Fooling our own
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Shireen M Mazari
On almost every issue, clear cut state policies seem to be either non-existent, or contradictory when operationalised. Much is already being said about our confusion over the nature of our domestic terrorist threat -- how much of it emanates directly from Al-Qaeda, now more of a brand name for a terrorist "coalition of the willing" decentralised network, and how much of it is rooted within the domestic landscape of Pakistan itself? Confusion has made it difficult to have a holistic and unambiguous anti-terror policy with the result that we often seem to be fire fighting and reacting to the increasing and ever more deadly acts of terrorism, rather than conducting a proactive, long-term policy. This is similar to the confusion and ignorance that has surrounded US policy in the context of the so-called global war on terror, which is now degenerating into more of an US imperialist war against its detractors. So all in all, there is a lack of cohesiveness and clarity on the political front in terms of the terrorism issue.
But equally damaging is the lack of clarity and cohesiveness on the economic front in terms of foreign investment and trade policies. The results are devastating not only for civil society in terms of the shortages of food staples, but for the country as a whole in strategic terms. First, the wheat issue. The government's total lack of sensitivity to the plight of the common person is reflected in its refusal to punish the hoarders, despite having a list of the fifty main ones. But then why should one be surprised. Sugar barons have and continue to rule and dictate terms to the farmers and their identities have been well known for over a decade now. The people have tended to suffer in silence and the calculation this time is also that people will show the same tolerance and fortitude in the face of influential business lobbies and criminal hoarders. Of course, the calculations could prove wrong this time round since wheat shortages have been compounded with electricity, gas and water shortages and price hikes of almost everything from utilities to foodstuff. Add to this the almost daily deaths from acts of terrorism and one really wonders just how much the poor Pakistani is expected to bear before he reaches his culminating point of tolerance?
However, the wheat issue is not simply the result of profiteering by a few influential criminals. It is also the result of deliberately manipulating wheat production figures so that large-scale wheat export could take place -- as well as smuggling with impunity. The previous government allowed wheat exports knowing full well the production and wheat stock figures were fudged. But in the period of the grand sale of Pakistani assets, there was a free-for-all in terms of not only selling off all available state assets, regardless of the terms, but also exporting foodstuff regardless of the shortages that would follow. That is why we have had the disaster of KESC and the wheat shortages. But who will hold the guilty accountable?
In the grand sale of all things Pakistani, we also handed over Gwadar Port to the Singapore Port Authority --with ne'er a thought for our Chinese friends who risked life and limb to develop this facility at a time when no one else was interested. For once the Dubai entrepreneurs were outflanked by the Singaporeans! But we are now discovering the costs in terms of reported delays by the Singaporeans over the development of this port. Is it deliberate given that the US is not keen to see Balochistan developed or is it that the Singaporeans are not particularly interested now that the Chinese have been sidelined? Whatever the reason, Pakistan is going to lose the initial advantage it should have had in developing Gwadar, simply because of the delay in the completion of this project. Again, who will examine what has gone wrong and why?
The most glaring example of confusion over trade and investment is reflected in our dealings on the issue with India. At the declaratory level we have officially stated that MFN status for India, access to India across the Wagah land route and investment agreements are all linked to seeing some progress towards conflict resolution on some of the outstanding political disputes. In India, the aim is to push for trade access first. Even within Pakistan there are lobbies that fall in line with the Indian approach but some of us do feel that the declaratory policy has much merit in it. The problem though is that on the ground the government has moved away from this policy in a freewheeling fashion, which is giving Indian business and investors' unprecedented access to opportunities in Pakistan, while Pakistanis are being denied the same in India.
How have we come to this one-way benefit for Indian business? To begin with, as has been reported in earlier columns, Indians are purchasing property in Lahore and its environs as well as businesses through front men and businesses registered in Dubai. Singapore or Britain. Through this clearly visible indirect route, and also through a more direct route at times, Indian nationals and businesses are openly involved in investment projects in Pakistan. I recently met a most affable Indian who visits Islamabad every two months since he is building the Intercontinental Hotel in Islamabad. Similarly, Mahinder Tractors is selling to Pakistan through Millat Tractors via Singapore.
Even more interesting, a Dubai-based company, Astra Netcom has been given a project to build a communication tower in Karachi and the businessman in charge is an Indian citizen, Rakesh Gupta, who travels frequently to Pakistan on a SAARC visa. More disturbing in security terms is the fact that his company has also been given the project to upgrade the PAF computer system. Needless to say, Mr Gupta is extremely well connected in Pakistan. In Karachi, one sign of direct Indian investment is the opening of the Indian coffee chain, Café Coffee Day. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Nor is information unavailable. On the contrary, there is a wealth of information on this issue, available even to officialdom.
Whatever our policy, let us at least enforce it across the board so that it is not undercut through devious backdoor machinations and individual exceptions which seems to be the norm in Pakistan -- much to our national detriment. If we have decided to abandon our linkage of trade issues with India to political dispute resolution, then let us move formally on this count. The point is that if Indian business is getting this access, then why are we holding on to a farcical position at the declaratory level, which merely deprives the Pakistani businessman similar opportunities in India, which has a thriving economy where Pakistanis can find a profitable niche? Presently, while India continues to raise the trade and investment issues, its businessmen are laughing all the way to the bank!
Worse still, we seem to lack total institutional cooperation within the various bureaucracies. External policies relating to trade and investment seem to have no foreign office inputs -- or at least this is the prevailing impression since contradictions abound between declaratory policy and what is actually happening on the ground. Nor is it just trade. There is a disconnect everywhere leading to disarray and disquiet. The bureaucratic approach of trying to fool all the people all the time remains the dominant trait, which has now resulted in a major trust deficit between civil society and officialdom. In these trying times, when trust is so critical for success in the fight against terrorists and other detractors of Pakistan, we are found wanting. What could be a greater national tragedy?
The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Email: [email protected]
Fooling our own