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Old Tuesday, September 09, 2008
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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Over to Asif

Immediately after his election as president, Asif Ali Zardari has struck the right notes. He has called once more, as he did after the Feb 18 election, for a national government, urging the PML-N and the MQM to join the federal cabinet. With an overwhelming victory behind him, Asif also now speaks from a new position of strength. The presidential poll proved his party remains virtually the lone national voice, able to pick up votes in all provinces. Indeed, it swept the ballot in Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan, with the PML-N obtaining a larger share of votes only in Punjab. While the result of the presidential election was a foregone conclusion, the numbers as they came in have added strength to Mr Zardari's position.

The priority of the new President must be to build unity. The suggestions said to be coming in that the Punjab government be toppled must be resisted. The reports stating that Mr Zardari is already in dialogue with Nawaz Sharif about the possibility of patching over differences is encouraging (The two leaders met on Monday). For the present, Mr Sharif has offered 'positive' opposition; those close to Mr Zardari believe he may choose to continue work for a restoration of a full-fledged coalition. The president-elect has also spoken of looming challenges. His most immediate tasks will be to tackle militancy (whose latest manifestation was a massive suicide bombing outside Peshawar over the weekend), combat federal friction and take on economic disarray. These are obviously huge missions. But the reports that Zardari is already planning new policies for FATA and for Balochistan, and has been assured of full military support by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani are encouraging.

The key to stability in Pakistan lies also in building greater regional harmony. Mr Zardari's success in the presidential contest has brought in swift congratulations from India and an equally quick agreement to attend his oath-taking from Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. These gestures from both nations offer a possible opening to making a good start with them. The reality is that cooperation with both is critical to solving Pakistan's multi-faceted internal problems, ranging from terrorism, to food shortages to inflation. Mr Zardari has lost no time in opening up parleys with various key players within Pakistan. He must also do the same as far as Pakistan's neighbours go.

Asif Ali Zardari, by cancelling the senseless decision of a holiday in Sindh to celebrate his victory, has also sent out a message of sorts. He has indicated he is aware of the need to work hard, and with commitment, given the national situation. But clear-cut goals and a sense of purpose need to be created. Asif Ali Zardari's most important priority must be to give a country that sometimes seems to have lost its way, a definite sense of direction towards which it can set out, seeking a future that is more harmonious and less violent that its present.


Kashmir bloodshed

The report that Indian forces have shot dead six militants in Kashmir, including senior commanders of two Pakistan-based 'jihadi' outfits, opens up the possibility of greater tension between the two neighbours. The clashes between Indian troops and militants coincide with massive protests in Indian-Held Kashmir against Indian rule in the area. Meanwhile, the leader of Kashmir's National Conference, Omar Abdullah, has said it was India's failure to 'seize the opportunity' offered under Musharraf in 2006-07 to sort out Kashmir, that is a cause of the latest violence in the troubled region. Kashmir's top spiritual leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has meanwhile warned of a violent upsurge if Indian action to suppress protests continues. Such violence in Kashmir has in the past led to greater militant action from groups based both inside and outside Indian-Held Kashmir in support of the struggle.

The view that the Kashmir issue could have been settled a year or two ago, mainly as Musharraf offered a 'one-window' opportunity, is both unrealistic and rather nave. There are so many complexities to the issues, which has lingered on now for over 60 years, that they seem impossible to settle either swiftly or easily. But the events unfolding now are unfortunate. The resurgence of militancy, that New Delhi alleges emanates from Pakistan-based groups, raises once more a long-standing issue between the two nations, It also seems obvious that despite Musharraf's promises, these groups were not disbanded, but simply asked to adopt a low profile. The Mirwaiz is also correct in his argument that the Kashmiri people must be allowed to determine their own destiny. But this will not happen immediately, and in the meanwhile the governments of Pakistan and India both once more face a situation in which violence in Kashmir threatens to add new strains to the ties between them and hamper efforts to draw closer in terms of trade, travel and other issues.


Out of gas

The government is contemplating closing down petrol pumps for one day in the week and observing two weekly holidays in a bid to control oil consumption, which rose by about 19 per cent in 2007-08, compared to the previous year. Increased consumption, combined with higher international prices, meant Pakistan paid $4 billion more this year than the previous year for oil. The federal cabinet has now decided, according to news reports, that controlling the consumption of petroleum products is vital to check the growing fiscal and current accounts deficit. These financial realities, however unpleasant, have to be faced. There must be some doubt as to whether the methods opted for are the right ones. The last time two weekly holidays were announced, for similar reasons as those that exist now, people simply took off on trips out of station, adding to fuel consumption rather than cutting it down. The argument that shutting down pumps Friday, ahead of the two-day break, will help stop this seems ludicrous: people will simply fill up Thursday and perhaps even take off for longer breaks!

While cutting oil consumption is necessary, so too is the need to plan out measures aimed at achieving this carefully and thoughtfully. There are still many doubts over whether the 'day-light saving' time introduced three months ago has had any impact. Other power-saving measures have simply not been implemented. Ahead of announcing steps, the government must also consider other options including car-pooling mechanisms or checks on car-leasing. Policies put in place must be considered ones, so they can have a real effect on checking the crisis rather than simply adding work inefficiency and the resulting difficulties caused to citizens.
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