PAKISTAN: Putting Development Back on the Agenda

By Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Apr 2 (IPS) – Pakistan’s new prime minister has announced
what many term a `revolutionary’ agenda: continue the `war on terror’
but on Pakistan’s terms, lift the long standing ban on student and
trade unions, raise minimum wages, revoke `black’ media laws, provide
relief for farmers and observe austerity.

Yousuf Raza Gillani revealed his ambitious initial 100 day plan for
his government after obtaining an unprecedented unanimous vote of
confidence in the National Assembly. The plan has breathed fresh air
into this nuclear-armed South Asian nation where military-dominated
politics has long been marked by acrimony, bitterness and

A new in-house advertisement on the popular television channel Geo TV
captures the mood: clips of various politicians bantering, smiling
and laughing. The slogan, `Jeo, muskura kar’ (`Live life with a

The country that gave the world its first Muslim woman prime
minister, Benazir Bhutto, now boasts the world’s first Muslim woman
Speaker of the Assembly. Dr Fehmida Mirza, 51, thrice elected from
her hometown Badin in Bhutto’s native Sindh province, sometimes looks
startlingly like her slain leader and friend. So Gillani could be
forgiven, in his inaugural speech, for twice inadvertently referring
to her as `Madam Prime Minister” instead of “Madam Speaker”.

Gillani’s acceptance speech after being elected prime minister
contained the call for a United Nations investigation into the
assassination of Bhutto, his party leader.

Secondly, he ordered with immediate effect the release of the Supreme
Court and High Court judges deposed and kept under house arrest since
Musharraf’s Nov. 3, 2007 emergency rule. The two major winning
parties have agreed to find a way restore them to office within 30

Clearly, the `one-man show’ of former military general President
Pervez Musharraf, who still enjoys Washington’s support, is over. The
incoming government has declared that all decisions will now be made
by Parliament.

Musharraf appears to have accepted the winds of change
philosophically, stressing that he is willing to work with anybody
and everybody — implicitly accepting even those whom he used to say
would never be allowed back into politics in Pakistan.

He was recently quoted as saying that the new order marks a welcome
move towards democracy and that he has no objection to decisions
being made in parliament. He said he had earlier been pushed into
taking charge because members of the previous government kept
referring matters to him.

This language of appeasement may not take Musharraf very far given
the mood in Parliament. On Mar. 24, when Gillani was elected prime
minister with a thumping majority, many eyes welled up as he reached
out to wordlessly clasp the hand of 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto
Zardari, son of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto who led the
victorious Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Earlier slogans of “Zinda hai BB zinda hai” (Benazir lives) were
replaced by the “thunderous echo” as one press reporter put it,
of “Go Musharraf go” slogans. Some even raised this slogan at
President House later that day as Musharraf administered oath of
office to Gillani, startling Musharraf as well as the soft-spoken new
prime minister.

Many newly inducted ministers have served time in Musharraf’s prisons
without charge or on charges that were never proved. Several wore
black armbands as they took oath on Mar. 31, in protest against the
man administering the oath, whose presidency they consider illegal.

Gillani himself was jailed for over five years, after being convicted
in 2001 on charges of illegally providing government jobs to PPP
loyalists. Terming the charges as politically motivated, he
steadfastly refused to cut a deal with Musharraf and switch sides in
return for his freedom, inspiring widespread admiration.

This is the first time that a prime minister in Pakistan has been
elected from the largely underdeveloped semi-desert rural area known
as the Seraiki belt, famous for its Sufi culture and folklore,
straddling two provinces, southern Punjab and northern Sindh.

Gillani’s first speech after having obtained the Parliament’s vote of
confidence on Mar. 29 came as a surprise even for those who had been
engaged in making policies for the PPP. “He included points that we
have been working on for the past two years with the party,” well-
known economist Kaiser Bengali told IPS. “But I hadn’t seen the
draft, so I had no idea he was going to include them.”

Bengali found it “refreshing” that for the first time in eight years,
a prime minister of Pakistan was referring to crucial issues like
poverty, housing, employment, and “not in technocratic
terms”. “Suddenly we have a prime minister who is touching — no, who
is touched by — the lives of the people.”

Measures announced by Gillani include minimum wages of PKR 6,000 (100
US dollars) a month, employment and housing schemes for the poor,
relief to the farmers, an austerity drive starting with his own
office, and energy saving and environmentally friendly policies.

Some commentators have remarked that Gillani may find himself wishing
for a magic wand in order to fulfil the promises he has made.
Bengali, who has been working with a small group of economists on
many of these issues, asserts that the goals are “do-able, because
these promises were not made in a vacuum. All the budgets for these
plans (like housing, minimum wages and employment) have been worked
out, all the costing is available.”

This holds true not just for the issues Bengali has worked on like
housing and employment, he points out, but also matters like energy.
Gillani’s announcement that the government will explore the potential
of small dams marks a shift in policy. Bengali notes that several
feasibilities have been made over the year, including from the World
Bank and other agencies. “It’s now time to take them out of the

Gillani said his government sought a political solution to the
problem of `terrorism’ and violence in Pakistan’s border areas.
Towards this end, he announced that the draconian British era
Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) that applies to the Federally and
Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (FATA and PATA) and has kept
these areas outside the pale of Pakistan’s constitution would be
revoked. In addition, a special economic package for these areas will
be introduced to encourage development and generate employment.

Even government allies like the secular Awami National Party (ANP),
the winning party in the North West Frontier Province neighbouring
FATA and PATA, and the conservative, religious Jamiat-Ulema Islam
(Fazal) initially criticised the move as too hasty.

However, others defend the speech as a policy statement. “Obviously
the FCR can’t be struck down with the stroke of a pen,” observed
Bengali. “There are a lot of institutions around it. The actual
modalities need to be worked out, but the direction has been set.”

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a press
statement called Gillani’s moves “an encouraging declaration of
purpose and policy… The HRCP recognises that the government is faced
with serious economic challenges which require its utmost priority,
but these challenges cannot be met unless the rights of the people
are fully guaranteed.”

Many ordinary Pakistanis, plagued by high inflation rates, are for
the moment at least enjoying the feel of democracy in the air.


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