Tuesday, 29 January 2008

On Economic Miracles

Having been viciously struck down by the flu, I have been unable to blog much in recent times, even though there has been a great deal of grist for the mill.

By now the myth of Musharraf's economic miracle has been pretty much punctured, but just in case one wants some more details on the topic, here is some interesting reading:

An Interview with the economist Qaiser Bengali from The News which can be found here at Watandost.

An article from Dawn on the atrocious decline in Pakistan's social indicators as measured by the Human Development Index.

Just below the above article, in the same issue of Dawn is an article about the officially sanctioned abuse of public funds by the previous government even as food inflation reduces the purchasing power of ordinary people. One, amongst many startling figures noted in the article; "A report in this paper on Oct 23, 2007 said, ‘Government spends Rs 65 million on overseas treatment of 18 bigwigs’ and ‘that too in a country where the public per capita health expenditure is a measly Rs 360’." Yes, you read that right, the government spent Rs. 3,611,111 per head for the treatment of 18 rich members of the ruling class, while its average expenditure on the layman was Rs. 360 ($5.7) per person, most of which is not spent on treatment, but on infrastructure (building maintenance, electricity bills, the health ministry, etc.). To make further sense of why this happens, I refer you to my earlier post on how the state serves the elite, while failing the poor.

Finally, here is a report that the Caretaker Prime Minister, Mohammad Mian Soomro, has had to form a committee to "ascertain the accuracy, reliability and credibility" of the economic data put forward by the previous government. It seems, not unsurprisingly, that some of the data broadcast by the previous government as 'proof' of their economic achievements has proved to be unreliable. Surprise, surprise!


Edit: And on top of it all, here is an article in today's issue of The News about Pakistan's social sector and an analysis of the weaknesses of its social policy.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Great People To Fly With

This may have been a great PIA ad campaign in 1979, but I suspect it would not be received well these days...

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

State Failures

Much ink has been spilt over whether or not Pakistan is a failed state. The question, I think, is somewhat misleading, because few who argue one side or the other of the question care to think about what the functions of the state in Pakistan are. Given that the state apparatus was created to promote and protect the wealth and power of a small segment of society, can its inability or unwillingness to promote the welfare of the rest of society be accounted a failure?

Leaving such questions aside, there is no doubt that for a great number of people in Pakistan, the state continuously fails to provide them with the bare basics of what is expected from any modern state. This was vividly illustrated in the sad case of Mudassar Alam.

Mudassar Alam was a 14 year old resident of Hyderabad who on 21st November was punished by his 4th grade teacher in the government school he attended reportedly for not doing his homework. He was beaten, then forced to do 100 sit-ups. When he complained of severe abdominal pains, the teacher believed he was making excuses and forced him to continue with the corporal punishment. Afterwards, in severe pain, he skipped out from school and went home, where his parents became worried and rushed him to the nearby government hospital. According to a media report, "He was catheterized for not being able to pass stool or urine", was "suffering from acute low blood pressure and very high pulse rate" and his "Intestine were jumbled and perforated, and turned blackish due to blocked blood circulation."

The doctors at the government hospital operated on the boy, but pus developed in the wound in his perforated intestine and he had to be operated on a second time. After almost two months in hospital, the boy passed away. As for the quality of the medical care received by Mudassar, it is worth mentioning this quote from the boy's father on his death:

""On Thursday when my wife complained to on duty doctor that her son is oozing some whitish liquid from his mouth doctor didn’t pay attention and said it normally happens. But when his condition deteriorated and nurse examined him he had lost his life by then,” the weeping father said."

The father, by the way, was an agricultural worker, who worked in a nearby banana orchard. He lost his job the day he took his son to hospital and was replaced, because of course, there are no labour protection laws that apply to the vast majority of the poor in this country.

Initially no action was taken against the teacher who resorted to corporal punishment. In fact, he tried to pay off the family with a bribe of 15,000 rupees in return for a statement from them saying that the boy had been seriously ill before he had come to school that day. To force the parents of the child into compliance, he threatened them with his "contacts" in "intelligence agencies". It was only after the case was reported in the media [about two weeks after the incident] that the government's Education Department finally stirred itself into suspending the teacher and launching an inquiry. A month and a half later, the inquiry still has not reached any kind of conclusion. The Education Department however, did say, that they could not offer any kind of financial help to the student or his family.

Taking this as a test case, it is clearly apparent that the state failed in the provision of education, failed in the provision of healthcare, failed in the provision of justice, failed in the provision of labour rights and finally failed to exercise self-accountability in order to guard against future failures. Interestingly enough, the specter of the "intelligence agencies" were also used as an instrument of coercion in an attempt to hush up the incident, though ultimately this failed to silence the affair - perhaps because the teacher's connection to these "intelligence agencies" was fictional. Had a more well-connected personage been behind the incident, we may have seen the state succeeding in doing what it does best - serving the interests of the elite.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Cracking Up?

After the assasination of Bhutto, I argued that while the country was heading for [even more] political instability, it was not in danger of breaking up. I did add the following comment though:

"This is not to say that our political leaders might not still manage to drag the entire nation into chaos - its possible I suppose, given the state of affairs and the seemingly miraculous ability of our political leaders to really make a mess of things. However, that will require some effort and a whole series of mis-steps."

Well it certainly seems as if the first of those mis-steps have now been duly taken by our erstwhile leaders. How? By playing the ethnicity card.

The prime culprits are the PML-Q. Perhaps realizing that their opponents in the PPP are pretty much going to sweep rural Sindh, they seem to have decided to jettison any hope of winning there and have resorted to whipping up hatred against Sindhis in order to bolster their hopes in other parts of the country. The Chaudhries and their party have, among other things, accused Sindhis of being responsible for all the violence following Benazir's death, have alleged that all the victims of the violence were Punjabis, Mohajirs and other ethnic groups, have alleged that ethnic cleansing was carried out by Sindhis during the violence and have called for government financial assistance for those who lost property in the violence to only be paid to non-Sindhis.
With great hoopla, the PML-Q set up a 'refugee camp' in Lahore to house Punjabi refugees supposedly ethnically-cleansed from Sindh.

During the violence several trains were stopped on the tracks and burnt after rioters forced their passengers to disembark. Railway signals were also destroyed. This brought the country's railroads to a halt, with thousands of passengers stranded at small stations in the interior of Sindh without food or shelter for several days. Since the violence occurred only a few days after Eid, the trains had been packed with people returning from holidays with their families to their places of work - a large number were people from homes in the Punjab and NWFP returning to Karachi. The PML-Q has also given this disruption an ethnic flavour, presenting it as violence against Punjabis. The image of trains under attack particularly resonates because it was one of the features of the violence of Partition - violence that was especially severe in the Punjab and memories of which still linger in the national consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, there were sensationalized reports of the rape of Punjabi women by Sindhis - as always the spectacle of the 'others' threatening 'our' womenfolk is always a guaranteed crowd-puller in a society dominated by notions of machismo and honour. Given the problems the PML-Q is having pulling in crowds for their election rallies, its not surprising they have turned to these kinds of tactics to counter the so-called 'sympathy wave' that is expected to benefit the PPP following Bhutto's death.

The ethnicity card has been heavily criticized by human rights activists, members of the PPP and the PML-Q's coalition partner, the MQM. Even the Punjabi Students Association of Sindh has condemned the irresponsibility of the PML-Q.

Needless to say, the government is silent on the issue.

Having said all this, one should keep in mind that the rhetoric of ethno-nationalism is not new, and certainly not the sole purview of the PML-Q. The Baluch insurgency has long been fueled by talk of Punjabi domination. It was once a mainstay of shrill MQM rhetoric, [though these days it tends to be muttered under breath rather than announced in election speeches] and many Sindhi politicians complain about a Mohajir-Punjabi nexus that dominates the government and economy. Benazir Bhutto herself stirred the pot a couple of days before she returned to Pakistan in October by making a very inflamatory statement at a press conference in Dubai about how after a coup the military hanged her father, a Prime Minister from Sindh, but allowed Nawaz Sharif, a Prime Minister from Punjab, to live in luxurious exile. [Which of course begs the question, did she think Nawaz Sharif should have been killed as well, just to make things fair?]

It has been a long time since one has heard the level of hate-speech and calumny that one is now hearing in the country. One can only hope that better sense prevails and that the various political figures stop digging their fingernails into the cracks that are appearing in the Federation. But its not just the rhetoric that has to change. To a large extent, these trends are the reflection of a national political process that is severely damaged and a strong sense of alienation from the state which is felt by large sections of the populace. People who can sense that the state does not operate in their interests are more open to the suggestion that it operates in the interests of people of another ethnicity.


The scenes of carnage outside the Lahore High Court after the suicide bombing there on Thursday were truly shocking. Quiet literally, a pile of dead and injured policemen. One has to wonder what kind of victory this is for those who had it carried out. A political assasination has some kind of twisted logic to it. But this?

The pity of it all...

Friday, 11 January 2008

Who Killed Bhutto? [Part II]

And the rumour mill has, as usual, gone wild, with all sorts of conspiracy theories making the rounds regarding who killed Benazir Bhutto. Some claim it was Musharraf. Some claim it was her husband, Zardari. Some allege it was the Chaudhries. Some claim it was part of a larger American plot. No, others claim, its actually an Indian conspiracy....

As addicted as we are to conspiracy theories, I suppose it was inevitable that these kinds of conspiracy theories would proliferate. But the circumstances of the medical report and outlandish claims by the government immediately following the assassination have added grist to the mill. Its sad really.

Here is a STRATFOR article, reprinted at Teeth Maestro's blog, summarizing the political situation in Pakistan and examining the theory that Musharraf had something to do with the murder. It very rightly points out that Musharraf had everything to lose and little to gain from Bhutto's death.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Anatomy of A Dynastic Succession Struggle

A week ago Asif Zardari was in the political wilderness. Right now he is riding high as the premier political figure in the country. How did he get there and perhaps more importantly, will this state of affairs last?

That there were many in the PPP hierarchy close to Benazir Bhutto who detested Zardari is no secret. That they blamed Zardari and his corrupt and thuggish ways for staining Bhutto's reputation and alienating both popular and political support is also well known. During Bhutto's second tenure as Prime Minister, Zardari was appointed to the cabinet with the environment ministry portfolio - a post which shuffled him out of a say in important decision-making while allowing him to collect bribes in return for the no-objection certificates every building, mining and industrial project requires from the Environment Ministry before getting underway.

But convicted of corruption, Zardari was jailed and only recently released by Musharraf as part of the political deal Musharraf was making with Benazir Bhutto. Zardari high-tailed it to Dubai where it was widely expected that he would remain, with no role to play in the coming elections or any kind of future Bhutto-Musharraf government. The PPP inner circle was reputedly happy with the arrangement.

Then came the assassination.

The revival of Zardari's political fortunes is the result of several factors, which include the pressures of a modern TV news media, the nearness of elections, Benazir Bhutto's style of absolutist politics within the party which eliminated any source of power within the party outside of that of her own Bhutto name, and the personality-cult brand of leadership so deeply rooted in South Asian cultures.

In the days immediately following Bhutto's death, Zardari was thrust into the media spotlight in a manner which none of the senior PPP leaders could match. As Bhutto's husband, all the political leaders of Pakistan, from Musharraf to Nawaz Sharif contacted him to commiserate. The live media coverage of the emotional scenes of the funeral procession, burial and ceremonial prayers all depicted Zardari at the forefront - the rest of the PPP leadership was lost in the crush of the crowd. Media reporters constantly wanted to speak with and interview Zardari - he became the focal point of attention and spokesperson for the grief and loss felt at Benazir's death.

Using this media focus on him, Zardari pushed to the forefront his son Bilawal. The Bhutto name was one that the inner sanctum of the PPP found hard to deny. Efforts to bring in other Bhuttos, such as Benazir's sister, Sanam Bhutto failed. Efforts by other branches of the Bhutto family, such as Benazir's uncle, Mumtaz and sister-in-law, Ghinwa, who Benazir had already sidelined and isolated in her own earlier succession power struggles were also unable to press their own claims.

If the PPP operated as a rationalised bureaucratic institution, power should have fallen to Makhdoom Amin Fahim - who held the second highest post in the party after Benazir. However this was a post Benazir had continually undermined when she led the party, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim had been appointed to it exactly because he had low standing in the party and was known for his loyalty and not for his capabilities. A too capable man would have been too much of a threat. Makhdoom Amin Fahim would have opposed Zardari's power grab but was unable to rally the rest of the party around him. Though he did come away from the meeting as the PPP candidate for Prime Minister, even this was made clear to be a temporary state of affairs.

Its interesting to note that one name that so many people were hopefully bandying about, Aitazaz Ahsan, the former PPP minister who championed the cause of the Chief Justice, was a non-starter for the post. As the PPP high command met in Naudero, he remained under house arrest in Karachi - confined, as he has been since September, for the crime of having represented the Chief Justice in Court. Aitazaz Ahsan had been effectively exiled from the inner circle of the Party by Benazir for having become too popular a figure in his own right, rather than as an adjutant to the Bhutto name.

The news conference held after the meeting of the PPP leadership at Naudero was informative almost as much for the body language of the PPP leaders and how it proceeded, as it was for what was said.

Bilal was placed in the middle and made a short, uncomfortable and stiff speech. Makhdoom Amin Fahim, in his slow plodding way tried to answer a question and was swiftly crowded out by a swift-talking, confident and assertive Zardari. He spent most of the news conference silent, sulking as Zardari took control of the proceedings. Zardari shut down any further questions to Bilawal by saying he was still at a 'tender age' and emphasizing his inexperience and unpreparedness to lead.

So what will the future hold?

The Insider Brief asks if the PPP will survive and opines that it will in a rather superficial analysis. The Pakistan Policy Blog asks more pertinent questions about the PPP's future, but offers few answers, and one blogger feels that a challenge to Zardari may be mounted not now, but down the line, by a formation coalescing around Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Jr. Another possibility is that there will be a renewed attempt to rally around Makhdoom Amin Fahim within the party to keep Zardari at bay. The hope in that case would be that if the PPP can win elections and Amin Fahim can position himself as Prime Minister, the post of Party chairman would become diminished. The problem with this hope is that there are a great many 'if's in the equation. It is quiet possible that, with the elections having to be delayed, Zardari will become the PPP candidate from Bhutto's constituency - and once he is elected, he may well angle for the Prime Ministership himself, or even another candidate in order to sideline Amin Fahim.

One thing is clear; the succession struggle is not yet over. So far only the first round has been won by Zardari - an emphatic win to be sure - but one in which he was helped by circumstances. It remains to be seen if his position is secure.

Edit: I should really make it a point to look into the International Herald Tribune more often. This article is a very interesting dissection of Zardari's ascension.