Between bomb and bread

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By Karamatullah K Ghori

In all fairness to him, Pakistan’s three-time lucky PM Nawaz Sharif should have had at least some days of honeymoon following his spectacular win at the recent polls and elevation to power in its wake.

The people of Pakistan, however, weren’t inclined to let him have that luxury. Whatever little reservoir of patience the people of Pakistan may have had for the shenanigans of their leaders and rulers was exhausted in the five years of Zardari’s kleptocracy. It’s a terrible bequest for the people of Pakistan from a departed cabal whose sole concern in power was to amass wealth. They robbed the state-run corporations and left them bleeding. The total loss for these burgled state enterprises is believed to be between 400 and 500 billion rupees, and counting.

But for the people of Pakistan the most damning legacy of the dethroned robber-barons is the galling power (electricity) shortage that has veritably made their lives a living heel for them. The Pakistan Peoples Party clique, while in power, didn’t add even one megawatt of power to the country’s existing capacity. On top of it, they brought in the notorious “rental power” stations from abroad at enormous cost to only fill their coffers with kickbacks while the power generation capacity didn’t increase one bit. The result of that daylight robbery is that even in major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar power outages run anywhere from 12 to 16 hours, leaving the citizens sweltering, without even a fan to cool them.

So Nawaz Sharif is literally caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s being squeezed, at the threshold of his third term in office, between the people’s great expectations of him, and national coffers that are virtually empty. Using a gambler’s metaphor, Nawaz is playing at a blue-chip table with virtually no chips in his hands but the audience is applauding him, nevertheless, and expect him to win big at the tables.

Nawaz, clearly, doesn’t have a magic wand in his hand to turn enormous darkness in the country’s power sector into glittering lights with the sleight of hand in a jiffy. The power situation is bleak not only because generation of it is about half of the country’s demand. There’s also a bedeviling element of power theft. As much as 30 per cent of electricity generated and distributed is stolen. The estimated loss of revenue from power thefts is over 230 billion rupees.

Notwithstanding the staggering handicaps and daunting challenges to his privilege to govern, he’s the man of the moment to the people and they expect him to live up to their expectations. He should deliver them from the clutches of a damning cycle of power outages and whopping unemployment attributed to stalled industries starved of power.

Nawaz has promised to tilt at all the windmills to subdue the monster of power outages in six months to a year and fill the gap between generation and demand in three to four years. However, in their present state of despondency and sheer frustration, the people don’t seem ready to give Nawaz all that elbow room he clearly is asking for. He got an early message of people’s patience wearing thin within days of stepping into office.

The new government unveiled its budget for the coming fiscal year — starting on July 1 — within days of taking over. The target is to close the gap between resources and demands in the shortest period of time. With an eye on that, the budget offered no salary increase or relief to the civil servants of the salaried class living from hand to mouth under a runaway inflation.

But that, seen as an affront, snapped the white collars’ patience already hanging by the skin of their teeth. They poured out into the streets of Islamabad and other major cities the very next day, threatening a Gandhi-like civil disobedience movement. Seeing the writing on the wall early, Nawaz caved in quickly to the pressure: a 10 per cent increase in salaries was announced within hours of the threat of the “pens-down” strike.

The same “austerity” budget, however, pledged itself to a 10 per cent increase in the budget of the armed forces, raising their total stake in the overall budget of the country to as much as 20 per cent. Bitten by the military brass in his two previous terms, Nawaz is careful not to ruffle their feathers the third time round.

There’s also an element of personal pride in Nawaz being munificent to the brass. He sees himself as the man who gave Pakistan its atom bomb, and the military is the keeper of the nuclear arsenal. May 28 was the 15th anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb and its entry into the select nuclear club. That “honour” was achieved on Nawaz’ watch in his second term.

But this also poses a dilemma to him. A huge military budget would eat into the country’s limited resources — as it has been doing for decades. Ground realities in Pakistan speak volumes of the people’s pressing needs being sacrificed at the altar of “national security”. Nawaz obviously shut his eyes to the bleak picture of social sector realities.

Just one basic indicator of the human index of Pakistan would suffice to bring out the appalling gap between people’s needs and what they have. The National Nutrition Survey for 2011 (the last year of full figures available) speaks of 60 % of families in rural areas, and 52 % in urban areas of Pakistan suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition; which, in turn, triggers a long chain of depravity for the people as well as the economy: ill health because of lack of immunity to diseases, incapacity for hard work and loss of productivity, et al.

Nawaz obviously has a huge task of balancing the needs of an ill-fed people, vis-a-vis those of the well-fed (if not overfed) men in khaki. He should know from experience that he would be walking a tight rope, with little of a safety net underneath. His dilemma is that both the people and the generals may want to keep him on a tight and short leash.

Political pundits, on their part, are speculating with abandon whose needs would prevail in the end, and who would blink first: the people or the men in khaki. The romantics may well wager their money on the former in what they argue is a new Pakistan with radically changed ambience. But the jaded realists would dismiss that as being naïve. Security would still trump the rest in Pakistan. Any bets?

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