The army, with crucial PAF support, is fighting a war, the longest and toughest in our history. Soldiers and officers are laying down their lives…so that the rest of us can go on with our normal lives, as life is lived, with its highs and lows, its glamour and squalor, in what, without a trace of irony, we call this Fortress of Islam.
No confusion should beset our minds on this score. If the army was not stationed in the tribal belt and fighting some of the toughest guerrilla fighters in the world – say whatever we may about the Taliban there is no taking away from their fighting abilities – there would be little peace for the rest of us. And fear would be part of our lives as it was, lest we forget, before Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
Without the army along the north-western marches there would be no China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, no literary festivals, no obscene shopping malls opening in Lahore, and little of the PML-N’s swagger about mega-projects, and the mess being created in their name. (Incidentally, does the imagination of our biggest seths not go beyond shopping malls?)
But if this is what the army is doing – and in the process atoning for past sins and setting new benchmarks for the nation – what are democracy’s standard-bearers up to? Is governance improving? Are government departments working better, as they should in a state of war? Is corruption on the decline? Are trader-politicians, industrialists-cum-leaders, setting new and higher standards of public conduct? Are they keeping their money here or do Dubai and London remain their true ports of call?
The circular debt story is an old one by now. But to go over its outlines, how this scam of scams was executed, doesn’t cease to amaze. The Senate Standing Committee on Finance was told the other day that the finance ministry bypassed the office of the auditor general, as it could not under the law, and ordered the State Bank to pay Rs480 billion to independent power producers. The advice by the finance ministry and the clearance of this huge amount – equivalent to nearly five billion dollars – was done in a day, speed unprecedented in Pakistan.
But here’s the juiciest bit: according to a special audit carried out by the auditor general’s office, out of the 480 billion rupees paid to the IPPs, 140 billion rupees was “unjustified payment” – 31.7 billion late payment charges, 25.1 billion non-cash adjustment (whatever this means), 18.5 billion on account of general sales tax, 32.5 billion on account of idle capacity, etc.
The IPPs would have crawled on their knees to get what they could. Here they were getting more than their due thanks to the munificence of this ‘business-friendly’ government. No questions asked and not much of an outcry. Only now is the public at large getting wind of this dubious transaction, that too in bits and pieces. And mark, all done in a day.
Verily, these guys, long schooled in the art of financial ambush and subterfuge, know how to go about their business. Compared to them the PPP-wallahs were amateurs, leaving traces behind that could be seen without binoculars from the summit of Mt Everest.
Or take the Nandipur project, now more joke than anything else – its cost escalating and going through the sky. Amidst fanfare and beating of drums the PM inaugurates the project and the next day (or was it the day after?) the plant hits a snag and closes down. If the PPP had been involved there would have been no end to the derision heaped on it. But the present lot being exceptionally good at news management the fallout was largely contained.
From the comings and goings of this government – their neglect of basic services, the step-fatherly treatment meted out to health and education, the obsession with costly infra-structure projects because all they are concerned with is swinging the next election even if those are still two years away – does it seem to be a government leading a nation at war? Is anyone concerned about rehabilitating the war-displaced? Pursuing the Jati Umra vision of development seems more important?
Nations at war…do they have leaders who have most of their money stashed abroad, who have palatial properties overseas, who make 17 trips to London alone in the last two years? Is this leadership or a pantomime?
Contrast this with army performance. The chief is everywhere, in all places, tireless, indefatigable, leading from the front, setting an example, which is why the army’s morale is high, spirits are high, despite sustaining a regular drumbeat of casualties. He goes to the Shawal Valley and from there announces the start of an offensive to flush out the Pakistani Taliban from their last refuge. And when, right at the beginning of the operation, four soldiers, including a captain, are hit, he is in Peshawar lending his shoulder to the captain’s coffin.
This is now a fighting army, a battle-hardened army…a far cry from the chocolate army it had become under Musharraf when officers and men were told not to go into civilian areas in uniform, such being the army’s low standing in those days. This is not Gen Beg’s army when the army command was sponsoring all kinds of ‘jihad’ – Jihad-e-Afghanistan had just finished and Jihad-e-Kashmir had begun. This is not my late friend Gen Hamid Gul’s army when the ISI and the army were more into politics than anything to do with matters military. Mian Nawaz Sharif is a product of those times, the most finished product turned out by the ISI’s political wing.
This is not even Gen Kayani’s army when after venturing into Swat and South Waziristan the army command thought it best not to go any further. The Taliban were defeated and expelled from Swat but they became powerful in their new haven of North Waziristan. It is Gen Raheel Sharif who has shattered the myth of the blowback theory – that going into North Waziristan would elicit a backlash that Pakistan as a state would not be able to withstand.
Who ever thought that the MQM could be brought to heel? But that has happened. Listen to the tune that Dr Farooq Sattar now sings: the MQM wants to remove any misunderstandings that there might be with the army, he says. Amazing, isn’t it? Facts on the ground have changed. Hence the new tunes emanating from MQM lips.
What has not changed is the laidback, easy style of federal governance. Order another flyover, decree another signal-free corridor. This is about the extent of the ruling party’s imagination. This is our chance as a nation to steel ourselves in the fire of this conflict, shedding old habits and acquiring new ways of thinking. What we are getting are gimmicks and publicity stunts, and empty oratory.
This is not a question of civil vs military. It’s a question of performance. When the army was choosing the easy way out, shirking its responsibilities, there was no dearth of criticism it had to face. There was then no hero-worshipping of any army chief, no photos of any one chief hung in public places.
What should our reaction be to civilian incompetence and laziness? Should we dance around the maypole of democracy, get intoxicated by the very word democracy, and look the other side, hoping for better days to come, when mega-shenanigans occur one after the other?