Party politics or national interest? - Najam Sethi - Sunday, February 13, 2011

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Time is running out on the 45-day deadline given last month by Mr Nawaz Sharif to President Asif Zardari for the implementation of an extraordinary 10-point agenda to set things right. What happens when, not if, most of Mr Sharif’s demands are shrugged away by the PPP government? Also, it is equally important to determine the intrinsic validity of these demands in order to ascertain whether Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari are both playing “politics as usual” or have national interest uppermost in mind.

Mr Sharif says the federal government must freeze the prices of “basic goods and services”, especially oil and gas products, and end “load-shedding” of gas and electricity. But this is simply not possible in the short-term. The prices of “basic goods” are linked to domestic and international market factors, exchange rates, foreign exchange reserves, money supply, subsidies and support prices to farmers. The prices of oil and gas, and the necessity of “load-shedding”, are related to the current stock of oil, gas and hydroelectric resources of the country – which cannot be significantly changed quickly – no less than the inability of the government to cough up the money to clear the circular debt or stop massive thieving in the sector.

Mr Sharif wants Mr Zardari to “eliminate corruption” by sacking “those ministers and government officials who are accused of corruption and replace them with reputed and clean people”. A noble objective, this is certainly doable. Should accusations alone suffice to fire people, especially in a charged environment where passions and prejudice are running high?

A case in point is the forced resignation of the MD PIA at the behest of violent union mobs protesting a complex financial proposal that has neither been signed nor fully understood by most objectors. But the weight of history must be reckoned with, especially in the personal case of Mr Zardari, no less than the PPP government, both of whom have been dogged by credible corruption charges on all three occasions when they have been in office. Therefore, the intervention of the Supreme Court in such matters is beneficial. The sacking of Raja Pervez (Mr Rental Power) from the Oil and Gas Ministry is timely, even though the retention of Mukhdum Amin Faheem as Commerce Minister is a concession to real politik rather than any stubborn denial of his inefficiency or tainted persona. Mr Sharif wants the PPP government to “recover all bank loans that were written off due to political pressure”. Again, a noble objective, but one that is both complex and double-edged, as the lawyer representing the State Bank of Pakistan has deposed before the Supreme Court. It is complex because most of the loans in question were written off when the loan-disbursing banks were in the public sector but have since been privatised.

Digging the record and perusing the true intent behind each major write-off, many of which are part of complex legal deals worked out with NAB, will require Herculean efforts by a trained team of banking experts. This can’t be done arbitrarily. Also, there will be questions of the legal propriety of deals done in privatised banks which are directly accountable to their board of directors and investors rather than to the public at large. Last but not least, many write-offs may fall in the grey zone between political influence and genuine financial distress of the party in question, a problem that is not amenable to swift justice.

Mr Sharif wants Mr Zardari to “implement all the decisions of the Supreme Court, including those pertaining to the NRO and the question of President Zardari’s immunity from prosecution in a Swiss Court for money laundering”. While it is evident that the government has been dragging its feet in areas where implementing the SC’s decisions, especially regarding various appointments, are likely to hurt its prospects, it is absolutely clear that Mr Zardari has no intention of enabling his very own government to sign his political death warrant in Switzerland. The matter is pending in the SC and has the potential to derail the government and the political system.

Mr Sharif is demanding a neutral and fair NAB and Election Commission. This requirement is truly in the national interest even though it is also in favour of Mr Sharif’s party-political interest and against Mr Zardari’s. When the boot was on the other foot, Mr Sharif’s NAB equivalent of the Ehtesab Bureau was the most discriminating, even vindictive, accountability organ on record. The NAB’s political record during General Pervez Musharraf’s time was only slightly better since no generals or judges were touched. Much the same can be said of previous Chief Election Commissioners and Commissions. Each was constructed or elevated to serve the interest of the ruler at hand. Therefore, unless the SC has its way on both counts, we should not expect Mr Zardari to quickly throw in the towel.

The government has been tasked to significantly reduce its expenses and downsize the cabinet. Some half-hearted efforts in this direction are noticeable. If the media could do some homework and pinpoint the most outrageous cases of unwarranted expenses – such as luxury cars, sprawling houses and unacceptably generous perks and privileges to friends, cronies and pro-PPP bureaucrats – we might be able to get some belated action on this front. But left to itself, the government is not likely to budge.

Mr Sharif wants “national institutions like PIA, PSO, NHA, Civil Aviation and KPT to be revamped and made profitable”. This is easier said than done. He was prime minister twice and did nothing to clean up the mess which has since piled up. Indeed, these corporations are inefficient, corrupt and unprofitable because they are run like employment agencies and sinecure centres for party loyalists. If truly competent professionals were to be appointed to lead these organisations, they would start by sacking at least half of the staff and shuttering down against government sifarish and pressure. But with unemployment soaring, which elected government will demonstrate the courage to downsize, especially without the financial resources to offer golden handshakes? Which judge will not favourably look upon angry petitioners seeking “stay orders” against their sacking?

Indeed, even where golden handshakes were offered in the past, the best and most competent employees took the offer and exited, leaving behind the dregs of the corporation to ruin it further. Privatisation is also, theoretically speaking, an option. But each major privatisation to date has been dogged by corruption and lack of transparency. Worse, even when corruption was not an issue, employee unions and courts have stepped in to sabotage sovereign guarantees, entailing further financial and credibility losses on the Privatisation Commission.

Defending and enhancing “national interest” in the murky world of Third World parliamentary politics, with secret military agencies and foreign powers jostling for resources, influence or space, is a tall order. Neither Mr Zardari, nor Mr Sharif, nor the centralised, first-past-the-post political system in vogue, is equipped to do the job. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.

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