time — structural change, institutional reform, systemic overhaul, top-to-bottom cleansing. What that all boils down to is fixing the system, which can only be worked towards by hunkering down away from the glare of the cameras and getting your hands dirty. That does not include polishing your sound bites and buying a bulletproof limousine.

About that limo Tareen has so proudly purchased with his own money (it’ll make a fine status symbol once he’s gone back to private life): how endangered are finance czars anyway? The job description essentially involves running the economy into the ground every decade or so — for what it’s worth, I’ll throw my hat in the ring for a measly Corolla.

Since nobody is serious about our problems, we have wacky new ideas bandied about as fix-alls. No cash for development? No worries, public-private partnerships to the rescue. Joe Stiglitz was on the ‘Colbert Nation’ recently joking about the secret of PPPs: the profit is private; the loss public. Sounds like that other PPP we’re more familiar with.

Fact is, this government inherited a balance sheet splattered with red ink. That is a cross that the Musharraf legacy will have to bear. But the change of guard at the finance ministry was badly botched. Three heads in six months is disgraceful — and cannot be blamed on anyone else.

There are some things that Tareen could do though. A damning institutional legacy of Musharraf is the breakdown in communication between the finance ministry, the State Bank, the SECP, the competition commission and sundry financial regulators.

Last year the Shaukat Aziz-Salman Shah combine capitulated to Musharraf’s demand to not rock the boat in an election year and allowed subsidies to explode, borrowing heavily from a state bank pursuing the opposite monetary policy. While Aziz and Shah didn’t rock the economic boat, they set it on a course that led to it being smashed on a rock, after they had jumped ship of course.

If Tareen is serious — and he has a good track record as an administrator according to people who have worked with and know him — this is an area he must urgently address. But will he? That’s a political question which can only be answered in the negative if he keeps publicly pandering to his boss.

And what about the poor, growing more poor by the day? They will have to take solace from the Beatitudes, the biblical promise that the meek shall inherit the earth while the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor. You see, everything in between belongs to the less spiritually privileged. That’s a reality even a crack team of flying pigs will struggle to change.

Final thought: is it just me or are we hurtling towards the depths of depravity? Inured to women being beaten, raped, maimed and murdered, 2008 has brought us the horrors of women buried alive and deliberately set upon by dogs. And for what? Sex and money. Grotesque as the women’s fate was, thank God for those amongst them who dared to love: in death they have proved there still beats a heart in the soulless carcass of this land.


Source: Daily Dawn, 31/10/2008

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