Oct 2

Unflinching peacemaker

Posted on Friday, October 2, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Since 1997 Nawaz Sharif has unflinchingly espoused the cause of peace with India. But vested interests and domestic political compulsions in both countries have never allowed his initiatives to come to fruition.

In 1997, Mr Sharif designed the composite dialogue with India’s Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral but the latter couldn’t sell Kashmir’s inclusion in the talks to his compatriots, and India’s nuclear tests in 1998 put paid to the idea. Mr Sharif persisted and succeeded in signing the most significant peace accord with India’s Prime Minister, Atul Behari Vajpayee, in Lahore in 1999, but General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil adventure derailed it completely. Upon returning to office in 2013, Mr Sharif defied advice from the “establishment” and attended the inauguration of Narendra Modi as India’s new prime minister so that he could establish trust and confidence. He also offered Most Favoured Nation Status to India, an unfulfilled Indian demand for the last two decades, and a win-win project for both countries (but a bigger win for India than Pakistan). But the BJP’s electoral constituencies, first in Kashmir and now in Bihar, have compelled it to take a hard line against Pakistan and reject Mr Sharif’s hand of goodwill. Undeterred, he has once again offered the olive branch to India, this time at the forum of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Mr Sharif’s latest peace proposal rests on four points: demilitarization of Kashmir on both sides; restoration of the 2003 ceasefire along the LoC; vacation of the Siachin Glacier by both militaries; refrain from threatening or using force to settle issues. Significantly, while noting the unresolved Kashmir dispute in the presence of specific UN Security Council Resolutions, he was careful not to muddy his peace proposals by “attacking” India in any way for increasing border tensions and conflict. He also sought to assure the world in general and India in particular that the consequences of terrorism in Pakistan have been far more adverse for Pakistan than for the region and a National Action Plan to uproot it is being vigorously implemented.

Mr Sharif carried a dossier of the Indian “hand” in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. But he chose not to allude to it in his speech, preferring instead to hang on to it until India’s response was clear.

Mr Modi’s government has so far not demonstrated any desire to resolve even the smaller disputes with Pakistan, let alone Kashmir. Indeed, a policy of deliberately ratcheting up tensions seems to be its order of the day. Its decision to cancel secretary level talks last year on the pretext of meetings between the leaders of the Hurriet Conference and the Pakistan High Commissioner in Delhi was criticized even in India because it has been routine practice acceptable to all Indian governments, including those of the BJP, in the past. No less inexplicable has been its reluctance to sign a trade deal with Pakistan that India has coveted for decades and which Pakistan has finally offered. In fact, there is evidence of a bigger Indian “hand” in fomenting terrorism inside Pakistan today than in the past. It can also be argued that it is India that has embarked on a policy of heating up the border in pursuit of the same policy and not Pakistan which has a vested interest in keeping the ceasefire firmly in place because a bulk of its army is involved in anti-terrorism and insurgency operations in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. In fact, it is Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan that is the source of instability and insecurity and has compelled the government to focus its energies internally and to the west rather than to India in the east.

There is only one explanation for India’s obdurate behaviour. The Modi government’s arch-Hindu constituency led by the RSS continues to weigh on its domestic and external policies. Just before the elections in Kashmir earlier this year, Mr Modi whipped up anti-secessionist sentiments and cancelled talks with Pakistan. As a result the BJP did well enough to cobble a coalition government in Kashmir. Now, in the run up to crucial elections in Bihar, it has whipped up anti-Pakistan rhetoric by heating up the border and resisting unconditional talks with Pakistan. Indian officials say even sporting links – e.g., scheduled cricket series between the two countries in December — suggesting any “normality” with Pakistan are off the table for now.

Under the circumstances, it is a moot point if and when the Modi government will respond to Mr Sharif’s latest peace overtures. Demilitarization of Kashmir and Siachin is far-fetched. Some Indian analysts think that if the BJP does well in Bihar next week, it may soften its stance on Pakistan and open lines of communication once again. Certainly, trade and cricket would benefit from a quick reduction of tensions, especially on the LoC. But even if the cricket series goes ahead, it is highly unlikely that Mr Modi will take a leaf from Mr Vajpayee’s visionary book and set about negotiating a long-term peace accord with Nawaz Sharif.

Sep 25

An ill-wind is blowing

Posted on Friday, September 25, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his allies are making decidedly ominous statements. While announcing a relief package for the agricultural sector, Mr Sharif suddenly veered off his subject at the Convention Centre in Islamabad and started talking of “those who would like to overthrow the government and rule directly themselves”, followed by a couple of similar sentences meaning similar things.

If this statement wasn’t oblique enough, he then spoke of how neither he nor his family was using state resources to line their pockets. Indeed, he added, “all our personal expenditures come from our own personal resources and there cannot even be a whiff of corruption attached to us”. The linking of “corruption” with an intervention against the government has clinched the suspicion that Mr Sharif believes that sections of the military establishment are still out to “get him” and his government. This time, it is suspected, by initiating action against allegedly corrupt elements in the PMLN federal and Punjab provincial governments as they have done in Sindh against the PPP government by effectively taking over the reins of power in the NAB and FIA.

Mr Sharif’s ANP ally, Asfandyar Wali Khan, was more forthright. When asked if he foresaw a military intervention by year’s end – because of carefully planted stories of GHQ’s anger at the continuing corrupt practices of ruling politicians – he warned that “if, God forbid, such an intervention were to occur, it would lead to the break up of Pakistan”. Stronger words on the subject have not been uttered nor such a bleak scenario publicly articulated.

For an explanation, we need only to look at the recent behaviour of the one political leader who is desperately seeking a short cut to power on the back of the military: Imran Khan. His dharna last year was based on the theory of the third umpire putting an end to Nawaz Sharif’s innings and paving the way for Imran Khan’s entry into Islamabad. This is now an established fact. Several credible reports of the involvement of the then ISI chief, Lt Gen Zaheer ul Islam, in this conspiracy are circulating in the media. But Imran Khan’s failure hasn’t deterred him.

Now Khan is threatening to forcibly eject the four provincial election commissioners from office – they hold constitutional positions and cannot be ousted under any circumstances short of resigning themselves — by staging a mass rally in front of the ECP’s office in Islamabad despite a ban on such rallies in the capital. He is also defying the code of conduct of the ECP forbidding government and opposition leaders from canvassing on behalf of their candidates in local elections in the Punjab. He successfully challenged the ECP decision in the Lahore High Court. But the ECP has obtained a stay from the Supreme Court and ordered the Chief Secretaries and IGPs of all the provinces to ensure strict implementation of the ECP’s code of conduct. The PMLN has said it will abide by the law. But Imran Khan has said he won’t because he considers the law illegal. So the stage is being set for violent clashes between the PTI and the Punjab and Islamabad administrations of the PMLN.

If Imran Khan can create violent disturbances in Punjab or Islamabad during the local elections in October-November, we may expect to witness a repeat dharna-type performance that attempts to draw the military into the fray. The PTI has plastered over 20,000 banners in Lahore’s NA 122 with candidate Aleem Khan’s picture alongside that of the army chief General Raheel Sharif. And Imran Khan has publicly called upon the Rangers and the military establishment to carry out accountability of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in Punjab, a demand that is clearly unconstitutional.

Finally, a rather sinister development is already making waves in the media. This is the question of whether or not Gen Raheel Sharif deserves an extension in service before he retires at the end of next year – “for doing such a great job as the saviour of Pakistan against the scourge of terrorism and corruption” – unlike his predecessor General Kayani. It may be recalled that in the latter months of his first tenure, Gen Kayani destabilized the PPP government on at least two occasions even as a debate about his extension was raging the media.

General Raheel Sharif is a soldier’s soldier. It is inconceivable that he and his lieutenants are involved in destabilizing the PMLN government or that he is maneuvering to seek an extension in tenure. But there is no doubt that an ill will is blowing in the direction of Islamabad and none other than Imran Khan is huffing and puffing again to bring the house down.

PM Nawaz Sharif is rightly sensitive to Intel data that has led him to allude to another dharna-type conspiracy in the offing. We should know how the game is unfolding by observing Imran Khan’s course of action.

Sep 18

More or less democracy?

Posted on Friday, September 18, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

September 15 was International Democracy Day. On that day, ironically enough, Imran Khan called on the Rangers, which means the army, to carry out accountability of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. His extraordinary statement was roundly condemned because it amounted to a vote of no confidence in the democratic political system that is, haltingly, recovering from prolonged bouts of unaccountable military rule that have bequeathed terrorism, sectarianism and fundamentalism to Pakistan.

To be sure, “democracy” is pretty moth eaten in Pakistan. But it is still better than political systems anchored in fascism, communism, monarchy or “Islamic” and military dictatorships. Given uninterrupted development, as in the West, it has the internal wherewithal to evolve into a relatively functional and accountable system. Indeed, in independent India, which is as young as, and no less corrupt than, Pakistan, it has delivered a 400 million educated middle class that has consolidated vibrant nationhood and economic growth in equal measure.

Imran Khan’s “frustration” with “democracy” and hankering for khaki order is echoed by segments of the elites and urban middle classes. But a recent poll shows once again that over 60 % of Pakistanis solidly favour democracy over other forms of government. This, despite the fact that the most popular man in the country is unquestionably General Raheel Sharif, Chief of Army Staff, who has earned universal laurels for turning the wave of terrorism back when it was threatening to engulf the whole country from Karachi to Khyber.

If the public sentiment is still wisely pro-democracy, this is despite the battering democracy continues to take from its most ardent preachers. The MQM in Karachi is desperately agitating against the PPP in Sindh and PMLN in Islamabad. The PPP is protesting against the MQM in Karachi and PMLN in Punjab. The PTI is abusing the MQM, PPP and PMLN. The smaller parties are flocking into the arms of no less than that great pillar of “unenlightened moderation”, General Pervez Musharraf, who is facing trail for treason and murder. That fourth estate of democracy, a free and independent media, is tripping over itself to censor criticism of the military even as it gleefully lays into parliamentarians.

The state of Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy cries out for urgent repair. The PTI resigned from parliament and returned to it only after its unholy tryst with a section of the military was exposed. Now the MQM has resigned from parliament after a clash with the military. The PPP is also smarting from the “establishment’s” censure. But it has decided to slug it out with the PMLN instead of the brass because it realizes that everyone would be a big loser if the popular man on horseback were to be provoked into direct action. Meanwhile, parliament is without a Speaker and the PMLN has no worthwhile candidate to offer in place of Ayaz Sadiq who awaits a winning by-election result in 70 days. If the PPP were to resign in protest against its mistreatment in Sindh, the PTI would throw in the towel and the demand for mid-term elections would be unstoppable, failing which the military would be under pressure to intervene to “save the system” from devouring itself!

The ruling PMLN has its back to the wall. Sindh is threatening to clutch at the constitution and refuse gas from Sui Southern pipelines to the Punjab.  The great development projects of the PMLN are under fire, as in the Nandipur power project in Punjab or the Munda Dam in Swat, for corruption, incompetence and red tape-ism. There is no end in sight to power shortages that have crippled small-scale industry. The public’s romance with metros and red lines and overhead bridges and underpasses is rapidly fading. Instead, farmers are crying out for better output prices and higher subsidies and traders are protesting against minimal taxes. The PMLN certainly doesn’t inspire confidence when Shahbaz Sharif, CM Punjab, is seen to publicly spar with the Water & Power Minister, Khawaja Asif or, Nisar Ali Khan, Interior Minister, makes no bones about his estrangement from PM Nawaz Sharif.

Local elections are scheduled in the near future in Punjab and Sindh. These are bound to kick up dust and raise temperatures between the MQM and PPP in Sindh and PMLN and PTI in Punjab. If the political environment sours as it did in KP some months ago, there is bound to be an anti-democracy backlash. The 2013 elections provoked the PTI’s Dharna in 2014 and led to calls for “third umpires”, judicial commissions, resignations of election commissioners and mid-term elections. The 2015 KP local elections discredited the provincial election commission and the ruling PTI and led to bloodshed. If there is action-replay again, the popular man on horseback might be tempted to charge into the crowd to drive all pests away. But that, as we know from experience, is not the answer. The solution is to persist with more democracy rather than opt for less of it behind the fig leaf of accountability and efficiency.

Sep 11

MQM & PPP: Reinvent or perish

Posted on Friday, September 11, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Lahore High Court has ordered that pictures and speeches of MQM leader-in-exile Altaf Hussain may not be aired because they are subversive and against the national interest. Mr Hussain has been abusing the army and threatening to call for a separate Muhajir province that could plunge Sindh into an orgy of violence. The military has banned the collection and sale of animal hides by the MQM and the activities of its “welfare” organisations because their proceeds allegedly feed into terror financing.

Meanwhile, the noose around Mr Hussain is tightening in London. Scotland Yard has finally been allowed to interrogate two alleged assassins of Dr Imran Farooq in Pakistani custody. Both are likely to implicate Mr Hussain in the murder. Mr Hussain’s links with Indian intelligence agencies that have been funding MQM terrorism in Karachi are also now firmly established not just in the mind of the military but also in the public imagination. The gravity of the MQM’s plight is proved by the fact that many of its erstwhile leaders have fled Karachi for safer shores, partly out of fear of the military and partly out of fear of Mr Hussain’s violent recriminations. Nor is any political leader or interlocutor bending over backwards to cajole the MQM to return to parliament after it resigned in protest. Unprecedentedly, the media is openly critical of the MQM.

It may be argued that the MQM suffered and survived a similar predicament in 1991-92 when an army led crackdown all but decimated it and compelled Altaf Hussain to flee to exile. But there are two critical differences that distinguish that episode from this one. First, the MQM was subsequently revived and nourished by Gen Pervez Musharraf from 1999-2008 because he needed a political ally against the PPP in Sindh. But the current army leadership has determined that terrorism in any form poses an existential crisis for state and society and must be stamped out. Second, Mr Hussain used asylum and security in Britain to regain control of his party and extend its tentacles into the corridors of power in Pakistan. But today he is ailing, facing murder and money laundering charges, and unable to retain his demagogic hold over his followers. If ever he and his party faced an existential crisis, it is now.

The PPP is deep in the doldrums too. Its Sindh government is in a shambles, rocked by scandals of corruption and incompetence. In the last elections it was reduced to a rural Sindh party, due entirely to the bad politics and abysmal mismanagement of Asif Zardari. Two PPP prime ministers from that period are charged with gross corruption. In the current Sindh dispensation, stories are legion of how Mr Zardari’s near and dear ones have their hands deep in the till. The Rangers have a list of those who are running criminal gangs and funnelling arms into the city, and they mean to arrest them. Mr Zardari has fled Pakistan. He was visibly shaken by the arrest of his confidante Dr Asim Hussain and thundered against the generals for encroaching upon his administration. But a wave of public condemnation compelled him to retreat and retract.

Mr Zardari’s shenanigans aside, the PPP is now faced with a true existential crisis. After the loss of Benazir Bhutto, it has progressively become rudderless and leaderless. Mr Zardari is neither charismatic like her, nor wise like she became after her long years in and out of exile and power. Her natural heir, Bilawal, is still struggling not just to shed his father’s dead weight but also to define a new role for himself.

It may be argued that the PPP has been through such reversals in the past but has always managed to return to power. There are critical differences this time round. Benazir cashed in on her father’s martyrdom and then became a leader in her own right. Zardari has cashed in on her martyrdom but failed to become a leader in his own right. Benazir could always rely upon an ideological vote bank to give her a boost. But that vote bank has now dissipated. Memories of martyrdom have faded with the rise of a new youthful urbanizing middle class that is inclined to sweep away the dynastic past on the back of contender Imran Khan. Finally, unlike Benazir who was nurtured as a political heir by her father, Bilawal has had no political grooming. Indeed, Benazir often stressed that her children would not follow in her footsteps. If the PPP has abandoned the philosophy of poverty it is only because there is a total poverty of philosophy in its rank and file today. The era of “victimhood” is coming to an end and the Party is unable to reinvent itself.

The crises of the PPP and MQM cast a deep shadow on Pakistan. Both represent important minority and progressive constituencies that require representation in state and society. But both lack new leaders with new ideas and visions who can seize the moment.

Sep 4

Paradigm tweak?

Posted on Friday, September 4, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The recent arrest in Karachi of Mr Asif Zardari’s close associate Dr Asim Hussain has created new tensions and conflicts in the political system.

Dr Asim has the unique distinction of being a confidante of both Mr Zardari and Altaf Hussain. So they are naturally upset. But they are more worried by the fact that a man of stature like Dr Asim was arrested by the FIA/NAB without much ado. This implies that the federal government is fully complicit in the military establishment‘s approach to combating terrorism and crime in Karachi. In turn, this means the military intends to spread the net far and wide, and talk of political “influentials” on the hit list of the military is not idle any more. It may be recalled that Dr Asim fled Pakistan along with Mr Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur and foster brother Owais Muzaffar when the Rangers first laid hands on mid-level bureaucrats in the Sindh government amidst rumours that Uzair Baloch, the top PPP-thug, was singing like a canary in custody. Dr Asim and Faryal Talpur returned to the country only after the Sindh CM, Qaim Ali Shah, protested to PM Nawaz Sharif and was reassured that PPP stalwarts wouldn’t be targeted. Now such assurances have been swept aside by a stern warning from the army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, that, “come what may”, the Karachi operation against terrorism and corruption will go on. This statement was issued following a lengthy meeting between Gen Raheel and Mr Sharif which followed a stinging attack by Mr Zardari on Mr Sharif for “reverting to the politics of victimisation”. He also held out the threat of withdrawing the PPP’s political support to the PMLN government as it faces one threat after another on different fronts from Imran Khan. The PPP is already smarting from the pursuit of its two ex-prime ministers, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf, by NAB for corruption, and both are running from pillar to post to get pre-arrest bail in one case after another.

Meanwhile, there is popular support for the military’s action against terrorists and Karachi is already looking less fearful and more peaceful than it has in decades. Indeed, the military’s campaign against the big corrupt fish in Sindh is also quite popular, since corruption is at the top of middle-class Pakistan’s continuing angry refrain against the politicians, buttressed by Imran Khan’s ringing accusations of wrong doing against both the PPP and PMLN.

But there is also a growing perception that the military may be overstepping the bounds of constitutional propriety by equating terrorism with corruption and targeting both on the basis of some nebulous links. For instance, the DG-Rangers has trotted out a figure of Rs 230 billion as proceeds from corruption every year that feed terrorism in Karachi. Yet no effort has been made to explain how this figure has been calculated and how this money nurtures terrorism. Similarly, no facts have been released about Dr Asim’s links with terrorism. Instead, the media is being continuously manipulated to erode the credibility of politicians and cast negative aspersions on the “democratic system” even as General Raheel Sharif is plastered on the front pages every day as the great Lone Ranger of Pakistan.

To be sure, General Raheel Sharif deserves plaudits for launching the war against terrorism when his military predecessors and ruling politicians were conspicuous by their inaction, cowardice or lethargy.

That said, if he hasn’t effected “paradigm change” because some holy cows still remain untouched, his “paradigm tweak” is about to face diminishing returns. The link between terrorism and corruption of mainstream party politicians hasn’t been clearly demonstrated. And the military runs two risks if it fails to firmly establish this link whenever it arrests some high profile politician. First, if it doesn’t target the ruling party, it exposes its political bias and inadvertently props up the “theory of political victimisation” advocated by Asif Zardari and Altaf Hussain. But if it does, then it will come into direct conflict with the federal government and destabilise the political system by upsetting the balance that keeps the system going. Second, if corruption is to become a popular central theme in the military’s agenda, then people will increasingly ask why there isn’t any clean-up operation inside the military establishment as well. In the public perception, many army officers high and low have been involved in wrong doing at the expense of the public purse for decades and not one of them has ever been hauled over the coals like politicians are routinely. Certainly, the sort of gentle reprimands handed out to two generals recently for playing fast and loose with billions of public money don’t impress anyone, even though sections of the media have been prodded to make a song and dance of it at home and abroad.

There needs to be clarity and objectivity and non-partisanship in the war against terrorism. The civil-military balance is in jeopardy once again. The conspirators have crept out of the woodwork. Another breakdown would surely undo the political and economic gains of the last decade.