President Asif Ali Zardari made history on Saturday afternoon when he became the first elected head of the state to address a joint sitting of Pakistan's Parliament for the fifth consecutive time. In a country where democratically elected governments have invariably lived in fear of a coup and have never completed their term, this is being billed as a major achievement by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Amid slogan shouting by the opposition parties, the President — who has been the target of a ‘go Zardari go' campaign — sought to paint a picture of Pakistan that is in contrast with the general perception of the state of the nation, drawing ridicule from Leader of the Opposition Nisar Ali Khan who pondered aloud as to “which Pakistan is he talking about”.
The President's contention was that the PPP-led dispensation had inherited a country at war, a divided nation threatened by terrorism and militancy, a fragile and weakened federation where the mandate of different institutions of the state was unclear, a mauled version of the 1973 Constitution, energy shortages, and a serious economic and balance of payments crisis.
Dwelling on his government's attempt to replace the prevailing politics with a culture of reconciliation, Mr. Zardari reeled out the legislative measures adopted by the current Parliament to address some of the systemic flaws that had facilitated coups and resulted in over-centralisation of powers and resources.
He also credited his government with success in dealing with terrorism, arguing that efforts to establish the writ of the state in areas where it was being challenged had begun to bear fruit.
On the economic front — where there is widespread concern given the dwindling finances available with the government and the mounting debt — the President sought to sound upbeat.
“In spite of all the difficulties, the economy will grow by four per cent in 2012, exports crossed a historic benchmark of $25 billion last year, and remittances were $11.2 billion last year and will double over the 2008 levels this year,” he said. Inflation, he said, had come down from its peak of 25 per cent in 2008 to 11 per cent, tax collections had doubled from PKR 1,000 billion in 2008, and the stock market index has crossed 13,000 compared to around 7,000 in 2009.
Acknowledging the deprivation and neglect felt by the people of Balochistan, Mr. Zardari vowed to go the extra mile to address their problems and called for stepping up the process of reconciliation. “Healing wounds of the past is a lengthy process. But we are determined to respond to the aspirations of our brothers and sisters in Balochistan.”
In the section on foreign relations, his speech made a passing reference to India; flagging the steps taken for increasing bilateral trade while stressing the need to address difficult issues like the “Jammu & Kashmir dispute”.