Jun 26

Long hot summer

Posted on Friday, June 26, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Tensions between the military and the PPP in Sindh are bound to rise, despite efforts by some PPP stalwarts to put a spin on Mr Asif Zardari’s recent outburst. The military is using the media to “leak” stories of corruption in the Sindh government that suggest long hit lists have been prepared of people who are going to be investigated, picked up, interrogated or arrested and charged for terrorism-related corrupt practices. The hurried departure of Mr Zardari’s sister, Faryal Talpur, to foreign shores is a manifestation of this effective pressure tactic because she is alleged to be the key manipulator in the Sindh government on behalf of Mr Zardari. The Sindh government, meanwhile, is trying to appease the military by offering 9000 acres of forest land for the army’s martyrs while preparing to block and even challenge the military’s writ in Sindh under the law.  These tactics will not work. If anything, the military’s response is likely to be even more self-righteous and forthright against the Sindh government and its MQM ally.

Equally, the long term relationship between the military and the MQM is approaching breaking point following the military’s decision to give British police access to the alleged murderers of Dr Imran Farooq who have been in ISI custody for over three years without acknowledgement. Now the military has formally “arrested” them and the interior minister has publicly pledged to allow the British authorities to interrogate them. This means that an irrevocable decision has finally been taken to target Altaf Hussain in the UK. With the MQM in significant disarray and depletion in Karachi, this move is bound to weaken its current leadership by sowing divisions in its ranks which precipitates a struggle for leadership.

But it is not going to be smooth sailing even for the all-powerful military. In fact it is likely to be acutely frustrated by the Supreme Court if, given their current mood, the judges feel inclined to strike down military courts and courts-martial of civilians under the 21st constitutional amendment. The judges are even debating the right of parliament to change the “basic structure” of a democratic constitution. The SC has also stayed the death sentence passed on six terrorists by a military court confirmed by the COAS and is demanding a record of the trial to determine its fairness. This process is going to pit the two institutions against each other and create another layer of uncertainty in the body politic. On top of that, the military’s pledge to deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table with Afghanistan is wearing thin as the Taliban launch the fiercest and most outrageous attacks to date on the Kabul regime, provoking Afghan critics of President Ashraf Ghani to decry his shaky relationship with Pakistan and push him closer to India again. Naturally, it doesn’t help the military that India has chosen this moment to up the proxy war in Pakistan and can heat up the border at will.

In the midst of this rising tension between various political players at home and in the neighbourhood, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems curiously aloof and unruffled as he globe trots for investments and sources of energy. But he shouldn’t be sanguine. Ultimately, the Karachi operation will have a blowback effect in Islamabad, no less than a failure of foreign policy in India and Afghanistan and domestic policy in the Supreme Court. Mr Sharif is also going to feel the wrath of the people as the heatwave claims the lives of hundreds of people amidst pervasive and unrelenting power outages for the third year running since he came to power. If these miseries are exacerbated by torrential rains and flooding, there will be no respite. As if these are not troubles enough, the Supreme Court’s Judicial Commission inquiring into the last general elections is expected to deliver its judgment soon. While it is not likely to conclude that there was any “systematic and designed conspiracy to steal the elections” by a coterie of people at the behest of Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN, it may well judge the general elections as being marred by widespread irregularities and bad practices and recommend a complete overhaul of the system of elections under a revamped Election Commission. That will certainly wipe the gloss from Mr Sharif’s sweeping victory in 2013 and spur the opposition led by Imran Khan, including the newly estranged MQM and PPP who will be seeking both revenge and distraction, to mount a campaign for an early election.

The biggest source of instability, of course, would come from any attempt by the military to spur NAB to start inquiries about the fortunes of PMLN stalwarts or their links with sectarian terrorists in the Punjab. This stage is also unavoidable if the military wants to be seen as politically neutral and nationally object-oriented. That is when quantitative change could tip over into qualitative change with unforeseen and unintended consequences.

It’s going to be a long, hot summer.

Jun 19

The Explosion

Posted on Friday, June 19, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Asif Zardari has been simmering like a volcano ever since the Karachi Operation started. Now he has exploded. The fallout could be catastrophic for the MQM, PPP and PMLN if it is not contained immediately.

Mr Zardari’s angst was evident when he couldn’t shield his provincial alliance partner MQM from the military operation in Karachi that strained his relations with it. The problem was that, after agreeing with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to give the military a free hand to clean up the province, he couldn’t have objected to the targeted operation. Now, after eliminating many terrorists, the military operation has entered the second stage and is targeting the criminals inside and outside the PPP government who give sustenance to them. This includes lower level bureaucrats and police officials, some of whom are important props in the Sindh government.

Last month tensions began to ratchet up after the Corps Commander Karachi launched a blistering assault on the bad governance and corruption in the Sindh administration. The tipping point came last week when the DG Sindh Rangers alleged that corrupt government functionaries had sourced Rs 230 billion in funding every year to various hues of terrorists, and unleashed NAB against them. Inevitably, as the noose has tightened, Mr Zardari has come out flailing and fuming against his military tormentors.

“Stop teasing us”, he thundered, “or we’ll turn everything upside down”. If the military has compiled a list of “corrupt and criminal elements” in the Sindh administration, Mr Zardari warned that when his “list of corrupt generals” is published their skeletons would tumble out of the cupboards. “Stop throwing dirt at us, stop victimizing us, or we’ll tear you from limb to limb…you have been warned, you have been warned, you have been warned”.

Rarely has any politician hurled such bitter and angry missives at the military establishment. But Mr Zardari was quick to add a chastening word or two. “This is our army, our institution… when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I said Pakistan Khappay, but there’s a limit to everything…” Cynics charge Mr Zardari of fuming when his power and privilege are challenged by the military but “khappaying” when Benazir Bhutto was murdered.

Unfortunately, instead of dousing the flames that threaten to engulf the political parties and discredit the political dispensation, interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has stoked the fire. “Mr Zardari has targeted the military at a time when it is sacrificing its blood in defense of the country against terrorism, to hide his own failures and weaknesses and declining popularity”. He condemned the ex-President’s remarks as “inappropriate, unwarranted and contemptuous” and argued that his “political style may cause irreparable loss to our national identity and institutions”.

Mr Zardari sought a meeting with PM Nawaz Sharif to extract a quid pro quo from him for standing against Imran Khan at the height of the Dharna last year when the PMLN government was at the mercy of the third umpire. But the PM has publicly advised Mr Zardari to zip up and distanced himself from the fracas. Mr Sharif simply can’t afford to alienate the military again after retreating from the Musharraf affair not so long ago.

General Raheel Sharif has launched an accountability exercise from home and the military is investigating one four star general and his brothers and several three and two stars. He is hardly likely to take kindly to being thwarted by the civilians when his team is midway through Operation Clean-up in Sindh. In fact the operation is likely to become even more worrying for Mr Zardari as it moves up a notch to target ministers, politicians, senior policemen and bureaucrats.

The dye is cast. The Sindh government has protested to the DG Rangers for transgressing the writ of Article 147 by targeting the civil and political administration. But as tensions rise in Sindh, the heat is likely to be felt in Islamabad too. One source will be the fiery Bilawal Bhutto who is set to replace the sedate Khurshid Shah as leader of the opposition. Mr Bhutto is not going to give any quarter to Mr Sharif in parliament if Mr Sharif doesn’t give any to the PPP in Sindh. The second source will be Gen Sharif. If there is overt hostility between the Rangers and the Sindh government, as might happen, for example, if Uzair Baloch starts singing in custody, Gen Sharif is likely to demand Governor’s Rule. That would signal the end of the implicit alliance between the PPP and PMLN against the military establishment and the start of a new movement under the PTI and PPP to topple the PMLN regime and order a new round of elections.

The military’s strategy of “cleaning” up Pakistan in stages without assuming power directly, is nearing the limits of its viability and effectiveness. Sooner rather than later Mr Sharif will have to take sides. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, it is certainly going to get nastier and messier.

Jun 12

U-Turn Khan

Posted on Friday, June 12, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


Imran Khan, or U-Turn Khan as he’s famously called on Twitter, is finally getting a strong dose of his own medicine. This reality check underscores his reversing fortunes.

The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa local bodies elections under the administrative control of his PTI government have been soured by so much violence and rigging that he has been compelled to offer a fresh election to hold his angry critics at bay. By contrast, the by-election in Punjab’s Mandi Bahauddin constituency and the general elections in Gilgit Baltistan have been conducted in a fairly transparent and peaceful manner by the PMLN government. Significantly, the PMLN has routed the PTI in both locales, which suggests that the popularity of the PTI is waning – even in the rigged KPK local bodies elections, the PTI’s vote bank has plunged from about 45% in the last general elections to around 30% in the local bodies elections.

Imran Khan is pinning all his hopes on the Judicial Commission which is examining whether or not there was a “systematic and designed conspiracy” to steal the elections by Nawaz Sharif, ex-CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry, ex-Justice Khalil Ramday, CEC Fakhuruddin G Ibrahim, Jang-Geo Media Group and ex-Caretaker Punjab Chief Minister Najam Sethi in 2013. But the PTI has been too scared to call and question all the above allegedly guilty parties to the stand except Mr Sethi who too wasn’t confronted by the most damning allegation of all made by Imran Khan and his cronies and lackeys about “35 Punctures”. Earlier, in his statement before the civil court trying him for defamation against Mr Sethi filed a few weeks before Mr Sethi was put in the dock, Mr Khan had the audacity to claim (a) the allegation of 35 punctures “was an opinion and not an assertion of facts” (b) the proof of Mr Sethi’s culpability would be presented in the JC (in the event, no such proof was presented).

No less embarrassing, though, was a U-Turn by the PTI when it withdrew its request to the JC to call Imran Khan to the witness stand – the prospect of being interrogated by the PMLN legal eagles was obviously too much to stomach.

Imran Khan’s now legendary U-Turns are also manifest in his policies. He said he wouldn’t end his dharna until Nawaz Sharif resigned and called fresh elections. Nothing of the sort has happened. He said he would hold free and fair elections inside his party. Nothing of the sort has happened. He said he would abide by the decisions of the PTI Election Commission headed by Justice (retd) Wajihuddin Ahmed. Nothing of the sort has happened.

Imran Khan’s popularity has also wilted on several other counts. His decision to get married even before the nation’s tears had dried after the terrorist attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School was heartless. His defiance of Justice Wajihuddin was upsetting for many PTI idealists. The on-going intra party squabbles and bitter wrangling between old party idealists and ideologues on the one hand and the two groups led by Financier Jehangir Tarin and Treasurer Saifullah Niazi on the other has alienated many. Above all, the pathetic performance of the Pervez Khattak government in KPK, culminating in the local body election fiasco, has not been lost on IK’s supporters across the country. Suddenly, Imran Khan is no longer a Teflon Man upon whom no charge can stick. On the contrary he is looking like a frustrated and angry old man who is going nowhere special.

Here’s some well-meaning advice. Imran Khan should get off his high horse and smell the raw earth. Instead of rooting for third umpires to provide him short cuts to power, or judicial commissions to clutch at his fictions, he should prepare for the long haul of party politics and government performance. True, KPK is not as sexy as Islamabad. But it’s all he’s got. Instead of allowing it to go down the drain from neglect and corruption, he should harness it as a showcase of what he and his party are capable of doing in the service of the electorate.

Two years down the line, the PTI is in a shambles. Imran Khan’s first task should be to make his party into a lean and mean machine poised to win the national elections. This involves ousting the lotas from party and government and replacing them with young idealistic blood that is capable of representing the true spirit of the voters who want radical change and accountability. An intra party election that truly represents the agents of change is direly needed. His second task should be to cleanse the KPK government of all incompetent and corrupt officials and party hangers-on and replace them with clean-cut doers. These two lines of action will yield dividends that he can capitalise on when the new elections roll around in three years.

Pakistanis are now fed up with promises and allegations. They want solid performances from Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Imran Khan.

Jun 5

Theory of “35 Punctures” Punctured

Posted on Friday, June 5, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Theory of “Penti Pentures” (35 punctures) was supposed to explode with a bang. Instead it has evaporated into thin air without a whimper.

There was no secret tape recording of mine informing Nawaz Sharif that I, as caretaker CM Punjab, had applied “Penti Pentures” (ie rigged 35 seats) to the elections in 2013. Indeed, not one word of “Penti Pentures” was even whispered by the great Hafeez Pirzada (with Imran Khan breathing down his neck) when I was cross-examined before the Judicial Commission last week. What was produced was a clip from my TV show of 7th July 2013 in which I had said that about fifteen days before the end of my tenure as caretaker chief minister Punjab on June 6th 2013, (ie, ten days after the election results were announced on May 11) I had become powerless and the Punjab bureaucracy was already looking to the designated new chief minister. So what was so strange about that, the CJP seemed to imply, when he asked Mr Pirzada to move on.

Imran Khan’s unending harangue about Nawaz Sharif “rewarding” me for applying “penti pentures” by appointing me chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board also fell flat. Indeed, it never went to the point of explicating the substance of the so-called “reward”. How could it? I have not drawn a penny in salary for two years. I have not even taken a luxury vehicle for my personal use. In fact, I have abolished all undue “perks and privileges” that previous chairmen enjoyed, like free First Class International Travel with spouse, a posse of hangers-on, a fleet of expensive rented cars, millions of rupees of free tickets for family, friends and cronies during international cricket events abroad, unlimited entertainment allowances, BoG meetings in holiday resorts, and a score-full of jobs in PCB for sifarishis and family.

The “Penti Penture Theory” was based on idle talk cunningly fabricated by a maverick named Ejaz Hussain who was desperate to worm his way into the top echelons of Khan’s party. A gullible Imran bought into it readily because it suited his political ploy. How could he manufacture a conspiracy theory of Nawaz Sharif stealing the election without challenging the results of the elections in the Punjab that contributed to Mr Sharif”s thumping victory? Hence it was critical to damn my administration. Fourteen months ago, I sued him in court to prove his allegations or pay damages for defaming me. He hasn’t appeared in court once, nor filed a word in response to my complaint. Much the same may be said of his lackeys like Naeem ul Haque and Shirin Mazari who have parroted the same lie ad nauseum, and “journalists” like Dr Shahid Masood who are constantly creeping out of the woodwork. The amusing fact is that only days after the fiasco in the Supreme Court, Naeem blatantly named the source of the “penti penture” story as Agha Murtaza Poya, the veteran politician and ex-owner of The Muslim newspaper, only to be rebuffed by a stout public denial by Mr Poya hours later.

The fact is that I was the caretaker CM nominee of the PPP and its allies. The fact is that the PMLN had fielded two candidates of its own but only acceded in my favour half an hour before the three-day deadline because it realized its nominees would most certainly be adjudged unsuitable by the ECP. The fact is that Imran Khan publicly welcomed my nomination as a consensus caretaker CM in March. The fact is that I refused to accept the nominee of the ECP, Qamaruzaman Chaudhry, as my Chief Secretary because Imran Khan publicly asked me not to appoint him. The fact is that I shunted 15 senior bureaucrats from the Punjab to Islamabad because they were allegedly close to the Sharifs. The fact is that I shuffled the bureaucracy from Patwari to Chief Secretary and SHO to IGP so that none could complain I was biased. The fact is that I retained two senior secretaries whose close relatives were contesting on PTI tickets. The fact is that my Home Minister was on the PTI’s Task Force on Terrorism. The fact is that I even leaned on the Advocate General appointed by Shahbaz Sharif to resign his constitutional position in order to be neutral. The fact is that the only favour I ever did anyone was to Imran Khan when I allowed him to hold rallies in the centre of the small towns on his campaign trail in Southern Punjab, which was contrary to the SOPs of the elections. The PTI accepted the results as free and fair, a fact corroborated by FAFEN and over 100 international observers.

Imran Khan didn’t have the courage to accuse ex-CJP Iftikhar Chaudhy, ex-Justice Khalil Ramday, and GEO/Jang Group in the JC, all co-accused with me in public. Now that his short-cut-to-power bid has failed and been exposed, he should have the courage to apologise to me and stop tarnishing my reputation.

Signed

Najam Sethi

May 29

The Axact saga

Posted on Friday, May 29, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Like Osama bin Laden, Axact was sitting bang in the middle of an establishment hub and running a “criminal” business empire for many years without stirring a leaf anywhere. And like the US Navy seals raid, it took an American organisation to expose the scam before the world. In both instances, Pakistan has been hugely embarrassed. In the first case, despite a high-powered commission of inquiry, there has been no accountability. In the latter case, despite the initial zeal shown by the FIA, it is anybody’s guess whether successful prosecution will follow.

Axact first came to notice when it decided to set up Bol TV network over eighteen months ago and offered lip-smacking financial packages to the top media-persons in the country. Questions were naturally asked about the source of funds and viability of the mysterious Axact Group behind the mega-media venture. When even remotely satisfactory answers were not forthcoming – the façade of Axact was mind-blowing, its core dark and murky — the speculative whispers turned on dubious wheeler-dealer businessmen, land barons, invisible global terrorists and even serving and retired senior military officials who were rumoured to have invested billions of rupees in order to forge a “religious-nationalist” narrative on the wings of Bol. But this didn’t scare the big shots of the media who jumped ship and, like modern Pied Pipers, led a crowd of swashbuckling anchors and unsuspecting producers/technicians to Bol. The stampede jolted the big media owners to band together and try to save their human assets. But it also alerted Declan Walsh, a New York Times journalist who knew Pakistan well, to the unprecedented and exciting media drama unfolding in Pakistan. When Mr Walsh’s well-researched story (which might well be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) of a modern mega cyber scam hit the front page of the New York Times, all hell broke loose in Pakistan and Axact’s fraudulent house-of-degrees collapsed, compelling both witting and unwitting journalists to bolt from Bol.

The irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone. If Axact had continued to rake in the billions quietly like it had done for nearly ten years no one would have been any the wiser about its cyber fraud. But when it ventured into the Bol project to develop political muscle, it opened itself to enormous public curiosity, media interest, civil society concern and journalist jealousy. The greater irony is that the top journalists of the country rushed to embrace it instead of investigating it. And it was left to an American journalist who had been expelled from Pakistan for his alleged “anti-national” activities to rake up the dirt of Axact in the country’s national interest!

The FIA has detained Axact’s CEO and is interrogating him. It has lugged away computers, discs and files containing data of Axact’s global cyber empire. It has recovered tens of hundreds of fake degrees of cyber colleges and universities. It has unearthed dozens of bank accounts in Pakistan. It senses an empire spanning hundreds of cyber colleges, off shore shell companies and protective layers of directors and shareholders. It is swamped by hundreds of complaining customers who were handed fake degrees when they had paid for genuine course work. Former employees are lining up to spill more beans by the day. Shrill voices are being raised abroad for cracking down on the billion-dollar business of fake degrees. The FBI is investigating. The US Congress is on notice. Will Axact survive? Will Bol go on air next month as pledged?

To be sure, Axact needs Bol to mount a counter campaign for survival. But that will be difficult, if not impossible. Bol’s core group of journalists has scampered out of sight. The alleged shareholders are publicly denying any stakes. Bank accounts may be frozen by the FBR. Foreign remittances from offshore company accounts have trailed off. The Axact Group is confronted with a plethora of cases of criminal fraud and income tax evasion. Even if the alleged fraudsters and criminals obtain bail from the courts, they will think twice before fleeing the country into the arms of Interpol or FBI.

The media is another big loser from this episode. Although it is absolutely kosher for media professionals to hop jobs in pursuit of upward mobility, it is also true that any journalist worth his or her salt should ask hard questions about the viability and worthiness (aren’t we always billing ourselves as the conscience of the nation?) of the enterprise he or she is thinking of joining before taking the plunge. In Axact’s case, unlike the crop of existing media moghuls and business magnates running TV channels, there were many troubling questions about its owners, source of funds and political objectives. Yet many good people suspended judgment, and some will rue the day they did so recklessly for the lure of the lucre. In all likelihood, though, most bigwigs will get their old jobs back. When they do, we hope they will not abandon the small fry who followed them to Bol.