Hanging by a thread - Shafqat Mahmood - Friday, October 01, 2010

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

Brinkmanship is the name of the game in our blessed land. The government makes threatening noises to take on the Supreme Court and then subsides at the last minute. On its part, the court seems ready to deliver the ultimate blow, and then becomes "cool as ice and deep as an ocean," in the words of the chief justice.

The game does not stop here. The military, according to the New York Times, has given an ultimatum to the government to clean up its act, or else. What if Zardari and company say no or dawdle about doing a bit here and a bit there, leaving their crony core intact? Will the generals cry foul and pull the plug on them?

It is turning out to be an intricate chess game and Zardari is a good tactical player. He may not be wise, in the sense of understanding the larger scheme of things, but he is canny. He is good at calculating what others can or cannot do and has no shame in beating a hasty retreat if things become hot.

He understands well that the space for the military to take any drastic action has shrunk after nine years of Musharraf. It has not disappeared, but Zardari knows that the generals' ability to dictate terms is relatively circumscribed. He would give in if he sees a red line but is quite ready to blithely ignore pre-danger yellow signals.

It would be a judgment call for him to figure out whether the latest pressure from the military to improve governance is the last chance saloon or not. His prime minister does not think so because he is not ready to fire any allegedly corrupt minister. Is he being foolhardy, or is this the party line?

There is little doubt that some sort of crunch time is approaching. The military is deeply perturbed about the state of the economy, and it is not the only one. There is a deep sense of malaise in the country about what lies ahead. Inflation is projected at 25 per cent; investment is at a standstill and government on the verge of bankruptcy.

Not all of it is due to corruption in high places, but add incompetence to this and it becomes a lethal combination. The new economic team led by Hafeez Sheikh has good credentials with Nadeem Ul Haque in planning and the superb addition of Shahid Kardar's steady hand at the State Bank. The question is, will they be given space to turn things around?

A terrible bleeding wound are the state-owned corporations, and it is here that corruption in high places is having a serious impact. The power sector is the worst, with WAPDA taking the lead in questionable practices. The Steel Mills saga is widely known. The story of its pillage is a textbook study in loot and plunder. PIA is virtually dead and on life support.

One can go on and on. Every state enterprise of this poor nation has been a happy hunting ground for crooks. Virtually on a daily basis, the newspapers report one shenanigan after another, but no one in government is bothered. The recent appointment of a jailbird crony by the prime minister with no qualification as head of the OGDC indicates a certain contempt for public opinion.

There is little doubt that this state of affairs is having a serious impact on the economy. People and politicians are corrupt in many countries of the world, but their economies are stronger and can easily absorb corrupt practices. Obvious examples are Japan, Italy and even India, where what the corrupt politicians take away is a miniscule proportion of their economy. In Pakistan's case, it is significant because the cake is smaller.

The million-dollar question is how can this paradigm be changed? No one wants democracy to suffer, even the military, from all accounts. There seems to be no stomach within it for any kind of overt intervention. It has understood very well after long years in power under Musharraf that it has no magic bullet to solve the nation's problems. It is good to see generals now freely acknowledging privately that they have little training or know-how to rule the country.

The media has been shouting about corrupt practices from the rooftops but is having little impact. It imagines itself to be the new player in the power equation, but if the politicians develop a thick skin and are willing to live with the barbs thrown at them, it becomes impotent. It has no answer to being ignored.

In theory, the ultimate game-changers are the people. If they rise up and demand better governance, the rulers cannot ignore them. But there seems little chance of any kind of concerted movement on their part, crushed as they are under the weight of inflation and the sheer struggle for survival.

The politicians in opposition like Nawaz Sharif, who would want a change in the style of governance if not the government, are apprehensive about damaging the system if they push too hard. Any attempt by them to mobilise the people seems unlikely.

This brings us to the last resort, the judiciary. The Supreme Court has been pushing in all directions. It has shot down dubious appointments and through suo moto actions has stopped many a corrupt practice. In the process it has taken some negative propaganda, but it has persisted.

The problem for it is that it is in the end a moral institution with certain constitutional powers, but no ability to enforce its writ if the government of the day decides to ignore its directives. This has been the case for a while now and the NRO decision is a classical example.

Irrespective of whether it is a good or a bad judgement, the government of the day has no choice but to implement it. This the Zardari team has refused to do and the impatience in the court is increasing. If nothing substantial comes out by Oct 13, the outcome for Gilani and company could be serious.

One last piece of the puzzle in our context is the attitude of the Americans. According to the New York Times article, if there was any soft spot in the past for the Zardari regime in the US, it no longer exists. With a fair amount of American money in the pipeline, they--and their allies in Europe and Japan--are very concerned about corruption and bad governance.

It has taken a while, but now the military, the judiciary and the Americans seem to be on the same page. This combination of forces in the Pakistani context is a lethal brew. It would be wise for the Zardari-led PPP government to recognise that the time has come for it to clean up its act, or it will be curtains.

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