Friday, November 13, 2015

The Lalu Firecrackers

Majyd Aziz

India with over 1.3 billion people is the most populous democracy in the world. It is a federal constitutional Republic governed under a parliamentary system consisting of 29 states and 7 union territories. Pakistanis get excited during national elections in India but seldom has there been passionate interest in a state election. Ordinarily, Indian state elections create a minor ripple in Pakistan unless these are in Indian-occupied Kashmir. The common Pakistani citizen is concerned with NA-122 or the Local Bodies elections. They do not give two hoots whether there are elections in Bihar or Tamil Nadu.

The election process in Bihar would have been of academic interest to a small segment of analysts who come up with their hypotheses or expert opinions, but then, more often than not, the viewer would soon surf other channels. Lalu Prasad Yadav is a known commodity in Pakistan, and widely preferred over Narendra Modi or even Sonia Gandhi. Was it because of LPY that interest in Bihar elections became a hot topic in Pakistan? No, the credit goes to someone who was catapulted to the prestigious position of President of Bharatiya Janata Party.

Amit Shah is a politician from Gujarat and a close associate of Modi. His claim to fame was his political acumen and organizational capabilities that enabled BJP to win 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 elections. His relationship with Modi and his success in UP made him a hot favorite to become BJP President. Come the Bihar elections and he proceeded to wield his magic wand to get Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and LPY out of the Bihar political landscape. His presence and his track record was so overarching that many political pundits and some in media predicted a landslide victory for BJP.

This is where Pakistan phobia got the better of Amit Shah. Playing heavily on the high stressed tension between India and Pakistan, capitalizing on the growing influence of Hindu fundamentalists, and relying on the self-publicity seeking global yatras of the Prime Minister, he went to Bihar in full swing. It was during one of his addresses to the voters that this politician, who has a murky past being involved in corruption, obstructing justice, ordering fake extra-judicial killings, and abuse of power in Gujarat, went overboard. Indirectly accusing the Bihar ruling party leadership of being unpatriotic, Shah hollered, “If by mistake BJP loses the polls, crackers will go off in Pakistan”.

One sentence, regurgitated by an arrogant politician, put paid to the dream of his mentor while at the same time rekindled the patriotic fervor of the voters. This was not a cricket match where jubilant spectators set off firecrackers when Team India is winning. This was a tough election campaign with high stakes. This was a plebiscite against the Modi Sarkar policies, philosophy, and actions. The die was cast. The Grand Alliance winning 178 seats out of 243 while BJP hobbling with just 58 seats.
Of course, Pakistan was never the issue in the elections and the credit for the BJP rout definitely goes to LPY, Nitish Kumar and the other leaders. The fact is that hysteria against Pakistan is dominant on the mindset of the BJP leadership. This self-centered thinking has gravely boosted the activities and influence of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its militant wing, Bajrang Dal, the Maharashtra-based Shiv Sena, with its avowed advocacy for Hindutva, and other religious fundamentalists. Modi seems to be on the same wavelength with these extremist organizations despite the fact that they are a black blotch on the secular fabric of India.

The electorate outright rejected the extremist philosophy of these organizations and the anti-BJP vote reflected the voters' disgust for fanaticism and militancy. The Bihar result may or may not be replicated in the elections in other states nor there would be such a huge anti-BJP vote. This is beside the point. The Bihar debacle required some serious soul-searching in the ranks of BJP hierarchy. Global investors and foreign governments, eyeing the profitable prospects of the burgeoning middle-class market, realizing the skilled potential of Indian human capital, and recognizing the importance of India in the regional context, are bending backwards to accommodate New Delhi. 

Hence, lip service or ignoring the forced conversions of minorities, high incidences of rapes and sexual assaults, torturing of Muslims, Christians and Dalits, indulging in hostilities against neighboring countries, and interfering in the internal affairs of other SAARC countries by encouraging separatist movements and financing of terrorists, are vivid examples of hypocrisy and lust for profits.

The Indian government needs to revisit its penchant for making a mockery of international diplomacy, for assuming a self-appointed role of a bulldozer in her neighborhood, for harboring notions of hegemony in the region, and for not realizing the futility of obsolete fundamentalist rhetoric and the gravity of its consequences. In the India-Pakistan context, it is incumbent upon India to come to the negotiating table and sort out the contentious core issues so that trade and investment can be normalized, people-to-people contacts and movements are facilitated, and the clouds of armed conflicts are dispersed. The Bihar result would not be the catalyst to impel Modi Sarkar to jump-start the normalization process but it is surely a message that negativity about Pakistan will not earn brownie points from the mainstream electorate. Meanwhile, for Amit Shah and his ilk, they should pay heed to what Chanakya advised: "Before you start some work, always ask yourself three questions: why I am doing it, what the results might be, and will I be successful. Only when you think deeply and find satisfactory answers to these questions, go ahead."

Islamic Financing: The Soul of Banking

Majyd Aziz

“I shall watch with keenness the work of your Organization in evolving banking practices compatible with Islamic ideas of social and economic life. We must work our destiny in our own way and present to the world an economic system based on true Islamic concept of equality of manhood and social justice.” Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, at foundation stone laying ceremony of State Bank of Pakistan, July 01, 1948.

These stellar words spoken by Pakistan's Founder are a manifestation of his vision that a real time Islamic way of life was imperative for the nation to have an inclusive economy and survive. The concept of Islamic Banking has picked up tempo in Pakistan and there has been a remarkable exodus of accounts from the conventional banking system to the Islamic mode of financing. In the past, the traditional bankers were reluctant to venture into Islamic banking and they would emphasize and promote what was being done within the normal banking framework. Today, a better and clear understanding of the modes of Islamic banking and finance has provided impetus to product users and savers to adopt these Islamic modes.

There are different products of Islamic banking that facilitate trade related activities. These products include Murabaha (cost-plus financing), Salam and Istisna (forward sales), Wakalah (agency-based contract), Musawamah (bargain sale) and Musharakah (partnership contract). A leading Islamic scholar, Justice Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, highlights Mudarabah and Musharaka as ideal financing products since these enable the user to know exactly what the cost would be in advance. Faisal Shaikh, Head of Shariah Advisory and Structuring at BankIslami Pakistan, in one of his presentations, noted that conventional banking deals in documents and not goods, while Islamic banking deals in goods and documents. This very appropriately signifies the difference between the two banking systems.

Justice Usmani, in his book, "An Introduction to Islamic Finance" states that "The basic difference between capitalist and Islamic economy is that in secular capitalism, the profit motive or private ownership are given unbridled power to make economic decisions. Their liberty is not controlled by any divine injunctions. If there are some restrictions, they are imposed by human beings and are always subject to change through democratic legislation, which accepts no authority of any super-human power. This attitude has allowed a number of practices which causes imbalances in the society. Interest, gambling, speculative transactions tend to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few." Furthermore, he writes, "Islam has put certain divine restrictions on the economic activities. These restrictions being imposed by Almighty Allah, Whose knowledge has no limits, and cannot be removed by any human authority."

For the first time in its history, State Bank of Pakistan has a Deputy Governor, Mr Saeed Ahmed, overseeing Islamic banking. SBP has reiterated its commitment for promotion and development of Islamic banking. Due to its persistent efforts, the share of Islamic banking in total deposits of the banking industry has surged to nearly 13% as of June 30, 2015 and is consistently growing with a cumulative average growth rate of over fifty percent during the past 12 years. Mr Saeed Ahmed disclosed that "five full-fledged Islamic banks, one Islamic banking subsidiary, and 17 banks with dedicated Islamic banking branches are operating with over 1,700 branches spread all over Pakistan."

According to EY’s Global Islamic Banking Center, "Islamic trade finance could provide new opportunities and become the preferred choice for emerging rapid growth markets (RGM) such as Turkey, Indonesia Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. RGMs are emerging as hot spots for global business and they promise to permanently alter the global trade scene over the next 10 years. Many of these markets already have strong trade links with other 'core' Islamic finance markets, which offer new opportunities for growth for Islamic trade finance."  

Trade and industry has largely depended on self-financing or conventional banking. The desire to grow and the yearning for enhancing operations often compel businessmen and industrialists to seek external financial facilities. However, those who were not comfortable with conventional banking and considered interest or markup as Riba had to compromise on their principles or put on ice their expansion strategies. Islamic banking has provided them a cover to achieve financing without, in a broader perspective, taking resource to channels that disturb their religious convictions. A Karachi industrialist once remarked, "When I do conventional banking, I know I am doing a sin, but I can pray for forgiveness, but when I do Islamic banking, even though I am not yet comfortable with it, I have no recourse to seeking Allah's forgiveness." It was his way of pointing out that banking is banking, no matter what the mode.

Although Islamic banking is expanding and creating a solid niche in the financial arena, there are many who are not satisfied with the terms and conditions of Islamic banking and lay stress on certain conditionalities that, according to them, are sanitized versions of the conventional banking lender safeguards. They focus on the penalty clause in the agreements between the lender and the user as they are of the opinion that this clause vitiates the very essence of Islamic banking modes. Notwithstanding this argument, a senior banker explained that the "purpose of the penalty clause is to ensure that the product user performs the obligation in a timely manner and does not take the facility for granted". Ayesha Ashraf Jangda, Section Head, Corporate Strategy and Business Planning, BankIslami Pakistan, informed that "the amount generated through penalties is routinely used for charitable purposes and not passed on to shareholders." Islamic banking is here to stay as it is evolutionary and will be more vibrant as more efforts are undertaken to achieve favorable and encouraging legal and policy frameworks for banks, users, and for Shariah-compliant products.

"And for their taking interest even though it was forbidden for them, and their wrongful appropriation of other people's property, We have prepared for those among them who reject faith a grievous punishment." Holy Qur'an, Surah Al-Nisa, verse 161.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Political Asylum by Pakistanis

Majyd Aziz

Political asylum is one of the human rights affirmed by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and rules of international human rights law. All countries who have agreed to the United Nations Conventions relating to the Status of Refugees must let people, who do qualify, come into their country. This narrative discusses the linkage between citizens of non-industrialized, extremely poor, marginalized nations and granting of political asylum by a vast majority of industrialized, rich, and prosperous countries. It is not unusual for citizens living in Third World countries, whether in a monarchy, despotic or people's government system, to fear physical harm, to suffer personal indignation, or face persecution on account of race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. 

Whether a person has a docile connection to the victimized section or whether a person is bold, outspoken and adheres to his or her principles, both are vulnerable to the consequences of their actions. There comes a time when the risks become over-bearing and the decision has to be made between staying steadfast on  ground or to succumb to the will of those they have an issue with or to remove themselves from the touchy arena. The third choice is the final but heart-breaking one. Leave the motherland and seek consolation in alien shores. This means applying to another country for asylum, in short, political asylum.

Political asylum is an international tool used mostly by First World countries supposedly to protect persecuted citizens of the Third World. Notwithstanding this humane gesture, it is more often than not, a blatant interference and disregard of sovereignty of another country. Genuine hardship cases are understandable and have merit but those who obtain political asylum by taking advantage of laws or connive with foreign elements to achieve it are, in essence, really not worthy of being global citizens. Many political asylum seekers are in actuality economic migrants. 

There are many cases of Pakistanis taking this route. There is a marked difference between desiring political asylum and finding ways into another country for a better life for family and self. After the disastrous nationalization of schools and colleges by Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and then the military takeover by Gen Zia ul Haq, a large number of Anglo-Indians (the Christian community primarily based in Karachi) migrated to Canada, USA and other western countries. The political asylum option may have been exercised in some instances. Since the last few years, there has been a systematic exodus of affluent Sindhi Hindus, businessmen and professionals, to India. The Wagah-Attari border is the preferred route. Expatriates in UAE reveal that around 1200 to 1500 Memon families have transferred themselves and their assets to Dubai. 

The option of political asylum has been routinely exercised by such communities as the Pakistani Ahmedis, who have suffered enormously due to attacks on them, their properties, and their places of worship by extremists and zealots. They have been granted asylum in North America and Europe, where they are valued contributors to the economy and, due to freedom from religious persecution, take keen interest in propagating their religious beliefs. 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yusufzai is a globally famous case of someone who has been granted asylum and showered with innumerable awards, financial support and hyped media prominence. A terrorist attack on her and her schoolmates changed her whole life and put her on world center stage. Malala has gained international celebrity status but a vast number of Pakistanis, especially those living in UK, has been turned off with her subsequent actions. Her father is mostly being blamed, and it is the opinion of her detractors that she was too young to do maneuvers for herself but that it was his evil self-interest that bartered an innocent soul for worldly gains. He took advantage of the circumstances to land a cozy job as education attaché in the Pakistan High Commission in UK drawing a £ 4000 salary per month but never attending office. Malala, if she finds time, attends a school in Birmingham for which Pakistan government is paying another £ 4000 per month. A staff member at the High Commission revealed that the Yusufzai family did not even bother to attend the 23 March and 14 August functions despite reminders.

Raza Rumi, a distinguished scholar, TV anchor and a prolific writer, saw his life in Pakistan threatened and shattered. His car was ambushed and fired upon. His driver died due to gunshots while he survived miraculously. Heeding sane advice from his mentors and family, he too took the next plane and found himself in Washington. As Rumi himself admitted, there were whispers among many social activists that his ultimate goal was political asylum and that he staged the attack with this in mind.

Then there are politicians and nationalists who too applied for political asylum. Some just fade away from the scene while there are high-profile exiles who manage to have a mesmerizing hold over their followers from across the seas. Balochistan has had a major share of these exiles that are nestled comfortably in Europe or North America. These nationalist leaders regularly issue menacing threats to the government while exhorting their followers to undertake terrorist activities in their Province. The government has prepared a thick dossier linking these nationalists with neighboring countries who provide them with financial assistance, military hardware, prominent media exposure, and more importantly, with terrorism strategies. Yet, their host countries turn a blind eye despite protestations by Islamabad.

Serious life threats forced the supreme leader of a major ethno-political party to leave his famous residence in Karachi, migrate, and rule over his huge number of followers from his base in London. Having become a British citizen after obtaining political asylum, he has never set foot on his native shores. His long hours of telephonic addresses through TV channels and his oratorical mastery continue to galvanize his followers but a judicial ruling put an embargo on his use of the media in whichever form. Despite this, representatives and leaders from various political parties make a beeline to his residence in London to solicit his support.
Another group within the top echelons of political parties or bureaucracy has managed to stay for extended periods in Dubai. It is a fact that though one may apply and get foreign nationalities, this is rarely possible in Dubai. Moreover, a person may apply for tourist, student, medical, conference, family, or investor visa or a work permit (work visa). Each visa has its own prescribed clauses. It is surprising to read that many politicians or bureaucrats maintain their official positions in Pakistan but prefer long-term stays in Dubai. Is it accurate to say that some of them are there on work permits? Is it accurate to say that some of them have investor visas? If they are on investor visas, is their investment disclosed to FBR in income tax returns and wealth statements? If they are on work permits, then this is violation of international laws and the Pakistani government can lodge a complaint to UAE government and challenge this at UN. However, this is unlikely unless concerned activists file a case in the Pakistani courts. 
When things become too hot to handle at home, most of those who prefer the self-motivated desire to be in Dubai, ideally suited for them because of the prevailing greed factor even there, this self-imposed short-term asylum enables them the social and economic comfort and the appreciation to relish the loot they accumulated. This is not a forced asylum with its difficult consequences but an asylum brimming with benefits and privileges. But then, “As long as there are people in exile, there will be people who want to get back to their native soil”.  Warren Eyster, The Goblins of Eros

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bigger Begging Bowl

Majyd Aziz

Come election time, the election speeches of politicians usually hype up and sincerely promise three pledges: elimination of corruption, provision of infrastructure, and breaking the proverbial begging bowl (Khaskol in local parlance). The rent-a-crowd and the hangers-on go into frenzy, and then the full-throated campaign slogans are raised. The large gathering seems convinced that deliverance time has finally arrived.

Good governance pledges and promises are merely for reassurances because every incoming government sets in motions strategies to mint for itself huge financial benefits at every available opportunity. Grandiose infrastructure projects are announced without ascertaining the actual costs or feasibilities. However, when the government in power fails to withstand the imperatives of fiscal mis-management and burgeoning deficits, its immediate reliance is on external financing channels, notwithstanding the solemn pledge to desist from taking this step.

The penchant for propagating the feel-good factor becomes a hollow boast when representatives of international lenders land in Islamabad or when the economic managers have flown out to Dubai or Washington. After drawn out negotiations and acceptance of tough terms and conditions, a deal is reached and these managers heave a sigh of relief, despite the fact that most of the conditionalities would be difficult to achieve. The primary reason for the requirement of additional external finance is that the fragile economic situation, dwindling levels of foreign exchange reserves to meet the foreign obligations, and financing the rising import bill become alarming signals of a possible default. There are a number of other factors responsible for the vulnerability of the economy like heavy debt servicing, low investment inflows, a devastating law and order situation, poor governance, and the after effects of the recession of 2008 that negatively impacted on scarce employment opportunities and overall demand for goods and services.

The Federal Board of Revenue convinces Finance Ministers that it has the potential and capability to rope in non-tax filers and is confident of achieving the revenue targets. Even then, knocking at the portals of the international development financing institutions should be a priority to obtain resources for mega projects, for budgetary support and for boosting foreign exchange reserves. This is how the governments are pushed into the abyss. Akin to a beggar who prefers to live a life of begging by braving the elements of nature, the derogatory comments of the citizens, and the hardships of soliciting meager Rupees and Paisas, the government of the day is saddled with tough conditionalities, censures and criticisms of the multilateral agencies. Sovereignty is shaken, vulnerable, and mortgaged.

The present government faced an acute dilemma after assuming power when its economic team became aware of the dire economic situation. The Finance Minister was ill prepared and possibly uninformed of the situation at hand when he had just a few weeks to present the budget, another vivid example of a bureaucratic budget. At the same time, the government was not keen to lay total blame on the previous government and hence assumed the responsibility of moving forward, carrying the excess baggage inherited from the outgoing government.

Take IMF, for instance. The favorite of Finance Ministers and economic managers. Pakistan has a long history of borrowing from the Fund. Pakistan has signed five Stand-by Arrangements (SBA), three Extended Credit Facilities (ECF), and three Extended Fund Facilities (EFF) agreements till now for stabilizing the fiscal situation. However, none of the loans in the past accounted for that enormous amount as taken in 2008 and 2013 under SBA and EFF respectively. Loans are given under Special Drawing Rights (SDR) and Pakistan has so far been granted 16.734 billion SDRs.

In summer of 2013, a strong IMF team set up base in one of Islamabad's five-star hotel. The economic functionaries were rushing in and out of the meeting halls requisitioned for the IMF team. I had gone to there to meet a senior official. He informed me that the environment was like a missionary high school classroom and the manner in which they were grilled and the way they were being lectured was astonishing. It reminded me of the popular Big Nate comics and its two characters, Nate Wright and his social studies teacher Mrs Godfrey. Just as Nate had a difficult time convincing his nemesis who always saw through his antics, lack of preparedness and outlandish behavior, in the same way the visitors from Washington saw through the presentations and pledges of the Pakistani officials. Nevertheless, IMF too could not afford a default by Pakistan, and thus taking cognizance of the ground realities as well as the smooth transition under a democratic process, the team's recommendations were positive, albeit with tougher conditionalities.

The major requirements of the present EEF need highlighting:

·         Fiscal Adjustments: This core requirement relates to enhanced levy on natural gas, strict tax measures, fundamental structural and administrative measures, extensive purchase of US Dollars from the open market, and maximum reduction of subsidies in energy sector.

·         Gas Levy: The perceived shortages of natural gas, the program to finance the expected Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline, and the planned TAPI Gas Pipeline gave the government a valid reason to increase gas prices as well as impose the Gas Infrastructure Development Cess. The stakeholders have challenged the GIDC in courts.

·         Broadening the Tax Base: Pakistan's Tax-to-GDP ratio is still in single figures. IMF proposed a fast track broadening of the tax base. Resultantly, FBR issued notices to a huge number of non-filers but the response has been pathetic. In the 2015-16 Budget, the Finance Minister introduced a Withholding Tax of 0.3% on tax filers and 0.6% on tax non-filers on every bank withdrawal above PKR 50,000. The government expected revenues of PKR 35 billion. However, the business community, especially small traders, vehemently protested and there is a deadlock since both sides are adamant in their stands.

·         Structural and Administrative Policy: IMF decreed that State-Owned Enterprises on the privatization chopping block should be developed and a reform strategy prepared for most of the SOEs. IMF wanted privatization of 26% shares of PIA to a strategic investor. It ordained that legal framework of various codes, laws, and procedures dealing with electricity theft need to be strengthened.

·         Purchase of US Dollars from Open Market: This was the preliminary demand of IMF that State Bank of Pakistan must increase purchase of the greenback to shore up the Forex Reserves.

·         Tariff-Rate Elevation and Phasing out Subsidies: Another pre-requisite for the EFF was that the government should develop and approve a three-year plan for phasing out Tariff  Differential Subsidies and increasing the weighted average tariffs by 50% on industrial, commercial, and bulk users and reduction of subsidy on second group of consumers through enhancing the weighted average tariffs by 30%. This measure has been implemented and has led to increase in cost of production and consequently in erosion of the purchasing power.

·         Relief measures: The Benazir Income Support Program, the largest targeted social assistance mechanism, has been extended to mitigate the impact of removal of subsidies and to provide economic assistance to the less-privileged citizens.

·         Other Economy, Business and Trade Measures:  IMF wanted a commitment to simplify the Tariff Structure, normalizing trade relations with India and eliminating the negative list, taking full advantage of GSP Plus status granted by European Union, improving Balance of Payments regime, and approaching World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and countries such as USA, UK, Japan, and China etc for mega projects such as energy, roads, and housing etc.

The adoption of various measures and adherence to the conditionalities normally puts a heavy toll on the country. Pakistan is no exception. The loan is never disbursed in one tranche and thus every further tranche is approved after intense meetings (nowadays in Dubai) where IMF officials and the Pakistani economic managers led by the Finance Minister deliberate, debate and analyze the progress and the future course. So far, Pakistan has managed to get a green signal for the next tranche. The drastic reduction in global oil prices and some prudent fiscal management has enabled Pakistan to withstand the effects of economic pressures. These have resulted in a very low inflation rate, reduction in Discount Rate, decrease in oil bill, and increased inflows of external financing for major development projects.

On the other hand, exports have stagnated, foreign direct investment is despondently low, energy shortages are perennial, government expenditures are wasteful, the tax base is still a matter of grave concern, while political instability, war on terror, belligerent actions and outbursts of neighborly countries, distrust of trade and industry for government policies, and escalating corruption are a detrimental impact on the economic prosperity of Pakistan. IMF loans are granted for sustainable progress of a country and not as financial crutches for the government of the day.