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The Magic Wand

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By Humayun Gauhar

It was most uncharacteristic of former Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh to resign at the cusp of maybe elections. Speculation became rife. He is not the type to abandon ship about to reach port. His bosses like him. Conclusion: he must be the ruling party’s nominee for caretaker prime minister. For once, speculation is not off the mark.  But as the hackneyed adage goes, “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.”

The best outcome would be for Hafeez Shaikh as consensus candidate, else it would go to a multi-party parliamentary committee. If no consensus is formed there, names from the leaders of the House and the opposition go to the Election Commission for final decision. The EC is likely to select Shaikh, but you never know.

Whoever the caretaker PM is, if he is there only for 90 days his task sounds simple: to hold clean elections. But herein lies the rub, for the task is not so simple, not in a country riven by turmoil. There is so much bloodletting in large swathes of Pakistan that peaceful elections seem a pipedream. Then, our demographic profile is outdated because a population census was not held in 2008. How can you hold elections when you don’t even know how many people you have, their ages and addresses, the gender balance etcetera? Without a census you cannot delimit constituencies and create new ones to accommodate a larger population. Without up-to-date representation elections would be partially invalid ab initio.

Given this problem accompanied by political and economic turmoil and the urgent need for a fresh IMF programme that won’t come without a stable and sensible government, speculation is also rife that the caretaker might get a judicial extension to first undertake fast track reforms. The task then becomes even less simple. In that case Hafeez Shaikh is the best of the names being bandied about. He is young, honest, God fearing, humble, highly educated, well regarded in the international financial and diplomatic communities, understands both types of government, a consensus builder and peacemaker who likes to take everyone along because he doesn’t have an out of control ego.

Having said that, I repeat that it is best to let the system continue to evolve according to its logic: it will either self-destruct or correct itself if self-correction is in its programming and the people will learn more. It is more likely to self-destruct because development cannot take place alongside fake electoral democracy. Elections are not democracy, delivery is, and the governments this system throws up cannot deliver. After self-destruction, whatever system replaces it will have automatic consensus. Isn’t that better?

The problem is that Pakistan is at the brink. Fear abounds that the self-destruction of the system could take the state with it too. Thus the question: “What is more important, evolution of this decrepit system or the survival of the state?” My reply is that any unnatural intervention will make this system a martyr and prolong its life, as happened twice before. The only intervention that works is genuine revolution, not anarchy. The old standard operating procedure will not work and will leave us worse off. If you don’t have a good and doable agenda implemented by people who won’t cling to power for its own sake by becoming forced democrats, don’t even think about it.

One wrong step and Pakistan could fall over the brink, like many states older and more powerful have done. Better to let the system die its own death or correct itself and let the devil take the hindmost. God knows best.

Whoever the long-term caretaker PM, his agenda must be informed by the following, and more:

1.                  Return their eroded stake in Pakistanis to all stakeholders, the people, not their urban Mafiosi, feudal lords and tribal chieftains.

2.                  Hold a census and delimit constituencies.

3.                  Make far-reaching structural economic reforms, especially in the modes and relationships of agricultural ownership and production that put an end to feudalism. Easier said than done because such reforms are accompanied by short-term pain for all classes: we could have the ‘Revolt of the Robber Barons’ on our hands.

4.                  This must be accompanied by massive and sensible infrastructure investment that provides jobs and gets the economy going. If energy, communications and water needs are met accompanied by stability, security and sensible interest rates, investment will start coming in. Official usury must end to motivate investors.

5.                  Close the trade gap: increase exports by strengthening value added agricultural products and reducing unnecessary and wasteful imports.

6.                  Our three biggest imports are petroleum, tea and edible oil. We can’t do much about the first. But the other two can be reduced substantially by taking the people on board and educating them that edible oil and tea are bad not only for their health but the country’s health too.

7.                  Document the economy, bring the growing, vibrant informal economy into the tax net and increase government revenues. It would double official GDP.

8.                  Either eliminate income tax altogether and replace it with more sensible indirect taxes or bring agricultural incomes into the income tax net.

9.                  Consider making the Identity Card the Tax Card too and have the same number for both, with different colours for those eligible as taxpayers and those outside the tax bracket and renew them annually. This will require devolution down to the constituency level.

10.             Reform revenue collection, throw out the corrupt and make a small, honest, lean and mean team. The fewer the taxes the easier to beat corruption.

11.             Remove contradictions in the much-mutilated constitution and undertake reforms to make our political system truly democratic and people friendly. The best would be one in which parliament and executive are totally separate from one another by holding direct elections for the chief executive on the basis of one person one vote with a second ballot for the two frontrunners and then letting the winner select his own team from the best and the brightest. So too a second ballot for parliamentary elections.

12.             If new provinces have to be made, let them be made throughout the country and not in one province only and on the basis of economic viability, not divisive ethnicity. Then undertake delimitation.

13.             Strengthen and empower the police and remove all bad eggs.

14.             Make modern education with one system and curriculum (allowing for provincial needs) a top priority.

15.             Educate people in population control. Our birthrate is our biggest time bomb: if not diffused it will put all other reforms to naught.

16.             Rationalize the judiciary and strengthen it with enough judges at all levels so that thousands of cases don’t remain pending while time is wasted on constitutional and political cases.

17.             Democratic regulation of the electronic media but with proper regulations and oversight and implementation without eroding press freedom. Right now, a ratings hungry media is often wittingly or unwittingly spreading discord and disharmony: ‘Fitna’ and ‘Fasad’ are great sins in Islam for they divide the community.

Some oppose making Hafeez Shaikh caretaker prime minister because the economy is in decline, without regard to the global economy being in recession, turmoil in our region and the presence of fake democracy that won’t allow for economic reforms for fear of losing votes. We remain true to our time-honoured tradition of finding scapegoats for collective mistakes as if only one man is responsible and another would have done wonders with his magic wand.

We have had three finance ministers preceding Hafeez Shaikh during this ‘democratic’ government. The third bequeathed us the National Finance Commission Award in naive good faith that leaves the federal government little while humongous amounts are diverted to provincial governments that don’t have the capacity or honesty to use it correctly. All they are worried about is fancy schemes that will get them votes come the next elections. Forget development.

Compare this to Sindh when Hafeez Shaikh was its finance minister. He inherited a deficit that he turned into surplus. What was his magic wand then? His boss was General Musharraf unburdened with the need to get votes and win elections. That was Shaukat Aziz’s magic wand too. Musharraf knew his limitations and let his economic team get on with it. They took a clinically dead economy out of the grave. Things started going awry after the West gave Musharraf a democracy injection and he got burdened with the need to win elections. The slide began. And therein lies a tale.

Now I don’t mean that we need military dictatorship again. What I’m saying is that we need a genuinely democratic system that works.

Came ‘democracy’ and federal finance minister Hafeez Shaikh was burdened with bosses ‘democratically’ elected by small electoral colleges. It is in the genes of this wretched British parliamentary system that any structural adjustment that necessarily entails pain is automatically rejected by political bosses seeking reelection. Out goes good long-term planning, in come pointless optics. Therein lies the difference. That, ladies and gentleman, is your magic wand.

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