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.

Sep 8

House in Order

Posted on Friday, September 8, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

House in Order

Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif has grabbed headlines with his statement that “we need to bring our house in order, to prevent facing embarrassment on the international level”. He went on to admit Pakistan’s “mistake” in participating as a “proxy” in America’s war in Afghanistan against the USSR in the 1980s. “We have baggage. We need to accept that history and correct ourselves.”

Khwaja Asif wants a “new foreign policy” to cope with a regional situation in which Pakistan faces isolation and censure. Following US President Donald Trump’s blunt criticism of Pakistan as “part of the problem” of Afghanistan, the recent Brics Summit has now, for the first time, listed Pakistan based non-state actors like the TTP, Haqqani Network, LeT, JM, etc, as terrorist groups. This means that key regional stakeholders China, Russia, America, India and Afghanistan have jointly put Pakistan on notice. Until now, China had gone the extra mile to protect Pakistan at international forums from being targeted as such.

Pakistan’s formal reaction to these twin developments has been two-fold. First, the civil-military leadership has united to reject the allegation that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism and needs to do more to stop it from hurting neighbours India and Afghanistan. In defense, it is reiterating evidence of a huge loss of soldiers and civilians in fighting terrorism on its soil sponsored from across its eastern and western borders. Second, it has hastily-convened a Conference of Foreign Envoys to formulate an appropriate policy response arising out of recent regional developments. Khwaja Asif’s statement deliberately reflects the thinking of the core elements in the Foreign Policy establishment.

But the equanimity with which Khwaja Asif has articulated a public “mea-culpa” and the consequent need for a new foreign policy is striking. Not so long ago, much the same sentiment was echoed by a couple of civilians in a meeting of the National Security Council that provoked the ire of the military establishment whence it came to be named “Dawnleaks” and destabilized the administration of Nawaz Sharif. Now the same military establishment had nodded approval to the same civilian leadership to publicly announce a review of the same “national security” doctrine in order to assuage the concerns and fears of the international community.

Pakistan’s defense of its contribution to the war on terrorism is accepted on one count and rejected on another by the regional stakeholders, including China. The world acknowledges that Pakistan’s military has waged a relentless war against the TTP, IS and assorted religious extremist groups terrorizing the people and state of Pakistan from bases inside and outside Pakistan. But it rejects its assertion that groups based inside Pakistan such as the Haqqani Network, LeT, JM etc that are attacking both Afghanistan and India but not Pakistan have its implicit and explicit support. Therefore when Khwaja Asif demands a change of foreign and national security policy, it is obvious that he is referring to policy regarding the Haqqani network, Let, JM etc with whom Pakistan’s regional neighbours and the international community are concerned and not the TTP, IS etc. The “do more” international mantra is directed at the former and not the latter. The significant new development is that this is now acknowledged by the foreign policy community of Pakistan.

The problem, however, is how to “do more”. The Haqqani network, like the rest of the Afghan Taliban, was provided safe havens and nurtured originally for leveraging the Afghan civil war to Pakistan’s advantage. Now it is clear that far from being to Pakistan’s advantage it has become a liability for Pakistan. The problem is how to oust it from Pakistan without pushing it into the arms of the TTP inside Afghanistan or IS inside Pakistan and reinforcing terrorism inside Pakistan.

Much the same sort of problem bedevils action against LeT and JM. Both were nurtured to leverage an advantageous solution to the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Now even the Kashmiris are not prepared to accept help from such Pakistan-based jihadis because it means tarring their struggle for Azaadi from both India and Pakistan. The problem for Pakistan is how to disband them without pushing them into the arms of the TTP as happened when the Musharraf regime decided to merely close the tap on jihad in 2005.

Pakistan’s resolve to neutralise the LeT, JM and Haqqani network would doubtless be strengthened if Afghanistan were to commit itself to eliminating the TTP based in Afghanistan and end support to Indian proxies terrorizing Balochistan. Likewise, if India were to demonstrate a sincere readiness to resolve the Kashmir issue to the satisfaction of the Kashmiris at least, the need for Pakistan to retain jihadi leverage would vanish. But neither India nor Afghanistan are prepared to take such steps.

For these reasons, a mutually advantageous and trusting regional approach to terrorism is the need of the hour. India and Pakistan must normalize relations, Pakistan and Afghanistan must act against anti-each other’s terrorists. And the US, Russia and China must assist them all to resolve their mutual problems instead of ganging up against Pakistan.

Sep 1

From Panama to Iqama

Posted on Friday, September 1, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

From Panama to Iqama

Nawaz Sharif is facing two unprecedented and simultaneous challenges. The first is from a ubiquitous “Establishment” comprising the military-judicial organs of the state. The second is from within his own House of Sharif. How he deals with them in the next year or so will determine both his own longevity and that of the Muslim League in the political system of Pakistan.

?Nawaz Sharif faced a “semi-establishment” challenge in 1993 and rebounded to win the 1997 elections. The challenge in 1999 was greater because it came directly and forcefully from the military. But he lived to fight another day after ten years in exile, thanks partly to a popular revolt against General Pervez Musharraf led by the judiciary that was partial towards the PMLN and partly due to an alliance with Benazir Bhutto over a “Charter of Democracy”. The challenge this time, however, is formidable because it comes from both a rigidly hostile military and a superior judiciary under popular pressure.

?The second challenge is from within the House of Sharif. It is over two critical issues. The first is that of political succession or heir apparent. If Nawaz cannot be prime minister again, will he be succeeded by brother Shahbaz Sharif or daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif? The second issue is over policy. Should the PMLN take on the “Establishment” under Nawaz and Maryam or should it live and let live with it under Shahbaz Sharif. These are existential choices, both personal and political. Clashing with the new “Establishment” has brought the Sharifs to this pass.

The Shahbaz camp argues that a continuation of this “disastrous” policy will spell disaster for Nawaz, Maryam and the PMLN. Better for Nawaz and Maryam to step aside and let Shahbaz, along with Chaudhry Nisar, repair the damage by winning back the trust of the “Establishment” and keeping the PMLN united and strong. But the Nawaz camp disagrees. It hopes to counter the power of the “Establishment” with the force of the people. The GT Road show was a demonstration of popular will. NA-120 will be a real test. This is to be translated both into counter pressure on the judiciary as well as a win in the next elections that enables a reversal of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification or enthronement of Maryam as his successor. All current indications are that Nawaz Sharif has embarked upon this latter route. The chances of his success are dependent on certain critical factors.

Foremost among these is his ability to rouse the popular imagination in his support. From “Panana to Iqama” is a powerful “mountain to molehill” metaphor for the “injustice” meted out to him by the Supreme Court. This can be successfully exploited at the hustings. NAB, which is going to prosecute him, is progressively losing credibility. After Asif Zardari’s “easy” acquittal in a NAB court last week, and an imminent change of Chairman NAB soon, the watchdog is likely to suffer from instability, uncertainty and skepticism. If Nawaz can stave off NAB until the next elections, and if he can win them, he can revive his fortunes again. The critical necessary factor, though not sufficient, is winning the elections.

Until now, anyone who has opposed the “Establishment” by clutching at populism has been “martyred”. Nawaz’s chances of surviving and winning are therefore slim. Still, there are choices to be made.

The most important of these relates to the timing of the elections. One argument is to delay these until next year after capturing the Senate in March for development schemes and mega projects to materialize and impress voters. The other is to hold these straightaway while the “Panama to Iqama” metaphor is still alive in the popular imagination so that the sympathy vote can be tapped before the “Establishment” delivers some lethal blows in the NAB trial to erode that narrative.

There are powerful arguments for holding general elections immediately. It would be foolish to start wooing the crowds many months before the elections. Voter fatigue is bound to set in after the first few rallies. The PMLN voter is different from PTI supporters who have fueled Imran Khan’s unending dharnas and continuing jalsas. The PMLN voter is older and statically wedded to the status quo. The PTI supporter is youthful and dynamically fired up with notions of “revolutionary change”. Nawaz must not expect his historically pro-establishment supporters to remain enthusiastic for long, let alone stand up and fight for him in a situation when the “Establishment” will be moving heaven and earth to split his party and cut him down to size.

If the Nawaz strategy is to peg political survival on popular support, his best bet would be to hold an immediate general election pegged to the “Panana to Iqama” metaphor before it becomes stale or is rejected by subsequent developments. Winning it now will provide the muscle to thwart NAB and find space for a compromise with the “Establishment” jointly fashioned with Shahbaz Sharif.