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Ruin without common goal

Publication Date : 24-09-2012


In the run-up to elections, Pakistani politics has descended to the worst levels: we’ve seen mudslinging, corruption allegations, lota-ism, ideological inconsistencies, institutional clashes, misguided and even dangerous populism (most recently on display with Friday’s holiday), and, in Karachi, violence and bloodshed as a means to political concessions.

Tussles between political parties reveal an obsession with short-term goals that perpetuate patronage politics — votes in the next election, cabinet positions, opportunities to siphon off state resources, lucrative contracts for friends and family — rather than a long-term vision for the country’s prosperity and stability.

This failure to develop and pursue a long-term vision could spell national ruin, especially in an era of coalition politics. In coalitions, parties are more focused on wriggling into power, procuring patronage, and extracting as many concessions as possible in exchange for political support.

In this context, the constituency starts to matter more than the nation, and appeasement replaces service or reform as the ultimate political goal. Policymaking is the first victim of coalition politics, as it is either completely paralysed, or conducted on an ad hoc and expedient basis geared towards benefiting the ruling elite, or a particular constituency, rather than the public at large.

This tendency was clearly on display in India last week. Soon after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced dramatic economic reforms, a major coalition partner, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), quit, leaving the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) II government in a precarious position.

TMC’s move came after Singh announced government plans to allow up to 51 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail or supermarkets (a move that will allow Walmart- and Tesco-like companies to move into India). The government also allowed 49 per cent FDI in civil aviation and electric power exchanges and 74 per cent FDI in broadcast services.

These reforms aim to tackle India’s economic woes, which are widely described as self-inflicted: the country’s growth has slowed to 5.5 per cent a year, it suffers from double-digit inflation and a ballooning fiscal deficit, faces the threat of losing its investment grade status, and is generally perceived to be losing international competitiveness.

Such bold reforms are long overdue, but the Congress-led government has been slow to implement its economic agenda for fear of aggravating its coalition partners and triggering early elections (the government had previously pushed for FDI in multi-brand retail, but backed down owing to political pressure).

As such, the delicate balancing act that coalition politics requires has prevented the Indian government from securing the seven or eight per cent growth rate that economists say is required to create jobs for India’s expanding, youthful population and reduce poverty.

Disconnected from this bigger picture, TMC’s decision to quit the ruling coalition has been seen in India as a populist attempt by the party to secure its position in its home state of West Bengal. The party’s chairperson, Mamata Banerjee, accused Singh’s Congress party of being “anti-poor”. Her rhetoric suggests that TMC is hoping to seize the place of India’s traditional left parties once and for all. Pro-reform Indians have therefore criticised Banerjee’s move as self-serving, politically cynical, and counterproductive.

Whether justified or not, this criticism points to one truth: that the only antidote to the worst kind of coalition politics — which emphasises savvy politicking at the constituency level, even at the expense of "good", reform-oriented policies — is a consensus national vision that consistently informs policymaking and allows even the most awkward coalition partners to work together to achieve basic goals.

Interestingly, India has some semblance of that vision: economic uplift resulting in poverty alleviation, bolstered by the prediction that India’s will be the largest economy in the world by 2050. Even then, Singh’s government was forced to rely on other partners, who will probably extract further concessions from the government for their support: soon after TMC confirmed its plans to quit the coalition, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s UP-based Samajwadi Party (SP) stepped up to back the government (the party is also against FDI in multi-brand retail, but is worried by the prospect of early elections). Moreover, even as Singh readied to justify his bold reforms, the government made crowd-pleasing concessions in other arenas (on Friday, the Indian government announced big subsidies on cooking gas).

As these shenanigans unfold in a country like India — where the diverse polity has managed to agree on a vision of an economically viable and vibrant country — one can only imagine what havoc genuine attempts at policy reforms would wreak in Pakistan.

Fearing that havoc, and focused on maintaining the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People's Party (PP) government spent 1.4 trillion rupees (US$14.8 billion)  on subsidies on power, fertiliser, and fuel in its first four years in power. Most price hikes, including the one on petroleum products earlier this month, have been met with opposition and walkouts from the National Assembly as parties opt for easy, populist measures to keep their constituencies happy.

Earlier attempts to reform general sales tax and other economic policies were similarly fraught, and eventually pushed through in partial form owing to IMF pressure. In this context, tough reforms — increasing taxation revenue, particularly by taxing agriculture, privatisation, education and healthcare reforms, reviews of defence expenditure etc. — are a distant proposition.

The lesson here is that bold policymaking — especially pushing through difficult economic reforms — sits uneasily with coalition politics. As Pakistan’s political parties enter the final phase of the election campaign, they should take a break from politicking, bartering, and populist vote-getting to ask whether they have it in them to work together to make tough political and economic decisions that can help Pakistan in the long run. I fear the answer is no.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


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