YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY
After covering a distance of some 3500 kilometres through the length and breadth of the country, a 'flag march' organised by the youth wing of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League reached Chaghai, the site of the Pakistani nuclear tests, on 16 December. The aim of the march was to get the nation to carry on celebrating what the government terms as its greatest achievement, although for all practical purposes the party has long been over.
For the last few months, the discourse has resolutely shifted to the ruthless world of economic realities. Even the Urdu press, known for its rancorous sloganeering over non-issues, has been writing endlessly about the imminent economic collapse. Interestingly, the only one who is not talking about money matters is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the very man who won an unprecedented electoral victory in 1997 on an economic agenda which promised to turn the country into another Asian tiger.
This gloomy atmosphere is a far cry from the euphoric days that followed the tests in mid-1998. The government initiated a campaign of celebrations to mark Pakistan's becoming the seventh declared nuclear weapon state and claimed that Pakistan now belonged to a different club altogether.
Euphoria suddenly changed to rage with the US missile strike on Afghanistan and Sudan in August. People were once again on the streets. This time accusing the government of conniving with the US against the mujahideen in Afghanistan because the missiles had passed through Pakistani airspace and also because an American general was having dinner with Pakistan's army chief when the missiles were flying over Pakistan. Religious parties, which had been in the forefront of the nuclear celebrations, bombarded Sharif with death threats and fatwas.
But the prime minister was not to be cowed. He took the old and tested rabbit of religion out of his hat and in September announced the introduction of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, although ostensibly aimed at making the Qur'an the supreme law of the country, sought to concentrate the powers of the judiciary and the legislature in the hands of the executive.
The government's decision backfired almost instantly. Far from being appeased, several religious parties accused the government of using Islam as a smokescreen to hide its own failings and to prepare the ground for the ultimate 'sellout' that was to come in the shape of signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The government was able to get a truncated version of the bill passed from the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, where it enjoys a two third majority, but has not yet presented it in the Senate, the upper house, where it lacks a similar majority.
Then in November, Sharif dismissed his own government in Sindh province and imposed federal rule following the murder of Hakim Mohammed Saeed, the octogenarian former governor of Sindh. He sent in the army to try cases of terrorism. Mainly against his former ally in the provincial government, the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM), accusing it of the Hakim's murder and involvement in other murders, torture, extortion and various illegal activities.
All these games were played out against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis created by the huge outstanding debt that Pakistan can no longer service. This debt is more than the country's annual GDP and servicing it takes away more than 50 percent of its export earnings—a situation that had been gravely aggravated by the stoppage of all foreign assistance following the nuclear tests and which had brought Pakistan to the brink of default on its debt liabilities.
Hopes were momentarily revived when Prime Minister Sharif and US president Bill Clinton met on 3 December. When the US lifted the sanctions a day before the meeting, spin doctors in Islamabad began to claim that relations between the superpower and its old ally would soon be on even keel just like the good old days. These claims were based on the assumption that the US would not be able to ignore a declared nuclear power. However, it soon became clear that the US was in no hurry to pull Pakistan out of its economic crisis. An IMF board meeting on Pakistan scheduled for December was postponed till January, further deteriorating the country's credit rating.
As Pakistan enters the new year as a declared nuclear weapon state, its security is tied more to its begging bowl than to its nuclear armaments. All eyes are on the meeting of the tit board, whose resumption of loans arc to work as the cornerstone of an international rescue package of USD 5.5 billion. In return. Islamabad is supposed to deliver on the promises it is believed to have made to the US over acceptance of nonproliferation instruments.
The aid money will provide but a breather to Pakistan's weak economy since it will be used up instantly in meeting the huge debt-servicing needs. At the same time, accepting the strict conditionalities that are likely to come attached to the aid package may prove politically expensive for the government. Agreeing to the IMF's structural adjustments will make life miserable for the common man and signing the CTBT or agreeing to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) will bring the religious lobby out on the streets again. Worst of all, the government will seem to be bargaining on national security the way it has defined and for which it has made the nation suffer so much.
The reality that sovereignty has more to do with economic conditions than with bombs and missiles has struck home. Without an immediate bailout from international financial institutions, Pakistan may fall into the default zone, which would destabilise the country to a dangerous level. Economic indicators already indicate a doomsday scenario. The State Bank of Pakistan. Which claims to have only USD 500 million of hard currency reserves, owes more than USD 800 million on account of freight, dividends, insurance premiums and swap funds. Exports fell by 12.5 percent in the first five months of this financial year while imports have slumped by 20 percent, which means a fall in revenues and reduced economic activities.
As an analyst pointed out. to avoid a default. the government of Pakistan may have to accept a trade-off between its strategic goals and its economic survival. But time may he running out even for such a swap.