Petroleum prices: TINA, really?

By Jan Arden

Up to a couple of weeks ago, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was hard at work justifying a variety of cost increases, including those of fuel, electricity, food and other consumables hard hitting his countrymen. In the name of curbing down public debt, rising costs of supplies during the pandemic, or against the slide of his Rupee, he basically clung to the “There is no alternative” (TINA) philosophy, while naturally blaming previous regimes.

Against a unified Opposition which termed such inflationary pressures during a period of joblessness and lacklustre growth, a “murder of the common man”, an assault on small entrepreneurs and a pauperisation of lower- and middle-classes, the Pakistani PM soldiered on defiantly. Until, that is, a promised unified march of protesters under Opposition banners started on 27th February moving from Karachi to the capital, Islamabad, gathering increasing momentum at each stop. Immediately, the PM, fabled for his U-turns, reversed the stance he had championed for months and, using the Russian-Ukraine conflict as sop, announced on Monday last a radical cut in petroleum and electricity prices. Sympathy for the common man’s plight had suddenly found a berth…

While such ad-hocism, even under stern IMF gaze, may be par for that country’s leadership and gain some short-term mileage, it does demonstrate vividly that leaders of political parties or countries can turn to cynical populism when the electorate is sufficiently aggrieved and galvanized to threaten their hold on power. In the normal course of a regime’s tenure, ruling parties or alliances with such a rather cynical or populist philosophy may indeed ignore public lamentations, however real the sufferings, so as to build up sufficient resilience and financial space or war-chests, for freebies to be distributed during the final year of their tenure. PM Khan’s about-turn may signal the heat he is facing mid-term. Here, the authorities may have ingrained that, for various reasons, notably a still disunited Opposition, a more quiescent population and the lack of threat from consumerists or extra-parliamentary forces, we are far from a situation that would make the successive increases in fuel costs unbearable to the electorate, despite their known cascading effects.

Unless there are material changes to these factors, the storyline of unavoidable international prices will try to swamp the narrative of those that say the price structure of fuel is packed with excessive government taxes and revenues. Near 50% or perhaps more of retail petroleum prices effectively enters government funds in one form or another, keeping its appetite for projects afloat while shoring up its resilience for fortuitous decreases later in its mandate. With the ruling regime keeping its eyes glued on 2024, that, we suspect, will keep their sympathy for the common man or, say some economists, for the dire straits of the economy or the prudential management of public funds on the back burner.

* * *

The Ukraine Crisis

We might have titled this the Russian invasion and that would not be wrong but the larger geo-political, geo-economic, strategic and national security aspects, the historical and cultural issues between Balkans, Russians and Ukrainians, might be left out if we simply took up the uncritical Western and liberal narrative. The latter tend to roll out the dramatic stories of casualties, refugees, bombings and ground troop movements daily if not hourly. Such images and videos flew liberally from every previous US or Western conflict zone from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya, Afghanistan, Africa or South Americas.

Although in this conflict many Western media and several anchors have gone overboard with a heavily racist undertone: “This is happening in Europe, a civilized place at our doorstep, not some uncivilized abode…”, or much worse “its about blue-eyed blonds who are being assaulted” and whatever the complexities of geo-politics being played out, international relations and diplomacy cannot condone or justify the naked military aggression by Russia as a means to achieve political ends and ensure its national security.

War casualties, terrorism and jihad dramas are not any more or less shocking in Europe than elsewhere in the world. Undoubtedly, Putin has lost the media and communication war as countries around the world will have been fed daily briefs and horror-stories from major liberal media and the cyberspace. Cyber presence and storytelling have unavoidably to be factored in any modern-age conflict, particularly one of such import as Ukraine, caught up in the confrontation that has been long simmering between nuclear NATO, as it kept encroaching further East, and Russia feeling increasingly garrotted by the remnants of the Soviet empire which had embraced NATO membership.

We have not seen much of Western media treat or analyze in an open and honest debate the whys and wherefores of those continuous NATO encroachments and the growing threat they would obviously pose to a regional power like Russia and Putin. Neither why the constant Putin/Russian alternative objective of a collective pan European security arrangement have been disregarded and dismissed by the hawkish stance of US analysts and generals. Nor why Ukraine as a EU and nuclearised NATO member was so vital for the West.

Was it that Putin, with his undoubted autocratic rule, his billionaire chums, his fiercely nationalistic philosophy was too convenient a punching ball to deserve attention? Or were NATO and Europe, publicly blackballed and kicked unceremoniously by the former US President Trump, determined to get their own back? Were geo-economic factors at play over vast Russian gas reserves or was it in the US/Western agenda to render Putin’s Russia irrelevant before tackling the only superpower capable of challenging US hegemony, China?

Those questions remain under the carpet as the West turns the Ukrainian President in some sort of European hero fighting for survival against a marauding Russian dictator, not quite the African or South Asian breed but, somehow it seems, not quite up to European or Western values, standards and morals.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Western naval or military interventions and presence provide a stabilising or pacifying force in many parts of the world, particularly in our region as challenges in the Indian Ocean high seas, including our maritime Economic Zone, look set to intensify. The UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, called into a rare Emergency Special Session, have debated the Ukraine crisis without, it seems, any fruitful outcome except making public the positions of ambassadors from various countries.

We do not recall how Ukraine voted at our UK-British Indian Ocean Territory dispute in the 2019 UN General Assembly, but like India, which never received any Ukrainian sympathy in international fora, in these dire times for the Ukraine population, its casualties and refugees caught in a geo-political confrontation, our diplomacy should not hesitate to condemn invasion or naked military aggression as a means for political ends, however desirable and necessary the latter. Accompanied by a call for earliest cessation of hostilities and for resumption of high-level negotiations between the West and sovereign Russia that would prevent matters degenerating into such drama and horror.

Even if we have reservations about some of the positions and storylines of the West, our national interests, while harbouring no enmities, will continue to benefit from the combined naval and military presence of France, Europe, the USA, India and Australia to ensure a safe, secure and stable environment in the Indian Ocean. TINA, in this domain, has substance.

* Published in print edition on 4 March 2022

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