ANALYSIS: Conceptualising problems —Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi - Sunday, February 06, 2011

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There is no use lamenting external influence on Pakistan’s policy choices in domestic affairs and foreign policy. There is no country in the world that is absolutely free to do whatever it wants to do

A popular political discourse attributes Pakistan’s political, economic and internal security problems, especially civic violence and terrorism, to the outside world. The US and India are often accused of destabilising Pakistan. This perspective, widely advocated by the political far right and the Islamists, highlights the question: “Who has targeted us?”

External factors and players do impact Pakistan’s domestic context but these factors are played up so much that it amounts to externalising Pakistan’s internal problems, making it almost impossible to examine internal sources of the current predicament. There is a need to focus on another question: “What has gone wrong with us?” The strength to resist external pressures is acquired from within a state. Inner strength can be acquired only if we accept that we are also responsible for our problems. We need to focus on these sources so as to develop the capacity to resist external pressures and exercise policy options with greater autonomy. Pakistan’s strengths and weaknesses are primarily linked to its internal situation.

It is futile to expect that the rest of the world will pursue foreign policy to the satisfaction of the Pakistani government and Pakistan’s political leaders and parties. Each country pursues its foreign policy and adopts strategies to withstand the pressures generated by other states or takes appropriates steps to pursue its objectives and interests within an interdependent international system.

Pakistan’s capacity to charter an autonomous course of action in its internal affairs and interaction with the rest of the world depends on the strength of its economy, internal political and social cohesion, and minimum internal security and stability. The military security also relies primarily on these pillars.

There is little realisation in Pakistan’s political class that unless they work together to address the above mentioned issues, the international community cannot ‘rescue’ Pakistan beyond a limit to be determined by them. There is no use lamenting external influence on Pakistan’s policy choices in domestic affairs and foreign policy. There is no country in the world that is absolutely free to do whatever it wants to do. It has to pursue its national goals in an unequal and interdependent world. Pakistan’s sovereignty is not protected by confrontation with the west and India but by building up internal economic strength, political and social harmony, and promoting a knowledge-based tolerant society.

Pakistan’s current economy is heavily dependent on external economic assistance — grants and loans — and transfer of funds — remittances — by overseas Pakistanis. The socio-economic development programmes rely heavily on external support. This type of dependence limits Pakistan’s choices. Therefore, Pakistan has to shift the economy’s reliance from external to internal sources and cultivate a trade, investment and market-oriented relationship with the rest of the world.

The opposition parties need not derive grudging satisfaction from the federal government’s economic predicament. Pakistan’s ongoing economic decline, if not checked, will not merely cause the PPP-led federal government to fail but can cause the collapse of the Pakistani state. All political parties and societal groups are going to be adversely affected. The opposition parties would not be able to govern.

The federal government has decided to reduce the size of the federal cabinet. Punjab and Sindh’s chief ministers have also reduced a number of political appointees. This not only rationalises government spending and establishes a good precedent for economical use of state resources. However, Pakistan’s economic predicament is not resolved merely by reducing federal and provincial cabinets. More serious efforts will have to be made by the government, political leaders and society to salvage the faltering economy.

There are three sets of obstacles to improving the economic situation. First, the federal and provincial governments suffer from a crisis of confidence. Their capacity to enforce their decisions has declined tremendously. They lack political will to sustain their decisions because their overall poor performance in governance and political management has eroded the confidence of the people in the governments, which in turn has reduced their efficacy. The federal government needs to be more forthright and transparent in electricity-related affairs, petrol prices, price hike of kitchen items and the shortages of essential food items like sugar and wheat flour. The Punjab government has wasted state resources in the low price roti scheme. It is now embarking on an equally scandalous project of the ‘Danish Schools’, in less privileged areas. The federal government could not sustain the raise in the price of petroleum product announced on January 1, 2011.

Second, every political party is using the economic crisis either to reprimand the federal government or to make proposals that require the government to take steps at its own risk or suggest measures that protect their vote bank and build economic pressures on others. The MQM and the PML-N are totally opposed to the Reformed General Sales Tax (RGST) because it hits the trader-business community and others based in urban centres who are their voters. The MQM favours agricultural tax because the landed gentry do not support the MQM. However, the PML-N does not show much interest in agriculture tax because it gets votes from the landed gentry in Punjab. Further, the tax on agriculture is a provincial subject but neither the MQM nor the PML-N has presented a bill for that purpose in the provincial assemblies of Sindh and Punjab. However, the MQM uses this as a slogan.

Third, no political party is prepared to extend any support to the government for addressing the economic problems. They often make unrealistic demands and want the government to implement their demands instantly. There is very little realisation of the ground economic realities on the part of the political leaders.

Difficult economic decisions cannot be taken by the government alone. It needs the support of the major political parties because these decisions require economic and administrative restructuring. Unfortunately, the opposition parties and one of the PPP partner parties, the MQM, do not want any new tax, no increase in oil prices and no removal of surplus human power in state enterprises. Yet they want the government to ensure prosperity for the people.

If the political leaders do not mobilise the people for accepting difficult economic decisions, the government cannot opt for economic and administrative restructuring. The acceptance of some hardship at this stage saves the people and the country from economic and political disasters in the future. If the Pakistani state does not stay economically afloat, the whole political class will be the loser.

The writer is a political and defence analyst

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