‘Dalar ki talaash’ (‘searching for dollars’)


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
one fine piece by irfan hussain on USA-Pak partnership which he calls Pak as being rentier state of usa.

Show me the money!

From the American perspective, it must be galling to see so much anti-American sentiment in a country in which they have sunk so much money over the years. –Photo by AP

If you think about it, much of the money that has built small pockets of affluence across Pakistan has its origins overseas. Ranging from heroin to exported workers, and from cash skimmed off arms deals to diverted aid, many fortunes in Pakistan rest on illegal foundations.
This is why the Pakistani ruling elites are forever on the prowl for new cash cows abroad. The United States, being the richest country in the world, is an obvious target. Luckily for us, American interests in the region bring this particular cow to the milking shed at regular intervals. And when, as happened after the American cow wandered off for a while when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, our rulers went into a terminal sulk with our perennial benefactors.

According to the theory of the rentier state, when a country derives most of its funds from abroad, it becomes disconnected from the wider society, and tends to become autocratic. This model is generally applied to oil-rich states in the Middle East and Africa to explain why the people of many of these countries remain so poor despite their immense oil reserves.

While Pakistan does not possess much oil, its location has given it leverage in the West that its rulers have exploited skilfully over the years. During the Cold War between the US and the USSR, it was accorded frontline status, and signed up to a number of anti-communist alliances. These pacts swelled our arsenals as well as the self-esteem of our generals. But after decades of being on the frontline and receiving billions of dollars worth of aid, there is little to show for it in terms of enhanced security or prosperity.

One problem with the rentier state is that it does not need to have an effective tax system to generate funds to sustain its rulers. Nor does it have to internalise and inculcate the virtues of hard work. True, the masses have to sweat just to keep body and soul together, but the state does not feel the need to provide a decent education or healthcare to its citizens. After all, the rulers send their children to private schools, and have private hospitals to tend to their maladies.

In this warped socio-economic scenario, the role model is the feudal who lives off the labour of his wretched haris. In a sense, Pakistan is an extended jagir where landlords and warlords live well while the vast majority scramble to achieve a hand-to mouth existence.

One reason the Kerry-Lugar Act has provoked so much opposition among the ruling elites is that it threatens to subvert a system that has worked well for them for so many years. By trying to get money directly to neglected areas like education and health, and bypassing sticky official fingers as well as the international consultancy mafia, the Americans have made many privileged Pakistanis nervous. For all their lofty talk about sovereignty and national honour, the bottom line is always about money, and who gets it.

Access to scarce resources reveals a lot about power and its distribution. In Pakistan, the military has traditionally devoured the bulk of our budgetary allocations, and the fact that military spending remains opaque, and those responsible largely unaccountable to parliament, says a lot about who’s in charge. This fact of life was hammered home by Gen Kayani’s prominent role in the current ‘strategic dialogue’ between the United States and Pakistan. He went along to make sure the military got its rightful share of the goodies about to flow from Washington.

In an incisive article about US aid, Mosharraf Zaidi wrote recently in a newspaper that the Pakistani wish-list carried by our team included power projects worth $647m. In the pipeline are F-16s worth $720m. As a Pakistani, he said he’d much rather have the former, and so would I. However, as a betting man, I think the chances of getting the jet fighters are far higher.

From the American perspective, it must be galling to see so much anti-American sentiment in a country in which they have sunk so much money over the years. However, they must realise that the public does not get to see the military hardware that has formed the bulk of their assistance. What matters is how aid touches the lives of ordinary people, and in our case, the answer is very little.

Another problem with this high volume of arms assistance is that it allows policy planners to adopt stances that would not be sustainable had they needed to find the resources internally. Grandiose dreams of ‘strategic depth’, and of flying the Pakistani flag over Delhi would have seen those who talked about them being frog-marched to the loony bin. Presently, however, they are given slots on TV.

There has been much talk in Washington recently about how our relationship will be transformed into a partnership. But a partnership implies equality, and the question to ask is what are we doing for America? True, we are fighting an enemy that often attacks Nato troops across the border in Afghanistan. But this is a war we must fight and win for our own survival, irrespective of American aid, or the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.

Years ago, a friend told me about a business trip to China where he had a meeting with an official. After the initial pleasantries, the bureaucrat said to the Pakistani businessman: “I’d like to be your friend.” Congratulating himself for the swift progress he had made in breaking the ice, my friend eagerly echoed the sentiment. “Ah,” said the Chinese official sadly, pointing at the ceiling. “But you are up there financially, and I’m down here. We can only be friends if you can raise me to your level so I can be your equal.”

As a demand for a bribe, I have seldom heard of a more elegantly phrased one. And while the Pakistani people cannot dream of being elevated to the high levels of American affluence, that is certainly the aspiration of our elites.

I remember a popular sign painted behind trucks and taxis in the 1990s: ‘Dalar ki talaash’ (‘searching for dollars’). Perhaps this can be our national slogan.

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