Sunday, April 20, 2008

The beat of a different drummer

By Irfan Husain

I HAVE often thought that even at the best of times, Pakistan is one of the most difficult countries in the world to govern.

And this is certainly not the best of times. Rising food and fuel prices are threatening the stability of poor countries around the world. In Pakistan, years of military rule and Islamic militancy have taken their toll, leaving institutions enfeebled.

The recent riots in Multan, where the local utility company was targeted by mobs driven to rage by long power breakdowns, is a sign of things to come. In the last decade, not a single megawatt was added to the national grid, and the economy and the population are suffering as a result. Clearly, this is going to be a long, hot summer.

Add to this the sharply rising food prices, and you have a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Already, flour has hit the unprecedented price level of Rs40 a kilo in certain parts of the country. As a result, people are having to go to bed hungry.

The explanations given by ex-prime minister Shaukat Aziz for both crises are truly bizarre. He is quoted as saying that ‘his’ government underestimated how fast the economy would grow, and therefore did not invest in increasing electricity production. As regards food prices, he maintains that wheat storage and distribution are a provincial issue, and he allowed the export of 800,000 tons of wheat last year as there were adequate stocks. No wonder he is now out of the country, and the PML-Q is out of power.

Given the scale of the problems facing it, the new government has its work cut out. Thus far, it has shown all the caution of a person trying to tiptoe his way out of a minefield. Certainly, jettisoning the worst elements of the noxious Pemra rules that governed the electronic media is a welcome step. But the government needs to do a lot more before it gets bogged down in the infighting and the rivalries that so often bedevil coalitions.

Already, the goodwill generated by the reconciliatory words and actions of the PPP is being eroded. The whole issue of how to deal with the reinstatement of the chief justice is testing the patience of the coalition partners. Musharraf’s political future is another factor causing uncertainty.

Above all, the MQM remains the joker in the pack. Its constantly changing posture and its inconsistent policies are a reflection of its leader’s personality. The recent show of force it allegedly staged in Karachi on April 9 was a reminder — in case anybody had forgotten the massacre of May 12 last year — of who runs Karachi. The fact that newspapers and TV channels fear exposing this party, and just how it won the seats it did in the February elections, is a reflection of the methods it uses.

And yet, despite the distaste many people feel in having to do deals with this group, the fact is that it does have a stranglehold on Pakistan’s biggest port and financial capital. Ultimately, power derives from the ability to deny access to an essential commodity, as witness Opec and its control over oil. The MQM’s ultimate power rests on its ability to shut down Karachi at will.

It is in implicit recognition of this stark reality that the PPP offered the MQM a share in the Sindh government, despite having an unassailable majority in the provincial assembly. But the MQM is insisting on more than the ministries it is being offered. It is now demanding a veto over who the government appoints as head of the police. We can rest assured that the list of its demands will only grow over time.

The truth is that with Musharraf’s active support, the MQM pretty much called the shots in Sindh for the last six years, even though the PPP was the largest party in the province. Understandably, its leadership is having a hard time coming to terms with the changes that have taken place in the political scenario since the February elections.

Given the questionable activities of many of its members, the party has an obvious interest in who runs the police. Similarly, the grip it has acquired over the local councils in urban Sindh now appears distinctly shaky. Almost certainly, the new government will review the entire system of devolution Musharraf has imposed on the country, given its ill-conceived premise and the lack of support it enjoys among the major parties.

Despite their reservations, the more pragmatic leaders in both parties need to put their personal dislikes aside. The country is delicately poised, and if it is to overcome the looming crises it faces, there must be unity among the major players.

For the PPP, popularity in rural Sindh and southern Punjab does not permit it to rule comfortably. The fact is that in developing countries especially, governments are made and brought down in the cities. It has thus reached out to representatives of Pakistan’s rising urban middle class. But while the PML-N is now effectively in control of Punjab, with a large role in the centre, the MQM is the big loser, together with the clerics of the MMA. The PML-Q was never really a party but was created by Musharraf to serve his purpose.

Unfortunately, over the years, the MQM has conducted itself in a manner that has made it thoroughly distrusted by most mainstream politicians. It is controlled by somebody who has not been in the country for over 15 years. And it has hitched its fortunes to Musharraf and the Chaudhries, all of whom are now in decline. If it is to play a constructive role in the coming days, it needs to conduct an internal debate to decide its position. To its credit, it has remained true to its secular principles. But it cannot continue to negotiate for a slice of the cake while holding a gun to Karachi’s head.

Clearly, Karachi cannot march to the beat of a different drummer: it has to sink or swim with the rest of the country.

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