COMMENT: To save a sinking ship —Zafar Hilaly - Friday, January 21, 2011

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Ordinarily, a government with the record of this one would have been sent packing. However, today, no one seems to want the job. It is not that they cannot do better, it is simply that they feel that the illness is terminal and they do not want to be around for the last rites

Better-known Pakistan watchers like Stephen Cohen give Pakistan, at best, another six years before it disintegrates. The Indians are already celebrating our impending demise and do not really think we are worth engaging any longer. Manmohan Singh recently stated that “it is wishful thinking” to hope for improved relations, in a conversation with a columnist of The Washington Post. M J Akbar has apparently written an obituary for Pakistan, to the launching of which he invited some Indian ministers who were gleeful at the prospect. Many others think we are already dead or in our death throes.

Pakistanis naturally discount what their adversaries say but no one has quite worked out, convincingly, how we will survive if things carry on as they are. Moreover, the Americans, who keep us afloat with their assistance, are apparently themselves about to be hit by the most massive economic meltdown in their history, far surpassing the depression of the 1930s. Signs are evident as the trashing of the dollar suggests — it has already lost eight percent in value over two years — where, seemingly, the end of the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency now beckons.

This will mean that the US, already the most indebted country in the world, will no longer be able to print money to sustain its profligate lifestyle and, for a change, will have to produce and sell more of its products to earn its keep. An unlikely prospect considering that the US has the highest corporate tax rate in the world, the cost of setting up a business in the US is exorbitant and the tax laws are stifling. Another sign of the US’s rapid economic descent is that only four American companies presently have the triple A Moody’s rating as opposed to a dozen or more that existed only a little while ago. Furthermore, 42 million Americans cannot feed themselves and are relying on food stamps and nearly 40 of the 51 states are bankrupt, some of which have put buildings housing their state legislatures up for sale to make ends meet. The unemployment rate, which is officially nine percent, is more in the region of 13 percent if those who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits are included, as they should be. In other words, with its main benefactor itself in dire financial straits and unable to help, Pakistan faces an almost insurmountable array of difficulties.

Corruption has seldom plummeted to the depths it has today, the economy is bankrupt and our economic managers are up the proverbial creek without a paddle, radicalisation of the populace is gathering momentum, parts of the country are out of the government’s control and anarchy prevails in its major city, Karachi. Such is the international and domestic situation both politically and economically that a perfect storm is brewing. And lest some should feel we may, by some chance, be able to overcome the fury when it finally strikes, we have the two ‘flukes’ at the helm of the ship. Whoever else fortune favours, it certainly favours fools in Pakistan.

Ordinarily, by now, a government with the record of this one would have been sent packing. However, today, no one seems to want the job. It is not, mind you, that they cannot do better — they can hardly do worse — it is simply that they feel that the illness is terminal and they do not want to be around for the last rites. Meanwhile, the vast populace, unread, unversed, illiterate, hungry and desperate with no one to turn to on earth, is turning to God.

Predictably, the mullah, seeing his chance, is making a grab for the public’s affection. Sanctimonious humbug pervades his preaching. Foul-minded perversity rules his thoughts. But today he has the bit between his teeth and means to run with it. Pancho Villa, the great Mexican revolutionary (some insist that he was nothing more than a bandit), in a telegram to his adversary, the Governor of a Mexican province, warned thus: “I, like you, think that the greatest enemy of our progress and liberty are the clergy.” To that one would add, in our case, the political charlatans and their bureaucratic toadies.

As so often in the past, the people await deliverance. They are casting about to discover who will bell the cat. It seemed at one time that the other parties would rise to the task but fearing perhaps that the entire system may perish along with the government, they backed off. Instead, they prefer to gorge themselves at the public’s expense and help the regime across the finishing line in another two years time, battered and bruised perhaps, even dead, but no matter. It is poetic justice that perhaps the most incompetent government in our history will be the first one to complete its term in office. No one, henceforth, can say that Pakistanis have no sympathy for the underdog. In fact, we appear prepared to risk the future of our country for it.

Of course, the real reason is that this time there is none waiting in the wings ready to pounce. And, perhaps, that is just as well. The military not only has its hands full but cannot afford to take its eye off the ball in the ongoing war. Besides, it is far better doing what it was trained to do than running the country, Musharraf’s boasts notwithstanding. But what it can do, which would be helpful, is throw its weight around somewhat more, and when necessary, against those policies of the government that are not working, especially when it comes to the management and administration of the country, the two sciences of which most politicians are clueless.

In other words, running Pakistan must be a joint enterprise encompassing all the pillars of the state, including the judiciary. Rather than sit on the fence and point fingers, they should roll up their sleeves and join in. They can easily do so not by usurping power but by suggesting, in an appropriate manner, how, when and where it is best exercised. They should consider themselves a part of ‘Team Pakistan’ and not an entity created to function within a narrow and confined orbit even as the country goes down the drain. The men of the military are a great resource and, while naked and unrestrained ambition that some of their chiefs have displayed in the past was truly a vice, ambition can be the parent of much virtue when properly directed.

The writer is a former ambassador. He can be reached at

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