The cost of political expediency - Hussain H Zaidi - Monday, March 19, 2012

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If for nothing else, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party deserves accolades for completing four years in the saddle. This in itself is quite an achievement, given that the average life of an elected government in the country is under three years. Isn’t it?

At the time when the government was installed, back in March 2008, few really believed that it would go this far. From the word go, it was predicted that the political setup would be sent packing before its first anniversary. From time to time, dates were given for its exit. During these four years, the ruling party has passed through one crisis after another.

It has been charged with massive corruption and bad governance, making a mess of the economy, turning a deaf ear to the grievances of the masses and going back on the promises that it had made to the electorate.

The validity of such charges aside, politics is the art of the possible and the rulers’ survival shows that they’re well-versed in this art. Not only have they survived, they’ve also thrived and now taken control of the Senate.

Politically, the government’s greatest achievement has been keeping the allies at its beck and call. The ANP and the MQM have been the PPP’s coalition partners. The MQM, of course, has parted ways with the PPP on more than one occasion, only to return to its fold after some time. There’s an inherent conflict between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Pakistan People’s Party, representing as they do urban and rural Sindh, respectively. But the MQM is well aware that in order to remain in power it must go with the PPP. Had the MQM been in a position to topple the PPP government in Sindh, it would have done so a long time ago. So the party should either continue to be a PPP ally or sit in the opposition.

As for the ANP, which is governing Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in coalition with the PPP since March 2008, its present leadership had never tasted power before. The lure of enormous perks and privileges that power confers has been too strong for the party to even think of ditching the PPP.

Detente with the PML-Q-once termed Qatil (killer) League by none other than Mr Zardari himself for being allegedly involved in the assassination of his wife-has been a prized scalp for the PPP. With Mr Nawaz Sharif not keen, if not unwilling, to mend fences with his estranged friends. And Moonis Ilahi finding himself in the dock on corruption charges, from which only the PPP government could provide extricate him, it wasn’t too difficult for the Chaudhry Brothers and their PML-Q to figure out which way they should go.

The PPP government has delivered on several accounts. It got rid of the dictator, reinstated the judges, drew up the National Finance Commission Award, purged the Constitution of several distortions, clipped (at least in theory) the powers of the president, granted greater autonomy to the provinces, decided to liberalise trade with India and fought the militancy. So far so good.

But the economy remains the Achilles’ heel. The last four years have seen a dangerous combination of low growth and high inflation. On average, the GDP has grown by just 2.9 percent, while average inflation has been 15 percent. On top of that, the fiscal deficit has remained around seven percent of the GDP.

Paradoxically, political expediency, which has otherwise paid the ruling party so well, has held it from coming out with a definitive set of actions to shape up the economy. At the time of the floods that devastated the country in 2010, the federal finance minister had expressed the optimism that the havoc wrought by the calamity could provide the impetus for taking some tough economic decisions. However, that optimism was grossly misplaced as, for political expediency, the government has consistently shied away from taken such decisions.

Pakistan has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios-nine percent-and there’s no way an economic turnaround can be brought about without that level being pushed up. In a population of 180 million, the number of taxpayers is only 1.7 million, the majority of whom are salaried people whose contribution to the national exchequer is deducted at source. Most of the eligible taxpayers either wholly evade taxes or the amount they pay is just peanuts. These include several of our frontline political figures. The governments-past and present-have been remarkably consistent in their failure to widen the tax net and milk some holy cows (the landed gentry, for instance). It was the failure to undertake the agreed fiscal reforms that led to Pakistan’s premature exit from the IMF programme in September last year.

Technical matters aside, raising tax revenue is above all a matter of political will in which our ruling class is markedly deficient. Not long ago, all political parties of note had joined hands in getting the 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments through parliament. It’s a pity, they can’t agree on shoring up public revenue.

Pakistan has a handful of white elephants in the form of loss-making public-sector enterprises (PSEs), such as PIA, the Railways, and Pakistan Steel Mills. In March 2008, upon entering his office the prime minister had announced his decision to restructure the white elephants to make them profitable as well as efficient. But a turnaround of none of the PSEs has come through. Instead, they have gone downhill mainly because appointments in these enterprises have been used as a means of extending political patronage or rewarding some old friends. The government is apprehensive of the political cost that a shake-up of the PSEs entails but is not alive to the enormous social and economic price that the entire nation is paying for their deterioration.

A large section of the population remains homeless and shelter-less and lacks access to safe drinking water and basic health and education. A large number of people face starvation every day and are forced to sell their organs or their children to barely survive. This is in sharp contrast with the lifestyle of the political elite who own palaces and apartments, villas and farmhouses in some of the most expensive places on the globe, maintain hefty bank accounts in dollar, euro, franc and pound, send their scions to the best academic institutions in the world, drink imported water, drive bullet-proof cars and go abroad for medical treatment even in case of headache. Don’t such glaring contrasts bring out the government’s failure?

The country is facing an energy crisis. Prolonged and frequent power breakdown and shutdown is normal. And what’s the government’s solution to the problem? The people only need to reconcile themselves to the fact that energy load-shedding is unavoidable.

It’s not that the present breed of rulers are demons and sinners, while their predecessors were all angles and saints. It’s not that they are a dismal failure, whereas those before them were all success. However, the important thing is to admit one’s failure and failings, instead of harping on alleged conspiracies against democracy.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email: hussainh

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