Oct 13

Constellation of forces

Posted on Friday, October 13, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Constellation of forces

Captain (retd) Mohammad Safdar, the son-in-law of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has exploded in the National Assembly on a curious note. Suddenly, seemingly without any personal provocation, he has conjured up a rising “threat to national security” from the banned Ahmadi community. “These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its constitution and ideology. This situation is heading towards a dangerous point,” he shrieked. He said he wanted to move a resolution in parliament calling for a ban on the recruitment of Ahmadis in the armed forces because they could not be “trusted with guarding the country’s frontiers”.

Whilst on the subject, he took a shot at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for naming its Physics Centre after Dr Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Ahmadi who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, an honour that was acknowledged by (Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif in a financial grant of five annual PhD Fellowships for the renamed department.

Captain Safdar is known to be a political maverick. But this time, there seems to be a method in his madness. Several issues may impinge on the content and timing of his parliamentary thunder.

First, consider some facts related to the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. It may be recalled that when the Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s self-confessed assassin was sent to the gallows after being on death row for a long time, there was a question mark over who finally prevailed upon the Sharif government to reject his mercy petition and execute him. Some people insist that it was the army chief who finally rolled up his sleeves and went after terrorists and extremists of all shades, including Qadri. Others suggest that Nawaz Sharif did the needful in his bid to appease liberal opinion at home and abroad, even though throughout his political career he had handled such religious extremists with kid gloves, often doing deals with them so that they wouldn’t get in his way. Even at that time, however, Captain Safdar had publicly expressed sympathy with Qadri and his Barelvi ilk, leading to speculation that perhaps he was signalling his father-in-law’s helplessness in the face of the army chief’s demand. Indeed, when Qadri’s first death anniversary rolled around, the Sharif government bent over backwards to appease and channel the surging crowd in Rawalpindi instead of pre-empting a potentially dangerous law and order situation. Under the circumstances – when the Barelvis have banded together under a new political party, chopping off a significant slice of the PMLN’s votes in NA-120 and one particularly incensed ex-army Qadri supporter is openly threatening to assassinate Nawaz Sharif – it would make political and personal sense for someone close to Mr Sharif to express solidarity with the Barelvi sentiment.

Second, consider the fact that Nawaz Sharif’s political experience with hand-picked army chiefs continues to rankle with him. Gen Pervez Musharraf overthrew and exiled him. So he instituted a case of treason against Musharraf when he returned to power. General Raheel Sharif backed Imran Khan’s dharnas to the bitter end. So he shunted the good general off to Saudi Arabia and embarrassed him by leaking information about his “land grabs”. And now it may seem to him that General Qamar Bajwa has not only connived in his disqualification from parliament but is also leaning on other state institutions to finish him off politically. Was it Captain Safdar’s intent, one may wonder, to allude to General Bajwa’s alleged Ahmadi connections in order to put him on the defensive? Certainly, the idea of moving a resolution in Parliament to ban Ahmadis and weed them out from wherever they serve, smacks of some such threat.

If that be the case — and we desperately hope it is not — Captain Safdar may be advised not to play with fire. By putting Pervez Musharraf on trial, Nawaz Sharif created a schism with the army as an institution. That became an unbridgeable gulf when he humiliated Raheel Sharif by exposing his official “greed”. Now Captain Safdar may have sown the seed of personal revenge in the heart of Gen Bajwa by trying to isolate him from his institution. It seems that the good captain has forgotten the fate of two Lt Generals at least who conspired to whip up the “Ahmadi connection” in a bid to stop Gen Bajwa from becoming army chief.

Politics is taking an unprecedentedly dangerous turn. On the one hand, the army is progressively coming out into the open to articulate its policies, extend its ambitions and brandish threats, often at the expense of the elected dispensation and civil society. On the other hand, the civilian order is disintegrating from within because of political rifts, power grabs, economic crises, corruption and mismanagement. In the midst of this developing chaos, the judiciary has spread its wings and unfurled its claws like an avenging bird of prey.

No good can come from this constellation of forces.

Oct 6

Floating world

Posted on Friday, October 6, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Floating world

We are informed that the army chief has held a seven-hour long corps commanders meeting. The generals discussed foreign policy issues following the Chief’s strategic discussions in Kabul with the Afghan President. There is no mention of any briefing to the Defense Minister, Foreign Minister or, indeed, the Prime Minister of the democratically elected government of Pakistan.

What’s the point, one might justifiably ask, since the brass is not inclined to brook any civilian interference in running foreign policy.  Indeed, it seems that Nawaz Sharif is still paying the price for running afoul of the brass by trying to run India policy, and, despite the ministers’ occasional bravado for the sake of form, no one is inclined to follow suit vis a vis Afghanistan or America.

The second part of the meeting is more ominous. The generals vowed to play their role in making sure that the Constitution is implemented in the country, or words to that effect. This is rich. Parliament is supposed to be the repository of the Constitution and the elected government of the day along with the Supreme Court are jointly supposed to protect it from usurpers and states within states. Yet one usurper is visibly protected by the brass which will not let the law and constitution take their course under Article 6, while the DG Rangers has blithely flouted the writ of the very civilian ministry from which he is supposed to take orders under the Constitution.

By way of explanation – which subtly parades as justification – we are constantly reminded that the blundering civilians have only themselves to blame for this loss of constitutional authority. One argument points to “egg on the face of the interior minister” after his authority was flouted outside a NAB court by an officer of the Rangers and the wretched minister was provoked to fume about “resigning” his office if his constitutional authority was not upheld. (NB: the minister did not have the courage to even think for a minute about sacking the errant General). By this logic, all elected civilians go around doing their daily chores with permanent egg on their face because there is nothing they can do to effectively challenge the writ of the brass on any issue in everyday life. Isn’t it better, at least for the sake of the constitutional record, to protest even if there is nothing concrete one can do about it instead of hunkering down and meekly accepting the “reality”?

Chaudhry Nisar and Shahbaz Sharif are proponents of the “accept-the-harsh-reality” theory of politics. Mian Nawaz Sharif is not. What’s the point of elections and parliament, he argues, if elected representatives have to constantly kowtow to the brass on all matters big and small? The counter argument is that if the elected representatives did a better and cleaner job of government as envisaged in the Constitution, they would have greater political and moral legitimacy in exercising authority vis a vis the brass. In other words, there are usurpers and usurpers rather than usurpers and usurped, depending on who is judging.

Here’s the rub. Whichever way one looks at it, this is not good for the health of both the Constitution and the country. At some point, matters are bound to reach breaking point. When that happens in a hostile neighbourhood with bristling borders east and west, foreign players will be inclined to fish in troubled waters. Political uncertainty is also bad for the business of the economy. Harken the doomsday scenarios of a terrible balance of payments crisis (economic default) sketched by those who have never been in love with “Darnomics”. Now they’re even more worried about what would happen in a vacuum without Ishaq Dar.

Nawaz Sharif is refusing to throw in the towel. He has now become President of his Party by amending the law. If this is in-your-face-defiance of both the brass and the Supreme Court, he is poised to amend the Constitution in March to nullify his disqualification. How will both institutions of the state react to Nawaz Sharif’s capture of office?

It may be recalled that he reacted to his ouster in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf by lodging a treason case against the general in 2013. This time he may be tempted to clip the wings of the Supreme Court so that it doesn’t usurp the power of an elected parliament.

But whatever one may think of Nawaz Sharif and his corruption, inefficiency and dynastic tendencies, one cannot absolve the brass and the court of their major role in the  continuing crisis of state and society in Pakistan. What is more worrying is that neither institution is intellectually or legitimately equipped, singly or jointly, to rule Pakistan better. Indeed, righteous talk of stepping in “to save” Pakistan is misplaced concreteness, as the historical record shows.

There is no option but to let the water find its own level in the floating world of good and bad democracies.

Sep 29

Howler!

Posted on Friday, September 29, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Howler!

As Mariam Nawaz Sharif had earlier predicted in a TV interview, her father Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan and presented himself before a NAB accountability court. He says he does not expect the court to give him justice because the Supreme Court has seized control of the court after rigging the Iqama case against him.

This is a charge Mr Sharif has made many times before. But by reiterating it now, he has signaled his determination to resist advice by some family members, party loyalists and friends to step aside in exile and save the party. Indeed, the presence of Chaudhry Nisar, the most openly disgruntled leader in the PMLN, in the press conference suggests that the PMLN has closed ranks and lined up solidly behind Mr Sharif.

In fact, the surreptitious passing of a bill in the Senate by the PMLN some days ago (when PPP and PTI members were largely absent) to enable a “disqualified” member of parliament to remain or become the leader of the party (General Pervez Musharraf made the anti-law to keep Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto out) indicates that Mr Sharif means business. This would imply that the bill will pass in the National Assembly shortly. It also means that after the senate elections next March, when the PMLN will assemble a majority, we can expect a constitutional amendment in the disqualification-for-life prescription of the SC.

It may also be recalled that Mr Sharif had earlier clearly accused the military establishment of “disappearing” some PMLN party workers during the NA-120 by-election. Rana Sanaullah, Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Asif went further: they attributed the reduced margin of PMLN’s victory to such “invisible” hands. Now it should be noted that Mr Sharif has singled out the judiciary for attack in his press conference but steered clear of mentioning the role of the military establishment in the same context. Again, the presence of Chaudhry Nisar suggests he may have had something to do with a change of tactics: attack the court but try not to antagonize the military establishment any more.

The SC hasn’t been sitting idle either. It has summarily dismissed the Sharifs’ review petitions. It has also rejected the demand to cease overseeing the NAB trial court and prejudicing its judgment. Now it means to consolidate Mr Sharif’s disqualification (given on the basis of Constitution Article 62 and 63 read together with the Peoples Representation Act of 1976) via the NAB court in which an adverse judgment against an accused also automatically leads to his disqualification from contesting elections. This will make the task of reversing the disqualification more difficult for Mr Sharif even with a majority in both houses of parliament after March next year.

The “Establishment”, meanwhile, is sanguine with the outcome of its machinations so far. It has made sure that come elections next year Mr Sharif stands to lose a significant chunk of his right wing conservative vote bank to a combination of extreme right wing religious parties (the PMLN lost 13,000 votes or 13% of votes cast to two newly formed parties), thereby giving the PTI a fighting chance in the two-way race for the Punjab heartland. The Establishment felt the need to cobble the Milli Muslim League (ex-jihadis who are estranged from Mr Sharif’s pro-peace-with-India policy) and the Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan of Barelvis (angry at the execution of Mumtaz Qadri by the Sharif regime) for two reasons: to provide an umbrella of legitimacy to internationally banned jihadi organisations and their leaders in order to retain leverage in the Establishment’s anti-India strategic policies; and to stop the slide of the PMLN under a “reformed” Nawaz Sharif towards a pro-liberal centrist agenda that threatens to mop up disenchanted liberal elements of the PPP in decline and revitalize itself as a national party.

But there may be a snag in this scenario. That relates to the fate of Imran Khan before the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court. The Establishment wants Imran Khan to compete vigourously with Nawaz Sharif and whittle down his vote bank so that he doesn’t win a majority to form the next governments in the Punjab and Islamabad and rise anew to challenge its hegemony. But the SC must worry about the factual evidence against Imran Khan which is greater than in the case of Nawaz Sharif who had to be hooked on the basis of a flimsy Iqama instead of a dubious money trail. If it disqualifies Imran Khan, it will end up screwing the PTI royally – unlike the PMLN which has three decades of roots in the Punjab and can put up a fight even without voting for Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. The PTI is nothing without Imran Khan’s charismatic presence at the helm. If this happens, the Establishment’s political plans will come a cropper.

We should know soon enough which way the wind is going to blow. But whichever way it blows, it’s going to be a howler.

Sep 22

Empire strikes back

Posted on Friday, September 22, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Empire strikes back

NA-120 was supposed to make or break Nawaz Sharif. Understandably, therefore, his loyalists are crowing. But the facts belie the case.

The PMLN has won. But the smallest ever margin is nothing to write home about. It has won every election since 1985 with a bigger and bigger margin (except in 2013, but even then its margin was higher than today’s). If this is the best it can do in its “most favoured” constituency in all of Pakistan, especially when the “Iqama factor” was supposed to weigh in on its side, then the PMLN has a lot of serious thinking to do. The hope that a thunderous win in NA-120 would bring popular pressure to bear on those institutions of the state that are gunning for Nawaz Sharif has evaporated.

NA-120 was also supposed to launch the political career of Maryam Nawaz Sharif. Although she ran a confident and spirited campaign and has come of age, the uninspiring win has led people to ask whether Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, who has been nurturing the PMLN party apparatus in the Punjab for long, would have done a better job in pulling the votes out for a resounding victory. Like his father, Hamza is so estranged from the Nawaz camp that he decided to leave the country before the election instead of lending a helping hand at a critical moment for the party. Indeed, if both father and son had run the campaign with the full weight of the provincial party behind them, instead of with a clutch of federal loyalists like Maryam did, they might have delivered greater success. At the very least, they might have ensured that significant numbers of PMLN voters were not stranded at the finishing line for lack of time.

The result of NA-120 has also buried the debate about an early or late election. A big win would have stressed the importance of the “Iqama factor” and how to exploit it going forward. Now there is no choice but to hunker down for a long haul and face the full wrath of the Supreme Court via NAB without any umbrella of popular sympathy. The split in the Sharif family is also likely to become both visible and more stressful for the PMLN. This will encourage desertions when the going gets rougher.

As if on cue, the SC has summarily dismissed the various review petitions filed by the Sharifs even though both facts and jurisprudence in the Iqama judgment were highly disputable. Arrest warrants have been issued for Ishaq Dar by an accountability court, suggesting that, if the Sharifs were also to absent themselves from the reference against them, much the same treatment would be meted out to them. Even Shehbaz Sharif is likely to be tarred when the Hudaybia case is probed again with a SC judge directing action. Indeed, NAB is likely to become more hostile when the current chairman’s term ends in a few months. With both the PPP and PMLN at odds, the chances of quickly finding a consensus candidate who also meets with the approval of the PTI are slim. In such circumstances, the SC may either step in to direct NAB on a day to day basis or appoint an interim chairman of its liking until all parties meet their constitutional obligations to appoint one with consensus. In either case, the Sharifs will feel the rising heat palpably. Already there are demands by the PTI and its media supporters to appoint SC nominees to state institutions like NAB, State Bank of Pakistan, SECP, FIA, FBR, and IB in order to cleanse them of political bias in favour of the ruling party.

In an interview shortly before the NA-120 election, Maryam Nawaz said that her father would return from London to fight the charges even though he might face arrest. Now that the Sharifs have announced they will not present themselves in court, because they don’t expect justice from it, the wags are saying that Nawaz Sharif may not return home in a hurry. Indeed, the word is out that some sort of “deal” is being proposed by the Establishment that orchestrated this drama in the first place – “stay away, don’t mess with us, let us run the country indirectly, and we’ll not screw you”. In this scheme of things, there is no scope for any strong political party in office because the record shows that power goes to the head of politicians and provokes them to challenge the Establishment, which is “heretical” in current parlance.

In the present circumstances, the Establishment is more powerful than it has ever been under a civilian dispensation. It is the Empire now. Instead of having to cope with a SC under a maverick like Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry who was prone to ticking it off periodically, the Establishment has now joined forces with Mr Chaudhry’s successors to bring its own errant offspring like Nawaz Sharif into line.

Pakistan’s tragedy is unending. Neither the Empire nor its offspring have learnt anything from history.

Sep 15

Another impasse?

Posted on Friday, September 15, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Another impasse?

Two women are slugging it out in NA-120 Lahore. One is Kulsum Nawaz, the ailing and absent wife of a recently ousted prime minister. The other is Dr Yasmin Rashid, a fiery stalwart of the PTI opposition. Both sides claim this is a make or break moment not for themselves but for the fortunes of their respective parties and leaders. How’s that?

NA-120 has been won by Nawaz Sharif or his PMLN nominee since 1985 with increasing margins every time except in 2013. But this time the PMLN is determined to win by the biggest ever margin. The idea is to demonstrate that far from being cowed down by a Supreme Court judgement, the popular vote is still for the ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Indeed, the hope is that a big win will bring some popular pressure to relent on the unaccountable institutions of the state that are gunning for Nawaz Sharif while gearing up the PMLN to win the next elections.

This election is also about Mariam Nawaz Sharif. She is staking her political career by managing the campaign on behalf not just of her mother but also of her father and her father’s party. If she succeeds in her efforts, she can rightfully claim to have stepped out of the anonymity of social media into the full glare of hardcore everyday politics in her own right. The battle is therefore also for the heir-apparent of the PMLN.  Will it remain in the hands of Nawaz Sharif through his daughter Mariam or will it pass to his brother Shehbaz Sharif and his son Hamza who heads the PMLN machine in Punjab?

The split in the House of Sharif is palpable. It is not just about who will lead the party and government but also about what sort of policies to follow vis a vis the military and judiciary in the future. The Nawaz camp wants to establish the primacy of the popular vote by making the military subservient to the executive and the Supreme Court accountable to parliament. The Shahbaz camp doesn’t want to mess with either institution whose capriciousness remains the undoing of many a party and many a leader.

The fate of NA-120 is also likely to stir the embers of a debate about when to hold the next elections. If the PMLN wins big, there will be arguments for an early election to carry the momentum forward before the sympathy of the “Iqama farce” subsides in the face of a new onslaught by NAB under the direct command of the SC. But this will be countered by the argument that the call for an early election is high risk for several reasons: a dissolution of the national assembly will be successfully challenged in the Supreme Court if it doesn’t simultaneously lead to a dissolution of the provincial assemblies which are not in the hands of the PMLN and if it leads to a general election without accounting for the results of the new census which won’t be available until next year. In that case, the argument goes, the stage may be set for a “neutral” interim government in Islamabad that is effectively controlled by the military and SC and which puts paid to all Nawaz-camp hopes and ambitions.

In the end, therefore, the significance of NA-120 may conceivably become a distant dot on the political landscape of the country. The NAB trial in the next six months may reveal ugly realities and make the military and Supreme Court doubly unforgiving and cripple the Nawaz family and camp. It may sow greater discord in the House of Sharif, with the Shahbaz camp openly distancing itself from the Nawaz camp in a bid to escape the fallout of the anti-corruption trail, thereby creating the necessary conditions for a split in the PMLN that could prove disastrous for both camps in the next elections.

We should not miss two other processes at work. One is the establishment’s pressure to reinvestigate the corruption cases against Asif Zardari. The other is the uncompromising position of the Election Commission and the SC against the money trail of Imran Khan and his PTI. If both opposition leaders are also knocked out, the stage will be set for yet another model of political evolution in Pakistan.

If the domestic scene is muggy, the foreign front is also shrouded in uncertainty following the announcement of an assertive anti-Pakistan policy by the Trump administration. The falling in line of China against core elements of Pakistan’s strategic regional policies is even more significant. A scramble of the army chief and the foreign minister to plead Pakistan’s case in foreign lands testifies to this ominous development. If the western or eastern border heats up amidst all this, the need for a united front of the crippled elected government, divided opposition and the all-powerful but alienated establishment will become acutely pressing precisely at a time when they are all at odds with each another. That cannot bode well for Pakistan.