Nov 24

Holy Alliance

Posted on Friday, November 24, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Holy Alliance

The PPP is turning fifty on November 30. When it was launched, it was a party of fervent hope. Now it is a party of despair. It once promised radical change. Now it enshrines the status quo. It used to straddle the nation. Now it hunkers down in rural Sindh. It fertilized the struggle for democracy with the blood of four Bhuttos. Now it cowers in fear under a Zardari. How did this come about? What are the consequences of this for Pakistan’s state and society?

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a feudal aristocrat who served a military dictator. But he turned against his mentor and roused the working classes with the promise of “roti, kapra aur makaan”. Then he allied with the Miltablishment to cut East Pakistani aspirations to size, in the process losing half of Pakistan. Shortly after becoming President and Martial Law Administrator in 1972, he pitted the “power of the state against the power of the street”, progressively got rid of his “comrades” and by the mid-70s, had returned the PPP to the fold of the landowning classes. He gave the country its first democratic-federal constitution in 1973, then eroded it by sacking two provincial governments and imprisoning their leaders and parliamentarians. He envisioned the rise of “petrodollar Islam” in the Middle-East and enabled Pakistanis to be employed abroad, creating a solid base for foreign remittances that have kept the homeland afloat all these years. Then he launched an “Islamic bomb” program as wherewithal for leading a Muslim-Arab bloc in competition with the Third World’s Non-Aligned Movement and the West’s NATO, in consequence arousing the wrath of the US and paving the way for his overthrow by the pro-US Miltablishment and execution by its handmaiden judiciary.

Indeed, the one legacy that has outlived him and become a millstone around the neck of Pakistani state and society was his decision to politicize the religion of Islam. He brought “Islam” into the sloganeering equation of “democracy and socialism”. He bowed before majoritarian Islamists to outlaw the Ahmedis; he affiliated with Islamic despots in the Middle East and Africa for the crumbs of their rising petrodollar wealth. This eventually paved the way for General Zia ul Haq to push the “Islamic” envelope and “Islamise” state and society with horrendous consequences.

Benazir Bhutto was bold and beautiful. She discreetly removed the Islamic and Socialist provisions of the PPP’s manifesto and stuck faithfully to the notion of a tolerant, liberal democracy. But the Miltablishment charged her with inexperience, incompetence and corruption and got rid of her not once but twice. She lost popular support whenever she was booted out and was assassinated when she made a third heroic attempt to set things right. Her successor Asif Zardari inherited a national party in mourning and hastened its demise by antagonizing the Miltablishment, alienating the Judiciary and abandoning the poor and downtrodden who formed the core support base of the PPP. Now, relegated to the backwaters of rural Sindh on the shoulders of a corrupt and incompetent rural feudal elite that is sustaining itself on the opiate of ethnic nationalism, the PPP is bending and bowing to mend fences with the very middle-class, urbanized Miltablishment that has been the bane of its existence.

The relegation of the PPP to the status of a regional rural party is a national tragedy. It was the only party in Pakistan’s history that espoused, however haltingly and imperfectly, a liberal constitutional state at peace with itself and with its neighbours. Its progressive demise has run parallel with the consolidation of a reactionary, militarized state at war with itself and with its neighbours. Its political space was first lost nationally to the PMLN allied to the Miltablishment and, following the latter’s split after Nawaz Sharif breached the civil-military balance of power, to the PTI allied to the same Miltablishment. The PPP’s regional space is now at risk from the Muhajir parties and groups in urban Sindh allied to the Miltablishment. Its political tragedy is all the more profound since Pakistan’s demography is consolidating around an urban middle class political culture while the PPP is retreating into a rural feudalistic stranglehold.

Both the PPP and PMLN now stand at the crossroads of history. As the two leading mainstream, non-religious, national, centrist parties, both have won and lost against each other on the back of the Miltablishment. In the process, however, they have hurt each other’s prospects while strengthening the Miltablishment. One has been sidelined and the other is now being readied for the chop. Both now face the spectre of a rising Third Force in the shape of an intolerant, vengeful, fascist PTI in alliance with the Miltablishment and Judiciary, spearheaded by an angry, conservative, urbanized, youthful middle-class baying for “freedom” from both.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the PPP’s political downslide can only be halted by a holy political alliance with the PMLN against the Miltablishment backed PTI, Muhajir and Islamist parties. Unfortunately, however, personal affronts and egos stand in the way of a grand political strategy to save themselves and Pakistan.

Nov 17

Who’s unstoppable?

Posted on Friday, November 17, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Who’s unstoppable?

According to some analysts, Imran Khan is unstoppable because the Miltablishment has levelled the field and carpeted the road for him to the prime minister’s office in Islamabad. His stars are apparently aligned, his foes are divided and disarrayed and “electables” are cantering to his stables. The Supreme Court has gone after his main rival, Nawaz Sharif, all guns blazing. If his prospects are thus bright in the Punjab, the outlook in Karachi and rural Sindh is not bad. The MQM factions are at each other’s throats, dividing the ethnic vote, and giving him a foothold by default. The Miltablishment is also working overtime to stitch up an alliance or seat adjustment formula between the PTI and disparate anti-PPP and anti-PMLN elements in rural Sindh in order to make Khan a player in the Sindh assembly. As far as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is concerned, no fears. Notwithstanding Khattak’s corruption and Gulalai’s rage, its angry, idealistic youth still love the Teflon Man.

Alas. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Nawaz Sharif’s iqama disqualification that turned on a seriously deficient definition of taxable income has, unfortunately, undermined the credibility of the SC. The angry and overtly political response to the review petition has underscored the perception of bias. The appointment of a judge who penned the original anti-“Godfather” judgment as the presiding judge in the Hudaibiya case was an embarrassing sign of pre-ordained “justice”, its quick reversal an abject acknowledgment of it no less. The unholy gallop of the NAB courts against the Sharifs, compared to the walk-the-talk of the SC with Imran Khan and Jehangir Tareen, is equally deserving of negative comment. All this explains why Nawaz Sharif is still milking the Iqama factor for sympathy and even a mountain of evidence of wrong doing in the Hudaibiya case may not dent his legitimacy and popularity.

Then there is the matter of the case against Imran Khan. Everyone knows that if the SC were to adjudge it on the yardstick of Iqama it would be curtains for him. But if he is let off the hook on the basis of different standards of justice, Nawaz’s case in the eyes of the people would be strengthened. Indeed, his stock might rise if he is imprisoned – at least that’s the lesson of history when imprisonment or exile of popular leaders by unaccountable individuals or institutions is perceived as victimization – and the PMLN will reap the dividend in the next elections. Disqualification of both leaders would even the scales of justice and redeem the SC. It might even please the Miltablishment to be rid of two loose cannons while getting a freer hand to manipulate the malleable leadership waiting in the wings of the two mainstream parties. Indeed, this “solution” would facilitate a similar targeting of Asif Zardari by reopening old corruption cases and speed-tracking them to desired ends. After all, the Miltablishment is still hooked to the nexus between “corruption and terrorism” in Sindh that it first articulated three years ago and still determined to nail it for all times to come.

Consider, too, the implications of Nawaz Sharif’s resolve to stand and fight the Miltablishment against the advice of his brother and heir apparent Shahbaz Sharif. The Miltablishment has offered a deal: stop resisting, melt away into quiet exile and let Shahbaz lead the party in exchange for a partial reprieve for daughter Maryam and go-slow in the NAB cases against the family. But Nawaz has spurned the offer. This means that the Miltablishment must either step up the pressure in palpably painful or distasteful ways or retreat and leave Nawaz’s fate in the wobbly hands of the judiciary and uncertain affections of the people. The latter option is not a particularly appetizing one for a self-righteous Miltablishment bent on social and political engineering. But there is also a legal and political limit to the powers of the Miltablishment that is shy of seizing power directly and afraid of reaping the whirlwind of domestic and international opposition.

Everyone is looking at the next general elections in this context. Imran Khan’s demand for an early election is mere pressure tactics. In actual fact, his KP CM Pervez Khattak has just signed on in the CCI with the other mainstream parties for elections much later on due date. Similarly, everyone has agreed to delimitation of constituencies on the basis of the new census, which means elections not a day before due date. In other words, it has dawned on everyone that, while Nawaz should be downed and outed, they must not rock the boat so much that the Miltablishment can find an excuse to seize the electoral process, delay the elections and engineer a political geography without them.

Clearly, therefore, it is the people who will eventually decide who is stoppable and who is not. And that is the way it should be.

Nov 10

Full circle

Posted on Friday, November 10, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Full circle

The Miltablishment’s agenda for “democracy” is now clear – divide and rule. Why should it work now when it hasn’t in the past?

Asif Zardari has been baited to stop him from joining hands with Nawaz Sharif. In consequence, Farhatullah Babar and Raza Rabbani, who represent the righteous ideological face of the PPP, have been neutered by Mr Zardari’s volte face on the issue of accountability. Mr Babar has protested his party’s position to exclude judges and generals from the purview of the proposed new law. “I am embarrassed and humiliated. This is akin to the surrender of East Pakistan”, he lamented.

Mr Zardari’s “surrender” comes after 18 months in fearful exile following his diatribe against the generals in 2015 for linking his government’s corruption to terrorism in Sindh. Chastened, he is aghast at Nawaz Sharif’s “anti-state” statements.

Mr Zardari has also spurned Nawaz Sharif’s offerings to make a united cause against the generals and judges. He has had to forget how both conspired to hound him in the Presidency and oust his prime minister for defending him.

The Miltablishment’s sudden decision in the dead of night to cobble an electoral alliance between the MQM-P and PSP came in the wake of reports that Mr Zardari was on a fishing expedition to hook some disgruntled or unsteady MQM-P parliamentarians to the PPP’s side. All that remains is to install General (retd) Pervez Musharraf as the “rehbar” of the new muhajir alliance to recapture urban Sindh and keep Mr Zardari on a tight leash.

The Miltablishment is also urging six religious parties to band together once again under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (dissolved in 2007) so that the religious vote is united in chipping away at the mainstream parties. This is quite apart from the recent launching of two militant religious groups as political parties in the NA-120 by-election aimed at eroding the margin of the PMLN’s victory.

The rejection of the “delimitation” proposals based on provisional results of the 2017 census by the MQM-P, PSP, JI, PTI and PPP is part of this strategy. If this isn’t done in time, the Election Commission will be forced to postpone elections until the final census results are available. This could provide the justification for longer term “interim caretaker governments” based on apolitical technocrats ready to do the bidding of the Miltablishment against the PMLN.

The SC’s insistence on wrapping up the conviction of Nawaz Sharif quickly is also, objectively speaking, a move in the same direction. If Nawaz Sharif is knocked out for good, the chances are the PMLN will be whittled down by desertions and unable to win a majority in the next elections. A perusal of the SC’s full judgment in the “Iqama” case against Mr Sharif highlights the depth of political animosity built into this confrontation. The judgment, according to one respected editorial, “questions the ex-PM’s character, intentions and competence.” Its “tone and tenor will likely leave legal purists uncomfortable, with the harsh language and condemnation often veering away from strictly legal interpretations”. This was seemingly provoked by Mr Sharif’s GT-Road utterances against the judges and has now served to strengthen his resolve and sharpen his language against them. A NAB accountability court overseen by one of the angry five judges who convicted Mr Sharif has now rejected his petition to club all three references against him, a decision that will harass him from court to court and create obstacles in his mass-contact campaign to plead his case before the court of the people.

The hostility of the Miltablishment against Nawaz Sharif is also aimed at creating a rift between him and Shahbaz Shahbaz. This will objectively weaken the PMLN, just as support for Imran Khan is aimed at propping him up as a strong counterweight to Mr Sharif.

In some critical ways we seem to have come full circle to the military interventions of 1977 and 1999. The first led to the creation of the MQM as a knife in the heart of the PPP in Sindh and the rise of Nawaz Sharif as a bulwark against Benazir Bhutto in Punjab. The second led to the ouster of both Bhutto and Nawaz, creating the PMLQ and MMA, and strengthening the MQM. The third intervention now underway brings forth the spectre of an anti-mainstream party front of old Miltablishment allies, aided and abetted by a new pro-Miltablishment player in the shape of the PTI. On all three occasions, the judiciary has been an integral part of the engineered political framework.

To be sure, the public acknowledges the corruption of both Zardari and Nawaz. Nevertheless, it still prefers to vote for them over the stooges and props of the Miltablishment who are also tainted in one way or another. This compels the search for “democratic solutions” within an old circle and leads nowhere. That is why it is best to follow the world model and let the system evolve freely from political rags to institutional riches in the imperfect ways of constitutionalism and electoral democracy.

Nov 3

Nawaz Sharif’s options

Posted on Friday, November 3, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Nawaz Sharif’s options

Despite his wife’s serious illness and confinement in London, Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan to face a NAB court. This is the correct position to take. The public approves of leaders who confront and overcome adversity instead of running away or cowering in fear. General Pervez Musharraf, on the other hand, has fled the country to avoid accountability and there is nothing anyone can do to drag him into court.

This reflects the prevailing political philosophy of accountability for elected politicians and immunity for generals and judges. The draft of a new bill on accountability approved by the PMLN government and PPP opposition in parliament specifically excludes these two categories from its purview.

Much the same sort of advice is being given to Mr Sharif by well-wishers and detractors alike: don’t rock the boat of the generals and judges, one has a gun and the other brandishes the law. But Mr Sharif is not inclined to lie down and enjoy the ride to disgrace and obscurity. He continues to proclaim his innocence and insists that the generals and judges have ganged up against him unfairly.

Mr Sharif should have thought through the consequences of his actions and policies when the same generals and judges were going after Asif Zardari’s PPP in Sindh and his interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, was egging them on rather self-righteously. Now that “they” have come after him (Chaudhry Nisar was not among those loyalists who received him at the airport) Mr Sharif cannot expect the PPP to sympathize with his cause. In fact, the PPP is saying that Mr Sharif should have been meted out the same brutal and menacing treatment by NAB that was reserved for the PPP’s Sharjeel Memon upon his return to Pakistan when he was handcuffed and led off the plane straight to prison.

The bell is now tolling for Mr Sharif. Every time he has handpicked an army chief or ISI chief, both have wilted under pressure from their institution to stand up to him and establish their independence. Every time he has succumbed to pressure from both to abandon a party loyalist in his own cause – Senators Mushaidullah, Pervez Rashid, Nihal Hashmi and Advisor Tariq Fatimi come to mind – he has made himself more and not less vulnerable to them. Unfortunately, however, when he has stood up to “them”, he has chosen the wrong issues. The institution of the Pak Army will not allow a coup-making Chief to stand trial. And if a serving Chief is compelled to publicly “regret” a policy or action by a serving Prime Minister, he is bound to more than make amends by compelling the same Prime Minister to “regret’ his decision.

Much the same approach is manifest in dealings with the judiciary. Every time Mr Sharif has joined hands with the judiciary to unfairly undermine his political opponents – as when he actively pursued the Memogate case and the sacking of a PPP prime minister – the judiciary and opposition have paid him back in the same coin. Elementary. What goes around comes around.

Mr Sharif was also wrong-footed on Panamagate from the start. His “address to the nation” was ill-advised because it brought the issue center-stage. His “explanation in parliament” about the source of his family’s wealth became a millstone around his neck when it didn’t tally with the revealed facts later. His readiness to enjoin the Supreme Court to pursue the matter and his willing acceptance of a role for the ISI and MI in the investigation are now extracting their price.

The debate over a political successor was also counterproductive. It signaled a weak, ill-fated hand. The family row related to it – Nawaz versus Shahbaz and Mariam versus Hamza – spilled into the open and made matters worse. A simple announcement immediately after the Supreme Court rejected his disqualification appeals to the effect that Nawaz Sharif would become President of the PMLN and Shahbaz Sharif would be the party’s prime minister-in-waiting after the next elections would have done the trick.

What next? In a sense, there is no alternative. Nawaz Sharif has built his populist credentials on not “taking dictation” from anyone and “never saying die”. His current “martyrdom” dividend is dependent on the perception of unfairness at the hands of the Iqama-baiting Miltablishment. To meekly succumb to the Miltablishment by adopting a policy of silence rather than vigourous disputation would be construed as a sign of abject defeat which will neither get him off the accountability hook nor assure a win for the PMLN in the next elections. The real challenge is to stand firm, fend off the corruption charges, put a lid on family disputes and keep the PMLN united until the Senate elections are won and the next elections announced at an opportune time.

This will not be easy. Nawaz Sharif could do much worse by not apologizing to Asif Zardari and joining hands to build a united political front with other political parties to thwart unaccountable power-wielders.