Benazir suggests remedies
Ms Benazir Bhutto’s interview on various issues to ‘The News’ dated June 3, 2000
by Mir Jamilur Rahman
Benazir Bhutto can now be counted as a veteran politician for she has been in politics for the last 23 years. Twice she has been the prime minister, which gives her a rare insight into the affairs of the state. However, politics has extracted a heavy toll from her and her family. She saw her father executed, one brother dying in mysterious circumstances and the other slain in cold blood. Since her marriage, her husband has spent more time in jail than with her. A woman of lesser substance would have forsaken politics. But all through these tragedies she has remained undaunted and has become more determined not only to fight her fate but also her adversaries.
Benazir has a great grasp of international affairs. She is an avid reader and her extended exile has given her an opportunity to see the world in a broader perspective. How does she view the present situation in Pakistan and what remedies she could offer? I asked her, courtesy the Internet, and promptly came back the answers to my questions.
Q: The British Foreign Office minister has accused Pakistan of rapidly becoming a threat to world peace. A joint US-Russian statement has asked Islamabad to check the terrorist activities of Islamic extremists. Is the world inching towards declaring us a terrorist state? How should the government of General Pervez Musharraf counter Pakistan’s downhill slide to isolation?
BB: There are two types of Islamic extremists: one relies on political struggle and the other on armed violence. The category that relies on armed violence was established during the rule of General Zia. These pro-Zia fundamentalist forces are international in nature due to the Afghan war. They have infiltrated the security apparatus and are a threat to democracy in Pakistan as well as to regional peace. It is of little surprise that the violent groups inducted both Osama bin Laden and Ramzi Yusuf to eliminate the PPP leadership through money and bullets. These pro-Zia elements used corruption as a ruse to con the West and Pakistani liberals to create a political vacuum. They used the Kashmir issue as a pretext for Pakistani governments turning a blind eye to madarissas dedicated to violent training.
The activities of these violent groups using religion to justify violence will be perceived by the international community as a threat. Kashmir struggle led by All Parties Hurriyet Conference is one matter. Kashmir struggle usurped by Lashkar-e-Tayaba and other organisations like it is another matter.
When I was last in opposition, this matter had reared its head and Pakistan stood on the threshold of being declared a terrorist state. We are heading in that direction unless General Musharraf can get rid of his present set of advisers.
I asked the PDF government (in Punjab) headed by Mr Wattoo to shut down the schools teaching violence and allow the peaceful Islamic extremists to function. My DG ISI gave several briefings on this issue before the Defence Committee of the Cabinet. I had the concurrence of all my service chiefs on this issue. But Mr Wattoo, despite promises, did not shut them down. If a PPP government were formed in the Punjab, we would shut down any group recruiting and training members in violence and warfare. Pakistan’s constitution does not permit private armies to function. Unless these private armies are tackled, they will one day confront the armed forces themselves and create a civil war.
Islamic zealots believing in violent overthrow are blinded by their extremism and unable to see the dangers posed by their activities to Pakistan, the armed forces and Kashmir. General Musharraf can also move against the armed madarissas. But I wonder whether the MISR (Military Intelligence Survey Reports) will let him. These reports are used to brainwash the armed forces into a particular thinking, which goes from the top to the bottom. Hence the famous reversal by the Musharraf regime on blasphemy law.
During the PPP’s next tenure in office, I would like to discuss in the DCC an accountability of the MISR reports in a manner that protects national security and, at the same time, makes those abusing the system accountable. This is something that the present regime could do too.
General Musharraf can counter Pakistan’s downward slide by grabbing power back from the pro-Zia fundamentalists who have been using NAB for political purposes since the downfall of the PPP government in 1996. He can release all political prisoners and hold talks with the leaders of the political parties for the restoration of the democratic process. He can play a referee’s role in getting the political parties to agree to a code of conduct and viable system which prevents the restored democracy from once again being held hostage by maverick groups committed to abuse of the security apparatus, exploitation of religion and devotion to violence. In return, he can work out an exit strategy different to that of his predecessor’s.
Q: Pakistan’s current economic plight is attributed to the nuclear test explosions of two years ago. The tests attracted economic sanctions, which still continue, and led to the freezing of the forex accounts. If you had been the prime minister, would you have gone for the tests?
BB: I do not share the view that Pakistan’s economy collapsed because of the nuclear blasts. Throughout his terms Mr Nawaz Shiraz has been a big spender on non-developmental projects. I predicted in May 1997 that if a national government was not formed, the economy would fall apart and Nawaz would freeze the foreign exchange accounts. The nuclear tests gave the regime a good excuse to do what it was anyway going to do. Later, they were successful in getting a three-year rescheduling which put off the day of reckoning. Now that day will fall into the lap of the Musharaf regime.
As for what I would have done had the PPP been in power at the time of the nuclear detonations, the frank answer is I don’t know. As a consensual leader, I would have called the DCC (and all former members of the DCC) to discuss the issue. I would have discussed the options for hot test, cold test and no test. My own inclination would have been for a cold test but whether I would have carried the day would have depended on the consensus formed. However, I know that I would not have detonated six devices. If detonation had to be done, one or two would have sufficed and I would have seen Pakistan sign the CTBT the next day.
Q: Nuclear bombs are a rich man’s hobby. Could Pakistan maintain a nuclear arsenal, develop a delivery system and establish control and command mechanism without falling apart economically?
BB: In its present financial situation, it is not possible for Pakistan to build a command and control system unless assisted by other countries. Moreover, Bhutto’s bomb was born in the days of the cold war. In the post-cold war period, we need a post-cold war identity to achieve Bhutto’s vision of a great country raising its voice over matters of global concern. To do that we need to concentrate on developing our markets. It is time for Pakistan to enter into negotiations on the proliferation issue whilst developing conflict management in the region and expanding markets in South Asia. It is a break with a traditional past for management of a better future in a fast changing world.
Our country has not yet woken up to the information revolution and the rest of the world is poised to enter the biogenetic revolution. It saddens me that the three software parks established by the PPP to commemorate the Golden Jubilee Year were all abandoned. The plans are still there for the regime to pick up the pieces. I had personally negotiated with US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Japan’s Prime Minister Hashimota and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir for setting up three parks with their top IT business groups.
Q: Considering the public sentiments, could any government in Pakistan gather up the courage to sign the CTBT?
BB: Yes, an elected government has the confidence of the people and can explain directly to them what is in the national interest. Had the PPP been in power in 1998, we would have signed the CTBT on May 29, the day after the blasts. It is my conviction that we could have won the moral high ground and managed to get a good part of our debt written off.
Q: Pakistan’s foreign policy has always been India-centric. If India explodes the bomb, then we must also. If India does not sign the CTBT, then we should not too. Can we ever get out of this India-complex?
BB: It is time to get out of the India complex. The cold war allowed us the luxury to fund our India fixation. The West gave us money to fight the communists; we took it to fight India. Now the West is not giving us aid as the cold war is over. All the GST in the world and the hanging of corrupt politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and feudal lords is not going to save our economy. Let me give you an example. In 1988, the tax base was of 600,000 persons. We doubled that through the PPP policies. In 1993, the tax revenues were seven per cent of GDP. We doubled that to 14 per cent. Since we left, the tax has declined to ten per cent of GDP.
I doubt that Musharraf’s team would be able to match our achievement in the tax field. We did it by recruiting more people in the tax department, not reducing the number. Somebody is sabotaging Musharraf regime’s efforts by giving wrong advice to sack tax collectors. The decision to terminate the contract with the Swiss pre-shipment firms was also a wrong one. They helped us to increase our income tremendously. The chartered accountants’ report shows that for every rupee previously collected through customs, they collected six extra, which is phenomenal.
Since our dismissal, governmental policies have been myopic. Their aim has been to drive away foreign and domestic investment, without which the economy cannot grow. Moreover, the prices of utilities are so high that it is difficult for Pakistan to compete internationally. I have a plan to bring down utility prices but this is dovetailed to a larger post-cold war identity for Pakistan, its people and its armed forces.
I was sorry to hear that Musharaf has been briefed to believe that armed forces personnel harassing small people can make a difference in tax collection. As I said, the PPP made a difference without hounding ordinary citizens and the figures prove it. Pakistan is one of the most heavily taxed countries. The taxes are indirect, rather than direct. For example, the huge petroleum bill is an indirect tax. I disagree that out of 140 million people, 1200,000 are a small number to pay direct taxes. I will give a breakdown. Sixty per cent of our population is under eighteen and not working. That leaves 40 per cent of which one half, the women, do not work. That brings the taxable portion to 20 per cent. Out of this, 60 per cent are poor farmers leaving eight per cent. Out of that, a sizeable number is either unemployed or working as labourers outside the tax bracket. That leaves only four per cent that could be taxed directly.
Out of this four per cent, we can see those with surplus capital through other indicators. For example, the total number of shops earmarked for tax survey is half a million. If there are only half a million taxable shops in a country of 140 millions, it proves how few have buying power. This shows how narrow is the taxation base. Having a national tax number is good, a policy we had devised. Increasing tax revenues is also good so long as it is done in a logical and rational manner. However, the amount cannot bail us out. We have to tackle the issue of debt and defence. There is nothing left to cut in other areas.
Q: How can any government–yours, Sharif’s or Musharraf’s–could succeed and eradicate poverty when our total revenues cannot even meet the defence expenditure and debt servicing?
BB: You are right. It is an almost impossible situation given the mess created in the last four years. However, I am an optimist and believe that given the prayers of the people, an understanding of geopolitics, a post-cold war identity for the country and its armed forces, we can overcome the present difficulties.
Q: Where did Nawaz Sharif go wrong? He had the heaviest of mandates, a president, COAS and chief justice of his choosing and yet he lost everything including democracy?
BB: There is a dispute as to whether Nawaz had a mandate or was a prisoner of the pro-Zia fundamentalist forces who had brought him to power. The PPP and I believe that Nawaz never had a mandate. General Hameed Gul gave him one in 1988, General Asad Durrani gave him one in 1990 and the generals who gave him that mandate in 1997 are in too powerful a position today for me to make more enemies by naming them. As part of that mandate, he had to eliminate the threat posed by the liberals under the leadership of the PPP. As quid pro quo, he had to take on the PPP and to take it on he had to take on the judiciary and the press. Now that he is in prison and facing hardship, it will provide him time for reflection and it is hoped that that reflection can help him learning about the politics of those who take on the ‘establishment’.
Q: The politicians as a class have been condemned as the source of all evil in Pakistan. Even democracy has been declared wanting. Would the PPP agree to join hands with the Pakistan Muslim League for the restoration of democracy considering that it has suffered terribly at the hands of the PML government?
BB: The politicians have been condemned by a segment of the elite but are loved by the people. Hence the desire to have democracy after eliminating the people’s choices. This is a contradiction in terms. The elite is confused. It wants democracy and dictatorship and it can’t have both. We need to cultivate tolerance. We need to accept leaders we may not like if they are elected by the people in a free exercise. Some people think that democracy failed because politicians were corrupt. Other people believe that democracy failed because the powerful security apparatus refused to bow to the people’s will.
As far as an alliance with the PML is concerned, they have yet to take a decision to join the opposition. The statements of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz are at divergence with that of the PML. The PML has not decided to join hands with other political parties for the restoration of democracy. Hence the question is academic. As far as the PPP is concerned, we put principles above personal traumas. We would keep our doors open for all political parties that wished to fulfil the principles of the Quaid-i-Azam for a democratic, federal Pakistan with provincial autonomy and working for the progress of the downtrodden people.
Q: A newspaper has reported that Asif Ali Zardari has one billion US dollars stashed away in foreign banks. Would you like to comment on it?
BB: Yes, I would. I can categorically repudiate the allegation. Once I got a message from a general in 1997 that if my husband paid 100 million dollars, he would be left free. I got other offers of a similar kind. If I had money of that kind, I would have paid it for the father of my children to be free but neither he nor I have recourse to such huge sums. My party has written to General Amjad asking him to provide evidence of illicit money or foreign bank account with evidence under the Evidence Act of Pakistan. But he has not responded.
I am not a fundamentalist but I am devout. I pray every night to God to either make my enemies into my friends or do to them what they are doing to me. I believe in Allah, in His mercy, His forgiveness, and His blessings. I have full faith that Almighty Allah will punish those who have tortured us and the poor people of Pakistan.