Oct 24

Reinventing the PPP

Posted on Friday, October 24, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


Bilawal Bhutto has been “launched”.  The Karachi jalsa was big and his speech was animated. He unfurled the liberal flag (down with the Taliban, down with the PTI and MQM, down with the oppressors of minorities and up with “Bhuttoism”) to warm the cockles of die-hard Pipliya hearts.

Alas, the power of rented crowds, hackneyed words and empty promises has withered with an increasingly cynical and disgruntled populace. Simply drumming up “Bhuttoism” and clutching at “martyrdom” will not suffice any more. Since Bhuttoism was launched 45 years ago and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was martyred 35 years ago, the political profile and demographic landscape of the voter has changed significantly.

ZA Bhutto rose to power on the back of downtrodden rural peasants and urban workers. The four pillars of his political philosophy were (1) roti, kapra and makan (2) Islamic nationalism (3) anti-dynastic, anti-gentry power rule (4) anti-India stance. By the time Bhutto was martyred, he had not delivered on roti, kapra and makan, the Shimla Pact had overtaken anti-Indiaism, and he had embraced the feudal landowning classes all over again.

When Benazir Bhutto took over her father’s mantle, she was able to exploit his martyrdom. But she was also able to stake a political claim in her own right for opposing dictatorship and suffering imprisonment and exile before she was 30 years old. Therefore she was able to lead the PPP to victory in the 1988 elections despite desperate attempts by the military establishment to stop her. She returned to power in 1993 partly because she could claim victimhood (unfair dismissal in 1990) and partly because she was able to assure the military establishment of loyalty after it lost faith in Nawaz Sharif. But she was dismissed again in 1996 for alleged corruption and misrule; all the popular props of Bhuttoism, martyrdom and victimhood were lost to the PPP (even in Sindh), the jiyala drifted away in the Punjab and the voter sulked at home, so that the PPP could barely manage a presence in the 1997 parliament in Islamabad. The PPP’s fortunes rose again in 2007 when the Musharraf regime allied with Benazir (via the NRO) in order to stop Nawaz Sharif from exploiting his “victimhood”. Benazir’s assassination in 2008 on the eve of elections re-ignited the martyrdom factor and the PPP won the elections.

Bilawal’s job is a difficult one. He has inherited a party that has lost the sheen of Bhutto’s martyrdom and Benazir’s victimhood, down the generations. The memory of martyrdom has also been tarnished by a lingering perception of the last PPP government as corrupt and incompetent that “didn’t perform and deliver”. Demography is also weighing in against the PPP’s traditional rural vote bank – rapid urbanization has created new middle classes and youthful groups in Punjab, Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with global perceptions and aspirations who have been ignored by the PPP and tapped by other parties and forces.

Indeed, the party that Bilawal has inherited is critically removed from the party that ZA Bhutto created and Benazir Bhutto tried to revive. “Bhuttoism” was anti-dynasty but Bilawal is totally dependent on it. Bhuttoism promised to deliver to the masses but neither Benazir nor Zardari were able to fulfill that promise sufficiently. Bhuttoism was anti-India but Bilawal cannot flog the same horse today because the current mood is anti-West and not anti-India. Bhuttoism was anti-feudal, anti-gentry. But the current PPP is choked with exploitative landlords, oppressive family dynasties and wheeling-dealing crony capitalists.

Imran Khan is trying to fill the void left by the PPP. Like Bhutto, he is anti-dynasty. Like Bhutto he is tapping into Islamic nationalism, except that he has substituted the “Islamophobic” West for Hindu India because this resonates more forcefully with a new generation which wants to trade with India and wage war with the ubiquitous CIA. Like Bhutto he is focusing on the powerless classes, except that that there are more of them amongst angry and underemployed youth in urban areas than in the countryside.

Bilawal cannot sufficiently revive the PPP by merely flogging Bhuttoism, martyrdom and victimhood. The young, urban, globalizing Pakistani is far more politically conscious and angry than his forlorn rural predecessor. Nothing less than a “reinvention” of the PPP is required from the young challenger based on economic, political and social policies that promise a radical redistribution of power and privilege in a welfare state which does business with the world with dignity and trust.

Some popular disillusionment will inevitably follow the failed dharna-policies and conspiracies of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri to seize power. Bilawal Bhutto should seize this opportunity to try and capture the imagination of the same classes and people to revive the flagging fortunes of the PPP.

Oct 17

Malala’s symbolism

Posted on Friday, October 17, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


Malala Yusafzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize because she is a brave girl. Of course she is. But there are millions of brave girls in Pakistan. Malala Yusufzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize because she is a crusader for the rights of children to be educated. Of course she is. But there are scores of teachers and educators who have dedicated their lives to such a cause. Malala Yusufzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize because she stood up to the Taliban and put herself in harm’s way. Of course she did. But there are thousands – soldiers, political workers, journalists, tribals – who have sacrificed their lives resisting the Taliban.

Malala Yusufzai is spirited, courageous and eloquent. She speaks for civilization’s finest human rights and freedoms. But she is a global heroine because she is a unique symbol of the resistance of the innocent and non-violent to the barbaric terrorism that stalks the world. That is why her heroes are Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi – global icons of peace, truth, resistance and reconciliation. How did she become such a unique symbol?

Some Muslims argue that the Western powers have elevated her to this status as a “pawn” in their new crusades against Islam. But this line of thinking forgets that it is the Taliban and not the West who “created” her as such a symbol. It is the Taliban who first recognized Malala as a powerful symbol of resistance to their bloody crusades against education, human rights and freedom. They warned her to desist from preaching and practicing children’s right to education. She knew the consequences of defiance. Yet she refused to heed their warning. When the Pakistani media began to lionize her, the Taliban tried to kill her. Now they say they will target her if she returns to Pakistan.

Some Muslims ask why dozens of innocent children who were orphaned by American drones in FATA were not similarly acknowledged and honoured for their plight. They say this reflects the political ideology of Western imperialism in choosing which victim to honour. But this line of thinking forgets that hundreds of innocent children were killed or orphaned by the Taliban all over Pakistan when their bombs went off in schools and market places and mosques and parks and buses. If there was a “conspiracy” to make Malala a national heroine, it should be laid at the door of the Taliban. The West has elevated her to the status of a global heroine because her personal non-violent struggle for the universal human rights of children in Swat against the terrorizing Taliban fits in with the global war of “liberal” democracy with extremist “Islam”.  Those who empathize with this cause should celebrate an acknowledgement of Malala’s role in the battle for hearts and minds, regardless of its cynical manipulation by a highly politicized and partisan Western media.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee jointly awarded the medal to the lesser-known Indian child-rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi. The Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, said that it was important “for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in the common struggle for education and against extremism”. The context is relevant.

Mosharraf Zaidi of Alif Ailaan, an organization dedicated to improving education in Pakistan, notes that there are over 25 million Pakistani children between the ages of 5 and 16 who are not attending school. Over 50% of all government schools in the country are without electricity for most of the time, 36 per cent don’t have drinking water and over 40% don’t have working toilets. Federal and provincial governments allocate less than 2% of their annual budgets to education. In India, the situation isn’t much different. Nearly 60 % of children don’t complete primary schooling despite the fact that it is their constitutional right, and 90% don’t complete school.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee also consciously joined a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, in highlighting its concerns and interests. The two nuclear powers have fought four wars since independence and are currently shelling each other across the border. India has just elected a Hindu supremacist as its prime minister who is talking war and not peace with Pakistan, while Pakistan is in the throws of a form of creeping Islamisation in which Pakistanis are wont to rage against all “infidels”, especially Hindus.

Malala Yusufzai is the second Pakistani to win the Nobel. The first was physicist Abdus Salam. It is a tragic irony of Pakistani history that Salam was not acknowledged, much less honoured, by his country because as an Ahmedi, he was considered outside the pale of Islam. Now Malala is fated to live in “Western” exile until the Taliban and their extremist version of Islam are eliminated from the political and cultural landscape of Pakistan. Therefore, regardless of how the West manipulates and manufactures consent and dissent, Pakistanis would do well to look inwards and heal themselves instead of raging against outsiders.

Oct 10

Bleak prospects of Indo-Pak detente

Posted on Friday, October 10, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The advent of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India had evoked two opposing Indo-Pak scenarios. The establishment hawks in Pakistan argued that India would adopt an uncompromising and hardline position with Pakistan because of the extremist Hindu credentials and policy positions of Mr Modi and key members of his cabinet and circle of advisors. But the peaceniks in Pakistan argued that Mr Modi, like his BJP predecessors Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, would exploit his “patriotic” nationalist credentials to normalise with Pakistan because his pro-business agenda required regional trade, peace and stability.

Unfortunately, however, recent events – India’s cancellation of the foreign secretary level talks followed by continuous artillery exchanges on the LoC in Kashmir in which thousands of villagers on the Pakistani side have been evacuated and dozens killed – have dashed hopes of any rapprochement between India and Pakistan.

The most disappointed man in Pakistan is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He had gone the extra mile to proffer the hand of friendship to India without any pre-conditions. Before he was sworn in as prime minister in 2013, Mr Sharif had invited India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to his swearing-in ceremony, but to no avail. Then he had postponed a signing of a free trade agreement with India pending India’s elections so that he could give away the “gift” of Most Favoured Nation trade to the new leader of India as a measure of Pakistan’s sincerity (given the nature of the two economies, both countries benefit from freer trade but India stands to gain much more than Pakistan), a demand that India has long made as a precondition of resolving other contentious issues in which one side’s gain can be construed as the other’s loss in one way or another. Mr Sharif then swept aside the advice of his foreign policy establishment to fly to New Delhi for Mr Modi’s inauguration and hold a round of one-on-one talks with him. More significantly, he accepted the request of India’s foreign office not to meet with the Hurriyet Kashmiri leaders, a long established practice not disapproved of by India, on his trip to New Delhi and he did not rise to the provocation of the Indian Foreign Minister when she reiterated the old Indian position on Kashmir in a press conference on the sidelines of the meeting of the two prime ministers. These decisions drew much flak for Mr Sharif back home.

Now, barely a couple of months since Mr Modi became prime minister, it is hostile “business as usual” between India and Pakistan. All talk of bonhomie evaporated after India’s foreign office took exception last August to a scheduled meeting of the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi with Hurriyet leaders and abruptly cancelled the foreign secretary level talks. These talks were meant to pave the way for a structured dialogue on all issues between the two sides, starting with a signing of the MFN regime agreed between the two governments before general elections in India. In the past, Pakistani officials and leaders have exploited opportunities of meetings with Hurriyet leaders to nudge them to the negotiating table with New Delhi rather than urge them to wage jihad, and the Indian authorities have turned a blind diplomatic eye to the meetings on the ground that the Hurriyet leaders are Indians (rather than avowed secessionists) who can meet anyone they like. This time, however, New Delhi objected in an unprecedented and hasty manner by cancelling the talks and putting Mr Sharif in an embarrassing position with Pakistan’s national security establishment that continues to distrust and dislike its Indian counterpart and has scoffed at Mr Sharif’s “naivete” in offering an unqualified hand of friendship to India. The Modi government then went one step further by declaring that the Indian prime minister would not meet Mr Sharif on the sidelines of the UNGA session in September in New York. Before long, both leaders were haranguing the world about the other’s perfidies by reiterating old positions – Pakistan wants the Kashmir issue resolved according the UN Resolutions and India wants Pakistan to stop exporting terrorism to India. Now both sides are firing on each other across the LoC.

The logic of the situation suggests that India is in aggression mode. Elections in Indian-held Kashmir are due later this year. Mr Modi has visited the region and whipped up Hindu sentiment against the Muslim Kashmiri parties and leaders. He has also reiterated his resolve to undo Article 370 of the Indian constitution that guarantees special status privileges for Kashmir. This has reignited anti-India feeling and demonstrations in the Valley. On the Pakistani side, there is little to be gained from renewed tensions with India because the Pakistani army is fully stretched dealing with terrorism in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan.

Under the circumstances, the prospects of Indo-Pak détente seem bleak. Mr Modi has reverted to form and Mr Sharif has lost credibility with his national security establishment.

Oct 3

Existential crisis for MQM

Posted on Friday, October 3, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The MQM is in the throes of insecurity, confusion and division. Nowhere is this more evident than in the behaviour and utterances of its leader-in-exile, Altaf “Bhai” Hussain.

The unprecedented fear and insecurity in the rank and file of the MQM is driven by one singular fact revolving around the murder of Dr Imran Farooq in London a couple of years ago, following investigations by the British authorities to investigate Altaf Bhai’s political connections and links with his activist-supporters in Karachi, South Africa and elsewhere. These murder-related investigations have then branched off into detailed inquiries about the source and extent of Altaf Bhai’s incomes and properties in the UK and are focused on matters related to money laundering. Apart from Altaf Bhai, several senior MQM leaders in London have been investigated, detained and enlarged on bail. Altaf Bhai himself has had to cool his heels in the clink for a day pending bail in a money laundering case.

But it is the murder case that hangs like the sword of Damocles over Altaf Bhai’s head. It is known that the British police are very keen to lay their hands on two MQM activists who disappeared into the bowels of the ISI two years ago after they fled from London to Karachi via Sri Lanka following the murder of Dr Farooq. If they were to be deported to the UK and confessed to their crime and links with Altaf Bhai, it is feared it might be curtains for the MQM leader. That is why Altaf Bhai is acutely sensitive to what the Pakistani military establishment thinks about him and the MQM. That is why he is constantly blowing hot and cold against the military, now supporting democracy and parliament and then calling for martial law to “save the country”, now welcoming the appointment of Gen Rizwan Akhtar as the new DGISI and then asking why Gen Akhtar was fixated on “targeting the MQM” when he was DG Sindh Rangers tasked to clean up Karachi.

In an extraordinary move, Altaf Bhai has now publicly addressed 14 critical questions to the military establishment that show that he is deeply worried and upset about the aims and objectives of the Rangers-led Operation Clean-up in Karachi that is seemingly concentrated on hard-core MQM activists more than on any other party’s supporters. It has also thrown the MQM rank and file in Karachi into disarray and precipitated much internal squabbling and some significant desertions.

The MQM’s relationship with the military establishment has had many ups and downs since its formation in 1984 at the behest of General Zia ul Haq in order to combat PPP-Sindhi nationalism following the MRD movement. It conspired with the military establishment led by General Aslam Beg and General Hameed Gul to oust the government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990. But when it tried to flex its muscle during the government of Nawaz Sharif after the exit of both Generals Gul and Beg, it was ruthlessly put down by the then Karachi corps commander, Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua, and Altaf Bhai fled to self-imposed exile in London. After Bhutto returned to power in 1993, she sent the Rangers under Gen Naseerullah Babar into Karachi to “sort out” the MQM. But the MQM returned to power with the advent of General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 because he was in desperate need of political allies after scuttling both Bhutto and Sharif in 2008-13. Subsequently, the MQM was in and out of government, constantly holding Karachi to hostage and exacting a terrible price for its displeasure at the Zardari regime for not showering it with ministries and funds.

The arrival of Nawaz Sharif has, however, unleashed a new anti-MQM dialectic not dissimilar to the one in 1990: the Sharif government doesn’t need to pander to the MQM because it doesn’t need its electoral support to govern in Islamabad or Lahore while the stability and security of Karachi is critical to Sharif’s economic development agenda — hence the use of the Rangers to “clean-up” Karachi all over again. Matters have worsened for the MQM with the new challenge from Imran Khan for the heart and minds of Karachi’s youth bulge as evidenced by the huge turnout in his latest jalsa.

This is therefore a moment of acute crisis for the MQM. It is hunted in London and Karachi alike. It administrative fate is in the hands of the Sharif government and the military establishment, which is why it is in turn both pro-military and anti-Sharif and vice versa, depending on the situation at hand, because there is no guarantee that it can save itself either under a pure military regime which might be pro-Imran Khan rather than pro-MQM or under the Sharif government which is more sympathetic to the PPP in Sindh rather than the MQM because of Zardari’s unstinting support in parliament for the PMLN government.

Under the circumstances, Altaf Bhai’s unpredictable outbursts are full of sound and fury signifying an unprecedented existential crisis.

Sep 26

Success and Failure of IK

Posted on Friday, September 26, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


A recent Gallup Poll has revealed some interesting facts. A majority of respondents support Javed Hashmi’s decision to quit the PTI and agreed that some “third force” was behind Imran Khan’s “dharna”. A majority thought that the PTI/PAT should not have crossed into the Red Zone of Islamabad and held activists from both parties jointly guilty for invading PTV. A majority said that PTI/PAT protests were not peaceful and damaged the prospects of the Pakistan economy.

Significantly, however, the respondents were divided over the role played by leading media channels, with protagonists GEO and ARY running neck to neck in both positive and negative roles. Sheikh Rashid got the short end of the stick from an overwhelming majority for his shady, nay objectionable, role in the whole affair. Most strikingly, though, nearly 60 percent thought that any retreat by Imran Khan from his core demand of Nawaz Sharif’s resignation would have an adverse impact on his political career. Herein lies the rub.

Everyone knows that the PTI was taken for a ride by the “third umpire” and the dharna has failed to obtain the resignation of the prime minister. But everyone says that any retreat from this demand might spell the political death-knell of Imran Khan because it would mean admitting defeat and dent his reputation for impeccable, indeed infallible, leadership. Indeed, there was a time midway through the dharna when Imran could have compelled the Sharif government to concede almost all his “policy” demands, barring the immediate resignation of the prime minister, and returned home as a conquering hero, all geared up to strike again in the heart of the Red Zone with his army of passionate and angry “youthias” if the government made any attempt to resile from its agreement. But a stubborn refusal to face reality and admit his gullibility has brought Imran Khan to this pass: damned if he retreats and damned if he doesn’t.

Therefore he has chosen the next best option: keep the spirit of the dharna alive by organizing impressive rallies across the country and retaining his monopolistic hold over the media in relentlessly getting one simple strategic message across: that the corruption, arrogance and unaccountability of the Sharifs (and the Zardaris) is the root cause of the “crisis of Pakistan” and positive “change” can only be brought about by getting rid of them first. It follows from this strategic moral narrative that a fresh round of elections must be held because the one in 2013 was thoroughly “corrupted”. In effect, this amounts to a “moral rearmament” campaign that feeds on the outrage of the “youthias” at the corruption and unaccountability of the politicians in power rather than on any aspect of their economic or political policies. It also enables Imran Khan to be vague and contradictory about his preferred set of policies and priorities because he can claim to be Mr Clean. That is why intellectual efforts to show his arguments in poor light, to highlight his omission or negation of facts, even to show that he is riddled with contradictions in his personal and political life, make no difference to his supporters. He is the Teflon Man to which nothing sticks, one who can make anything, even outright lies, stick to anyone he dislikes.

The idea of “change” for the sake of change has become a powerful new force in Pakistan, despite its failings and shortcomings where it progressively originated – with Tony Blair in Britain, with Barrack Obama in the USA, with Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, etc. The rise of the radical Islamic militias and the violent unravelling of many states in the Middle East are owed in no small measure to the blind notion of “change” that promised so much and ended up creating a bloody anarchy after failing to deliver a workable economic and political system precisely because the notion of what needed to be changed and how was never adequately debated or understood in the heat and dust of battle to put an end to the hated “ancien regime”.  Neither Imran Khan nor Tahir ul Qadri have tried to define the substance of the revolutionary change they seek because that would be counterproductive to their moral narrative and confuse their main objective to seize power.

The tragedy is that the PMLN is not intellectually or administratively equipped to counter the “moral-change” narrative of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. The PMLN, like the PPP earlier, seems devoid of any strategy to fulfill even a slice of the aspirations of the angry urban middle and lower middle classes who are straining under the burden of acute energy shortages, rising unemployment and crippling cost of living. When this is contrasted with the soaring personal fortunes of the dynastic leaders of the ruling party, the impact is akin to that of a continuing nuclear explosion. That is why even when Imran Khan is so obviously failing, he seems to be succeeding nonetheless.