A year of living dangerously

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While 2010 was a year of living dangerously, the New Year does not bring any better prospects for the country. In the field of politics, economy or foreign affairs there was little to cheer about during the past year and the prospects do not look any better in 2011.

The very fact that democracy survived the vicissitudes of the past year is a miracle in itself. The PPP-led coalition has managed to remain in power by a mixture of good luck, shrewdness and bravado of its chairperson Asif Ali Zardari.

The gloom and doom pundits, who throughout the past year had been giving deadlines about the demise of the government, have a lot of egg on their face. So much so that Prime Minister Gilani on the unanimous passing of the 19th amendment in the Senate openly challenged them to give a fresh date for the exit of the government if they were so confident about their predictions.

The year closed on a sad note when politics was brought down to its lowest common denominator by leaders of the MQM and PML(N). The no holds barred mudslinging resorted to by their respective leadership is unprecedented in the history of the country. What took most people by surprise was the manner in which the PML(N) managed to jump in the fray at a time when the PPP leadership and the MQM were at loggerheads in the aftermath of the MQM quitting the federal cabinet.

Although President Zardari made a late night call to Mian Nawaz Sharif to commiserate with him about the derogatory remarks made by the MQM, he could not be too unhappy about his disgruntled coalition partners in Sindh coming under pressure from unexpected quarters. Even in a future political dispensation, it is unlikely that the PML(N) and MQM could share power. Hence, the urban-rural alliance of the PPP and the MQM is a natural.

Mian Nawaz Sharif over the year has emerged as a leader who while remaining in the opposition is unwilling to dislodge the government. His anti-establishment rhetoric has surprised his supporters as well as his detractors. At the year-end foundation day ceremony of the League, Sharif came down hard on the military for its consistent role in politics.

It is obvious that the PML(N) supremo wants to wait for the general elections rather than precipitate an extra-constitutional or even an in-house change. Nor is he willing to go for the PML unification formula being vociferously touted by some of his backers. The year could possibly be the year of the elections. However, most analysts predict a fight between the PPP and the PML(N) with the Q League getting further decimated during the year.

The results of the elections will not be far different from the previous ones with coalition governments ruling at the centre and the provinces. The major difference could be a PML(N) coalition at the federal level. Hence, the need for parties to live and let live. Messrs Sharif and Zardari know this too well.

It is this spirit of consensus politics, which saw the unanimous passing of the historic 18th amendment and subsequently the 19th amendment. During the year, these amendments will not only strengthen democracy but will also change the political landscape of the country by qualitatively altering relations between the centre and the provinces.

Unfortunately this spirit of consensus has not permeated in vital economic matters. Failure to get the General Sales Tax (GST) approved is a major blow to the economic plans of the government. With little chance of it being approved, the year is bound to be difficult. Poor economic prospects will continue to haunt the common man as well as big business. Agriculture producers are expected to continue to prosper, thanks to the phenomenal increase in local as well as international prices of agricultural commodities.

Sadly, the vested interest prevalent in our legislatures across party lines does not want the fuedals or the bazaars to come under the tax net. Lack of transparency and economic mismanagement has exacerbated the situation. In light of unabated fiscal deficits and monetary expansion, double digit inflation and further deterioration of the value of the rupee, things can go really bad during the course of the year.

The need to divest the state of loss making public sector corporations and bringing a modicum of transparency in running the government is what the people expect from their government during the year. Perhaps the prime minister is well aware of the rumour mills that keep on churning stories about corruption and nepotism not only in the government but also about his own self.

The nexus between deal making mafias and children of the high and mighty politicians transcends party lines. If the common man feels more and more alienated and finds little stake in the democratic system, it cannot last. This should be the biggest challenge this year for our worthy politicians across the board, especially for those in power.

On the foreign policy front, the past year saw Pakistans increasing isolation in the region. This trend will continue during the year unless we come up with fresh policy options. Indias ascendency on the international stage will continue to worry our policy makers. With its ever-increasing economic clout there is nothing much which can be done to change this equation.

Pakistans military is worried about the increasing gap between India and Pakistans defense capabilities. With Pakistans present economic woes, despite large infusions from the West, it is becoming simply impossible to maintain a strategic balance with New Delhi. The Pakistan Army, already overstretched, will find itself under increasing pressure to move against the Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan.

Failure to do so will result in escalation of tensions between the GHQ and Pentagon, with the possibility of boots on the ground not to be entirely ruled out, especially if there is a successful terrorist attack on US soil. Despite these obvious difficulties, there is little chance that the military leadership will be willing to change its India-centric strategic paradigm.

The year 2011 does not bring much to cheer about for Pakistan. The main challenges will remain: How to revive a faltering economy, improve governance and effectively deal with the threat of terrorism. With little hope of any improvement on these counts, the country will keep on slipping into a deeper abyss. Despite this, a military takeover remains only a distinct possibility. However a constitutional change tacitly backed by the military cannot be ruled out if things turn really sour.

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.