Pakistan faces an existential threat not from external enemies but from its own parasitical elites that thrive on its body sucking its blood and strangling the state slowly to death. Writes Waseem Shehzad.
The Western perspective on Pakistan is limited to its utility as a conduit for US-NATO weapon supplies into Afghanistan, fighting the West’s war on terror that has now become a war of terror, and using Pakistan as a scapegoat for all the West’s foreign policy failures. As far as the people of Pakistan are concerned, they are of no interest to the West. They are viewed as awkward interlopers standing in the wasy of the “lofty goals” — democracy, freedom and other goodies — the US dispenses globally. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is mutual hatred between the people of Pakistan and the West, especially the US, which is seen as the principal cause of much of their misery.
If a survey were conducted in Pakistan to ask people whether they are better off today than they were a year, two years, four years, or even a decade ago, it is virtually certain few people would give a positive response. Irrespective of how one defines “better off,” Pakistanis are reeling from multiple crises. The social compact has collapsed. The state exists only in name and only when it wants to create problems for the people. As far as providing any services is concerned, the state machinery has broken down completely.
This is not to suggest that Pakistan lacks resources or talent. Its people are industrious and willing to take risks but the ruling elite is so thoroughly corrupt and incompetent that it is seen as a major hindrance to the country’s progress. Had it been involved in the management of industry, it would have been sacked a long time ago. Its only concern in life is to put its grubby paws on whatever resources it can get.
The list of Pakistan’s ailments is long. It would be tedious to recall all the negatives but certain bitter facts must be faced. For more than six decades, the elite has tried to force nationalism down the throats of people; this has resulted in creating more divisions in society. Nationalism is a concept alien to Muslims; the Qur’an talks about the concept of one Ummah, rising above ethnicity, tribe, language, class or caste. What the Pakistani elite has achieved through this artificial construct since 1947 is a heightened sense of provincialism. Thus, most Pakistanis think of themselves as Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis or Baloch. Even within these narrow confines, the Punjabis usually go with castes and beraderis. The same holds true for most people in other provinces.
Such divisions can be further sub-divided. In Sindh province, for instance, there has emerged — or it was deliberately created to serve certain vested interests — the muhajirs. These are people whose forefathers came from India at the time of partition but they still call themselves muhajirs and are unwilling to tolerate the presence of other Pakistanis, especially those that have migrated from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province (formerly called the North-West Frontier Province). The industrial city of Karachi has become a battleground for an odd assortment of groups where turf warfare is waged on a daily basis. There is the Muhajir-Pathan conflict; the Sunni-Shi`i conflict (mostly narrow-minded salafi-type Sunnis killing Shi`is) and even Deobandi-Barelvi conflict (both groups are Sunnis but cannot tolerate each other), all tearing the fabric of society. Each group is driven by hatred of the other, not by any higher purpose to achieve anything positive in society. There is widespread belief among many Pakistanis that such conflicts are deliberately instigated by the elite to keep the ordinary people busy in their internal problems while the elite continues its plunder.
While the people in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province live in fear for their lives because of car and suicide bombings (there was one on December 22 that killed provincial minister Bashir Ahmed Balore and eight others) and kidnappings, in Balochistan, there is a low-intensity insurrection underway. The rulers allege such problems are being instigated by outside forces. There is no doubt some truth in this assertion but have they not contributed to this state of affairs by their own short-sighted policies? And what have they done, if anything to confront the external forces that are creating havoc in Pakistan?
When the human body’s immune system becomes weak, it falls prey to viruses and bacteria, making it sick. Similarly weakness in the social fabric of society creates openings for external forces to interfere. Numerous external forces have invaded the Pakistani body politic like viruses making it sick and therefore, weak and vulnerable. Unless Pakistan’s immune system is strengthened, it will continue to succumb to such alien invasions.
The cohesion of the Pakistani people is what constitutes its immune system and working toward a common set of goals will strengthen it. Pakistan’s dilemma lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of its people want to go in a direction different from what the ruling elites are pushing them into. This has created a state of permanent tension in Pakistan. Let us consider some examples. According to recent polls (Pew Research and others), at least 74 % of Pakistanis consider the US government as their enemy. The rulers and the greedy elites cannot imagine life without American support and patronage. People hate the government of the United States for what it is doing to ordinary Pakistanis — drone attacks, terrorist operations, Blackwater mercenaries roaming freely and killing at will — while the rulers cannot do enough to ingratiate themselves to Washington’s overlords. With such dichotomy, how can Pakistan move forward?
Let us enumerate some of the commonly heard complaints of ordinary Pakistanis. During winter months, they do not get gas to heat their homes or cook food. In summer’s blistering heat, there is no electricity so people cannot run air conditioning units to cool themselves. Industrial units have either shut down or been moved out of the country because of lack of basic facilities. Industrial production has been badly affected. Prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed and ordinary people cannot make ends meet while the elite live such an extravagant lifestyle that it would be the envy of most people in the West. It should come as no surprise that in some instances frustrated people have to resort to violence to equilibrate the balance of power and use of resources. Many observers wonder why the masses have not staged an uprising so far to consign the corrupt rulers to the dustbin of history. According to all empirical evidence, Pakistan is ripe for a revolution.
Let us consider some other indicators. At least 60% Pakistanis suffer from food insecurity. This despite the fact that Pakistan produces 36 million tons of grains but consumes only 28 million tons, as Asma Razzaq, writing in the Business Recorder, reported in October 2011. So what happened to the 8 million tons of surplus grain? Feudal lords are disproportionately present in the government and occupy both houses of parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate). These feudals have vast land holdings and pay no tax on the agricultural produce. The government buys wheat at much higher prices than the market rate. The argument used is that it acts as incentive to the land holding elite to produce more to feed the people. If so, why is there such widespread poverty and hunger in Pakistan?
By purchasing grain at much high prices year after year, there is a net transfer of the country’s meagre resources to the feudal lords while the prices of basic food items such as wheat flour, bread, and cooking oil, etc. are kept artificially high and therefore, beyond the reach of the majority. According to the Pakistan National Nutrition Survey for 2011, sponsored by UNICEF, 44% of Pakistani children under the age of five are stunted because of malnutrition. Food deficiency in a grain surplus country like Pakistan reflects what is wrong with the decision-making process and why people are not only hungry but also getting angry.
The elite is not only incompetent but also thoroughly corrupt. There is little long-term planning even in policies that are fundamentally sound. For instance, more than a decade ago, a new policy was instituted to reduce import of oil to make gasoline; this was replaced by compressed natural gas (CNG) to be used in vehicles. Pakistan produces only a few thousand barrels of oil but has plenty of natural gas. Besides, CNG is less polluting than burning gasoline in vehicles — cars, buses and trucks. The plan was launched with much fanfare by the dictator General Pervez Musharraf. He presented himself as a great “reformer” and “modernizer.”
To use CNG, vehicles had to be equipped with special engines. The government promoted import of such equipment and issued thousands of licenses to open CNG stations. Both the import permits and licenses for stations were issued to people linked with the ruling elite. They made tons of money very quickly. In order to encourage people to switch, the government also kept the price of CNG low. The program was a huge success; in fact, far too successful. Within a decade, Pakistan has 3.5 million vehicles using CNG as fuel. These vehicles have to compete with power plants, fertilizer companies and other businesses that rely on the fuel.
The country is now gripped by an acute shortage of CNG. Long line-ups of vehicles at stations have led to tempers flaring up. What has caused this latest crisis? In October, the Supreme Court, the only institution that aggrieved parties can turn to for redress, examined the pricing structure of gasoline and CNG and determined that station owners were gouging people. State regulators then drastically dropped the maximum price at which CNG station owners could sell fuel. This immediately resulted in at least 1,800 of the country’s 3,395 CNG stations closing. The government closed another 800 stations for not paying their bills. The chaos that has ensued is the natural consequence of such mismanagement and corruption that pervades every facet of life in Pakistan.
According to Pakistan’s Petroleum Institute, the country’s energy consumption has grown 80% over the last 15 years. Again, gross mismanagement and a large number of customers, many of them elites and their cronies, not paying bills has contributed to the crisis. There is also widespread theft and losses due to inefficiencies across the energy grid.
If this were the only area of mismanagement, the people could live with it. Financial mismanagement and massive theft from the national treasury by the ruling elites and their cronies are depleting whatever little reserves the exchequer has. The International Monetary Fund estimates Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves at $12 billion. This will only cover three months’ imports. In addition to external borrowing, the government has had to go with a begging bowl to the country’s banks. In the first 7.5 months of the last fiscal year (July 1, 2011–June 30, 2012), the government broke the previous full year’s record by borrowing 674 billion rupees (US$7.4 billion). The country’s debt now stands at $130 billion. Considering that Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $211 billion, it is pretty close to bankruptcy. The elites live in the hope that the West, especially the US, would not allow Pakistan to default on its loans because of its unsettling consequences on the global financial system. The West might be reaching the point of getting tired of Pakistan’s self-inflicted problems and may call it quits.
This tragic situation has arrived because of the massive corruption that eats away at the vital organs of state. This is not mere allegation. The chairman of Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Admiral (retired) Fasih Bokhari revealed at a press conference in Islamabad on December 6 that Pakistan loses somewhere between five to seven billion rupees a day (in dollar terms it comes to $51 to $72 million). “This is the average data I’m giving you,” he told reporters. Even if we take the lower figure, it would amount to $18.6 billion annually. This is an astronomical figure for a country; even at $51 million losses a day, this equals 11.34% of the country’s total GDP.
The NAB chief outlined how the losses occur: from leaks, corruption and incompetence, tax losses, land grabbing, loans and defaults, overstaffing, energy losses, project delays, cost overruns, administrative costs and foreign exchange outflow. Each of these would require detailed explanation to understand the depth of corruption that pervades every facet of society.
Let us consider just one aspect: taxation. The tax base in Pakistan is so low as to be non-existent. Only 260,000 out of a total population of 180 million paid tax consecutively for the last three years, according to the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). Most politicians who earn billions of rupees each year hardly pay any tax. Nawaz Sharif, who served as prime minister twice, is just one example. He hardly pays 6000 rupees per year in tax.
Similarly, Pakistani President Asif Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto seldom paid taxes. Instead, throughout their lives, they gained notoriety for massive corruption. There were multiple corruption charges against the couple in Switzerland, Italy, Britain and other countries. Zardari was called Mr. 10% when Benazir was prime minister. Now he is known as Mr. 90%; this is the percentage of bribe he takes on any deal he approves.
How did such a corrupt and venal character assume the highest office in Pakistan? Through a political deal in 2007, Musharraf amnestied 8,000 people, including politicians, to escape charges related to 3,478 cases ranging from murder, embezzlement and abuse of power to writing-off bank loans worth millions of dollars. What this meant was that corrupt politicians like Benazir and her even more corrupt husband Zardari were granted amnesty. This deal was facilitated by the British and Americans to enable Musharraf to share power with Benazir. Unfortunately for her, Benazir was killed on December 27, 2007 before she could participate in elections.
The Supreme Court overturned the amnesty in December 2009 but Zardari continues to occupy the presidential palace where he dishes out favours to party members so they remain faithful to him and the party. Pakistanis will go to the polls sometime in early 2013. Not many people hope there will be major changes in the political landscape as the country is slowly strangled to death by a large number of parasites that thrive on its already weakened body.