The release of the annual report of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) was accompanied by the usual fanfare, including a very deliberate assertion absolving the Pervez Musharraf regime of any responsibility for the dramatic increase in poverty in recent years that the report begrudgingly acknowledges to be the conspicuous feature of the present economy. This admission follows long after the report congratulates the Musharraf economic team for improving macroeconomic performance significantly. It is pointed out that this improvement will provide the basis for a genuine effort to address the huge poverty problem.
The Musharraf tenure, like most periods of rule that have preceded it, has been characterised by a healthy rhetoric about the “revolutionary” changes that are being wrought by the government. The popularly propagated notions about economic recovery stand out in this regard. Despite the acute increase in poverty that has taken place since October 1999, the government has continued to insist that the economy is back on track and that it is a matter of time before the benefits of macroeconomic recovery trickle down to the wretched masses. That there is no evidence to suggest that the long-awaited trickle-down effect will materialise is another matter altogether. In any case, “revolutionary” changes in the economic sphere are just the tip of the iceberg. The consistent feature of all of the “revolutionary” changes that have been brought about, in the economic sphere or otherwise, is in their total and utter commitment to the status quo.
In the first instance, how can one ignore the fact that so many sitting cabinet members were on the Musharraf hit-list for quite some time after the 1999 coup? Sheikh Rasheed, Aftab Sherpao and Faisal Saleh Hyat were all proclaimed corrupt offenders who were to be given exemplary punishment in the name of accountability. But then again political horse-trading has become a regular feature of the country’s political landscape, so perhaps we should ignore the fact that these offenders redeemed themselves quite miraculously, and focus instead on the genuine “revolutions” that have taken place in the life of the ordinary Pakistani.
Over the past four years, we have heard a great deal about the incredible changes that have been induced by the newly created local governments under the vaunted devolution of power programme. It is said that this exercise has produced a new face of representative politics at the grassroots, yet another initiative that will eventually lead to massive tangible benefits to the ordinary Pakistani. But there is some time before this revolutionary step does bear fruit however—the government has admitted that poverty-related expenditures remain lower than stipulated on account of bottlenecks in the functioning of the new local governments.
But just for the record, what has been the devolution experience? As far as ensuring smooth functioning of the October 2002 election and victories for the ruling PML-Q party, the devolution exercise was very successful. But why digress again into the realm of political engineering? Instead, let us consider what devolution has brought to the people of this country. As such, the local governments, and particularly those at the lowest tier, are still waiting for trickle down of finances so as to actually meet the demand of their constituents. That is of course, if the local governments are in any way, shape, or form, independent of the local elite from whom the devolution exercise was meant to confiscate power. In fact, far from confiscating power from the local elite, the devolution exercise has largely consolidated power in the hands of the elite. There is virtually no district nazim (nazims are heads of the new local government system established by President Musharraf under the Legal Framework Order) who does not hail from an old influential family. Therefore, to expect that service delivery at the local level is all of a sudden free from the patronage-based traditions that dominate Pakistani society is wishful thinking. Indeed, the devolution exercise has reinforced existing social structures and provided a whole new legitimacy to local elite groups, some of whom were struggling to maintain their control over societies in which elite power bases are being quickly eroded.
In the absence of comprehensive realignments of social and economic power at the local level, it is difficult to imagine the outcome of any election being too different from that of the local government elections in 2001. And since the confident land reform promises made by General Musharraf soon after assuming power have given way to Prime Minister Jamali’s assurances that land reform is not part of the government’s agenda, it is clear that comprehensive alignments of power are not about to take place anytime soon. And so, speedy justice to the doorstep and all of those other good things that were premised on the success of devolution will just have to wait.
One other significant promise made by the Musharraf government was that it would strengthen the Pakistani federal structure and address the nagging problem of provincial autonomy. As the discord over sharing of river waters has proven, there have been no revolutionary changes on this front either. In fact, the genuine concerns of working class Pakistanis who face acute water crises are even less likely to be addressed than ever given the fact that the dispute over water “rights” tends to completely overlook the nuances of water availability and access within the provinces for marginalised groups.
Finally, it is worth examining the claim that de-politicisation of state institutions would take place. Even pro-army commentators in Pakistan now find it difficult to defend the manner in which the army has politicised state institutions to a degree that was previously unimaginable. Between the hundreds of army officers—serving and retired—running civilian institutions, and the sheer nepotism that characterises decisions about everything from issuing of contracts, building golf clubs, and picking inept cricketers to represent the country, it is clear that state institutions are worse-off than ever, hardly responsive to the needs of citizens.
The army high command has succeeded in proving that the army does truly enforce its will on anyone and everyone, while rendering all mechanisms of accountability completely useless. And the army has also done all the favour of proving that “elected” governments in this country have never truly been independent of the khaki veto, further disillusioning ordinary people about the possibility that the political process offers them some hope.
In the midst of all of the mendacity, the government has recently decided to once again ban certain religious groups. The three entities that have been banned in the first phase of the “re-banning” are all groups that were previously banned and have since taken on new names and reorganised rather painlessly. That all it took for them to continue on with their operations was to change their names reflects how serious the government was in the first place, and why to expect any “revolutionary” changes on this front is as naive as to expect them on any other front.
So at the end of the day, the rebuilding of national confidence and morale, the first of the seven points of General Musharraf’s famous initial agenda, which would have potentially represented the most revolutionary step of all, remains a pipe dream. Among other things, there is an urgent need to reconsider the now very common practice of misrepresentation, as the SBP report attempts to do by shifting the burden of blame for poverty away from those currently occupying positions of responsibility.
It is true that every government, regardless of type, makes tall claims to have addressed the critical problems facing the polity. But given the background of General Musharraf’s ascendance to power, and the persistent accusations that his government has made about the mess that was made by previous rulers, it is inexcusable that so many “revolutionary” changes are taking place that are exacerbating the massive problems that existed well before General Musharraf assumed the reins. More than ever, this regime resembles the dictatorial and self-serving ones that came before it.