Oct 1

Mengal’s six-point agenda

Posted on Monday, October 1, 2012 in Articles

The News, October 01, 2012

Najam Sethi: The writer is Jang Group/Geo advisor on political affairs and host of Aapas Ki Baat on Geo TV

Sardar Akhtar Mengal has returned to Pakistan after three years of self-imposed exile in London to depose on the state of Balochistan before the Supreme Court. He has submitted a six-point plan in order to create an environment of truth and reconciliation for resolving the conflict in the province. His six-points, he says pointedly, are akin to the six-points presented in 1966 by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Bengali nationalist movement who later became the founder of the new state of Bangladesh. A comparison of the two plans is instructive.

 

Sardar Mengal’s six points are: (1) All overt and covert military operations against the Baloch should end; (2) All missing persons should be produced; (3) All proxy death squads created by the ISI and MI should be disbanded; (4) Baloch nationalist parties should be allowed free political play without interference from ISI and MI; (5) Those responsible for the killings and disappearances should be brought to book; (6) Thousands of Baloch displaced by the conflict should be rehabilitated.

 

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s six points were: (1) Pakistan should be a federation with four independent states; (2) The federal government should have only defense and foreign affairs; (3) There should be two separate currencies; (4) The federating states should collect all taxes; (5) Export earnings of each province should be separately accounted for; (6) East Pakistan should have its own paramilitary or militia force.

 

A comparison of the two plans reveals some interesting similarities of context and differences of substance: (1) Sheikh Mujib’s plan all but demanded independence from Pakistan. But for Akhtar Mengal, “a soft or hard divorce” is still dependent on the outcome of the dialogue and reconciliation process. (2) Sheikh Mujib’s plan, like Akhtar Mengal’s, was articulated in a period of ferment and discontent before an impending election. In the event, the Awami League’s sweeping victory in the 1970 elections provided him a perfect platform to implement his plan. Akhtar Mengal’s plan is still open-ended in the sense that it seeks to create the conditions in which a dialogue for reconciliation can take place. But there is no doubt that if the demands of the nationalists are accepted for a level playing field in the next elections, they are sure to form the next government in Balochistan. Whether they will subsequently reconcile or insist on divorce depends on many factors, not least the attitude of the armed state and non-state actors on both sides. (3) In both cases, the military establishment was accused of being responsible for the injustices to the province. Gen Ayub Khan’s “one unit” West Pakistan formula centralised all power in Islamabad no less than Gen Musharraf’s Chief Executive-ship.

 

It is significant that the government and military establishment have jointly and swiftly responded to Akhtar Mengal’s charge sheet by denying any culpability. There are no death squads, no covert or overt military operations, no missing persons in the custody of the military in Balochistan, they insist. Indeed, the government claims that maximum provincial autonomy has already been devolved to the provinces by the 18th Amendment and revised 7th NFC award and Aghaz-e-Haqooq package for Balochistan.

 

If the attitude and response of the military establishment is distressing, Akhtar Mengal’s silence on the targeting of Punjabis in the province is disappointing. Clearly, the political leaders of the PPP and the Baloch nationalist movement are veritable prisoners in the hands of their respective armies.

 

Akhtar Mengal’s unexpected arrival in Islamabad has led to speculation that some headway on reconciliation before the elections may have been made behind the scenes. One proposal is to guarantee a sympathetic caretaker government in Balochistan with the approval of the nationalists, give them a level playing field, and provide assurances that if they win a majority they can have Akhtar Mengal as chief minister.

 

But there are three problems with this “solution”. First, there is no assurance that military action by both sides will end forthwith. Indeed, the Pak military may require a formal renouncement of armed struggle for secession as a pre-condition to withdrawing from the province. Second, the leaders of the armed resistance in exile, and not Akhtar Mengal, hold all the cards. The fact that they belong to the powerful Marri and Bugti tribes and have spurned political overtures in the past is a big complication. Third, there are no guarantees of how the military establishment and nationalists will act in the post-election period. If, as in the aftermath of the 1970s elections and formation of a National Awami Party (NAP) government in Quetta in 1972, Islamabad thinks that the nationalists are using the political platform to promote their separatist agenda, then there will be more rather than less upheaval and recrimination.

 

The “problem” of Balochistan is symptomatic of the problem of Pakistan. The ideology of a national security state in which the military calls the shots has alienated people and provinces at home and provoked countries in the region to fish in our troubled waters. Unfortunately, the civilians – judges, media, government and opposition – are still squabbling among themselves and the military is still in a state of denial of hard new realities.

 

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has articulated a controversial twist to the debate on the use of drones in Fata. She recently said that Pakistan does not disapprove the use of drones to kill terrorists in Fata – it only wants them to operate in a legal context. This is a reiteration of an old Pakistani demand. The issue for Pakistan is one of ownership of the drone program, rather than the nature of casualties inflicted by drones.

 

This is interesting because it comes in the middle of a debate in America that is focused on three points: the international legality of the drone program, the extent of civilian versus terrorist casualties and the psychological trauma of the population being targeted.

The Americans have formulated a doctrine to offset the issue of legality. They argue that a fax is sent to the Pakistani military establishment routinely outlining planned drone strikes in Fata, and an acknowledgement of the fax is implicit permission by Pakistan. The problem is that the Pakistanis have lately not been acknowledging the faxes and openly saying that the drones violate their sovereignty.

 

The second issue of casualties has now become equally controversial. Until recently, American military, media and academics were united in claiming that the ratio of civilian to terrorist targets was lower in the case of drone attacks than in any other form of warfare. They also insisted that the drone strikes were very useful in degrading terrorist networks. But both contentions have now been challenged in a new report from Stanford University and New York University. Apparently, a change of attack tactics under the Obama regime has led to greater killings of both foot soldiers and civilians than in the past, without significantly degrading the military capability of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

 

The third issue touches on the trauma of a population that is constantly in dread of silent drone strikes. Since the guerillas live in a sea of civilians, whole populations are terrorised by the possibility of a drone strike at any time. So even if the civilians hate the militants who have brought death and destruction in their wake, they hate the drones more because they are silent merciless killers of civilians and militants alike.

Ms Khar doesn’t have any problems defending the use of Pakistani F-16s against terrorist targets in the tribal areas, regardless of the extent and nature of civilian casualties. If she could own and use the drones too, she wouldn’t much care for the mass trauma of local populations from this fearful weapon of war.

Jun 3

Belligerence with a mission

Posted on Friday, June 3, 2011 in Articles

DAWN: Eshwar Sundaresan on June 3rd, 2011

Most Indians who want to know what’s happening in Pakistan and what Pakistanis are saying about India intuitively visit the Dawn website. We come here to consume secular, progressive and balanced opinions on Pak and Indo-Pak issues. In comparison, few Indians have heard about a veteran Pakistani journalist called Najam Sethi. Pity! I say that because it’s time Indians wonder why we don’t have an equivalent of Najam Sethi in our electronic media.

In case you haven’t heard about him, let me begin by telling you that Sethi has been imprisoned thrice by different Pakistani regimes. First, by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (for protesting against military action in Balochistan), then by General Zia ul Haq (for publishing a book by a former Chief Justice of the SC, Justice Mohammad Munir, in which he lamented his role in legitimizing the first martial government in Pakistan in 1958), and most recently, by the Nawaz Sharif government (on charges of treason).

Over the years, his critics have conferred many unflattering labels on Sethi. In the 70s or thereabouts, he was a “Russian agent” because he felt that Pakistan’s alliance with America was not in its best interests. Later, he was termed an “Indian agent” because he wanted peace with India and vociferously declared that India posed no security threat to Pakistan. In recent times, his views have made him an “American agent.”

A couple of years ago, Najam Sethi began appearing in a weekly dial-in Live television show in which all kinds of thorny issues are discussed. Which meant that, instead of writing for the English-speaking elite, he was now speaking in Urdu to millions of Pakistani citizens and expats. And what was he telling them?

Things, one would have thought, they did not want to hear, such as:

• The desire of the Balochis to secede from Pakistan; this one-hour program spoke about the usual problems thrust on regions experiencing insurgencies – like the unconstitutional means employed by the army, the connivance of the local elite with the army and the stark poverty of the local populace.

• The sheer dependence of Pakistan on American aid, without which Pakistanis will “eat grass” (ghaas khayenge).

• The reasons why the world romances with India, and not with Pakistan.

• The reasons why Kashmir will never become a part of Pakistan and how even the Pakistani establishment accepts this inevitability inside closed doors.

• The threat posed to Pakistan by the fundamentalists.

Sethi delivers these anti-populist opinions using his signature in-your-face style and backs them with indisputable facts or, in the very least, a lucid perspective. And somehow, he manages to combine the hawk’s mannerisms with the dove’s mission.

Some might be inclined to call Sethi outspoken, belligerent and opinionated. Incidentally, the same description fits most of the TV media mascots in India. But what distinguishes Sethi from our mascots is the simple fact that he doesn’t have lines that cannot be crossed.

He’s a patriot who is willing to attack nationalism when required, a secularist who will illuminate the transgressions made by secularists, and a pacifist who will support internal and external military agencies whenever he feels that they have a case.

The equivalent TV media personality in India would talk about human rights excesses in Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram et al without conjunctions, rejoinders or excuses. He or she will address the Naxalite issue without wanting to mention the law-and-order aspect every fifteen seconds. In short, he or she will not toe the government’s line just because it’s “nationalistic” to do so. His or her mission will be to ruffle our feathers and make us rethink our established outlooks on issues that matter. But in reality, such anti-populist stances are adopted only by our alternate media – publications such as the Economic and Political Weekly and (frequently enough) Tehelka – or personalities on the fringe such as Arundhati Roy.

Sethi is able to cover much ground in his show because of its format. He consumes most of the airtime while the anchor challenges his harsh verdicts with mainstream opinions.

Can we not emulate this format in India? If the argument is that our media mascots cannot take rigid stances, then my counterargument is that they already do. They’ve already made up their minds on all the topics being discussed. And by asking questions that take two minutes to deliver and demanding responses within thirty seconds, they end up dominating the conversation anyway. So maybe they could adopt Sethi’s format for one of their talk shows and grab the mike, as it were.

Personally, I’d love to watch a Sethi-like show featuring distinguished print journalists – the likes of MJ Akbar or P Sainath – who will voice nonconformist, anti-populist views to the mainstream. Surely the average Indian citizen is capable enough of receiving and assimilating disturbing information, no matter what form it takes?

At the moment, Pakistan is blessed with many stoic anti-populist voices such as Najam Sethi – people who, despite risk to life and limb, speak their mind and strive to restore normalcy in their country. Their presence makes me wonder whether Pakistan currently has a more evolved media.

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

Apr 24

Poverty of philosophy

Posted on Sunday, April 24, 2011 in Articles

The News
Across the length and breadth of Pakistan, amongst journalists, politicians, generals and even judges, there is a poverty of philosophy that is crippling the development of a stable state and responsible society. From the personal to the political, from the ridiculous to the sublime, this poverty manifests itself everyday in reckless outbursts of remarks, statements and comments that obfuscate issues instead of clarifying them. Consider.

Some well-known journalists have been predicting the end of the Zardari regime for over a year now by regularly giving D-Day deadlines. But President Asif Ali Zardari continues to defy their hollow predictions, prompting Javed Hashmi to wisecrack that a PhD in politics may be required to fathom his brand of politics. Considering how very consistently wrong they have proven to be, one may be forgiven for wondering whether it is lack of intelligence or scarcity of credible sources that lies at the root of their helplessness and rage. Or is it plain wishful thinking and personal vendettas that are masquerading as serious front-page political analyses?

There is even less justification for them to run down fellow journalists who don’t subscribe to their predictions, unless it is that green eyed monster called jealousy. To say that Zardari will not be booted out by such or such a date for various reasons is not to say that he shouldn’t be booted out, but to assess the scientific likelihood of that happening without attributing any value judgment of a good or bad outcome to it. But those editors, reporters and columnists who have been predicting Zardari’s end want it to happen so desperately that they are ready to sacrifice their credibility at the altar of their mission. This is politics, not journalism.

Much the same thing happened during General Pervez Musharraf’s last year in office. Sections of the media and civil society were so desperate to kick him out – albeit for the right reasons – that they were passionately intolerant of those among them who were inclined to shake their heads cold-bloodedly and say it wasn’t going to happen so soon. The lawyers’ movement in its heyday also demonstrated similar tendencies in the same sections of society between those who ardently wished the movement to be a revolutionary transformation to turn everything upside down and those who analysed it as a significant but non-revolutionary political transition to greater democracy. Surely, passion shouldn’t prevail over reason, or prejudice over logic; nor should one’s credibility be flogged at the altar of patriotism (these days it is synonymous with anti-Americanism), that classic last refuge of scoundrels.

If to err is to be a journalist, politicians may claim even less credibility by the same yardstick. Mr Raza Hayat Heraj has floated a bill in the national assembly that aims to reduce the fundamental rights of certain categories of citizens. He says that Pakistanis with dual nationalities (Pak-American or Pak-Brit) should not be eligible for public office in Pakistan because their oath of loyalty to their country is divided. This is a matter of fact, hence it is eminently reasonable to make this demand to change the law. But then Mr Heraj succumbs to cheap populism when he demands that those with financial interests outside Pakistan should also be debarred from public office for the same reason.

If he had asked for a legal ban on holding financial interests abroad, he would have been consistent at least in asking for targeting law-breakers from being excluded from public office. But to ask Pakistanis who have paid due taxes in Pakistan or in their foreign country of residence on incomes earned at home or abroad respectively to give up their fundamental rights is morally and legally wrong. The essence of free market economies is free capital movements. You cannot implore Pakistanis resident or working abroad to remit their disposable taxed incomes to Pakistan while restricting Pakistanis from repatriating similarly taxed incomes abroad in search of greater profitability and security. This would amount to punishing law-abiders like the ill-advised freeze on, and enforced conversion of, foreign currency deposits inside Pakistan after the nuclear tests in 1998.

Mr Heraj’s bill is also poorly drafted: it refers to the income and wealth of people and their spouses and children, without sufficiently clarifying the core distinction between dependent spouses and children and non-dependent ones, regardless of the stakes they hold in the common property or wealth in contention. This is a reasonable critique. But it has apparently drawn Mr Heraj’s ire so much that he has lashed out personally at the messenger – when you can’t argue with someone’s logic, call him an American agent and clinch the argument – rather than debating or clarifying the message logically and reasonably. This would suggest a cheap shot at popularity rather than serious concern about the credibility and efficiency of parliamentarians or “public servants”.

An example of the sublime without sufficient humility is also at hand. The chief justice of our country has recently lectured soldiers on the value and significance of the oath they take to defend and uphold the Constitution. Earlier, his message to bureaucrats and civil servants was along the same lines: don’t obey illegal orders from the executive. These belated lectures are to be roundly applauded, especially since many soldiers in general and coup-making generals in particular tend to think of the Constitution as a “scrap of paper” which can be torn up when they think the “interests” of the country are at stake. But the constitution is a social contract between the rulers and the ruled and embodies the interests of the nation, state and country above anything else.

The same day that the CJP was lecturing potentially errant soldiers, the chief justice of India was elaborating the “canons of judicial ethics” and the doctrine of law that governs the relationship between the elected and sovereign parliament and the unelected and independent judiciary in any democratic political system. Justice Kapadia cautioned judges against over-reach in the guise of activism. He urged them not to ignore the doctrine of the separation of powers between the executive and judiciary as enshrined in the constitution. He said judges should not make policy or try to run administrations. He also said that judicial activism that is not grounded in any textual commitment to the constitution, unlike cases of human rights and life and personal liberty, raises questions of the accountability of judges. He concluded by remarking that judges should not sit as a super-legislative body to weigh the wisdom of legislation. “We should practise what we preach,” he urged his judicial colleagues.

There is a poverty of philosophy when the army, judiciary, media and parliament neglect human development and spend scarce resources on non-productive sectors at the cost of an educated, informed, globally integrated population. This is what happens when one or the other organs of the state whip up passions and paranoia to maintain their narrow interests. They do so at the cost of the larger good. This is how we end up with a brutalised national mind; this is how mediocrity comes to reign supreme in every sphere of national life.

The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.

Feb 20

Setting things right?

Posted on Sunday, February 20, 2011 in Articles

The News, February 20, 2011

On the face of it, the Supreme Court seems to be gearing up to claim secession from the government and parliament of Pakistan. Is this what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they sought an “independent” judiciary? The other question worth asking is: what is the intent and purpose of this drive for secession? Is it to hold the government and executive accountable for their sins of omission and commission – which are many – or is it to seize the reins of executive authority and thereby “set things right”? These are harsh questions. But we need to ask and answer them in the face of developing political instability and the spectre of a clash of institutions in Islamabad.

Four recent developments are noteworthy.

The Supreme Court has “suspended” a decision of the Parliamentary Committee to refuse extensions to four “additional” judges of the Lahore High Court that had been earlier approved by the Judicial Commission. Reason: the Parliamentary Committee was constitutionally obliged to record its reasons for rejecting the recommendations of the Judicial Commission. Is this “suspension” in order? If the Supreme Court had not so readily accepted a constitutional petition challenging the Parliamentary Committee’s decision and instead advised the attorney general to seek the reasons underlying the committee’s rejection as required by law, no one would have been alarmed. Instead, the stage seems to be set for a clash.

What if the objections of the Parliamentary Committee are not acceptable to the Supreme Court? The whole constitutional idea behind the institution of a Judicial Commission – dominated by the chief justice and his senior judge-colleagues – and the Parliamentary Committee – comprising an equal number of parliamentarians from the government and opposition – is to ensure a fair degree of neutral judicial oversight by a sovereign parliament. But if the Supreme Court is now going to sit in judgment over the Parliamentary Committee, the whole exercise of the 18th and 19th Amendment will have been in vain and the critics of the Supreme Court will be proven right in their prediction that the court is seeking “secession” rather than independence.

Then there is the question of the extension in service of bureaucrats after retirement with which the Supreme Court is “seized.” The Supreme Court has held that such contractual extensions are illegal. This has led to the wholesale sacking of many in the federal and provincial governments, thereby opening the route for deserving younger officers whose careers had stalled because their “seniors” were so adept at pulling strings and pushing sifarish to prolong their careers. The argument that some such officers were “indispensable” for their political masters because of their administrative experience and expertise has not washed with the Supreme Court.

However, a controversy has arisen because the Supreme Court is not seen to apply the same logical yardstick to the herd in its own courtroom. Why is the Supreme Court resorting to ad-hocism by seeking a second extension in service for Justice Khalilur Rehman Ramday and another for Justice Rehmat Hussain Jaffery? To be sure, Justice Ramday is reputed to be the right hand of the chief justice of Pakistan, having authored several important judgments. But, as the Supreme Court Bar Association says, it is time to end the culture of ad-hocism and double standards, regardless of the indispensability of individuals in the institutions of the state, especially in the judiciary whose judgments depend on the perception of fairness and impartiality for their credibility.

Critics say that if the workload in the Supreme Court has risen because of the special suo motu attention it is devoting to issues of bad governance and corruption by the executive, the proper way of going about addressing it would be to seek a suitable amendment to the Constitution and raise the number of judges from 17 to 19 or 20, or whatever. The Supreme Court’s reservations about the method of appointing judges as set out in the 18th Amendment were laid to rest by the 19th Amendment that was specifically passed by parliament for the purpose.

If the number of judges in the Supreme Court is an issue, it should have been raised at the proper time at the proper forum, rather than been thrust on an unsuspecting parliament. So it is right to ask why the judiciary is not applying this principle of no-extension to itself? Equally significantly, why is this principle not relevant to the army where the army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the director general of the ISI, Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and the Defence Secretary, Gen Syed Athar Ali, are all on extensions?

The third controversial decision of the Supreme Court relates to the fate of the so-called PCO judges who took oath in November 2007 disregarding the judgment of Nov 3, 2007, by Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and six other fellow judges, striking down Gen Pervez Musharraf’s second coup. These judges are in the dock for “contempt of court” because they are alleged to have disobeyed the order of the seven-member bench by swearing oath on the new PCO.

The controversy has arisen for several powerful reasons. One set of rules seems to be applied to the judges and another to all the others who also disobeyed the order of Nov 3, in particular the current army chief and corps commanders of the time. A judgment regarding their fate has been frozen in a time warp. And then there is the extraordinary “show-cause” notice to four Supreme Court judges by Justice Jehanzeb Rahim, one of the PCO non-functional judges in Peshawar, who says the Peshawar High Court is immune from the proceedings of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has moved swiftly to ban non-functional judges from issuing such “illegal orders,” but the damage has been done. “Judges against judges” mocks the very notion of a judiciary.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the Supreme Court is still sitting on a petition that challenges the 18th Amendment, despite the fact that the 19th has been passed and hasn’t been challenged. What is the meaning of this? Why didn’t that petition become infructuous after the challenge raised in it against some provisions of the 18th Amendment regarding the appointment of judges was suitably resolved in the 19th Amendment, with the implicit approval of the Supreme Court?

In view of these outstanding controversial issues, analysts are inclined to ask where the Supreme Court is headed. Secession or independence? If these issues are blithely brushed under the rug but the NRO case is revived against the PPP, President Asif Zardari in particular, then it is a safe bet that we are heading in the direction of a major political intervention by the Supreme Court to “set things right.” But only time will tell whether this will set things right or irredeemably wrong.

The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.

Feb 13

Party politics or national interest?

Posted on Sunday, February 13, 2011 in Articles

The News, February 13, 2011

Time is running out on the 45-day deadline given last month by Mr Nawaz Sharif to President Asif Zardari for the implementation of an extraordinary 10-point agenda to set things right. What happens when, not if, most of Mr Sharif’s demands are shrugged away by the PPP government? Also, it is equally important to determine the intrinsic validity of these demands in order to ascertain whether Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari are both playing “politics as usual” or have national interest uppermost in mind.

Mr Sharif says the federal government must freeze the prices of “basic goods and services”, especially oil and gas products, and end “load-shedding” of gas and electricity. But this is simply not possible in the short-term. The prices of “basic goods” are linked to domestic and international market factors, exchange rates, foreign exchange reserves, money supply, subsidies and support prices to farmers. The prices of oil and gas, and the necessity of “load-shedding”, are related to the current stock of oil, gas and hydroelectric resources of the country – which cannot be significantly changed quickly – no less than the inability of the government to cough up the money to clear the circular debt or stop massive thieving in the sector.

Mr Sharif wants Mr Zardari to “eliminate corruption” by sacking “those ministers and government officials who are accused of corruption and replace them with reputed and clean people”. A noble objective, this is certainly doable. Should accusations alone suffice to fire people, especially in a charged environment where passions and prejudice are running high?

A case in point is the forced resignation of the MD PIA at the behest of violent union mobs protesting a complex financial proposal that has neither been signed nor fully understood by most objectors. But the weight of history must be reckoned with, especially in the personal case of Mr Zardari, no less than the PPP government, both of whom have been dogged by credible corruption charges on all three occasions when they have been in office. Therefore, the intervention of the Supreme Court in such matters is beneficial. The sacking of Raja Pervez (Mr Rental Power) from the Oil and Gas Ministry is timely, even though the retention of Mukhdum Amin Faheem as Commerce Minister is a concession to real politik rather than any stubborn denial of his inefficiency or tainted persona. Mr Sharif wants the PPP government to “recover all bank loans that were written off due to political pressure”. Again, a noble objective, but one that is both complex and double-edged, as the lawyer representing the State Bank of Pakistan has deposed before the Supreme Court. It is complex because most of the loans in question were written off when the loan-disbursing banks were in the public sector but have since been privatised.

Digging the record and perusing the true intent behind each major write-off, many of which are part of complex legal deals worked out with NAB, will require Herculean efforts by a trained team of banking experts. This can’t be done arbitrarily. Also, there will be questions of the legal propriety of deals done in privatised banks which are directly accountable to their board of directors and investors rather than to the public at large. Last but not least, many write-offs may fall in the grey zone between political influence and genuine financial distress of the party in question, a problem that is not amenable to swift justice.

Mr Sharif wants Mr Zardari to “implement all the decisions of the Supreme Court, including those pertaining to the NRO and the question of President Zardari’s immunity from prosecution in a Swiss Court for money laundering”. While it is evident that the government has been dragging its feet in areas where implementing the SC’s decisions, especially regarding various appointments, are likely to hurt its prospects, it is absolutely clear that Mr Zardari has no intention of enabling his very own government to sign his political death warrant in Switzerland. The matter is pending in the SC and has the potential to derail the government and the political system.

Mr Sharif is demanding a neutral and fair NAB and Election Commission. This requirement is truly in the national interest even though it is also in favour of Mr Sharif’s party-political interest and against Mr Zardari’s. When the boot was on the other foot, Mr Sharif’s NAB equivalent of the Ehtesab Bureau was the most discriminating, even vindictive, accountability organ on record. The NAB’s political record during General Pervez Musharraf’s time was only slightly better since no generals or judges were touched. Much the same can be said of previous Chief Election Commissioners and Commissions. Each was constructed or elevated to serve the interest of the ruler at hand. Therefore, unless the SC has its way on both counts, we should not expect Mr Zardari to quickly throw in the towel.

The government has been tasked to significantly reduce its expenses and downsize the cabinet. Some half-hearted efforts in this direction are noticeable. If the media could do some homework and pinpoint the most outrageous cases of unwarranted expenses – such as luxury cars, sprawling houses and unacceptably generous perks and privileges to friends, cronies and pro-PPP bureaucrats – we might be able to get some belated action on this front. But left to itself, the government is not likely to budge.

Mr Sharif wants “national institutions like PIA, PSO, NHA, Civil Aviation and KPT to be revamped and made profitable”. This is easier said than done. He was prime minister twice and did nothing to clean up the mess which has since piled up. Indeed, these corporations are inefficient, corrupt and unprofitable because they are run like employment agencies and sinecure centres for party loyalists. If truly competent professionals were to be appointed to lead these organisations, they would start by sacking at least half of the staff and shuttering down against government sifarish and pressure. But with unemployment soaring, which elected government will demonstrate the courage to downsize, especially without the financial resources to offer golden handshakes? Which judge will not favourably look upon angry petitioners seeking “stay orders” against their sacking?

Indeed, even where golden handshakes were offered in the past, the best and most competent employees took the offer and exited, leaving behind the dregs of the corporation to ruin it further. Privatisation is also, theoretically speaking, an option. But each major privatisation to date has been dogged by corruption and lack of transparency. Worse, even when corruption was not an issue, employee unions and courts have stepped in to sabotage sovereign guarantees, entailing further financial and credibility losses on the Privatisation Commission.

Defending and enhancing “national interest” in the murky world of Third World parliamentary politics, with secret military agencies and foreign powers jostling for resources, influence or space, is a tall order. Neither Mr Zardari, nor Mr Sharif, nor the centralised, first-past-the-post political system in vogue, is equipped to do the job. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.