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Critical times for Pakistan

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As a practice to write editorials and articles on Pakistan Day, every year, it is inevitable that much of what is written should have become clichéd over the years and many of the observations made should have assumed a hefty air.
The disgusting tale of Pakistan’s politics continues, unfolding in the same weird and bizarre fashion that has been its trademark for the past 70 years. The government insists that there is a lot to cheer about — the economic turn-around, law and order situation, for instance. Without attempting to belittle the government’s successes on the economic front, we would like to see the larger picture and unfortunately there are reasons to be gloomy.
What has not changed is the bleakness of the life of the ordinary people and the monotony of the political landscape. International monetary institutions have applauded the government’s economic programmes and the key figures in it; have so far generally been free from the taint of corruption which seems to have become one of the privileges of office in Pakistan.
The government has been very keen to project a soft image for Pakistan, and there is no doubt that this country gets bad press abroad, often because the good here does not make it to the news, while terrorism, honour killings and gang rapes regularly hit world headlines. It is also unclear whether the promise of a liberating spring in the air is going to endure, or it too, will lead to only a dreary autumn, with hopes being swept away, in clouds of dust, like the fallen leaves on the streets of Pakistan. Has there been a genuine change of heart and direction? Many, including those who back us and applaud us from abroad, believe that the government is sincere in its commitment to bring the country on track.
The 1973 Constitution, although still nominally in existence, has been so badly pummelled that it has been knocked out of shape. This is particularly tragic because there was almost unanimous agreement on it among all sections of representative political opinion
A fundamental point as to who decides what is best for Pakistan? The military has for too long arrogated to itself this right, which belongs to the people and the electorate. Politicians, even those who were elected, had grossly distorted the political process, but if there had been no military interventions, from 1958 onwards, we too might have had the kind of democracy that falters in many key areas across the border but also delivers in many others.
If March 23 means anything, it means liberating ourselves from the delusions that we have nursed so far and seeking to build a more modest but a more durable identity for ourselves. It is the strength of our political institutions and our economy that will determine the respect we get from our own people and the international community. This strength can come only through consensus, and no better way has yet been found to arrive at a consensus than free and fair elections.
We must be honest about them, and they must be transparent for all to see. Electoral engineering has been tried before by both politicians and military rulers; it has only led to greater chaos.
This is a critical time for Pakistan. But when were times not critical for Pakistan? It is infinitely tragic that we should take decisions in our national interest only after events or powers abroad should force us to. We should be able to do so independently, on our own. The biggest disappointment is our failure to have a sound political system even 70 years after independence. The most crucial component of a state is the constitution; that is why it is called the Basic Document. In our case, a viable democratic constitution whose fundamental features would endure has eluded us. In the initial stages, the federal character of the country was denied and thus the spirit of the Pakistan Resolution was negated. This ultimately led to the separation of our eastern wing. The 1973 Constitution, although still nominally in existence, has been so badly pummelled that it has been knocked out of shape. This is particularly tragic because there was almost unanimous agreement on it among all sections of representative political opinion.
While this day is celebrated in memory of the historic Lahore Resolution presented on March 23, 1940, we tend to forget that it was also on March 23, 1956, that Pakistan’s first constitution was adopted. This day is, thus, as much a day for remembering the Pakistan resolution as for dedicating ourselves to constitutionalism. Here, regrettably, our record is dismal. Promulgated 62 years ago, Pakistan’s first constitution lasted slightly more than two years, being abrogated by the then president with the full backing of the army chief in October 1958. The next constitution, enacted in 1962, was torn up by General Yahya Khan, who replaced Field Marshal Ayub Khan in 1969, following countrywide disturbances. The only redeeming feature in this otherwise bleak record of despotism is the survival of the 1973 Constitution. Unanimously adopted by the people’s elected representatives, the Constitution has survived despite countless unconstitutional and extra-constitutional irregularities.
First, General ZiaulHaq carried out arbitrary changes in the basic law to consolidate his rule and foist a theocratic dispensation on the country with the help of some religious parties. The amendments made by him included the infamous 58-2b clause, which gave him the right to dissolve an elected National Assembly and sack the prime minister even if he enjoyed the assembly’s confidence. He used this clause to dismiss his own chosen prime minister.
The deviations from constitutionalism and the four military interventions have done enormous harm to Pakistan’s very soul. Their most pernicious effects are to be seen in the weakening of the federal structure and the rise of ethnic, sectarian and parochial forces. The crisis in Balochistan and KP is symptomatic of this malaise. Given the peculiar nature of Pakistan’s demography, provincial autonomy assumes special significance in our kind of federation. Yet, the quantum of autonomy does not seem to satisfy the small provinces. To them, and perhaps to most neutral observers of the scene, Pakistan’s federal structure is based on centralism and in practice intrudes into the provincial share of economic and administrative powers.
More unfortunately, while accusing the politicians of being corrupt and unprincipled, the military itself has shown a lack of scruples. Nothing illustrates this better than the way the accountability process has been conducted; favourites have been forgiven and inducted into the government, while those not falling in line have had their due share of trials and jail terms.
All this has served to weaken the government’s moral standing and contributed to a lack of national consensus not just on the political system but on all major facets of national life. Events since 9/11 have turned the world’s focus on Pakistan, our internal scene is monitored abroad the way no other country’s is. Yet chaos, uncertainty and a lack of consensus on all vital issues, from the need or otherwise of big dams to terrorism, characterise the domestic scenario. In a protracted struggle between politicians and the army, both have suffered a loss of popular trust.
The people have seen the two wrangles as economic and social problems have piled up. It is not as if there has been no progress and development: it would have been impossible to stand still for almost seven decades but the benefits of development have been unevenly spread, and mostly have accrued to the privileged classes. Most of all, there is a sense of general disorientation: we do not know where we are heading and what we want to make of our country.
There has to be a future for Pakistan beyond all the skulduggery of the past and the present. In recognised democracies, constitutions form the bedrock and are honed as they evolve and work without interruptions. Pakistan unfortunately never has had a long and uninterrupted period of constitutional rule. No wonder, we never got a chance to work a democratic system. Every constitution needs amendments if it is to respond to changing political realities and stay as a basic law. These amendments are done through a built-in mechanism in every democracy. In our case, however, amendments are invariably made by Bonapartist rulers to suit their purpose.
At present, the 1973 Constitution needs many changes, the most important being in the clauses relating to provincial autonomy. Regretfully, provincial autonomy has fallen victim to political rhetoric even after the 18th constitutional amendment. How else can one explain the absence of a serious debate on the issue? In fact, even those shouting the loudest about provincial autonomy have failed to come up with a clause by clause analysis of the Basic Law and present a realistic scheme of division of power. Pakistan can move towards stability and consolidation if the constituent units are given a strong stake in its strength and vitality.
This means not only economic development in backward provinces and regions, but also a proper devolution of powers from the centre downwards. For the people at large, democracy essentially means a proper sense of participation at all levels of government, federal, provincial and local. There is neither freedom from want for millions living in urban slums and the less developed regions nor would freedom for the creative urges of the people to find expression that lend dynamism to the country. It is no pleasure, year after year, to repeat a litany of failure. But we must squarely confront the challenge of discovering our political direction and identity if we want the times to come to be more purposeful and productive.


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Opinion

Either way, the news is bad for Pakistan

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By S.Akbar Zaidi

When Asad Umar, Finance Minister of Pakistan, returned from Washington after attending the Spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank a few days ago, the first task he had in front of him was to deny the strong rumours that he was being demoted to be the petroleum minister. The rumours died down at that moment, but on Thursday, he was sent packing. He was, indeed, offered the petroleum ministry, which he has declined. (Dr. Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, a former Adviser under General Musharraf, has been named the adviser on finance, adding to the growing list of the Musharraf Cabinet in this current government.) At a moment when Pakistan’s economy is facing a major crisis, it also has no finance minister now. Whoever will take the new job will have to face challenges they may neither be prepared for nor experienced enough to deal with.

Pakistan’s economy has been ruined in the last eight months since when Imran Khan became Prime Minister and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) formed the government. Almost every indicator has deteriorated substantially. For example, inflation, at 9.4%, is at its highest level in five-and-a-half years and is likely to rise to double digits for the months ahead. The rupee continues to lose value every other day, which adds to further inflation especially with the oil price on the way up. More devaluation is expected over the next few months especially when the government gives in to yet another IMF programme. The fiscal deficit is about to hit more than 6% of GDP, and even a cut in development expenditure will not stop this rot, as defence spending and interest payments continue to rise. Pakistan’s exports which have been stuck at around $26 bn for years, despite the 35% devaluation of the rupee over one year, have barely budged. The government owes power producing companies huge amounts of money — known as the circular debt — which continues to accumulate, and interest rates are also going up making the cost of business even more uncompetitive. The State Bank of Pakistan recently lowered the expectations of the GDP growth for the current fiscal year to an eight-year low, to around 3.5%, an estimate which was reduced further by the IMF and the World Bank to a dismal 2.9% for the current fiscal year, and expected to fall further over the next three years.

 

The GDP grew by 5.8% in the last fiscal year, the highest in 13 years. By all accounts, Pakistan’s economy is in a dismal state.

A major reason why the economy has taken such a sharp plunge, with GDP growth being halved within a year, is on account of the mismanagement and incompetence of the current government and by its economic team. On top of that, there has been the hubris led by and manifested in Mr. Khan, once saying that he would rather commit suicide than go to the IMF, popular slogans when one is the main nuisance factor in the opposition, but quite embarrassing as Prime Minister of a country facing a major economic meltdown.

The economic problem Pakistan faces at the moment, has two aspects to it, and is a major case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. One reason why Pakistan’s economy is in such a mess is because the arrogance and bravado of Mr. Khan, which was mimicked by his economic and finance team, has come to haunt all of them. For eight months the economy has been mismanaged because of the fact that the then newly-elected government in August did not do what it should have. It was almost certain that whichever party would have won the elections of July 2018, it would ask the IMF for a major structural adjustment loan. At that time, there did not seem to be many alternatives. Mr. Khan’s strategy was to run to a few of Pakistan’s friends begging for money, and to not bow his head in front of the IMF. By not submitting to the IMF then, they now have no option but to submit almost a year later. A non-IMF policy and programme was always preferred and a better option in August last year, but the incompetence of Mr. Khan, matched with vanity, did not allow for reforms to be undertaken, and has only made matters far worse.

So, after having said that they won’t go to the IMF, that’s exactly where they are now. From finding (and failing at) alternatives to revive Pakistan’s economy, the finance minister has had to find ways to convince the IMF that Pakistan needs the IMF. The reasons for the rumours of him being dismissed from his post, should have been based on his poor performance of running the economy, but they shifted to how he wasn’t able to cut an IMF deal a few days ago when he was in Washington. The fact that he was not able to meet the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, nor the IMF head, Christine Lagarde, on this visit, was seen as yet another sign of this failure by the Pakistani media. Nevertheless, the IMF deal is now a certainty, and although the finance minister has been replaced, there was probably no need for a replacement. When the IMF implements its strict conditionalities and adjustment programme, to which the finance minister and the country supposedly ‘agree’, the finance minister becomes redundant and is simply the bearer and front for bad news and tough conditions. The new finance Adviser will fit this role perfectly.

The new IMF programme, the biggest Pakistan is expecting to receive, to be between $6-$10 bn, which is almost a certainty now, is going to make things far worse for all Pakistanis, and especially for the working people already dealing with prospects of a marked economic slowdown and high and rising inflation. The IMF will further cut the minuscule development expenditure left, although defence spending will remain a matter of ‘national security’ never discussed in Parliament, hence, not to be touched. The IMF will ensure austerity, stabilisation and will cut the growth rate further. It will insist on further devaluation, or ‘adjustment’ of the rupee, as it calls it, causing greater inflation, and will insist on raising utility prices. In every respect, the people of Pakistan will face the prospects of fewer jobs, rising prices and an economy which is now the worst performer in all of South Asia.

This will be the 13th IMF rescue package for Pakistan’s governments and its elites in less than four decades. Each time there is an economic crisis created due to mismanagement, the elite remain under-taxed, the IMF and World Bank jump in to save them. Usually, Pakistan’s governments in the past, especially the military, leverage Pakistan’s so-called geostrategic position and situation and gain undue access, with the U.S. having been Pakistan’s biggest champion and supporter. As global power shifts and the region changes, so has Pakistan’s position in it. One of the stumbling blocks to the deal this time has been the IMF’s insistence that Pakistan reveal the financial deals made with China, including financial loans, as well as the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. If Pakistan doesn’t take the IMF loan, it is in a mess. If it takes the loan, it is in a bigger mess. Either way, the news is bad.

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Opinion

Modi & Shah are out to conquer the country

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By Shekhar Gupta

In the course of my usual trawling of the Hindi media, I am struck by lyrics from a very distant, faded past. It was Kavi (poet) Pradeep’s dire warning to India to watch out for threats from traitors within. These deadly enemies, the song featuring mega star Rajendra Kumar and sung in Manna Dey’s stirring voice said, were hiding in our own homes, and menacing us over our walls: “Jhaankrahehainapnedushman, apniheedeewaron se/sambhalkerehnaapnegharmeinchhupehuyegaddaron se”. It goes on to warn the patriot in us: “Hoshiyartumkoapne Kashmir kirakshakarnihai” (awake, for you have to also protect your Kashmir).

This was for Mahesh Kaul’sTalaq, released and nominated for the Filmfare Awards in 1958. Why has this again popped up in the heartland chatter?

 

You will also find references that Nehru so disliked the song, as it insinuated that many fellow Indians were enemies, that he banned it. And of course, facing a war in 1965, LalBahadurShastri lifted the ban. Just see, the argument goes, how relevant is this song again today. When the enemy is at the gates, and millions of traitors hide within our homes. Never mind the facts, of course.

In 60 years, after winning two-and-a-half wars, dividing Pakistan into two and becoming a $2.7 trillion economy, you would have thought we were much too secure, prospering and optimistic to bring back paranoias of the past.

But, after traversing large parts of India, in the Hindi heartland and the South, I have to report with humility that the contrary is exactly what the BJP under NarendraModi and Amit Shah has been able to achieve. At a time when India should be feeling at its most secure, internally and externally, they’ve managed to convince large enough sections of the voters, especially the tens of millions of young who learn their history from WhatsApp and believe India came out of the dark ages in 2014 that the dangers of their grandparents’ era have returned. So, who else can you trust to fight these but a strong, aggressive and fearless leader who doesn’t think twice before sending commandos on surgical strikes or jets on bombing missions in enemy territory?

With the situation on the economy and jobs grim and the crisis so palpable that it couldn’t be “fixed” with propaganda, we had anticipated Modi-Shah turning this into a “deshkhatreymeinhai” national security election. We can now say they’re succeeding.

There are three pre-requisites to building a ‘national security’ election. The first, an aggressive, even paranoid redefinition of the national interest. Second, a formidable foreign enemy a true nationalist detests, hates and fears. And most important, a Fifth Column within, consisting of collaborators and sympathisers of the same enemy. Then, you go out and seek votes against those no one can morally or politically defend. To call this merely politics of polarisation is an understatement. It is enormously more diabolical, and effective.

The key to building such a popular concept of the national interest, you first need a sharp definition of identity. American strategist and Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., writing in Foreign Policy, calls the national interest a “slippery concept, used to describe as well as prescribe foreign policy”. He then goes on to quote Samuel Huntington in the same journal, arguing that “without a secure sense of national identity”, you cannot define your national interests.

I bet you have figured where I am headed. But, just in case you haven’t, that identity is Hindu and the core of Indian nationalism. What’s good for the Hindus is also good for India, and vice-versa had better be true. If it isn’t, it needs fixing. And non-Hindus? Of course, they will benefit similarly. But if they complain, or don’t conform, they risk being lumped with the Fifth Column, along with liberal bleeding hearts, questioning journalists, activists, ‘compulsive contrarians’ and ‘urban Naxals’. Remember Kavi Pradeep’s warning about traitors hiding in your bedrooms and kitchens.

This is exactly how Modi-Shah have built this campaign. The opposition — with Nyay, Rafale, secularism, equality — is playing a very different game. It’s like one side is marching to martial music while the other is tuning the tanpura. All of those ideas are important as well, but then you see, none of it will be possible unless the nation survives. And since there are such grave dangers lurking, in whose hands would you rather place the nation? A proven, decisive and strong leader or a “Pappu”, whom now you see and now you don’t?

While an all-conquering nationalist wave isn’t here, it is strong enough to neutralise some of the economic distress and disaffection. In the deepest countryside, you find young, jobless and quite hopeless people saying yes, we have nothing to do and are hurting, but we can suffer a bit for the nation. It takes some campaign genius to get so many in distant places to succumb to such mass suspension of disbelief. We may find the idea ridiculous and abhorrent. But it won’t change the reality.

The other factor is identity. This wave is generally moderated, even blocked, where large sections of the population have a determinant of political identity stronger than Hindu faith. It can be caste, as with the Vokkaligas in Karnataka and the Yadavs in the heartland and Dalits generally everywhere. It can be language and ethnicity, as in the Tamil and Telugu regions. Or religion, as with Muslims and Christians. Wherever some of these factors combine, especially as in Uttar Pradesh, this upsurge can be broken.

This is why the Congress is the biggest loser. Unlike the many regional parties, it doesn’t have the hedge of alternate identities. Its Rahul-era idea of fighting hard, even militant nationalism with liberal pacifism is unconvincing, especially given its own record of running a brutally unforgiving hard state. If you think the counter to the BJP’s campaign against “enemies and traitors” is abolishing the sedition law, you have no idea what you are up against.

What the Modi-Shah BJP has succeeded in building among large sections of the younger electorate is more than a mere sense of paranoid nationalism. It is now a dangerous jingoism, and history tells us it never ends well. The enemies have been defined, and weapons earmarked: Jets and commandos for the Pakistanis, calumny and social media lynching for those within.

The dangers and the enemy Kavi Pradeep identified, and which we thought we had vanquished, have been conveniently resurrected, and the Hindi press is the first to see that trend. Sixty years later, the current mood has been captured by a young poet, although of a different generation and style: Rap.

Check out ‘Jingostan’ from the recent Ranveer Singh-Alia Bhatt hit Gully Boy: “Do hazaaratthrahai, deshkokhatrahai/hartarafaaghai, tum aagke beech ho/zor se chilla do, sab kodara do, apnizehreeli been bajake, sabkadhyankheench lo…” (It’s 2018, the nation’s in peril/we are all caught in a deadly fire/shout, scream, scare, play your venomous fiddle, divert everybody’s attention).

Because, as the rapper concludes, Jingostan is where we now live.

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Opinion

BJP taking a gamble?

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By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

The BJP has become a force to reckon with in Indian politics, and its leaders feel they can indulge in calculated improprieties and get away too. One of the temptations of the right-wing Hindutva party is to thumb its nose at genteel liberals on the one hand, and on the other challenge other parties, from the Hindi heartland’s socialist parties, regional parties elsewhere and the Communist parties, that if they can field candidates with questionable reputations, so can the saffron party. The fielding of Pragya Thakur, who was inducted into the BJP overnight and given a party ticket from the prestigious Bhopal LokSabha seat, is calculated to ruffle feathers. And of course there is the Digvijay Singh factor. The Congress candidate in Bhopal, a practicing Hindu, has needled saffronites for decades. He is neither a secular atheist nor a secular agnostic. He is a typical example of that ideological oxymoron — the religious Hindu who is also secular. It cannot get more maddening and provocative. Mr Singh has literally driven the BJP to find an extreme figure who would match his strident ideological posture. The ochre-robed political Hindutva propagandist has turned out to be an ideal match for Mr Singh.

In contrast, a parallel ceremony of innocence was being played out in the neighbouring capital of Lucknow, where Poonam Sinha, actress and wife of Shatrughan Sinha, joined the Samajwadi Party and was straightaway given the LucknowLokSabha ticket to fight the BJP’s candidate, Union home minister Rajnath Singh. It seemed the SP was quite aware that it does not have a strong enough political heavyweight to challenge the senior BJP leader, and that it would be better to field someone who would evoke surprise and interest, if nothing else. There was no cynicism in this as there is in the choice of Pragya Thakur in Bhopal. The BJP indulged in something of this kind of empty dramatic gesture when it fielded SmritiIrani, then a television actress, against Congress’ KapilSibal in ChandniChowk in the 2004 LokSabha election. That streak of innocence continued when the party fielded her against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2014. Of course, in 2019, it has turned into a heated, even malicious, political battle between Ms Irani and Mr Gandhi in Amethi.

 

It is a gamble political parties are willing to take as they know they cannot field candidates in every constituency who would stand up to the stature of their chief opponent. And sometimes, the gamble even pays off. The party that tried this trick in the first place was the ever-cunning Congress, when it fielded Rajesh Khanna against Lal Krishna Advani in the 1991 LokSabha polls for the New Delhi constituency, when Mr Advani won by a whisker of 1,500 votes-plus. Similarly, in 2004, actor and political greenhorn Govinda defeated seasoned BJP leader Ram Naik in the North Mumbai constituency.

But Pragya Thakur’s case doesn’t fall into the same playful category as that of Rajesh Khanna, Govinda and Poonam Sinha. There is a cynical intent here, and it comes at the cost of tarnishing the image of the BJP, though many BJP leaders in the NarendraModi-Amit Shah era might believe it is legitimate policy. The complication for the BJP in the case of the ocher-robed Ms Thakur comes from the fact that she is an accused in a terrorism case. Had a Muslim accused in a terror case been fielded by any party, the BJP would have gone to town that the secular parties were hands-in-glove with Muslim terrorists. In fielding Ms Thakur, the BJP wants to score the polemical point that there’s no such thing called “saffron terror”. It is a difficult point to sustain because the BJP and its ideological mentor, the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), and other Hindutva affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal) believe in resorting to violence against other religious groups, especially Muslims and Christians, on the fallacious base that Muslims and Christians are trying to convert Hindus to their faith and therefore pose a danger to Hindus. This is the bare-knuckle ideological point. The Hindutva organisations tacitly believe that resort to violence and terror is justified in certain circumstances. They would not have Mahatma Gandhi’s moral courage of denouncing violence in all circumstances. The Hindutva folk then fall into the pit they dig for others when they unconsciously believe that terrorism is justified when they use it to protect their own faith.

Ms Thakur is just an accused so far, and it could be the case the court would acquit her, either because the prosecution fails to prove its case or the court decides, based on evidence, that Ms Thakur was not involved in the bomb blast in Malegaon. The BJP and other Hindutva organisations fail to recognise that even if Ms Thakur is acquitted, the tag of “saffron terror” is unlikely to vanish as they subscribe to violence in principle.

The Hindutva ideologues also do not have the cunning sophistication to argue that the use of violence against the enemy is the prerogative of the State, and not that of the individual. So the BJP’s knee-jerk reaction to Digvijay Singh’s “saffron terror” label remains unconvincing and ineffective. The unstated reason the BJP fielded Ms Thakur is that it did not have good enough leaders in the party in Madhya Pradesh to field in major constituencies like Bhopal and Guna. In the same way as the SP did not find a matching political leader from its ranks to field against Rajnath Singh, the BJP was at a loss about fielding a credible candidate from the party ranks to stand against Digvijay Singh. The decision to field Ms Thakur is not a smart one as the party leaders may want to believe. The BJP veers off from the political track and it doesn’t know what to do with the hotheads it has inducted into its own ranks. The party is also aware that people will not accept its Hindutva tantrums, and if it wants to attain political legitimacy it has to spurn its own variant of ideological frenzy. Ms Thakur doesn’t pose any challenge to India’s polity, but her presence threatens the BJP from inside. It must restrain its inner demons if it wants to govern the country. The joke then is on the BJP.

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