Oct 31

Strategic failure of MQM and PTI

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The MQM and PTI are facing a strategic identity crisis. The MQM has concluded that the politics of “national mutahidaism” has not yielded any significant dividends in Sindh or any other province, therefore it is time to beat the drums of “provincial muhajarism” to stave off political threats to its traditional “muhajir” vote bank in the urban areas of Sindh. The PTI has concluded that the democratic route to elections is long and uncertain, therefore it is time to explore shortcuts to power via conspiracies with disgruntled elements in the military and judiciary. Both strategies are full of contradiction and confusion.

The MQM has quit the PPP government in Sindh for the umpteenth time.  In the past, a parting of ways with the PPP was always part of the game of leveraging power and patronage. This time, however, the pretext is unprecedentedly “ideological”.  The MQM has taken umbrage over a statement by the PPP Leader of the House in the Senate, Khurshid Shah, that it is an “insult” today to refer to the migrants from India into Pakistan at the time of partition as “mujahirs”. His argument is that the term “muhajir” connotes a temporary or transitional arrangement for foreigners whereas the “muhajirs” of 1947 have been fully and permanently integrated into the organs of the Pakistani state and society, to the extent that their Urdu language is the national language of the country.

Khurshid Shah has stated a fact. But it is tinged with the power politics of Sindhi ethnic nationalism and PPP provincialism. In the past such PPP provocations were par for the course for the MQM. But the MQM faces multiple threats within and without today that have required it to take such a shrill hardline position, going so far as to charge Mr Shah for “blasphemy” against “muhajirs” since the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) was also a “muhajir” from Mecca to Medina. Several factors are at stake here.

First, the MQM hasn’t been able to extract any significant mileage from changing its name from Muhajir Qaumi Movement (denoting a political-ethnic base) to Muttahida Qaumi Movement denoting a national platform. It has made no headway in the other provinces. Instead, the ANP and PTI are making inroads into its traditional vote bank in the urban areas of Sindh, especially Karachi, the former on the basis of Pasthtu-speaking “refugees” from KPK, FATA and even Afghanistan, and the latter on the basis of a demographic shift in population favouring the young between the ages of 18-29 who want “change” from the traditional pattern of political parties. Second, the MQM’s militant wing which used to call the shots in Karachi as a powerful tool for leveraging power, has suffered a setback following an effective Rangers-led federal operation to cleanse the city of criminal elements, many from the MQM. Third, the PPP is in the process of formulating a law for local body elections that will tilt power and patronage toward PPP appointed provincial administrators instead of local politicians, thereby depriving the MQM of its traditional right to administer Karachi on the basis of winning the local elections. Fourth, the MQM is facing some significant splits and desertions following pressure from the British government on Altaf Hussain in London regarding the murder of Imran Farooq and money laundering. Several stalwarts have left the party and are in hiding. Under the circumstances, it seems that its leadership has decided to hunker down and defend its core interests by raising the spectre of an erosion of Sindhi “muhajir” rights that always evokes a militant response from its traditional seats of support.

The PTI is facing a serious dilemma too. Its dharnas and jalsas have failed to overthrow Nawaz Sharif because the “third umpire” – disgruntled elements in the military who have been egging Imran Khan on —has not raised his finger. Tahirul Qadri has packed his bags and quit. A degree of fatigue has set in among his supporters. This is reflected in internal party dissent over the logic of resigning from the National Assembly while staying put in KPK as a device to hasten the end of the Nawaz regime. The Supreme Court, too, has refused to entertain PTI petitions to declare the 2013 elections as rigged. If Imran insists on continuing on his current path without success, his supporters will drift away and think twice before returning to his fold the next time. If he retreats like Qadri, he would erode his image of infallibility. In a last ditch effort he has summoned his supporters to Islamabad on November 30 to hurl a final threat to Nawaz Sharif. Whether the crowds become violent or disperse peacefully, the outcome is not likely to be favourable.

Both Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan need a reality check. Their current tactics and strategies are flying against the grain of popular mood. They should disavow shortcuts to power and dig in for the long democratic haul.

Oct 25

Apas Ki Baat 25th Oct 2014

Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Oct 24

Reinventing the PPP

Posted on Friday, October 24, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


Bilawal Bhutto has been “launched”.  The Karachi jalsa was big and his speech was animated. He unfurled the liberal flag (down with the Taliban, down with the PTI and MQM, down with the oppressors of minorities and up with “Bhuttoism”) to warm the cockles of die-hard Pipliya hearts.

Alas, the power of rented crowds, hackneyed words and empty promises has withered with an increasingly cynical and disgruntled populace. Simply drumming up “Bhuttoism” and clutching at “martyrdom” will not suffice any more. Since Bhuttoism was launched 45 years ago and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was martyred 35 years ago, the political profile and demographic landscape of the voter has changed significantly.

ZA Bhutto rose to power on the back of downtrodden rural peasants and urban workers. The four pillars of his political philosophy were (1) roti, kapra and makan (2) Islamic nationalism (3) anti-dynastic, anti-gentry power rule (4) anti-India stance. By the time Bhutto was martyred, he had not delivered on roti, kapra and makan, the Shimla Pact had overtaken anti-Indiaism, and he had embraced the feudal landowning classes all over again.

When Benazir Bhutto took over her father’s mantle, she was able to exploit his martyrdom. But she was also able to stake a political claim in her own right for opposing dictatorship and suffering imprisonment and exile before she was 30 years old. Therefore she was able to lead the PPP to victory in the 1988 elections despite desperate attempts by the military establishment to stop her. She returned to power in 1993 partly because she could claim victimhood (unfair dismissal in 1990) and partly because she was able to assure the military establishment of loyalty after it lost faith in Nawaz Sharif. But she was dismissed again in 1996 for alleged corruption and misrule; all the popular props of Bhuttoism, martyrdom and victimhood were lost to the PPP (even in Sindh), the jiyala drifted away in the Punjab and the voter sulked at home, so that the PPP could barely manage a presence in the 1997 parliament in Islamabad. The PPP’s fortunes rose again in 2007 when the Musharraf regime allied with Benazir (via the NRO) in order to stop Nawaz Sharif from exploiting his “victimhood”. Benazir’s assassination in 2008 on the eve of elections re-ignited the martyrdom factor and the PPP won the elections.

Bilawal’s job is a difficult one. He has inherited a party that has lost the sheen of Bhutto’s martyrdom and Benazir’s victimhood, down the generations. The memory of martyrdom has also been tarnished by a lingering perception of the last PPP government as corrupt and incompetent that “didn’t perform and deliver”. Demography is also weighing in against the PPP’s traditional rural vote bank – rapid urbanization has created new middle classes and youthful groups in Punjab, Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with global perceptions and aspirations who have been ignored by the PPP and tapped by other parties and forces.

Indeed, the party that Bilawal has inherited is critically removed from the party that ZA Bhutto created and Benazir Bhutto tried to revive. “Bhuttoism” was anti-dynasty but Bilawal is totally dependent on it. Bhuttoism promised to deliver to the masses but neither Benazir nor Zardari were able to fulfill that promise sufficiently. Bhuttoism was anti-India but Bilawal cannot flog the same horse today because the current mood is anti-West and not anti-India. Bhuttoism was anti-feudal, anti-gentry. But the current PPP is choked with exploitative landlords, oppressive family dynasties and wheeling-dealing crony capitalists.

Imran Khan is trying to fill the void left by the PPP. Like Bhutto, he is anti-dynasty. Like Bhutto he is tapping into Islamic nationalism, except that he has substituted the “Islamophobic” West for Hindu India because this resonates more forcefully with a new generation which wants to trade with India and wage war with the ubiquitous CIA. Like Bhutto he is focusing on the powerless classes, except that that there are more of them amongst angry and underemployed youth in urban areas than in the countryside.

Bilawal cannot sufficiently revive the PPP by merely flogging Bhuttoism, martyrdom and victimhood. The young, urban, globalizing Pakistani is far more politically conscious and angry than his forlorn rural predecessor. Nothing less than a “reinvention” of the PPP is required from the young challenger based on economic, political and social policies that promise a radical redistribution of power and privilege in a welfare state which does business with the world with dignity and trust.

Some popular disillusionment will inevitably follow the failed dharna-policies and conspiracies of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri to seize power. Bilawal Bhutto should seize this opportunity to try and capture the imagination of the same classes and people to revive the flagging fortunes of the PPP.

Oct 17

Malala’s symbolism

Posted on Friday, October 17, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


Malala Yusafzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize because she is a brave girl. Of course she is. But there are millions of brave girls in Pakistan. Malala Yusufzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize because she is a crusader for the rights of children to be educated. Of course she is. But there are scores of teachers and educators who have dedicated their lives to such a cause. Malala Yusufzai didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize because she stood up to the Taliban and put herself in harm’s way. Of course she did. But there are thousands – soldiers, political workers, journalists, tribals – who have sacrificed their lives resisting the Taliban.

Malala Yusufzai is spirited, courageous and eloquent. She speaks for civilization’s finest human rights and freedoms. But she is a global heroine because she is a unique symbol of the resistance of the innocent and non-violent to the barbaric terrorism that stalks the world. That is why her heroes are Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi – global icons of peace, truth, resistance and reconciliation. How did she become such a unique symbol?

Some Muslims argue that the Western powers have elevated her to this status as a “pawn” in their new crusades against Islam. But this line of thinking forgets that it is the Taliban and not the West who “created” her as such a symbol. It is the Taliban who first recognized Malala as a powerful symbol of resistance to their bloody crusades against education, human rights and freedom. They warned her to desist from preaching and practicing children’s right to education. She knew the consequences of defiance. Yet she refused to heed their warning. When the Pakistani media began to lionize her, the Taliban tried to kill her. Now they say they will target her if she returns to Pakistan.

Some Muslims ask why dozens of innocent children who were orphaned by American drones in FATA were not similarly acknowledged and honoured for their plight. They say this reflects the political ideology of Western imperialism in choosing which victim to honour. But this line of thinking forgets that hundreds of innocent children were killed or orphaned by the Taliban all over Pakistan when their bombs went off in schools and market places and mosques and parks and buses. If there was a “conspiracy” to make Malala a national heroine, it should be laid at the door of the Taliban. The West has elevated her to the status of a global heroine because her personal non-violent struggle for the universal human rights of children in Swat against the terrorizing Taliban fits in with the global war of “liberal” democracy with extremist “Islam”.  Those who empathize with this cause should celebrate an acknowledgement of Malala’s role in the battle for hearts and minds, regardless of its cynical manipulation by a highly politicized and partisan Western media.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee jointly awarded the medal to the lesser-known Indian child-rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi. The Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, said that it was important “for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in the common struggle for education and against extremism”. The context is relevant.

Mosharraf Zaidi of Alif Ailaan, an organization dedicated to improving education in Pakistan, notes that there are over 25 million Pakistani children between the ages of 5 and 16 who are not attending school. Over 50% of all government schools in the country are without electricity for most of the time, 36 per cent don’t have drinking water and over 40% don’t have working toilets. Federal and provincial governments allocate less than 2% of their annual budgets to education. In India, the situation isn’t much different. Nearly 60 % of children don’t complete primary schooling despite the fact that it is their constitutional right, and 90% don’t complete school.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee also consciously joined a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, in highlighting its concerns and interests. The two nuclear powers have fought four wars since independence and are currently shelling each other across the border. India has just elected a Hindu supremacist as its prime minister who is talking war and not peace with Pakistan, while Pakistan is in the throws of a form of creeping Islamisation in which Pakistanis are wont to rage against all “infidels”, especially Hindus.

Malala Yusufzai is the second Pakistani to win the Nobel. The first was physicist Abdus Salam. It is a tragic irony of Pakistani history that Salam was not acknowledged, much less honoured, by his country because as an Ahmedi, he was considered outside the pale of Islam. Now Malala is fated to live in “Western” exile until the Taliban and their extremist version of Islam are eliminated from the political and cultural landscape of Pakistan. Therefore, regardless of how the West manipulates and manufactures consent and dissent, Pakistanis would do well to look inwards and heal themselves instead of raging against outsiders.

Oct 10

Bleak prospects of Indo-Pak detente

Posted on Friday, October 10, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The advent of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India had evoked two opposing Indo-Pak scenarios. The establishment hawks in Pakistan argued that India would adopt an uncompromising and hardline position with Pakistan because of the extremist Hindu credentials and policy positions of Mr Modi and key members of his cabinet and circle of advisors. But the peaceniks in Pakistan argued that Mr Modi, like his BJP predecessors Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, would exploit his “patriotic” nationalist credentials to normalise with Pakistan because his pro-business agenda required regional trade, peace and stability.

Unfortunately, however, recent events – India’s cancellation of the foreign secretary level talks followed by continuous artillery exchanges on the LoC in Kashmir in which thousands of villagers on the Pakistani side have been evacuated and dozens killed – have dashed hopes of any rapprochement between India and Pakistan.

The most disappointed man in Pakistan is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He had gone the extra mile to proffer the hand of friendship to India without any pre-conditions. Before he was sworn in as prime minister in 2013, Mr Sharif had invited India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to his swearing-in ceremony, but to no avail. Then he had postponed a signing of a free trade agreement with India pending India’s elections so that he could give away the “gift” of Most Favoured Nation trade to the new leader of India as a measure of Pakistan’s sincerity (given the nature of the two economies, both countries benefit from freer trade but India stands to gain much more than Pakistan), a demand that India has long made as a precondition of resolving other contentious issues in which one side’s gain can be construed as the other’s loss in one way or another. Mr Sharif then swept aside the advice of his foreign policy establishment to fly to New Delhi for Mr Modi’s inauguration and hold a round of one-on-one talks with him. More significantly, he accepted the request of India’s foreign office not to meet with the Hurriyet Kashmiri leaders, a long established practice not disapproved of by India, on his trip to New Delhi and he did not rise to the provocation of the Indian Foreign Minister when she reiterated the old Indian position on Kashmir in a press conference on the sidelines of the meeting of the two prime ministers. These decisions drew much flak for Mr Sharif back home.

Now, barely a couple of months since Mr Modi became prime minister, it is hostile “business as usual” between India and Pakistan. All talk of bonhomie evaporated after India’s foreign office took exception last August to a scheduled meeting of the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi with Hurriyet leaders and abruptly cancelled the foreign secretary level talks. These talks were meant to pave the way for a structured dialogue on all issues between the two sides, starting with a signing of the MFN regime agreed between the two governments before general elections in India. In the past, Pakistani officials and leaders have exploited opportunities of meetings with Hurriyet leaders to nudge them to the negotiating table with New Delhi rather than urge them to wage jihad, and the Indian authorities have turned a blind diplomatic eye to the meetings on the ground that the Hurriyet leaders are Indians (rather than avowed secessionists) who can meet anyone they like. This time, however, New Delhi objected in an unprecedented and hasty manner by cancelling the talks and putting Mr Sharif in an embarrassing position with Pakistan’s national security establishment that continues to distrust and dislike its Indian counterpart and has scoffed at Mr Sharif’s “naivete” in offering an unqualified hand of friendship to India. The Modi government then went one step further by declaring that the Indian prime minister would not meet Mr Sharif on the sidelines of the UNGA session in September in New York. Before long, both leaders were haranguing the world about the other’s perfidies by reiterating old positions – Pakistan wants the Kashmir issue resolved according the UN Resolutions and India wants Pakistan to stop exporting terrorism to India. Now both sides are firing on each other across the LoC.

The logic of the situation suggests that India is in aggression mode. Elections in Indian-held Kashmir are due later this year. Mr Modi has visited the region and whipped up Hindu sentiment against the Muslim Kashmiri parties and leaders. He has also reiterated his resolve to undo Article 370 of the Indian constitution that guarantees special status privileges for Kashmir. This has reignited anti-India feeling and demonstrations in the Valley. On the Pakistani side, there is little to be gained from renewed tensions with India because the Pakistani army is fully stretched dealing with terrorism in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan.

Under the circumstances, the prospects of Indo-Pak détente seem bleak. Mr Modi has reverted to form and Mr Sharif has lost credibility with his national security establishment.