When Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari travels to Iran on Monday to oversee the formal inauguration of an ambitious gas pipeline project from Iran to Pakistan, his gesture of defying US pressure on this issue will be seen broadly as a hollow one.
With just days before the tenure of his elected government ends, Zardari has chosen to portray himself as the ultimate nationalist by choosing to defy US pressure on the pipeline deal with Iran. The tailend of the regime led by Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) makes it difficult to know if the new political leaders, to be elected in polls this summer, will choose to continue with the project or go into retreat mode.
Setting aside years of US pressure on Pakistan to avoid signing up on the pipeline, given Washington’s concern over the project injecting foreign exchange into Iran’s sanctioned economy, Zardari’s gesture has been justified by his regime as broadly in sync with the country’s national interest.
There’s much that could be used to question Washington’s position given that any engagement between Iran’s economic stakeholders and the outside world could conceivably help in ultimately bridging the gap between Tehran and its opponents. But aside from that logic and looking at the issue from Pakistan’s perspective, Zardari’s own position remains suspect.
If indeed he was genuinely committed to pushing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline as a matter of key national interest, Zardari should have pursued the project in good time during the PPP’s five-year tenure. Such timely action would have at least ensured adequate progress on the project.
But the government appears to be in a rush on a range of fronts. For instance, the decision to move ahead with other projects involving investments running into billions of rupees just before the end of the government’s term, must only add to the widely prevalent scepticism surrounding the leadership.
In the past few weeks, the country’s ruling coalition unexpectedly approved a massive injection of Rs100 billion (Dh3.73 billion) in the largely ailing Pakistan International Airlines or PIA, the state air carrier. While many critics have warned that the best solution to PIA’s continuing woes must lie in its immediate privatisation even at a modest price, Zardari’s ruling camp is determined to try and salvage one of Pakistan’s poorest run businesses.
Tragically, the PIA is also among Pakistan’s state-owned companies, which have been repeatedly used by one elected regime after another as a source of patronage for winning votes and, of course, for receiving payoffs. For years, the PIA has been surrounded by rumours of prospective employees routinely paying large bribes to secure jobs in the airline. Unsurprisingly, PIA has also failed to bounce back from the red, having been rescued periodically.
Elsewhere too, the PPP-led ruling structure’s record in revamping and reshaping Pakistan’s economy remains dismal at best. In the five years since taking charge, the elected rulers have overseen a steady decline in investments as they have failed to tackle some of the biggest challenges faced by the country, such as increasing energy shortages.
Among the worst setbacks to the country has been the systematic growth in the toleration for corruption, nepotism and a failure to improve the quality of governance. For years, the ruling camp remained singlemindedly obsessed with blocking all efforts aimed at reopening of investigations of corruption in Switzerland against Zardari, going back to allegations from the 1990s when he was accused of having taken kickbacks from two Swiss companies.
Rather than deal with the fallout driven by the matter fuelling public scepticism, the authorities have simply taken refuge in Zardari’s immunity from prosecution in his position as the president.
Sadly, politics is a cut-throat business where legal immunities often do little to change the popular mindset. For Pakistanis looking at the increasingly dismal future of their country, Zardari’s upcoming trip to Iran for the gas pipeline project leaves behind a long trail of broken promises by the government, which only evokes disbelief.
For many, the ultimate question is indeed the track record of a regime which has failed to lift Pakistan’s prospects beyond where they inherited the country following the 2008 elections.
With or without Zardari’s trip to Iran, that popular view of the way Pakistan has been run in the past five years is simply doomed to remain firmly in place.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.