Jun 16

Mood and Madness

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Mood and Madness

The good news is that Pakistan’s cricket team has survived a drought of 18 years to finally storm into the Final of the Champions Trophy. The bad news is that the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up by the Supreme Court (SC) to investigate the money trail of the ruling Sharif family has become much too controversial for its own good.

When Team Pakistan set out to redeem its honour – it was languishing at the bottom of the ODI rankings – not many expected it to even reach the semi-finals. Group A was bristling with top-guns India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Certainly, the team’s cowering performance in the opening match against India seemed to confirm the perennial naysayers on social and electronic media who have made it a business to bitch about the Pakistan Cricket Board and its administrators, coaches and selectors. Chastened, the team then seemed to pick itself up by its bootstraps in the second match against South Africa and was spared potential blushes by rain that washed out play. In the third match against Sri Lanka, the team was true to form – it restricted the enemy from posting a demoralizing target, then the star spangled “middle order” slumped ignominiously (“line lag gayi”) and stamped out any lingering hope of redeeming national honour. But Allah be Praised! A “sitter” enabled Captain Sarfaraz and pacer Amir to steer Pakistan to a nail biting win. But the stumbling recovery did nothing to boost confidence in the ability of the team to outrun hosts England who had been firing on all cylinders. However, Pakistan stunned everyone, not least itself, by whipping England on a glorious sun-drenched day in Cardiff and now seems invincible. The “wretched” PCB is now scrambling to buy tickets for complimentary distribution to ravenous VIPs and blackmailing media who were screaming blue murder only a few days earlier. The joy all round is palpable and infectious. It is as if Pakistan has been reborn, prompting the great British cricket commentator Rob Smyth to write these memorable words about Team Pakistan.

“I used to think that Pakistan were the most interesting team in the history of sport. I now realise that they’re the most interesting team in the history of mankind. Their ability to teleport between farce and genius is unparalleled, and at their best they are like watching sport directed by David Lynch. Nothing makes a blind bit of sense, key characters appear out from nowhere, supernatural forces are at work and inanimate objects can talk. All you can do is run with the mood and the madness.” The great Kevin Peterson (KP) attributed the success of Team Pakistan’s “key characters” to the “super successful” PSL with its “excellent standard” and “brilliant” management.

Alas. The JIT is not in any mood to celebrate. In fact, it is decidedly sour at the way in which its conduct is being portrayed in the media. In a sensational complaint to the Supreme Court, it has noted a litany of criticism by state and non-state actors that is unwarranted and aimed at obstructing its investigations. However, if there is an element of truth in these allegations, the JIT has only itself to blame. The seeds of controversy were sown by the less than transparent selection and biased conduct of some of its members. Indeed, the JIT demonstrated its political bias against the Sharifs by leaking a video-grab of Hussein Nawaz Sharif slumped in anticipation of being grilled by the JIT. Then, overnight, it assembled a dossier of alleged “attacks” on its credibility by pro-Sharif elements, a feat that could only have been achieved by the combined efforts of the agencies that monitor such things as a matter of routine, raising questions about its links and motives.

As the “JIT lurches from one self-made crisis to another”, the Sharifs’ indefatigable critic, Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, has been provoked to smell some sort of conspiracy. He says the JIT is behaving like “an election cell” of the PMLN, implying that its desperate actions are creating a wave of public sympathy for the Sharifs. Now that the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has appeared before the JIT in an unprecedented but dignified manner, it is a foregone conclusion that the JIT’s controversial deliberations will not amount to any conclusive arraignment or indictment of the Sharifs. The SC now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to contend with the JIT’s complaint as well as a fresh petition from Imran Khan on the same subject in support of the JIT. Meanwhile, arguments and documents continue to be traded in petitions against Imran Khan in the SC and ECP pertaining to the money trail of his personal wealth as well as that of funds for the PTI.

If Pakistanis are praying for a memorable win in the Final of the Champions Trophy on Sunday, they are not terribly sanguine about the outcome of the JIT’s Final Report next month. Perhaps we should just run with the mood and madness.

Jun 9

So many questions

Posted on Friday, June 9, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

So many questions

The JIT has become much too controversial for its own good. The opposition says this is a planned strategy by the government to save its neck. This would seem to make sense because a verdict against the Sharifs by a controversial JIT is not likely to have any credibility and will make the job of the three judges on the Supreme Court bench very difficult. As it is, the 3/2 judgment of the original five-member SC bench is steeped in controversy and another split judgment of the current three-member SC bench is going to make matters worse. Stray remarks by one or the other judges point to their frustration and irritation in the matter but have triggered whispering campaigns of bias.

Be that as it may, the facts tell a different story. The judges were wholly right in seeking a JIT of upright and unbiased professionals to investigate the money trail of the Sharif family. They were also right to seek recommendations from the top bosses of the MI, ISI, SECP, SBP, FIA and NAB. The problem arose when they decided to reject the nominations of the SECP and SBP. The two gentlemen who were finally chosen, ostensibly because of their expertise and professionalism, were tainted by anti-Sharif bias. More worryingly, the process of selecting them was not transparent even if it was in good faith. But when evidence of presumed bias was produced by a worried respondent the judges rejected it. It then transpired that the induction was even more murky than imagined: instead of being nominated, it had been clearly manipulated at someone’s behest. Who that “someone” is has yet to be determined even though the footprints of a senior officer of the SC are all over the place. But there’s more.

The first member of the Sharif family to be interviewed by the JIT, Tariq Shafi, has accused it of bullying and arm twisting. A degree of firmness is certainly the need of the hour and the Sharifs must expect some hard talk. But second degree methods are not par for the course in such an investigation. The treatment meted out to Hussain Nawaz also borders on harassment if not intimidation. Short response time to produce documents, long waits in the out-room, and now the mysterious appearance of a video grab of Hussain cowering in a bare room like a common criminal have given the Sharifs good cause to complain. The video-grab cannot be the handiwork of anyone except the administrators of the project. Who are these?

It is now clear that the military establishment is firmly in control of this project. The two gentlemen from the ISI and MI in this JIT are the same two who led the JIT investigations in the Dawnleaks case that created a serious rift between the civil and military leaders. Now we learn that all the “coordinators” are also from the same sort of military sources. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in seeking such help. After all, civilians are wont to clutch at the military whenever they doubt their own neutrality or ability, as for example in critical help in conducting a census or in overseeing general elections. But the current case is of a different nature. We know that Mr Sharif is intensely disliked by the military establishment for one reason or another. A cursory overview of serving and recently retired military officers will testify to their bristling hostility against him even if the current top brass is not so overly inclined. Under the circumstances, the government has every right to demand that the JIT should not only do justice but also appear to be doing so. We are, after all, investigating a popularly elected leader who has won the confidence of the people of Pakistan and been prime minister twice before and, going by current polls, is poised to win again in 2018.

Now there is a new development in the case. The Qatari Al-Thani Royal who provided a letter authenticating the source of funds for the Sharifs’ London flats has declined a JIT summons to Islamabad to clarify his position. Given the current state of geostrategic hostility in which Qatar finds itself because of a joint Saudi-UAE move to isolate and strangle the ruling Al-Thani regime, the witness has suggested that the JIT should come to Doha and interview him there. There is nothing untoward in this request. Instead of provoking media-carping, the JIT should dispatch someone to do the needful.

Unfortunately, Nihal Hashmi’s histrionics has provoked more questions. Who nudged him to make a statement that severely undermined the Sharifs’ position and compelled the PM to reprimand him severely? Indeed, who has now persuaded Mr Hashmi to resist his party leader’s demand for resignation from the Senate?

Many such questions are hanging in the air. We need answers. The honourable and upright judges should take steps to redeem the situation quickly.

Jun 2

JIT jitters

Posted on Friday, June 2, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

JIT jitters

Nihal Hashmi, the sole PMLN Senator from Karachi, is the fourth Nawaz Sharif loyalist to bite the dust in recent years. The irony is that like his noteworthy predecessors — Senator Mushaidullah, Senator Pervez Rashid and Mr Tareq Fatimi — his error lay in stepping on the toes of the powerful civil-military establishment in overzealous defense of his party-political line and not in revolting against their party chief. Indeed, in all cases, instead of protecting them as befits staunch loyalists covering his flanks, Mr Sharif succumbed to pressure and sacrificed them at the altar of his own security and longevity. The greater irony is that neither the PMLN nor Mr Sharif has yet managed to secure the trust of the civil-military establishment which was the main motive for abandoning these loyalists. This raises the question of whether it was right not to defend them in the first place. Indeed, the summary treatment meted out to them is bound to deter many from being more loyal than the King.

Mr Hashmi has often been a maddeningly blind defender of the PMLN and Nawaz Sharif. This made him a target of the establishment and opposition. But he went overboard on 28th May when he lost his cool before a small crowd of PMLN workers and warned “those who were conducting the accountability of the Sharif family” that PMLN workers would make this land of Pakistan “narrow” for them and their children because they would not be spared after they retired from service. “Those investigating us must know that we will observe your Day of Judgment”, he thundered. His ire was clearly aimed at some overly aggressive members of the JIT investigating the money trail of the Sharifs, notably Mr Bilal Rasool from the SECP and Mr Amer Aziz from the SBP who have been accused of anti-PMLN bias.

The PMLN is severely embarrassed by Mr Hashmi’s outburst. Only a couple of days ago, its case against both JIT members received a boost when it was revealed by the media that their selection was possibly motivated. The Registrar of the SC has not yet adequately explained why he leaned on the SECP to specially nominate Mr Rasool when several other names had been forwarded to him. After Mr Hashmi’s outburst, however, the focus of the debate has shifted to his threats against the JIT and the PMLN’s case has been significantly undermined. Now the CJP has summoned Mr Hashmi to determine whether he was in contempt of the judges who are carrying out the accountability of the Sharifs or threatening the JIT or both. Meanwhile, in a desperate effort to distance himself from Mr Hashmi’s objectionable tirade, the prime minister, who is president of the PMLN, has suspended him from party membership and obtained his resignation from the Senate.

The opposition is accusing Mr Sharif of instigating Mr Hashmi. But the accusation is not credible. It is still inexplicable that his statement should hit media headlines three full days after it was made. Did he perhaps fall into a trap by certain vested interests? Certainly, the PMLN has been badly hurt by his statement and its leaders are bemoaning Mr Hashmi’s stupidity, so they couldn’t possibly be behind it.

Regardless of Mr Hashmi’s indiscretion, certain aspects of the JIT investigation are troubling. The opposition-connections of Mr Rasool’s wife have not been denied. That implies an inbuilt bias against the ruling party. Mr Amer Aziz’s role in the prosecution or persecution (depends on how one looks at it) of the Sharifs during the Musharraf era is also a fact of political life. However, the SC has held both facts to be inconsequential. But how on earth can the new evidence of “interference” by the SC Registrar be ignored unless it is admitted he did so on behalf of the judges who had valid reason to pick and choose. It is also becoming clear that 60 days is too little time in which to marshal convincing evidence against the Sharifs for money laundering. The JIT’s attempt to substitute intimidation for investigation as alleged by some respondents is also worrying no less than the Sharifs attempts to obfuscate matters.

Much the same sort of problems are evident in the trial of Imran Khan in the SC and ECP for his inability to explain legitimate sources of external funding for the PTI as well as the money trail of his offshore company and the source of funds for the sprawling, billion rupee worth property at Bani Gala. The record simply isn’t available or forthcoming. Or there are damning holes in it. And the respondent-accused is making excuses or delaying matters.

Politics is dirty business. Just as it is wrong to mix religion and politics, it is counterproductive to drag the courts into it. In both these cases against Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, the honourable judges may suffer negative consequences if justice is not seen to be done to either.

May 26

Mundane national interest

Posted on Friday, May 26, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Mundane national interest

The PMLN government is being dragged over the coals by the opposition for not protesting the “shabby” treatment meted out to the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, at the 39 nation US-Arab Islamic Summit in Riyadh. US President Donald Trump barely shook hands with Mr Sharif, let alone said anything meaningful to him in the context of US-Pak relations. Mr Sharif was also “snubbed” by the Saudis when they didn’t give him an opportunity to speak at the forum even though he had prepared a speech dilating on the sacrifices that Pakistan had made in the “war against terror”. Adding insult to injury, Mr Trump’s speech didn’t even mention Pakistan among a long list of countries that have suffered the scourge of terrorism. To top it all, India was portrayed as a victim of terrorism even though Pakistan has cried itself hoarse pointing to the Indian hand in aiding and abetting Taliban terrorism and Baloch separatism in the country. Under the circumstances, critics are asking why the Saudis invited Mr Sharif in the first place and why he agreed to attend the summit if there was nothing in it except “humiliation” for Pakistan.

?Let us be clear. The predominantly conservative Sunni Arab nations under the leadership of Saudi Arabia have banded together to thwart a perceived threat from revolutionary Shia Iran and its allies in the Middle-East. The civil wars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen are heavily overladen with Islamist sectarian colours, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia warring through Islamist proxies. To complicate matters, the US and Russia are taking opposing sides in the conflict. In this situation, Pakistan is caught in no-man’s land. It is predominantly Sunni but with a significant Shia population, which makes the spectre of serious Shia-Sunni conflict in the country a veritable nightmare. It is already fighting on various fronts – putting down Sunni Taliban extremists, stamping on Baloch separatists supported by Kabul and New Delhi, and fending off hostile armies on its eastern and western borders with India and Afghanistan – and cannot risk jumping into the Middle East cauldron without facing a horrible backlash at home. And, for whatever it’s worth, Pakistan is a parliamentary constitutional democracy with a strong opposition and periodic general elections for popular accountability. That is why, when the Saudis and other Arab leaders pleaded with Pakistan to join their holy alliance and lend their fighting force, our government politely declined, citing popular opposition in the national interest. By and large, Pakistanis are anti-US and anti-Saudi Arabia because both are pro-Israel and not anti-India.

It was a hard decision to make for Mr Sharif. The Saudis have been his personal saviours and hosts in difficult times. They have also been Pakistan’s historical “friend”. Over a couple of million Pakistani workers remit billions of dollars annually to shore up the country’s forex reserves and stabilize its currency, apart from the Saudis providing oil on favourable terms. From time to time they also pitch in with balance of payments support. The US, too, has been a benefactor for decades, supplying Pakistan with top-notch military hardware and tens of billions of dollars in economic and military aid. Not to scratch their backs now after they have been scratching Pakistan’s for decades couldn’t have endeared us to them in their moment of need. So if they weren’t exactly gushing over Mr Sharif, why hold him culpable? In fact, it is a success of Pakistan’s foreign policy that it has finally woken up to its own long term national interest vis a vis both Saudi Arabia and the US and refrained from selling itself cheap in the short term. If Mr Sharif cannot be their ally in this conflict, he can scarcely afford to alienate the US and the Saudis by spurning their invitation.

The government has also been slated for “mishandling” the Khulbushan Yadav affair with India at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Critics claim it lost in the first round when the ICJ stayed the execution of Yadav. But the fact is that India did not win and Pakistan did not lose the case. Since Pakistan wasn’t prepared to guarantee it wouldn’t execute Yadav before the case was concluded on merits regarding matters of jurisdiction and consular access to spies, it was only natural for the ICJ not to prejudice the matter by not staying the execution provisionally. That is why Pakistan has now applied for a speedy resolution of the matter of jurisdiction in the first place. It is interesting too that Indian critics have been no less sparing of their own government for going to a third party for mediation when its historical stance on conflict resolution with Pakistan has been pegged to bilateralsm so that it can resist pro-Pakistan Kashmir Resolutions in the UN.

Pakistanis are wont to be fiercely “nationalistic” even when such sentiment is misplaced or counterproductive. In such situations, blind passion about friendship and betrayal must give way to sober calculations of mundane national interest.

May 19

Political Astroturf

Posted on Friday, May 19, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Political Astroturf

Imran Khan has accused the government of abusing the new cyber crime law by “harassing his party’s social media political activists”.  This, he claims, is “unacceptable in a democracy”.

This is rich. The PTI’s “social media cells” are the most aggressive and abusive “political astroturf” campaigners in the country whose idea of democracy and freedom is to use such notions of civil society to trample on the rights and freedoms of others.

The PTI’s political astroturfing refers to micro-blogging platforms of politically-motivated party loyalists who use multiple centrally controlled accounts to impersonate users and post falsehoods to create widespread negativity for opposing opinions, individuals and parties via “trends” and “twitter bombs” that harass opponents into silence or submission.

But the PTI is not alone in exploiting this strategy. The PMLN and the intelligence agencies have also gotten wise to the use and abuse of such platforms. But there is a difference between the two. The former is mostly defensive while the latter is patently aggressive. The former tends to focus on exaggerating its successes and denying its failures while the latter is concentrated on portraying its opponents and critics as “traitors” or national security risks. This is particularly destabilising for institutions of governance and can even be life threatening for individuals when it provokes complaints of treason or blasphemy by motivated parties. A case in point is the temporary disappearance of a number of “bloggers” recently who were accused of “unpatriotic” behaviour and taught a lesson.

The use of social media, especially Twitter with its 140-character limit, to convey political meaning has also acquired another dimension in mediating conflict, especially as regards civil-military relations in this country. In the best of circumstances, this subject is a minefield of distrust and uncertainty borne of the historical burden of irresistible institutions and immovable politicians. Therefore its use to address the balance of power in a delicate political transition can be misplaced. This has been all too evident in the last few years. Indeed, a recent tweet in which the military establishment publicly “rejected” a government notification trembled on the edge of confrontation and constitutional disaster, confirming that social media is not the best medium for airing and resolving civil-military issues.

There is an ongoing debate in the West on whether or not social media is anti-social in the sense that it detracts from or replaces personal interactions and relationships. But in countries like Pakistan which evidence a high level of intolerance for diversity, the anti-social dimension of social media is more problematic. The more a society is steeped in the passionate values of religious singularity and cultural intolerance, the greater the potential of social media for negativity to thwart freedom of expression. Instead of being a vehicle for disseminating well-informed truth with facts, social media has become the instrument of hate, bigotry, prejudice and false pride.

It may be noted that the notion of individual freedom of expression in tolerant constitutional democracies is rooted in notions of social and corporate responsibility. My freedom ends where yours begins. Transgressions are accountable in the courts through laws that define and penalize defamation. But no such recourse is available in Pakistan because the courts are notoriously loath to implement the defamation law. So there is a free-for-all hatred syndrome on social media. A minuscule minority exploits the political astroturf to silence the majority into submission. Facilitation is provided by the relative anonymity and even falsehood of the platform. The more illiterate, ill-informed or politically motivated such platforms, the more social media tends to acquire a distinctly anti-social, anti-civil society personality.

But social media isn’t only Twitter and Facebook. It is a host of social apps for communication, the most popular being Whatsapp because it claims to protect your identity and communication. Its potency can be gauged from the proliferating Whatsapp groups of likeminded people who form a bandwidth for disseminating outrage and passion. In the recent case of Dawnleaks, according to one research analyst, such Whatsapp groups of retired army officers have forged a formidable pressure point on the serving army leadership that recently led it to a confrontation with the elected government. The fact that most such groups comprise upright, confident and patriotic officers makes their organized vocal presence all the more ominous. Much the same can be said of illiberal and sectarian middle class intellectuals, tv anchors, hosts and journalists who use social media to dominate the “national” discourse.

Social media was designed to meet the challenge of a new age of nation building. In the Middle East it helped disintegrate the mean structures of autocracy and dictatorship. But it then became a vehicle to promote even more dictatorial and radical ideologies that led to civil war and disintegration instead of democracy and stability. The challenge in Pakistan is not to allow social media to become such anti-social astroturf as to rupture the fragile and beleaguered structures of civil institutions and civil society that we have built up so painfully and haltingly.