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June 23, 2019

Zero-sum games


June 23, 2019

Prime minister Imran Khan has come down again, like a proverbial tonne of bricks, on the hoarders of black money. Sceptics were, however, quick to remark whether his message would scare or lure those targeted in the amnesty scheme.

That is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of politics that has often been described as the art of the possible. It can be fascinating and frustrating at the same time. A good politician possesses tremendous self-belief but he must also have the ability to make the electorate believe in his message.

Some of PM Khan’s actions and statements reflect his growing sense of frustration with the opposition, and increasing annoyance with the people’s slow response to the government’s efforts to increase tax revenues, and make windfall gains from the amnesty on declaration of hidden assets.

The government may also be feeling the heat of reactions to steep price rises while the GDP is sliding down. Its economic managers are working hard to redress structural flaws in the system but in the process, there have been apprehensions by some that the country has had to compromise on a lot. Pakistan has fulfilled the IMF’s conditions in the hope that the $6 billion bail-out package would be approved in early July but that has provided grist to the opposition’s mills to churn out propaganda about the government’s ‘anti-people’ policies.

The political headwinds are becoming more threatening as the prime minister promises to punish the two major parties’ leadership on corruption charges. The Bhuttos and the Sharifs, who repeatedly tried to destroy each other over decades, have come together to corner their common adversary. In this fight of the elephants, our precarious democracy is likely to be trampled. The parliamentary proceedings are full of toxicity, raising questions over the system’s sustainability. The stakes are too high and if the politicians have not learnt from the past, things could go terribly wrong.

The young heirs of the two dynasties have received blessings to exploit the tricky situation the government has landed itself in. The IMF package is still on the anvil but its collateral damage is felt in three areas: the declining rupee, the higher utility rates and the rising prices of food items.

The PTI’s slender majority renders it vulnerable to pressure from its smaller but critical allies, with veiled threats of defection. The opposition’s warning to block the budget’s passage may be aimed at softening the prime minister’s hard stance on corruption cases but it has failed to make him change his position.

The zero-sum games are not confined to domestic affairs. Indian Prime Minister Modi, buoyed by a decisive election victory, seems in no mood to reduce hostility towards Pakistan despite calls from Pakistan for a resumption of the long-stalled bilateral dialogue. Modi has so far ruled out a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart. He went to great lengths to avoid contact with Khan at the SCO summit in Bishkek and avoided using Pakistan’s airspace, providing the shortest route to Kyrgyzstan despite having received permission to fly over Pakistan.

India kept up with its propaganda about terrorism in Kashmir which is cordoned hermetically and placed under half a million Indian forces. According to the Indian press, the government would have zero tolerance for “terror” in the run up to elections for the state assembly in IOK. Modi and his foreign minister’s replies to the latest offer of dialogue by PM Khan and FM Qureshi, reiterating India’s stance over Pakistan and terrorism, came as no surprise. However, the Indian reference to holding discussions with a special focus on terrorism probably leaves a slight possibility of resuming the dialogue.

India’s efforts to maintain pressure on Pakistan appear to enjoy support from the US administration. US policy of deepening strategic ties with India was reiterated at recent Congressional hearings in Washington. India has been designated as a major defence partner, conveniently forgetting the Bush administration’s designation of Pakistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally. History tells us that America’s previous attempts to embrace India to counter China, at the expense of Pakistan, came to grief and the latest attempt might fail as well.

India is unlikely to sacrifice its important relations with China and Russia. Nor is the much trumpeted Indo-US rapprochement without its irony. While the US flaunts its defence partnership with India, it has already delivered the first salvo in a trade war by stripping India of market access under America’s GSP regime, thereby raising tariffs on more than $5 billion worth of Indian exports. New Delhi has hit back with manifold increase of duties on selected imports from the US like lentils, almonds and walnuts. Some US analysts have predicted that after China, India could become the next major target of higher tariffs to lower US trade deficit, in this case with India.

That, however, is no consolation for Pakistan as Washington has made it a habit to speak of Pakistan in unfriendly terms while extolling the virtues of strategic ties with New Delhi. The US has also resolved to limit its modest aid to the economic sphere while cutting off defence aid to Pakistan. Turning against a longstanding ally and friend does not prevent the US from asking for Pakistan’s help to reach a settlement with the Afghan Taliban in order to bring America’s longest war to an end.

Modi’s efforts to isolate Pakistan internationally have been checkmated with the help of our friends as witnessed at the recent FATF meeting. British Airways has resumed flights to Islamabad and other European airlines have expressed the intent to return to Pakistan. The United Nations’ decision to restore Pakistan’s status of a family station for their international staff is another welcome development.

These steps should pave the way for the outside world to consider Pakistan as a safe destination for work or leisure and not a place marred by terrorism, or as a sponsor of terrorism as Modi would like the world to believe.

Time for India’s self-styled chowkidar to sober down a bit and let the two nations breathe.

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