Jun 30

“Double, double toil and trouble”

Posted on Friday, June 30, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

“Double, double toil and trouble”

If ever Pakistan needed political stability, economic certainty and visionary leadership, it is now. The internal and external environment is deteriorating and unaffordable political and economic turmoil is on the cards.

The internal environment stinks of conflict between the elected civil and institutional military leaderships, between the civil and judicial organs of the state, between the political parties and judiciary and among the political parties themselves. The conflict is bewilderingly comprehensive.

Despite a change of high command in the military from an overtly aggressive leadership to a neutral one, the institution is still bristling with hostility towards Nawaz Sharif, the elected prime minister, and his heir-apparent daughter, Maryam, and seems bent on getting rid of them.

But the battleground has shifted from the inspired dharnas on the streets of Islamabad to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and the Joint Investigation Team set up by it. The JIT has become hugely controversial, partly because of its own indiscreet bias and over-zealous behavior and partly because of a conscious strategy by the ruling party to undermine its credibility. Hardly a day goes by when the parties to the investigation – the three judges of the SC, the JIT and the ruling party and prime minister, do not trade bitter complaints against each other. Since the PMLN is already in the dock for a variety of sins of omissions and commissions, only the JIT and judges need fear a serious dent in their credibility at the outcome of the investigation and trial.

The JIT/judiciary are also at daggers drawn with various institutions of the state that are accused of obstructing their investigation. The judges have served notice to the chairmen of SECP, NAB and FBR while the IB has been warned to stop harassing the investigators. This confrontation between the judiciary and core civilian institutions of the state is no less inflammatory and destabilizing than the continuing civil-military conflict.

The political parties are also at serious odds with the judiciary. If Nawaz Sharif is obstructing the judicial investigation into the money trail of his personal wealth, Imran Khan is obstructing the Election Commission of Pakistan from inquiring into the money trail of his personal and party funds.

In this background, the deteriorating external environment is cause for concern. The porous border with Afghanistan is a continuing cause of terrorism in both countries. Anti-Pakistan Taliban holed out in Afghanistan and anti-Afghan Taliban holed out in Pakistan are shedding blood in both countries – the recent terrorist attacks that devastated Parachinar and Quetta no less than the one earlier in Kabul can all be attributed to state policies pursued by the intelligence agencies of both countries. American facilitation to resolve Pak-Afghan issues has failed, prompting the Chinese to step into the fray because of their huge investments planned in the region. But the political leaderships of both countries are paralysed by their internal problems and the chances of any quick successful outcome are slim.

Pakistan’s relations with India are hostage to the usual actors and factors. But PM Narendra Modi and his national security adviser A K Doval are in a belligerent anti-Pakistan mood while the Pakistan military establishment is not inclined to give the government any leeway in conducting any unconditional dialogue with New Delhi. So we may expect the border to remain hot, with attendant proxy warring by both sides.

Pakistan’s relations with the US could worsen. President Donald Trump is rolling out the red carpet for Narendra Modi even as the US Congress has introduced a bi-partisan bill to cut or reduce military assistance to Pakistan by withdrawing its status as a Major Non-Nato Ally because it has “failed to fight terrorism that has claimed American blood”. Apart from significant Coalition Support funds, this status enables Pakistan to receive priority delivery of defense equipment and a loan guarantee program for private banks that finance American arms sales to Pakistan. There are reports that the Trump administration is contemplating a tougher stance towards Pakistan while cozying up to India. The World Bank has sniffed the mood in Washington and accordingly issued a warning to the finance minister, Ishaq Dar, that he has missed important fiscal targets and must not expect leniency from donors.

Meanwhile, as general elections draw near, the political parties are at each other’s throats with renewed vengeance. The PTI has poached at least seven stalwarts from the PPP, including Babar Awan, while the PPP has nudged its former interior minister, Rehman Malik (who once investigated the money laundering trail of the Sharifs), to depose before the JIT against Nawaz Sharif.

What is unprecedented in this developing scenario is the central role of the judiciary in confronting and challenging state institutions and the country’s popular civilian actors. In the current situation, however, with elections due next year, it is a moot point whether the judiciary is right to get so deeply involved in criminal investigations which only promise more controversy and turmoil ahead.

Jun 23

Wings to fly

Posted on Friday, June 23, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Wings to fly

From the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 to the wondrous win at the Oval in 2017, it has been a long and often painful journey for cricket in Pakistan. Shunned by big-item foreign cricketers fearful of safety, domestic cricket became a drab affair, stadiums fell into disrepair, training academies were starved of funds, game development and talent hunt projects were abandoned and the wellspring of talent began to dry up. The most exciting and lucrative cricket contest of all – India-Pakistan series – also fell prey to politics when India refused to play Pakistan even in a neutral country. In the event, Pakistan’s “home away from home” – Dubai and Sharjah – was like an arid wasteland, with empty stadiums, dead pitches and high costs. Worse, the world had discovered an exciting new 20/20 cricket format and set up domestic leagues to excel in it but the Pakistan Cricket Board was woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. Indeed, unlike other Cricketing Boards run by professional managers and accountants, the PCB was mismanaged by grubby politicians and sifarshi bureaucrats. In 2013, the PCB was laid low by undue court cases and vested-interest conspiracies by elements of the ancien regime.

Thankfully, a new beginning was made in 2014 when a new constitution was unfurled, elections to the BoG and chairman were transparently held, efforts were made to induct professionals in management and imbue the organization with best international practices. The result is palpable. Against the odds, Pakistan achieved Number One Test Team ranking in the World earlier this year and last week became the OD Champions of the World without a single super star in its lineup.

This journey began with the onset of the Pakistan Super League in 2016. For many years, the PCB had toyed with the idea of forming its own Super League in line with that of England, Australia, the Caribbean and, above all, India. But a combination of incompetence, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption had stayed the project. The PCB could not outsource it because of lack of marketing expertise and didn’t know how to run such a League itself. It was also confused about how such a League would fare if it had to be held in the UAE instead of at home. Indeed, when the new PCB BoG finally gave the green light for the project, there were many Doubting Thomases who secretly hoped it would be a Waterloo for the new management. But the PSL has grown to provide a competitive and challenging environment for Pakistan’s budding talent. The youngsters who clinched the Champions Trophy are all PSL products. Along with the rest of the team, they came of age rubbing shoulders with mentors like Viv Richards, Brendon McCallum, Wasim Akram, Kevin Peterson, Chris Jordan, Darren Sammy, Kumar Sangakhara, and learning to cope with pressure to excel in a fiercely competitive environment.

But the journey isn’t over yet. The next step is to bring PSL home and fill Pakistan’s stadiums. Holding the Final in Lahore this year was a magnificent achievement. Selling a sixth franchise at double the value of the most expensive franchise in 2016 is a sign of remarkable financial success. That also means more top foreign players, more matches in the tournament (eight or nine are planned in Karachi and Lahore in 2018) and greater opportunities for youngsters to showcase their talent and gain valuable experience. The icing on the cake is a planned trip to Lahore in September by an ICC World Team comprising top international players.

Slowly but surely, step by step, the stage is being set for the full-fledged revival of cricket in Pakistan. The PCB is readying centers of excellence for training in Multan and Karachi. Budgets for renovating and upgrading stadiums in Karachi and Lahore have been sanctioned. Programs for the development of club and school cricket have kicked off. Regional cricket associations are being nudged to find sponsors to invest in the game with matching grants from PCB. Domestic cricket tournaments are being restructured with fewer teams for quality competition. The PSL draft model is being replicated in the domestic T20 and One Day formats to achieve better results. Foreign curators are being contracted to supervise the laying of international-level wickets. In short, more money, more professionalism, more energy is being put into game development so that cricketers can live up to the expectations of a cricket-hungry nation.

Of course, there will be ups and downs in this journey. Pakistan is still way down the pecking order in the shorter formats of the game. The great stars of test cricket like Misbahul Haq and Younas Khan have faded away and there aren’t many ready to step into their shoes. But no matter. A new crop of street smart cricketers with a ferocious appetite to excel in the game is waiting. The PCB must give them wings to fly.

Jun 16

Mood and Madness

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Mood and Madness

The good news is that Pakistan’s cricket team has survived a drought of 18 years to finally storm into the Final of the Champions Trophy. The bad news is that the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up by the Supreme Court (SC) to investigate the money trail of the ruling Sharif family has become much too controversial for its own good.

When Team Pakistan set out to redeem its honour – it was languishing at the bottom of the ODI rankings – not many expected it to even reach the semi-finals. Group A was bristling with top-guns India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Certainly, the team’s cowering performance in the opening match against India seemed to confirm the perennial naysayers on social and electronic media who have made it a business to bitch about the Pakistan Cricket Board and its administrators, coaches and selectors. Chastened, the team then seemed to pick itself up by its bootstraps in the second match against South Africa and was spared potential blushes by rain that washed out play. In the third match against Sri Lanka, the team was true to form – it restricted the enemy from posting a demoralizing target, then the star spangled “middle order” slumped ignominiously (“line lag gayi”) and stamped out any lingering hope of redeeming national honour. But Allah be Praised! A “sitter” enabled Captain Sarfaraz and pacer Amir to steer Pakistan to a nail biting win. But the stumbling recovery did nothing to boost confidence in the ability of the team to outrun hosts England who had been firing on all cylinders. However, Pakistan stunned everyone, not least itself, by whipping England on a glorious sun-drenched day in Cardiff and now seems invincible. The “wretched” PCB is now scrambling to buy tickets for complimentary distribution to ravenous VIPs and blackmailing media who were screaming blue murder only a few days earlier. The joy all round is palpable and infectious. It is as if Pakistan has been reborn, prompting the great British cricket commentator Rob Smyth to write these memorable words about Team Pakistan.

“I used to think that Pakistan were the most interesting team in the history of sport. I now realise that they’re the most interesting team in the history of mankind. Their ability to teleport between farce and genius is unparalleled, and at their best they are like watching sport directed by David Lynch. Nothing makes a blind bit of sense, key characters appear out from nowhere, supernatural forces are at work and inanimate objects can talk. All you can do is run with the mood and the madness.” The great Kevin Peterson (KP) attributed the success of Team Pakistan’s “key characters” to the “super successful” PSL with its “excellent standard” and “brilliant” management.

Alas. The JIT is not in any mood to celebrate. In fact, it is decidedly sour at the way in which its conduct is being portrayed in the media. In a sensational complaint to the Supreme Court, it has noted a litany of criticism by state and non-state actors that is unwarranted and aimed at obstructing its investigations. However, if there is an element of truth in these allegations, the JIT has only itself to blame. The seeds of controversy were sown by the less than transparent selection and biased conduct of some of its members. Indeed, the JIT demonstrated its political bias against the Sharifs by leaking a video-grab of Hussein Nawaz Sharif slumped in anticipation of being grilled by the JIT. Then, overnight, it assembled a dossier of alleged “attacks” on its credibility by pro-Sharif elements, a feat that could only have been achieved by the combined efforts of the agencies that monitor such things as a matter of routine, raising questions about its links and motives.

As the “JIT lurches from one self-made crisis to another”, the Sharifs’ indefatigable critic, Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, has been provoked to smell some sort of conspiracy. He says the JIT is behaving like “an election cell” of the PMLN, implying that its desperate actions are creating a wave of public sympathy for the Sharifs. Now that the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has appeared before the JIT in an unprecedented but dignified manner, it is a foregone conclusion that the JIT’s controversial deliberations will not amount to any conclusive arraignment or indictment of the Sharifs. The SC now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to contend with the JIT’s complaint as well as a fresh petition from Imran Khan on the same subject in support of the JIT. Meanwhile, arguments and documents continue to be traded in petitions against Imran Khan in the SC and ECP pertaining to the money trail of his personal wealth as well as that of funds for the PTI.

If Pakistanis are praying for a memorable win in the Final of the Champions Trophy on Sunday, they are not terribly sanguine about the outcome of the JIT’s Final Report next month. Perhaps we should just run with the mood and madness.

Jun 9

So many questions

Posted on Friday, June 9, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

So many questions

The JIT has become much too controversial for its own good. The opposition says this is a planned strategy by the government to save its neck. This would seem to make sense because a verdict against the Sharifs by a controversial JIT is not likely to have any credibility and will make the job of the three judges on the Supreme Court bench very difficult. As it is, the 3/2 judgment of the original five-member SC bench is steeped in controversy and another split judgment of the current three-member SC bench is going to make matters worse. Stray remarks by one or the other judges point to their frustration and irritation in the matter but have triggered whispering campaigns of bias.

Be that as it may, the facts tell a different story. The judges were wholly right in seeking a JIT of upright and unbiased professionals to investigate the money trail of the Sharif family. They were also right to seek recommendations from the top bosses of the MI, ISI, SECP, SBP, FIA and NAB. The problem arose when they decided to reject the nominations of the SECP and SBP. The two gentlemen who were finally chosen, ostensibly because of their expertise and professionalism, were tainted by anti-Sharif bias. More worryingly, the process of selecting them was not transparent even if it was in good faith. But when evidence of presumed bias was produced by a worried respondent the judges rejected it. It then transpired that the induction was even more murky than imagined: instead of being nominated, it had been clearly manipulated at someone’s behest. Who that “someone” is has yet to be determined even though the footprints of a senior officer of the SC are all over the place. But there’s more.

The first member of the Sharif family to be interviewed by the JIT, Tariq Shafi, has accused it of bullying and arm twisting. A degree of firmness is certainly the need of the hour and the Sharifs must expect some hard talk. But second degree methods are not par for the course in such an investigation. The treatment meted out to Hussain Nawaz also borders on harassment if not intimidation. Short response time to produce documents, long waits in the out-room, and now the mysterious appearance of a video grab of Hussain cowering in a bare room like a common criminal have given the Sharifs good cause to complain. The video-grab cannot be the handiwork of anyone except the administrators of the project. Who are these?

It is now clear that the military establishment is firmly in control of this project. The two gentlemen from the ISI and MI in this JIT are the same two who led the JIT investigations in the Dawnleaks case that created a serious rift between the civil and military leaders. Now we learn that all the “coordinators” are also from the same sort of military sources. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in seeking such help. After all, civilians are wont to clutch at the military whenever they doubt their own neutrality or ability, as for example in critical help in conducting a census or in overseeing general elections. But the current case is of a different nature. We know that Mr Sharif is intensely disliked by the military establishment for one reason or another. A cursory overview of serving and recently retired military officers will testify to their bristling hostility against him even if the current top brass is not so overly inclined. Under the circumstances, the government has every right to demand that the JIT should not only do justice but also appear to be doing so. We are, after all, investigating a popularly elected leader who has won the confidence of the people of Pakistan and been prime minister twice before and, going by current polls, is poised to win again in 2018.

Now there is a new development in the case. The Qatari Al-Thani Royal who provided a letter authenticating the source of funds for the Sharifs’ London flats has declined a JIT summons to Islamabad to clarify his position. Given the current state of geostrategic hostility in which Qatar finds itself because of a joint Saudi-UAE move to isolate and strangle the ruling Al-Thani regime, the witness has suggested that the JIT should come to Doha and interview him there. There is nothing untoward in this request. Instead of provoking media-carping, the JIT should dispatch someone to do the needful.

Unfortunately, Nihal Hashmi’s histrionics has provoked more questions. Who nudged him to make a statement that severely undermined the Sharifs’ position and compelled the PM to reprimand him severely? Indeed, who has now persuaded Mr Hashmi to resist his party leader’s demand for resignation from the Senate?

Many such questions are hanging in the air. We need answers. The honourable and upright judges should take steps to redeem the situation quickly.

Jun 2

JIT jitters

Posted on Friday, June 2, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

JIT jitters

Nihal Hashmi, the sole PMLN Senator from Karachi, is the fourth Nawaz Sharif loyalist to bite the dust in recent years. The irony is that like his noteworthy predecessors — Senator Mushaidullah, Senator Pervez Rashid and Mr Tareq Fatimi — his error lay in stepping on the toes of the powerful civil-military establishment in overzealous defense of his party-political line and not in revolting against their party chief. Indeed, in all cases, instead of protecting them as befits staunch loyalists covering his flanks, Mr Sharif succumbed to pressure and sacrificed them at the altar of his own security and longevity. The greater irony is that neither the PMLN nor Mr Sharif has yet managed to secure the trust of the civil-military establishment which was the main motive for abandoning these loyalists. This raises the question of whether it was right not to defend them in the first place. Indeed, the summary treatment meted out to them is bound to deter many from being more loyal than the King.

Mr Hashmi has often been a maddeningly blind defender of the PMLN and Nawaz Sharif. This made him a target of the establishment and opposition. But he went overboard on 28th May when he lost his cool before a small crowd of PMLN workers and warned “those who were conducting the accountability of the Sharif family” that PMLN workers would make this land of Pakistan “narrow” for them and their children because they would not be spared after they retired from service. “Those investigating us must know that we will observe your Day of Judgment”, he thundered. His ire was clearly aimed at some overly aggressive members of the JIT investigating the money trail of the Sharifs, notably Mr Bilal Rasool from the SECP and Mr Amer Aziz from the SBP who have been accused of anti-PMLN bias.

The PMLN is severely embarrassed by Mr Hashmi’s outburst. Only a couple of days ago, its case against both JIT members received a boost when it was revealed by the media that their selection was possibly motivated. The Registrar of the SC has not yet adequately explained why he leaned on the SECP to specially nominate Mr Rasool when several other names had been forwarded to him. After Mr Hashmi’s outburst, however, the focus of the debate has shifted to his threats against the JIT and the PMLN’s case has been significantly undermined. Now the CJP has summoned Mr Hashmi to determine whether he was in contempt of the judges who are carrying out the accountability of the Sharifs or threatening the JIT or both. Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to distance himself from Mr Hashmi’s objectionable tirade, the prime minister, who is president of the PMLN, has suspended him from party membership and obtained his resignation from the Senate.

The opposition is accusing Mr Sharif of instigating Mr Hashmi. But the accusation is not credible. It is still inexplicable that his statement should hit media headlines three full days after it was made. Did he perhaps fall into a trap by certain vested interests? Certainly, the PMLN has been badly hurt by his statement and its leaders are bemoaning Mr Hashmi’s stupidity, so they couldn’t possibly be behind it.

Regardless of Mr Hashmi’s indiscretion, certain aspects of the JIT investigation are troubling. The opposition-connections of Mr Rasool’s wife have not been denied. That implies an inbuilt bias against the ruling party. Mr Amer Aziz’s role in the prosecution or persecution (depends on how one looks at it) of the Sharifs during the Musharraf era is also a fact of political life. However, the SC has held both facts to be inconsequential. But how on earth can the new evidence of “interference” by the SC Registrar be ignored unless it is admitted he did so on behalf of the judges who had valid reason to pick and choose. It is also becoming clear that 60 days is too little time in which to marshal convincing evidence against the Sharifs for money laundering. The JIT’s attempt to substitute intimidation for investigation as alleged by some respondents is also worrying no less than the Sharifs attempts to obfuscate matters.

Much the same sort of problems are evident in the trial of Imran Khan in the SC and ECP for his inability to explain legitimate sources of external funding for the PTI as well as the money trail of his offshore company and the source of funds for the sprawling, billion rupee worth property at Bani Gala. The record simply isn’t available or forthcoming. Or there are damning holes in it. And the respondent-accused is making excuses or delaying matters.

Politics is dirty business. Just as it is wrong to mix religion and politics, it is counterproductive to drag the courts into it. In both these cases against Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, the honourable judges may suffer negative consequences if justice is not seen to be done to either.