Welcome to “New” Pakistan!
Before the elections, every political party (except PTI), every foreign newspaper and every independent journalist had concluded that The Aliens, Khalai Makhluk, Agriculture Department, Miltablishment, Whatever, had conclusively pre-rigged the elections in an unprecedented manner. A day after the elections, every political party (except PTI), every foreign newspaper and every independent journalist has confirmed the finding. Before the elections, the Miltablishment, Supreme Court and Media were on trial. After the elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan has joined them in the dock.
The ECP claims that “the Remote Transmission System (RTS) broke down, hence the announcement of results was delayed by a few hours.” Was the RTS deliberately glitched because the Agriculture Department panicked when the opposition began to weigh in and something had to be done to get things back on track? Even if it was an unforeseen breakdown, this does not explain why the polling agents were kicked out while the votes were being tabulated or why such lengthy delays ensued.
In the next year or so, we should expect scores of petitions to be filed wherever the margin of PTI’s victory is less than 10,000 or thereabouts. Thousands of bags will be opened and hundreds of thousands of ballots recounted and thumbprints matched. Thousands of Form 45 will be scrutinized. But none of this huffing and puffing will bring Imran Khan’s house down because he is protected and propped up by the Miltablishment.
Imran Khan will be Prime Minister, he will choose the next President of Pakistan and the PTI will rule in Islamabad, KP and possibly even in Punjab while mounting stiff opposition to the PPP in Sindh. Why was such a sweeping victory required of it? What should we expect in the new Pakistan?
To be fair, Imran Khan cannot be denied his fair share of the voter, especially among the new youth, urbanising white-collar middle-class and rich. His prospects became brighter after he started to enroll “electables” regardless of the colour of their money or character. Equally, the PMLN, whatever its self-righteous claims or principles, was well and truly on a suicidal path. But electoral engineering on such a large scale was still necessary to provide legitimacy for a constitutional and political overhaul. What’s on the cards?
A State of Emergency could be imposed under the garb of financial necessity pinned to the alleged misdeeds of the previous regimes. The numbers in parliament will not be too difficult to get. Such an Emergency would restrict fundamental rights and pave the way for a witch hunt of political and media opponents in order to satisfy the bloodlust of the winners (IK has said he won’t do that), protect them from any potential buffeting by a disgruntled opposition and detract criticism from unpopular policy decisions or incompetent and corrupt mismanagement. If that happens, we should expect NAB, FIA, FBR and IB to get hyper active after all state institutions are brought on the same page.
The constitution may also be targeted for amendment. The 18th Amendment, for starters, has become irksome because it shaves the federal pool — which is required to pay for increasing defense expenditures and pensions— by devolving financial resources to the provinces. A need may also be felt to reduce the size and strength of Punjab in the scheme of things, especially since the development of a critical fissure in the historical pro-Miltablishment character of the province. Plans remain on the anvil to carve it up into three or more “units” that are politically more “manageable”.
But the “new dream team” that is lining up to run the “new Pakistan” will not find it easy going. The economy needs more than a shot in the arm. Hard times are upon us and the very middle-classes and rich that have catapulted Imran Khan to office will have to pay the price of their convictions. The value of their rupee is going to fall, so their everyday needs will become expensive; they will have to pay more indirect taxes and duties; and IMF structural reforms will dampen infrastructural growth and employment. This will give grist to the opposition, media and judiciary to stand up and create hurdles in his path.
Admittedly, the Miltablishment has stitched up an extraordinary political dispensation in difficult times. But, unlike Nawaz, the person they have chosen to lead it is strong-willed and unpredictable. In fact, Nawaz was eminently pliant. Yet, after a while, he felt compelled, given the nature of power, to try and be his own man. But this was unacceptable and he had to pay the price for even thinking such rash thoughts. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. He may have embraced the Miltablishment as a tactical move but sooner rather than later he will begin to challenge the conventional wisdom of the national security state handed down to him. That’s when all bets will be off.
Meanwhile, let us not spoil their honeymoon with grudging digs and pin pricks.
Good luck, Imran!
August 3, 2018
The Miltablishment, Judiciary, ECP and Media – “pillars of the state” – are entitled to pat one another on the back for successfully putting Imran Khan in office. Their task became doubly difficult after Nawaz Sharif defied expectations to return to the country and court arrest, triggering sympathy votes in Punjab that threatened to derail their carefully laid plans.
The opposition parties are rightly crying foul. They have demanded the resignation of the CEC and his associates for facilitating the theft of the general elections. The ECP’s explanation about the mysterious breakdown of the RTS system – denied by NADRA which put the system in place and monitored it — and the extraordinary delays in announcing the results hasn’t washed. Nor is it easy to stomach the fact that in many constituencies the lead of the winner is less than the number of rejected votes. The sharp rebuke from the ECP confirms a decidedly partisan sentiment in its ranks.
Clearly, those who thought that unprecedented pre-poll rigging would suffice to get “suitable results” were wrong. A last-minute intervention was necessitated in the dead of night on Election Day when the numbers seemed to be going awry. But that’s not the end of the story.
The “Independents” are now being corralled and branded. Small fry like the GDA, PMLQ, MQM, BAP, TLYRA, etc are being offered “sweetners” while the PPP is being whipped into submission. Asif Zardari, Feryal Talpur,Owais Tappi, Yousaf Raza Gillani, and a clutch of other Zardari cronies and PPP leaders have been read out the Riot Act by NAB and FIA: Cooperate or Else.
Still, it’s going to be a long haul for Imran Khan and Associates. The bare victories in Islamabad and Lahore will be buffeted every day for the next five years. Indeed, the project of putting Imran Khan in office will have to be updated by a project to keep him in office. Amidst this, the core objective of “Tabdeeli” will be very difficult to achieve.
For starters, Imran Khan will need help in assembling his teams in KPK, Punjab and Islamabad so that the core objective is kept firmly in mind. The refusal to appoint Pervez Khattak as CM of KPK suggests that the Miltablishment will retain veto power over critical appointments. The buzzwords in these quarters are “Neat, Clean and Obedient”. But a contradiction between means and ends is already palpable. The PTI has been stuffed with dirty “lotas” and traditional, status quo “electables” to bring Imran into office and keep him there by a carrot-and-stick policy. But “Tabdeeli” requires motivated ideologues to sacrifice self-interest and support hard decisions. The current intraparty spat over the CMships of KPK and Balochistan, or the resistance faced by Not-so-Neat-And-Clean Aleem Khan, or the visible power struggle between Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Jehangir Tareen for the coveted CMship of Punjab, is just the tip of the iceberg. The notion of public service or duty – central to the requirement of “Tabdeeli” — is alien to these folks.
The celebratory fireworks on the day Imran Khan is sworn in as Prime Minister will be followed by a different display of fire power. The Miltablishment, which has been tarred in the public imagination by its blunt political intrusions of late, may withdraw behind the curtain and let the “elected” government take responsibility for its actions. That would give the media and judiciary scope to redress their failing credibility by taking the government to task. Indeed, neither pillar of the state can afford to be pro-government for its own sake – the media for its commercial interests and the judiciary for its independence from the executive. This is bound to put several spanners in the works.
As if this isn’t enough, the job of putting the economy on track will provoke howls of protest from the very classes that have voted for Imran Khan. Currency depreciation will fuel inflation. Reduction in budgetary deficits will curtail public expenditures, consumer demand and employment. Plugging the balance of payments gap by curtailing imports and capital transfers will restrict commercial activity (SBP has already banned imports on open account save for essential raw materials). Increasing tax rates will be unpopular. Provincial bureaucracies and politicians will fight tooth and nail over any attempt to reverse the last NFC Award that flushed them with money, no less than any attempt to devolve power and funds to local governments, which are the preferred nurseries of the Miltablishment for nurturing “neat and clean and obedient” politicians.
The Miltablishment will also expect Imran Khan to exploit his “star” status to manage foreign policy productively. But it would be naïve to expect the two key players that impinge on us, India and the US, to overnight repose trust in him so long as he remains a proxy. The problem is that if Khan tries to cut loose from his key benefactor in pursuit of his own vision, he will feel the heat just like Nawaz Sharif did.
Good luck to Imran Khan!
First 100 Days
August 10, 2018
In yet another controversial judgment, the Supreme Court bench headed by CJP Saqib Nisar has suspended an order by the Lahore High Court for a vote recount in NA-131 Lahore where Imran Khan, the prime ministerial hopeful, has claimed victory over PMLN stalwart Khawaja Saad Rafique by a margin of 608 votes. The judgment is extraordinary because of the circumstances relating to the election in this constituency.
Punjab is the bastion of the PMLN and Lahore is the jewel in the crown. A loss for Imran Khan in Lahore after seeming to win the Punjab would have been grist for the mills of naysayers alluding to massive rigging in the province.
Saad Rafique had earlier justified his demand for a recount of rejected votes when Imran Khan’s lead was whittled down from 680 to 608. But his subsequent demand for a full vote recount – given the narrow margin of victory — was inexplicably turned down by the Returning Officer despite the law allowing for a full recount where the margin of victory is less than 5% (total votes cast were about 170,000). Saad Rafique’s appeal against the RO’s decision was upheld by the LHC which ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan to withhold the result until the recount. Now the SC has stayed the LHC order (which means that Imran stands elected) until it hears both sides at its convenience. In effect this means that Imran will be well and truly ensconced as prime minister of Pakistan without the negativity attached to a possible loss in NA-131. Indeed, the likelihood is that he will shortly ditch NA-131 in favour of a constituency where his winning lead is unchallengeable, thus making the SC writ infructuous after the ECP calls for a fresh election in this constituency. So we will never know whether he was a true winner or a sore loser in the first place, a neat solution that protects him from being tarred by a loss while enabling Saad Rafique to have another go at testing his fortunes in the more difficult environment of a post-PTI government in Punjab.
This is just the latest example of the charmed fortunes of the “ladla” of this generation. Imran has emerged unscathed from a battery of perfectly reasonable cases challenging his morality, his declaration of assets, his contemptuous remarks about the ECP, and other “careless” omissions and commissions, etc, while lesser mortals like Nawaz Sharif and Mariam Sharif have been shunted to prison and disqualified from parliament for failing to declare petty “unreceived” incomes (construed as assets!) or using type fonts not generally in the free public domain in certain property trust deeds.
If Imran leads a “favoured” life, why is he looking so deadbeat and forlorn these days? One would have thought his life’s ambition to be prime minister and change Pakistan for good would have brought colour to his face and a glint in his eye as he nears his objective. But the challenges ahead are truly formidable and these seem to be dampening his spirit as they dawn on him.
Imran’s victory is due to many compromises for which he must now atone. For starters, the “electables” and independents who have cleaved to the PTI’s bosom are already clamouring for a slice of the ministerial action even before they have given him their formal vote of confidence in parliament. Most of them are corrupt and disreputable to their Peshawari chappals, which makes it difficult for Imran to scratch their backs. If the power grab over the KPK CMship is any indication of what lies in store, he is in for a lot of soul searching in Punjab and Islamabad for “neat and clean” candidates to fit the bill. The Miltablishment, which has invested heavily in him, is also breathing down his neck (albeit discreetly) for its own pound of flesh. Say this, don’t do that, select her, drop him, seems to be the whisper of the day. On top of it, Mrs Peerni Khan’s invocations can only be ignored at peril. The constant jostling between Jahangir Tareen and Shah Mahmood Qureshi must take a toll too as must the shrill reprimands of the PTI ideologues who are swamped by turncoats and opportunists. No wonder Imran has kept his “lists” of favoured sons of the soil close to his chest. Any premature revelations may spark revolts that could breach the narrow voting on D-Day. What follows that hallowed point for the first 100 days in which unpopular decisions about the economy have to be taken is too painful a prospect to contemplate.
Imran means well. There is no doubt about it. That is the sole reason why many have voted for him despite misgivings about his “end justifies means” approach and controversial personal life choices and standards. Even if he succeeds in half-fulfilling his mission, it will have been worth the price we have paid in mocking democracy and constitutionalism. But if he should fail, the tab will be greater because there is no back up except takeover by The Aliens.
All Hail the Chief!
NAB, FIA and the Courts are making headlines every day. What’s the message?
On the eve of the election of the PM in the National Assembly, Asif Zardari’s business partner Anwar Majeed et al were arrested by the FIA in a case of money laundering via dozens of fake bank accounts after the Supreme Court denied them pre-arrest bail. This spells trouble for the PPP. Earlier, Mr Zardari and his sister Feryal Talpur’s lawyer had to submit to some harsh questioning in the same case by the SC, suggesting that both are living on borrowed time.
The PMLN is also on the spot. Fawad Hasan Fawad, the civil servant who has served both brothers Shahbaz Sharif and Nawas Sharif by turns, is already in NAB custody. So, too, is another civil servant, Ahad Cheema, who was close to ex-CM Shahbaz Sharif and lorded it over the Lahore Development Authority which is the hot spot under scrutiny for corrupt land grabs. Now comes the news that Ali Siddiqui, the PMLN-appointed Pakistan Ambassador to Washington, has been summoned again to appear before NAB in a case for investigation initiated by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan. Not to be forgotten is PMLN stalwart and ex-Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique whose hand is perceived in dubious land deals under investigation. A far more sinister move centers on the outcome of the Model Town police massacre in June 2014 in which another civil servant, Dr Tauqeer Shah, who was close to ex-CM Shahbaz Sharif, is being grilled with the aim of implicating the Sharifs.
Meanwhile, the shoddy treatment being meted out to ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should not be missed. The courts from top to bottom have treated him harshly by denying him a fair hearing in due process. To add insult to injury, the spectacle of dragging a popular ex-Prime Minister to court in an SUV used for transporting high value terrorists is meant to reinforce the same message.
The message to both PPP and PMLN is: Behave or else.
Dutifully, the PPP has refused to cooperate with the PMLN in Punjab and Islamabad. In Punjab, the two could have jointly wooed the Independents and cobbled a coalition government led by the PMLN but the PTI was handed the coveted prize when the PPP announced its decision not to join hands with the PMLN. Indeed, the PPP went so far as to even deny support to the PMLN nominee for the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Much the same sort of non-cooperative stance has prevailed in Islamabad. The PPP has refused to stand with Shahbaz Sharif on fielding him as their joint candidate for prime ministership despite the fact that the PMLN supported the PPP in fielding its Syed Khurshid Shah as their joint candidate for Speakership. Indeed, the PPP was conspicuous by its silence when the PMLN protested in parliament after the election of the PTI Speaker. It is significant that the PPP has changed its stance of joining hands with the PMLN to make a strong opposition in Punjab and Islamabad following the overnight trials and tribulations of Mr Zardari, Feryal Talpur and Anwar Majeed.
No less significant is the stance adopted by Shahbaz Sharif which is at odds with that of Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz wanted his party to make a determined bid to form a government in Punjab and a strong, united and vociferous opposition in Islamabad. Yet Shahbaz made no serious attempt to woo the Independents or the PPP in Punjab and opted for Islamabad rather than Punjab as his home for the next five years. Nor did he whip up crowds to protest the shoddy treatment meted out to Nawaz Sharif during his comings and goings to NAB courts in police custody. Clearly, he too has got the message to behave or else.
The media is also in the same boat. As the fate of GEO demonstrates, those channels which don’t behave and toe the line will be sorted out. The few independent journalists left have been gagged by their employers or threatened and browbeaten into submission. After successful censorship on Facebook and YouTube, the last frontier on the internet of freedom for citizens and political parties — Twitter — is about to fall too. Pak Telecom Authority has informed a Senate Standing Committee that Twitter has refused to oblige the government’s request to block “objectionable commentary targeting the state and its institutions”. Not unsurprisingly, the PTA told the Committee that “the Islamabad High Court is determined to teach Twitter a lesson”.
The PTI is also being “managed” behind the scenes. This much is obvious from the nominations approved by Imran Khan for key posts in government and parliament despite popular disgruntlement in the party. Indeed, Imran sheepishly shook hands with Mr Zardari and Bilawal but not with Shahbaz Sharif.
So we now have a loyal government, a loyal opposition, a loyal media and a loyal court. All Hail the Chief!
Hope and despair
Imran Khan’s first few days in office have triggered both hope and despair. Desperate hope that he means what he says and will prove it by definite actions. Despair because the dubious means he has chosen are at serious odds with the noble ends he has pledged.
His first formal “address to the nation” was not formal at all. He spoke from handwritten notes and reached out directly to the people. This is the method of all populist leaders. It denotes sincerity of purpose and righteousness. He also touched on a to-do list of relevant issues.
The naysayers can rightly point to some embarrassing omissions: missing persons, minority and women’s rights, religious extremism, etc. We must also admit that repeating manifesto pledges isn’t terribly inspiring because he didn’t explain how he intends to go about doing business.
Khan’s supporters say that for now he should be assessed only on the team he has assembled to deliver his reform agenda. They admit to an astounding number of cabinet members and advisors who have “served” the country before, many during the regime of the military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. What’s the fuss about, they ask, if these men and women are all educated, good, competent, qualified and honest? So what if these same people didn’t amount to much in their previous official incarnations? General Musharraf’s reform agenda, they say, was dogged by questions of legitimacy. Imran Khan’s isn’t, they claim. Then there’s the question of the political compromises General Musharraf made when he opted for the political “lotas” of his time to stick to power. But that didn’t undermine reform, they argue, because these people didn’t really wield power. So who did?
The unaccountable bureaucracy, or babus, at every tier of government, we are advised, are the root of all evil. They are wedded to the privileged status quo. They will have to be uprooted if any reform agenda is to be pursued. How to do this is the million-dollar question. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Not many answers are blowing in the wind. If the educated, good, honest, competent ministers of past eras failed to uproot the evil bureaucracies that served them faithfully, how is the same lot going to fare now? Didn’t General Musharraf inspire the same sort of hope when he kicked off, among the same sort of people that Imran Khan now does? Didn’t General Musharraf have the support of the other institutions of the state like the judiciary and media that Imran Khan has today?
Alas. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, sometimes we may legitimately question these as well. How on earth is someone like Sheikh Rashid expected to reform the Railways? How is Asad Umar going to fix the white elephants in the economy if not by enduring the pain of privatization? How is the “corrupt” FBR going to reform the tax system? Who is going to reform the FBR? And how? And so on. So many questions. Such few answers.
To be sure, Dr Ishrat Hussain’s wealth of knowledge about necessary administrative reforms is welcome. But where is the hard-nosed, dedicated, informed team that is going to wade into this cesspool of compromise and cleanse it?
The question of legitimacy is also not to be scoffed at. If the wild allegations of rigging in 2013 were subsequently dismissed by a judicial commission of Imran Khan’s approval, we should not expect the same results this time round. The crude unfairness of the political engineering that has brought Imran Khan to power has come to be deeply embedded in the popular imagination because of several unprecedented but now well established factors. Indeed, it is the political frailty of the end-result – whether in the quality of the elected leaders (more appropriately “puppets”) or the parliamentary numbers in Lahore and Islamabad – that is likely to stall radical reform. By its very nature, this dispensation is built on a historic “compromise” between governments and oppositions, between the military and civilians, and between the different organs of the state like the judiciary and media. The problem with these multiple compromises is their lack of stability. They are all held at gunpoint rather than any willing social-contract consensus. This will work in the short term but cannot endure, like we learnt from our previous experiences under three gunpoint regimes.
For many folks, Imran Khan is genuinely inspirational. For others, if only by contrast with the abysmal lots that have come and gone. But that’s just the beginning of the story. A lot of showy accountability will doubtless assuage the thirst of the masses for some time, as it did in the gunpoint regimes of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 2000s. But all Pied Piper regimes eventually fall into the abyss.
While blind optimism can be dangerously misplaced, it’s only fair to give a new regime time to settle down before taking stock of its performance.
Deeds not words
August 31, 2018
An overwhelming section of the media voted for Imran Khan with its feet. Now it is getting restive as it measures the man by his deeds in comparison with his words.
Imran Khan constantly harangued us on the philosophy of “the right man for the right job, on merit”. But, generally, he has done quite the opposite in office. To take just the most prominent appointments: the Sindh Governor is a college dropout. What are the Punjab Chief Minister’s qualifications for the job? The Presidential candidate is a prominent, hard core PTI activist, for a constitutional post that requires someone relatively neutral or apolitical who can represent the whole country non-controversially rather than the ruling party exclusively. Much the same may be said of cabinet appointments (with some honourable exceptions) where a policy of the “right man for the right job, on merit” hasn’t been followed.
To be fair to Imran Khan, though, he didn’t have much choice, given the low quality of the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan from which he is compelled to pick his teams in our parliamentary system. It is also true that he is severely constrained by his slim majority in parliament which compels him to make unsavoury choices to keep his herd in line.
But then that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it, when one is guided by the philosophy of the end determining the means? When he was stuffing his party with opportunist lotas and self-serving “electables” at the expense of his ideological, educated, merited youthful supporters, the end-result was already in sight.
Regardless, there are other consequential matters where such considerations don’t weigh in. The gaffe with India and the US cannot be condoned, especially in the presence of Shah Mahmood Qureshi in the Foreign Office. Clearly, it will take time for oppositionist rhetoric on foreign policy to be replaced with the office’s hard-nosed realities.
It’s also not surprising that the treason case against General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is being willed to wither on the vine. The prosecution lawyer appointed by the PMLN government, Akram Sheikh, has pulled out of the case following the appointment of General Musharraf’s lead lawyers, Farogh Naseem and Anwar Mansoor Khan, as the Law Minister and Attorney General of Pakistan respectively. Indeed, a significant majority of the federal cabinet comprises men and women who indifferently served the Musharraf regime earlier.
The latest embarrassment for Imran Khan originates in the household of the First Lady. Her ex-husband, Khawar Maneka, arrogantly flouted the law and landed in a brawl with the police. He used the First Lady’s clout with the Prime Minister to try and extricate himself from the mess by having the District Police Officer fired for doing his duty. The backlash from the public, media and bureaucracy has enveloped the Prime Minister, Punjab Chief Minister and IGP Punjab and tarred the regime’s tall claims of building a “Naya Pakistan” in which power and privilege will not be misused.
Imran Khan’s unprecedented use of a government helicopter to ferry him daily from Banigala to the PM Secretariat and back has also been roundly criticized. This, too, must be viewed in the context of his words on the need for austerity and expenditure cuts in government administration. He proclaimed he would shun the palatial PM House in Islamabad, sell its fleet of expensive vehicles and get rid of its teeming staff to cut costs. Now the federal information minister has added insult to injury by claiming it’s no big deal because it only costs Rs 55 per km to transport the PM daily by helicopter!
Imran Khan has repeatedly criticized the previous government for nominating the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board because “such practices are the cause of the decline in Pakistan cricket”. Yet barely fifteen minutes after the harassed Chairman resigned his post following a revival of cricket fortunes, Imran Khan tweeted his nominee for the same post without batting an eyelid.
A big test will come when Imran Khan tries to fulfil his pledge to abolish the various discretionary funds at the disposal of the government for development projects of favoured ruling party parliamentarians, a major source of corruption and wasteful expenditures. The previous government had “abolished” such discretionary practices by siphoning off such funds through other “institutional” means, which meant that the problem of waste and corruption remained in the bowels of the system. Imran Khan can either follow the same cynical route or he can risk mass anger and alienation among his parliamentarians that could provoke a revolt and cut short his tenure. After all, how can a member of parliament whose pocket is lighter by several crores in an election hope to recoup his investment with an appropriate rate of profit if not through hefty commissions in development projects in his constituency?
In the next weeks and months, the media will be counting Imran Khan’s various “betrayals”. He should get his act together and deliver deeds to match his words.
Imran Khan’s team had a bad start, tripping from one error to another. This necessitated a quick rescue operation by the mighty Brass. Why ever not, one might ask, after all, the Brass heaved him into office in the first place and must shoulder responsibility for his actions. Indeed, the Brass has invested so heavily in him – without any credible backup in case he doesn’t deliver – that it really has no option but to prop him up whenever he falters.
The optics were certainly unprecedented. Salutes galore by a line-up of starred generals. Even a photo-op of the PM in the Army Chief’s very own chair. And a guard of honour to boot. The message rang out loud and clear: Watch it! This is our man. He will speak for us. And we will defend him.
But there was another part of the message that was solely aimed at Imran Khan and deliberately kept vague. “He was briefed on national security issues”, we are advised. And why ever not? Isn’t “national security” the overriding concern of the Brass? This includes its budgets for weapons systems, internal security, salaries and pensions. Austerity and accountability are all very well for corrupt civilians but the valiant armed forces are already stretched thin, what with US economic and military assistance having dried up even as the internal and regional environment has become immeasurably more challenging, even hostile. It also implies an unequivocal buy-in by Imran Khan of the Brass’ national security doctrines. The briefing was necessary so that the civil-military leadership could stand united on core issues (Nawaz Sharif paid the price for challenging it). And it was timed to keep the invading American delegation led by the US Secretary of State and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff at bay.
The US-Pak relationship has been stuck in no-man’s land for many years. But President Trump is getting impatient. He wants a “solution” in Afghanistan in line with US interests in the larger Asia-Pacific region. Therefore a “reset” in US-Pak relations is deemed necessary so that “agreements” at the table can be “implemented” on the ground. This is a last-ditch effort to salvage the relationship. But no one is under any illusions, despite the positive gloss presented to its public by Pakistan’s leaders. The US Secretary of State was clear in his own mind: “We still have a long way to go, lots more discussions to be had”.
Washington’s strategic objective in the Asia-Pacific region is to “contain” China. India fits snugly into this objective but Pakistan sticks out like a sore thumb. CPEC is critical to both China and Pakistan. The former wants an alternative trade route to the Middle East and Europe following American attempts to control the Asia-Pacific sea lanes with India’s help. The latter is desperate for Chinese investment in infrastructure to keep its economy afloat. By the same token, the US-India axis is hostile to CPEC. The nature of the state and regime in Afghanistan therefore becomes critical for both Pakistan and China. If Kabul is pro-US-India, it will threaten CPEC and become a platform to destabilize Pakistan’s western borders just as India has done on its eastern borders. The problem for Pakistan is that a pro-Pakistan or even “friendly” Afghanistan is inconceivable in the present circumstances. For a variety of historical reasons, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and most other Afghans, including non-Taliban Pakhtuns, hate Pakistan. Even the Taliban, who are not anti-Pakistan, have strong “ideological” ambitions in the region inimical to Pakistan. So what should Pakistan do?
If, in the quest for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan helps the US significantly degrade the Taliban – the one stakeholder which is not anti-Pakistan – and thereby strengthen and consolidate the disparate anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan, it will be undermining its own national security in the long term by making one more enemy in the region. If it doesn’t, it risks being destabilized itself by the US-India axis. Thus Pakistan is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.
The original Pakistan strategy was to help the Taliban capture Kabul. But 9/11 put paid to Taliban rule. Since then the US-India axis has fought to keep them out of Kabul and Pakistan has hedged its bets by giving them strategic succor. The stalemate has taken a heavy toll of American lives and extracted a huge financial cost. Now it is crunch time. President Trump is desperate to show “positive” results in Afghanistan. But the US-puppet Ghani regime in Kabul is riven with internal fissures and crumbling on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections while the Taliban are rampant and disinterested in talks that don’t serve their interests.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is extremely vulnerable on two fronts. Its economy is tanking and needs an urgent IMF injection administered by the US. And the new political dispensation engineered by the Brass and led by Imran Khan is too brittle to inspire confidence and hope.
Under these conflicted circumstances, the US-Pak outlook for “resetting” Kabul and Islamabad is not bright.
Chronicle of a death foretold
The passing of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif in a faraway clinic in London without her husband and daughter in attendance has revealed a particularly ugly dimension of politics and justice in Pakistan.
A year ago Begum Kulsoom was diagnosed with throat cancer. When Maryam and Nawaz Sharif sought permission from court hearings to attend to her terminal illness in London, they were denied it except on one occasion. Later, when they sought bail pending an appeal against their conviction in one case so that they could be by her side in her last moments, this too was denied. It may be recalled that, on the sole occasion when they were permitted to travel to London to meet her, both duly returned to Pakistan to face a predictable verdict of guilty and imprisonment on the eve of the general elections.
Maryam and Nawaz Sharif’s trials and tribulations must rank as one of the most unjust episodes in Pakistan’s judicial history. As a thrice elected prime minister, he was hounded for two years before being hung out to dry as a local Don Corleone by a judicial verdict pegged to an insignificant “undeclared but unreceived” income accrued during the term of his exile abroad on the orders of a military dictator. Later, he was denied exemption from over 100 personal appearances in the courts, even though the record showed that two ex-prime ministers, Yousaf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf, facing far more serious corruption charges, had been granted permanent exemption from such appearance. On several occasions – September 2017, February 2018, March 2018 and June 2018 – both Maryam and Nawaz Sharif cited Kulsoom’s deteriorating condition in a London clinic as a reason for seeking relief so that they could see her but on all save one occasion, in November 2017, this was denied.
The response of certain leading politicians and media persons to the Sharifs’ predicament has been disgusting. A clutch of leading lights of the PPP, some renowned for their services to the cause of justice and human rights, publicly mocked the Sharifs for drumming up the “stunt” of Kulsoom’s terminal illness to evoke public sympathy and evade imprisonment. Conspiracy theories were also advanced to argue that the Harley Street clinic in which she was being treated in London was not a proper hospital for cancer treatment and was only issuing false reports of her illness because it was partly owned by the Sharifs. In the same ugly vein, over a dozen pro-establishment TV “analysts” constantly peddled such lies day and night. We refrain from naming names because a few have had the decency to apologise for their behavior.
During this time, we have perceived how pressure has been exerted on judges high and low to give “suitable” judgments against the Sharifs. Some good judges have recused themselves from the trials rather than become handmaidens to injustice while other similarly non-complaint ones have been shunted from one bench to another, and so on. It is one long tale of inhumanity and injustice.
For Nawaz Sharif, this is another painful stake in his heart. One state-actor did not allow him to bury his father in Lahore. Another has not allowed him to attend to his wife’s illness and only paroled him for five days so that he can bury her in Lahore. The scars of the first have not healed even as new emotional wounds are being inflicted upon him.
Tragically, there is a history of such injustice and inhumanity of state-actors against Pakistan’s politicians. The people’s prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was convicted for murder on the bare confession of an approver, kept in solitary confinement and executed in a prison yard. Dr Nasim Hasan Shah, one of the honourable judges who sent him to the gallows, later wrote a mea culpa admitting how he and his fellow judges were pressured to hold him guilty. Mr Bhutto’s brave daughter, Benazir, was imprisoned and exiled, kicked out of office twice and finally assassinated. She was buried in the family graveyard along with her two murdered brothers and father.
The assassination of reigning or aspiring Emperors, Kings, Queens, Princes, Nobles and Courtiers was common in medieval times. Where and when necessary, executions of political opponents were legitimized by the religio-judicial clergy. But modern democracies have evolved to sanction a separation of powers between the executive and legislature, install an independent judiciary with due process and place the military firmly under the control and command of elected civilians. By these yardsticks, as unfolding events continue to confirm, Pakistan is a pock-marked, stricken “democracy”.
The political environment in which Begum Kulsum died in faraway London while her spouse and daughter were languishing in prison at home has created a sympathy wave amongst friends and foes alike. The injustice and inhumanity of it is palpable. Another bad memory is now firmly etched into the collective psyche of this nation. The chronicle of a death foretold will add to conflict in this bitterly divided nation.
The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, is an honourable man who feels passionately about righting Pakistan. He has been making headlines since the day he ascended the throne — inspecting hospitals, reprimanding profiteering capitalists, lecturing teachers, ticking off policemen, convicting politicians, censoring media persons, and so on. In the interest of the downtrodden and speechless, he has elevated the court’s suo motu powers to unprecedented heights. To crown it all, he has now taken suo motu notice of the court’s suo motu powers so that these may not be misused in the future. Never mind that he is transgressing into the domain of the legislature and executive because it is all for a good cause.
The good judge has now set up a Fund seeking donations from all and sundry to build multi-billion dollar Dams to secure Pakistan from the looming threat of water scarcity. “The survival of the country and its economy depends on it”, he says, while threatening to slap Article 6 (treason) on anyone who criticizes his grand scheme on one count or another. Never mind that Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces are bitterly opposed to the Kalabagh Dam project that he favours unabashedly. Never mind too that the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, immediately stood up in parliament to reassure the three provinces that the PTI government respected their strong aversion to the Kalabagh dam and frowned on the “unnecessary controversy” that had cropped up!
But if truth be told, it’s not as if the chief justice is unaware of the economics of dam building or its ecological consequences. Nor does he really believe that public donations alone can finance such expenditures. He is simply trying to draw urgent attention to a potential crisis of water scarcity facing the nation that is bigger than the population explosion and bigger than the fiscal deficit or national debt. And never mind if cynics don’t understand his real motive in trying to “instill citizens with a sense of ownership and belonging and inculcate the executive with a sense of responsibility, accountability and obligation.”
But if we are to disregard the chief justice’s commissions because they are all for noble causes, how should we deal with the mundane ones of our new prime minister Imran Khan?
“With the appointment of Zulfikar Bukhari as Minister of State, the federal cabinet has swelled to 32”, reports Dawn. Mr Bukhari, it may be recalled, is the gent who was stopped from boarding a private flight with Imran Khan out of the country a month ago because he was on ECL to facilitate an ongoing investigation by NAB. But he claimed exemption for being a British national and duly boarded the flight. Now he has highlighted his Pakistani nationality to ensure a berth in the federal cabinet. Never mind the dubious benefits of dual nationality status in Naya Pakistan in which a dual national cannot be a member of parliament but can be a member of the cabinet!
Imran Ismail has been appointed the 30th Governor of Sindh. Never mind that he isn’t even a graduate. But one of the top economists of modern times, Atif Mian, was forced to quit an advisory commission after his Ahmedi status was revealed. Never mind that Pakistan’s first foreign minister, and several top civil servants and generals, were Ahmedis who proudly served the country in the past. Never mind too that, shortly after he was ousted from the commission, Atif Mian was welcomed as an eminent speaker at a conference on Islamic Finance in the holiest of the holy cities of Saudi Arabia!
Never mind that the federal cabinet is choc a bloc with ex-Musharraf appointees. The able Farogh Naseem and Anwar Mansoor are the Law Minister and Attorney General respectively. Never mind that both were the leading lawyers defending the runaway General (retd) Pervez Musharraf from facing up to his crimes. Never mind too that the fate of the treason case against their former client is now sealed. For good measure, Mr Naseem intends to revise the accountability laws so that our sacred judges and generals are immune from accountability.
The Punjab cabinet boasts some wonderful stalwarts too. For starters, there is Usman Buzdar who was picked out of the Book, as it were, by none other than the saintly First Lady. Never mind that the wags are calling him the “Temp CM” who is keeping the seat warm for Jehangir Tareen or Aleem Khan. Then there is Fayyaz Chohan, the minister for culture and information. Never mind that he is uncouth, uninformed and uncultured. And so on.
Last but not the least, never mind the nail in the coffin of the budget prepared by the PMLN’s finance minister Miftah Ismail that reduced the tax rates for those who file their tax returns as honest citizens of the state and penalized those who buy expensive cars and properties without showing any income or paying any tax. The PTI’s economic Tsar, Asad Umer, has just reversed the just order of things!
Owing to Muharram holidays, this Editorial was written before the IHC decision in Nawaz Sharif’s case. Hence it is not on that subject.
No peace prospects
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer last week of peace talks with India on all issues, including Kashmir and terrorism, came as a bolt from the blue. Pakistan has long argued for a discussion of the core issue of Kashmir while rejecting India’s bid to insert the core issue of terrorism into the equation. And vice versa. Indeed, when ex-PM Nawaz Sharif sought to open a similar dialogue with India in 2013-14, he was accused of being unpatriotic by Imran Khan and all his attempts to make headway through open and back channel diplomacy were constantly thwarted by the Miltablishment. So – first question — what prompted Imran Khan to take a U-Turn on this issue shortly after becoming PM?
No less surprising was India’s quick agreement for a chat – albeit not a dialogue — between the two countries’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of UNGA. This was a marked departure from India’s anti-Pakistan policy under PM Narendra Modi which has been visibly hostile in the last two years or so. Indeed, even people to people contacts have been discouraged by an Indian visa regime that has all but blocked Pakistanis high and low from visiting India for business, family or leisure, and preferential trade proposals hugely beneficial to India have been gathering dust since 2013. So – second question — what prompted the Modi government to immediately and positively respond to Pakistan’s gesture of peace talks?
The most stunning part of these “diplomatic” moves came when India suddenly reversed its position by cancelling the proposed “chat” at UNGA and, in a particularly nasty statement aimed at the person of the Pakistani prime minister, accused Pakistan of “evil” designs by referring to a Pakistani postage stamp of the Kashmiri martyr Burhan Wani published two months earlier, while suddenly discovering the “butchered” bodies of a couple of Indian soldiers in a theatre of conflict along the LoC. So – third question – what prompted this sudden Indian volte face that, in turn, provoked a personal rebuke of the Indian PM by the Pakistani PM and has trashed the prospects of a peace dialogue in the foreseeable future?
A background analysis may help answer these questions.
It has now been revealed that, just before the general elections, the Pakistani Miltablishment made a discreet offer of dialogue with India to cool down the running conflict along the LoC that was daily taking a toll of lives and making headlines. Its motive was obvious enough: the Miltablishment didn’t want any external destabilization to adversely impact its critical focus on a massive and unprecedented exercise to engineer “positive results” in the general elections. This political strategy was very much akin to the opposite one adopted when the Miltablishment was conspiring with Imran Khan to dethrone Nawaz Sharif in which one thrust was aimed at wounding him as “Modi’s Yar”. But if the Indian’s didn’t bite at that time, why did the Miltablishment offer an olive branch again so soon after the Pakistani elections? Indeed, why did the Modi government respond a little positively to begin with?
Enter US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. As part of the mutual effort to “reset” the US-Pak relationship and break the impasse in Afghanistan, it was agreed in Islamabad that it was critical to reset the Pak-India relationship too so that Pakistan’s fears of India’s hegemonic designs in the region, especially its influence in Kabul, could be minimized, thereby making it possible to find some sort of workable solution in Afghanistan. Mr Pompeo seemingly took up the issue in New Delhi, but the Indo-US joint statement highlighted mutual concern about “Pakistani-inspired” terrorism across both its western and eastern borders. Desperate for an IMF bailout and afraid of provoking severe sanctions relating to FATF, the Pakistani Miltablishment prompted Imran Khan to offer talks to India on all subjects, including terrorism, after making quite a song and dance of being on the “same page” as the new civilian leadership. On its part, New Delhi didn’t want to be seen in Washington as spurning an offer conceding a long-standing demand. Hence its swift response to start chatting on the sidelines of UNGA even though there was no immediate reduction of the trust deficit on both sides.
The volte face of the Modi regime was triggered by breaking news of the $8.7 billion Rafale deal in which the Indian PM faces his most serious challenge to date. Under the circumstances, a quick political diversion of public interest was the need of the hour and Pakistan was at hand as the favourite whipping boy of the media. Hence the MEA was handed a politically charged statement by the PMO, backed by some shrill war mongering by the Indian army chief, whose main purpose was to provoke a similar response from the Pakistani civil-military side and drown out the uproar over Rafale.
Clearly, both India and Pakistan are playing tactical games based on internal political necessities while their strategic objectives vis a vis each other remain unchanged. There is no prospect of regional peace in the foreseeable future.
Truth will out
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) has announced a Protest Day on October 9 to agitate against unprecedented censorship of the print and electronic media in Pakistan under a “democratic” government. Various owner-editor media bodies like the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), All Pakistan Newspaper Society (APNS) and Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) have weighed in with complaints and concerns. Reports by concerned international media watchdogs like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters San Frontiers (RSF), etc., and respected international print media like The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, etc., testify to the fact of the Pakistani press under siege. Social media in the country is ever ready to report “disappeared” dissidents, lists of “anti-national” journalists under attack and even of “treason” cases against some. Now a new weapon in the war against outspoken speech has been brandished: it’s called “contempt of court”.
Where’s the attack on the media coming from? What’s the nature of the media’s crime? And how come the media has become so susceptible to such pressure tactics by meekly hunkering down and shutting up?
In the old days, the print media could be cautioned and even silenced by a combination of bribes (government advertising) and coercion (Press and Publications Ordinance). But the stranglehold of the press laws ended in the 1990s following the revival of “electoral democracy” led by the two mainstream political parties (PPP and PMLN). A period of “enlightened moderation” by the civilianized military regime of General Pervez Musharraf – that had outlawed both the parties and needed media support for its own legitimacy – followed in the 2000s when permissions were freely granted to businessmen to set up TV channels and radio stations across the country. Before long, there was an explosion of “freedom”, with no-holds barred political talk shows, commentaries and sit-coms becoming the norm for popular entertainment.
The downside to this media revolution is more significant. Fat cats from the industrial and commercial sector seized the commanding heights of the electronic media and marginalized the old band of print editor-owners who had risen by the bootstraps and not ventured forth into other businesses.
These new entrants from the manufacturing, construction and service sectors were primarily motivated by one ruthless objective: to protect and enhance their business interests by leveraging their new media power with the civil-military establishment. Some saw their new venture as a trade-off between tax write offs and celebrity status. Correspondingly, the demand for anchors, hosts and “experts” shot up overnight, the main requirement being good looks, glib tongues and audacity rather than any formal media education emphasizing established journalistic norms and standards. With commercial advertising shifting rapidly from the print media to the electronic, the new media “stars” were now also inclined to leverage integrity for fat pay cheques. Increasingly, “freedom” in the new media dispensation became another word for irresponsible, blackmailing, leveraging or anarchist broadcasting.
Enter Social Media in the last decade or so. Instead of being the main vehicle for breaking factual news, this has degenerated rapidly into a big Anti-Social Media platform trolled by organized political interests. The PTI’s youth brigades were organized by slick IT professionals who were paid to milk this platform by setting up hundreds of fake Twitter accounts that could generate furious “made to order trends” to browbeat and drown out critical voices. Before long, the Miltablishment got into the act too and terms of endearment like “traitors”, “Raw/CIA Agents” began to compete with the shrill abuse of the PTI trolls.
So we now have an old media and a new media. The old media is represented by a dying breed of owner editors who still cling to traditional notions of editorial independence, and a pack of journalists who continue speaking truth to power. The new media is represented by a rising galaxy of channel owners, anchors, hosts and reporters with political and economic interests to leverage unconscionably. In other words, “press freedom” means two opposite things to each group of stakeholders.
The PFUJ, CPNE, APNS, CPJ, RF, etc. all belong to the old media school that continues to protest about censoring the truth, about disappearing critical voices, about organized trolling, about pressure on cable operators to shun errant channels and hawkers who distribute newspapers which challenge failed national narratives. Unfortunately, this group is weak in the face of the relentless onslaught by the new media. Therefore, we may expect Oct 9 Protest Day to be unremarkable, with no more than the usually small suspect-groups of rights protestors with black arm bands and shrieking banners at scattered Press Clubs across the country.
But the situation is bound to change for the better. No private media can survive the brutal reality of ratings by being acquiescent and plaint. The current supporters of holy cows and governments are bound to become their critics. The self-righteous “patriots” of today will surely be exposed as the unholy conspirators of yesterday. Technology is geared to breaking media barriers. No country is an island. And the truth will out.
Politics and justice in Pakistan are taking inexplicable twists and turns that hurt the credibility of core state institutions. The resultant sense of anger, coupled with fearful loss of jobs and inflation, could provoke an angry backlash from citizens, with unforeseen consequences. Consider.
NAB is accused of one-sided accountability of PPP and PMLN, a charge that rings true. An overwhelming number of cases pertain to opposition stalwarts. NAB’s “performance” is also questionable. Over 90 per cent of cases are concluded“successfully” on the basis of confessions extracted under duress. The Supreme Court has advised the government to make suitable amendments in the NAB law so that some degree of fair play and due process is available to the accused. But the PTI regime is unmoved.
Now a key PTI leader in the Punjab assembly, AleemKhan, has been arrested by NAB in a case of “assets beyond known means of income”. The timing is intriguing. Mr Khan has made no secret of his desire to become CM Punjab, ostensibly with the support of the Miltablishment that is unhappy with Mr Usman Buzdar’s lack of performance.
This has stirred a grand conspiracy theory: NAB is aiming to kill several birds with one stone. First, it wants to show that by scooping such a big fish out of the PTI pond, it is not biased in Imran Khan’s favour. Second, it may be preparing to “redress the balance” by arresting the PMLN ex PM, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, in a case lodged four years ago relating to the purchase of LNG. Mr Abbasi is the leading contender for Miltablishment favour in the event of any change in the parliamentary status quo. Third, Aleem Khan’s arrest is simply a device to eventually declare him innocent so that his path to CMship of Punjab is cleared.
This line of conspiracy thinking has some basis in facts. The Supreme Court under CJP Saqib Nisar one day suddenly dusted off the Air Marshall (r) Asghar Khan case, raising hope that action would be taken against Generals Asad Durrani and Mirza Aslam Beg who had admitted corrupting the 1990 elections. But the opposite happened in fact. When the FIA meekly replied that it couldn’t track down some other officials to corroborate the confessions of these two gents, the good CJP closed the file on the case. Much the same sort of thunder was heard from Judge Nisar pertaining to a suo motu notice of Aleema Khan’s sources of wealth, only for the quest for the money trail to be quickly abandoned by the imposition of a simple fine for mis-declaration.
The Election Commission of Pakistan is also infected by the same conspiracy theory. For many years, it has been “hearing” a case of PTI party funds misappropriation and mis-declaration by PTI leader Imran Khan that would render him ineligible for election to the National Assembly if proven true. But the almighty Respondent continues to obtain delaying adjournments, even though the petition is firmly grounded in facts.
Worst of all, the courts are not immune from this charge. There are several defamation petitions languishing against Imran Khan. The law says that libel cases must be wrapped up in six months at the most. Yet no judge is inclined to act accordingly. Indeed, Mr Khan refuses to attend hearings or file statements in defense. In a recent case pertaining to a child of his allegedly born out of wedlock, the good judge dismissed the petition, arguing that the law has no business judging anyone on the basis of personal morality! Never mind that the law explicitly criminalizes a host of “immoral” acts like adultery, pornography, drug-taking, alcohol drinking, etc., and prescribes definite punishments for them. Readers may recall the case of a well-known TV actress who was relentlessly pursued by ex-CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry after a bottle of wine was discovered in her luggage before she boarded a domestic flight. But embarrassing “soft-glove” treatment is reserved for Imran Khan. His sprawling Bani Gala residence has been allowed to be “regularized”, as also the elite residential Tower at #1 Constitution Avenue in Islamabad in which he and his friends own expensive apartments, despite gross violation of the Islamabad Master Plan. Hundreds of lay citizens across the country have lost home and hearth after their “encroachments” were razed on the orders of the same apex court. The mother of all ironies is that PMLN petitioner Hanif Abbasi, who dared to challenge various alleged misdemeanours by Imran Khan, is cooling his heels in the clink by orders of the apex court.
Now we read Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s judgment censuring various state institutions for blithely disregarding the law regarding violent non-state actors, disappearances, curbs on media rights, fatwas, etc. Coupled with CJP Asif Khosa’searlier advice to reform NAB, the PTI government has its job cut out for it. But as a major beneficiary of these state transgressions, it doesn’t require rocket science to predict what it will and will not do.
Pakistan is the first stop on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s journey to Malaysia, Indonesia and India. A handout by the PTI government claims that, in addition to the US$6 B deposit and deferred oil facility earlier granted to Islamabad, MBS will now commit tens of billions of Saudi dollars to investments in “finance, power, petro-chemicals, renewable energy, internal security, media, culture and sports”. The government is suggesting that this Saudi largesse is a reward for PM Imran Khan’s attendance of the Global Future Investment Conference in Riyadh – “Davos in the Desert” – hosted by MBS last October that was boycotted by leading Western countries critical of the “Khashoggi affair”. While local media glare is focused on the planeloads of security personnel and equipment accompanying MBS, the grand purpose of his strategic mission is largely absent from discussions of his whirlwind tour.
FM Shah Mahmud Qureshi is crowing about a “new era” in Saudi-Pak relations. This is precious coming from him. It may be recalled that Saudi-Pak relations – which have historically always been good – plunged following a refusal by Pakistan’s parliament to commit warships, aircraft and troops in April 2015 to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The shrill opposition was led by Imran Khan’s PTI. It was averse to any Saudi attempt to prop up Nawaz Sharif as a quid pro quo for helping it at a time when the PTI was trying to topple him. We may also recall the bitterly angry response from a senior UAE minister acting as a proxy for Riyadh, the same UAE that has now coughed up a hefty deposit and oil facility for Pakistan. No wonder Mr Qureshi has been equally quick to stress that the PTI government is not committing any military assistance to the Saudis in Yemen. So what’s the new glue that is going to bind Riyadh and Islamabad together?
MBS’s political and economic reform agenda for Saudi Arabia was on track until it was buffeted by an attempted assassination scare at home, followed by the Khashoggi affair that left him bruised and isolated in much of the Western world. Talk of Western sanctions and US Congressional hostility prompted him to hit back with “a laundry list of potential Saudi responses” via media proxies. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the conflict in Syria, in which Riyadh is heavily invested, reinforced the realization that security dependency on the West and further investment in its economies, should end. The “shift” has manifested itself with several trips to Moscow, including negotiations to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system and acquisition of 16 Russian nuclear reactors worth $80B with minimal safeguards for Uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel. Russia’s Direct Investment Fund is also negotiating deals in oil refining, petrochemicals, gas chemicals and oilfield services with Riyadh. In turn Saudi companies are signing up to invest up to $15b in Russian infrastructure, agriculture, high-tech, energy, mining and LNG. At the end of the “Davos in the Desert” conference attended by a 40-strong Russian delegation and boycotted by leading CEOs of Western companies, a bitter MBS is said to have remarked: “Now we know who our best friends are and who are best enemies are!”
The ball is now in the court of political parties, the parliament, media organisations and civil society organisations. For far too long, political governments have bent over backwards to woo anti-democratic forces for elusive political stability
Prince Mohammad is now seeking to spread Saudi economic and military interests in diverse non-Western sources where prospects are good – hence this “valedictory” trip to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. Interestingly, the Saudi list of investment projects in Russia reads much like the proposed list for Pakistan. The Saudis and Pakistanis are both keen to scuttle the Chahbahar Port project in Iran, the former to undermine Iran’s oil exporting capacity and the latter to deny India any direct access to Afghanistan. The proposed Saudi Oil refinery in Gwadar along with investments in supply pipelines are aimed at locking Pakistan into Saudi oil supplies and weaning it away from Iranian oil and Qatar gas. Pakistan’s military is also likely to get more deeply involved in Riyadh’s internal security in general and MBS’s personal protection in particular. It is lining up to export missiles and aircraft, enhancing technology transfers and training Saudis in state-of-the-art weapons usage. MBS’s presence in Islamabad could also iron out snags in a proposed political deal between the Miltablishment and Nawaz Sharif aimed at securing the PTI government’s stability.
The list of proposed Saudi Investment projects in Pakistan include the subjects of “media and culture”. We note that present and past Saudi Ambassadors to Islamabad have started to articulate their opinion in the local press. Western media reports that MBS’s media ambitions are assuming global proportions in line with his drive for new sources of security and legitimacy. Is it any wonder then that Information Minister Chaudhry Fawad is threatening new laws to curb social media as if regular “disappearances”, police cases against critics, constant press “advice” on dos and don’ts for TV Channels, discriminatory advertisement policies and continuous pressure on cable distributors to block offenders, are not enough restrictions on free speech already?
Pulwama – Whodunnit?
When Pulwama hit headlines, the first thoughts that flashed through every Pakistani’s mind were: India will blame Pakistan; the Indian media will inflame passions and demand revenge many notches above the “strategic strikes” that followed an earlier such attack. In fact, it seemed that India had sealed its case when it was further revealed that the suicide bomber had left an incriminating video, the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir had claimed responsibility and there was no denial from firebrand JeM leader Masood Azhar based in Pakistan. Indeed, second thoughts focused on the probable Indian military reaction – what, when, where – and Pakistan’s response to it.
As if Pakistan didn’t seem to be in the dog house already, the Jaish-e-Adl, an Iranian Baloch separatist group operating in the borderlands of Iran and Pakistan, claimed responsibility for an attack (on the heels of Pulwama) that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards, provoking an angry statement from the Iranian government against the US and its proxies and puppets (no prizes for guessing at whom the finger is pointed).
But as the war of words escalated, serious questions began to crop up.
Both the attacks came on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “historic” visit to Islamabad aimed at cementing a strategic economic and military pact that is being billed as a paradigm change in regional dynamics. The Saudis are acting as proxies for the US, nudging Pakistan to help give the US a face saving exit from Afghanistan (thereby making Pakistan a key player in the end game in Afghanistan, to the chagrin of India). In return, Pakistan is expected to join the US’s anti-Iran camp in the greater Middle East region, in exchange for a financial bailout. Both India and Iran are upset that their grand plan for the Chahbahar Port and road/rail link to Afghanistan will be jeopardized by the new Pak-Saudi nexus aimed at undermining Iran’s attempt to break out of the oil export sanctions imposed by the US and erode India’s attempt to protect its strategic goals and investments in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Both incidents have the potential to destabilize such carefully laid plans in which Pakistan is a key player and ostensible beneficiary.
It stands to reason, therefore, that the Pakistanis could not have contemplated such a situation, let alone actively connived with the JeM and/or encouraged the JiA. Islamabad is already languishing in FATF’s grey zone while fighting to uphold its legal rights in the international case of the Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav who was caught on the Iran-Pakistan border aiding Pakistani Baloch separatists. Pakistan’s cause would be greatly hurt if it is established that it was a sponsor of both incidents. Indeed, if armed conflict were to break out between India and Pakistan, Pakistan’s flagging economy would take a severe hit, regardless of who “wins” the military battles, something that the country can ill afford at this juncture. The PTI government would be gravely weakened and the Miltablishment’s careful engineering of the political system would be threatened.
On the other hand, quite apart from strengthening its drive to isolate and condemn Pakistan internationally as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, Narendra Modi’s government is certainly getting a fillip from Pulwama on the eve of the Indian general elections. The anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim war hysteria that has swamped India plays into Modi’s traditional electoral strategy in certain states while distracting attention from his lack lustre economic performance that has generated some wind in the tails of the opposition parties led by the Congress. Is it conceivable that India’s intel agencies had a hand in Pulwama?
However cynical, the truth is that Intel agencies and non-state actors all over the world are not averse to extracting such ruthless sacrifices from their own people for their cause. The Samjhota Express bombing is a case in point. So too is the train carnage that cast Gujerat in flames, elevating Mr Modi as a communal leader of choice. There is also considerable evidence that Indian security forces have infiltrated indigenous jihadi outfits in Kashmir to inform, provoke and justify counter-terrorism repression – check out the case of Afzal Guru. Equally, the question of how over 700kg of explosive material meant for blasting roads ended up in the hand of the suicide bomber is going a-begging. And so on.
That said, the fact that Pakistan continues to host the JeM and Masood Azhar and allows Hafiz Saeed and the LeT to fuel the uprising in Kashmir in one way or another and uses China to block UN censure of these organisations, weakens its case in the eyes of the international community and puts it on the block.
Whoever carried out Pulwama – and many non-state actors have autonomous politico/military strategies beyond their Masters’ puppeteering – has succeeded in heating up the sub-continent to a point where the governments of both India and Pakistan risk destabilization and political failure if their responses are guided by short term populism rather than long term rationality. There are no winners in armed conflict between nuclear nations.
What a war!
Pakistan and India are, legally speaking, at war. This war broke out when Indian airplanes crossed the international border into Pakistan and dropped some bombs deep into Pakistani territory on an alleged “terrorist” camp. Strangely enough, this camp stopped existing after 2005, so the bombs didn’t kill anyone in 2019. In response, Pakistani jets dropped some bombs across the Line of Control (LoC) in Occupied Kashmir, which is legally disputed territory. But Pakistan isn’t saying who or what was targeted. So, naturally, the bombs didn’t kill anyone. Indeed, in the one week that India and Pakistan have been at war, no one has been killed. But nationalist passions are running high on both sides. Curiously enough, though, these are largely being expressed in newsrooms and social media platforms while both “warring” governments are conspicuous by their relative restraint. What a war! Is this a war?
India has crossed two red lines. It has resorted to “pre-emptive strikes” against Pakistani targets. And it has deliberately violated the international border. This is unprecedented. Pakistan has not allowed this to pass without reinforcing the red lines. As a measure of deterrence, it has shot down two Indian aircraft and captured one pilot in a retaliatory raid across the LoC.
Unfortunately, this may appear to India as an escalation in the scale of hostilities. If the Indian aircraft had been downed over Pakistani territory during their first aggressive sortie, it might have been par for the course. Each side could have claimed some success and then cooled off. But since the Indians lost two aircraft and a pilot in a premeditated retaliatory Pakistani strike, India is now compelled to try and even the score in a potentially spiraling conflict. It is ominous that both sides are moving troops to the borders. Many airports are closed to civilian traffic. What next?
It is true that the weight of international opinion is sympathetic to India’s position that non-state actors based in Pakistan continue to sponsor “terrorism” across Pakistan’s borders with India, Afghanistan and Iran. Pakistan is also struggling to acquit itself before the FATF. Its economy is weak and cannot take the strain of any serious military conflict. It is therefore understandable that PM Imran Khan should sue for “peace” while appearing to be strong after showing-off a burning aircraft wreckage and captured Indian pilot. On the other side, however, PM Narendra Modi is in a bit of a fix. After the first air raid across Pakistan’s border, with tall claims of “300 terrorists killed” and all aircraft returning unscarred to base, he was riding high. But after the “victory” was exposed as being hollow, followed by the loss of two aircraft and a pilot in captivity, his ratings are falling and pressure is mounting to “do something” to redress the balance.
Unfortunately, there is no back channel between the two countries to sort out this mess away from the flashing eyes of the jingoistic media on both sides. But hope of some sort of “resolution” has come from President Donald Trump who is predicting “good news” soon. Mr Trump’s “intervention” is not unexpected. Apart from the two countries directly involved in the conflict, it is the US that has the most to lose if this conflict gets out of hand and is prolonged. The US is seriously involved in fashioning a quick and “honourable” exit from Afghanistan in the next few months with Pakistan’s “critical” assistance. Should Pakistan’s facilitation to the US on its western border waver at this juncture because of its focus on the conflict with India on its eastern border, the US would be a big loser because its exit strategy is time-barred by the next US elections.
There are no winning or losing sides in wars between nuclearized countries. But a hard war between India and Pakistan can certainly lead to regime change in either or both depending on its perceived outcome.
PM Imran Khan is steering a shaky ship in a rough sea. His parliamentary majority is wafer thin. He is surviving only because the Miltablishment is propping him up. Should the Miltablishment’s support waver or slacken because it needs the help of the Opposition to protect itself from any unintended adverse consequences of conflict with India, he will be the big loser in Pakistan.
On the other side, PM Modi must know that a hard war with Pakistan which he cannot win may provoke the same consequences for him in the next elections. The Opposition understands this and could bait him to blunder in the next few days or weeks.
Might this conflict be managed to square the equation by enabling both sides to crow victory? Can de-escalation on the international border be swapped with escalation along the LoC in which both sides take prisoners and claim knocking out posts and camps of the other before agreeing to a ceasefire and talks?
There is no option. This soft war must translate into a hard peace for both countries and their political leaderships for their own good.
Pakistani PM Imran Khan has informed the media that India and Israel had ganged up to attack targets inside Pakistan, including possibly in Karachi and Bahawalpur. They were dissuaded, he said, only after Pakistan warned that its response would be three times as forceful, thereby raising the spectre of a nuclear showdown. Does this mean that “war” between India and Pakistan is over? Consider.
Indian PM Narendra Modi recently told a charged rally that “we will go into Pakistan and sort them out”. The Indian Air Force chief says that the Balakot strike was just the beginning of the Indian action against Pakistan. With the world acknowledging that Pakistan is “one up” in the recent conflict (the downing of two Indian war planes and capture of one pilot showing military superiority and the release of the pilot demonstrating diplomatic finesse) and the Indian media reluctantly having to wake up to the cruel facts and ask some embarrassing questions, Mr Modi is in trouble. The opposition parties see this as an opportunity to drive the knife in and twist it. The nature of the virulent anti-Pakistan nationalism that Modi has spawned is such that if he doesn’t square the military equation soon, he will lose the next election for sure. Therefore, we may expect him to do “something”. The problem is that if he does too little he won’t get off the hook at home and if he does too much he won’t be able to handle the consequences. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is desperate to de-escalate. Continuing a state of war readiness is prohibitively expensive, especially in a crisis-ridden economy, begging bowl in hand. It is also a fact that Pakistan’s international isolation “as a state sponsor of terrorism” is unprecedented and its economic bailout is dependent upon its ability to shut down non-state actors which carry out terrorist actions across borders. The FATF Report that will determine whether Pakistan is shoved into the “black list” and face sanctions from international finance institutions, as the Finance Ministry has pointed out, is due in May. How can Pakistan get out of this black hole?
The government has issued a four-page order detailing terms and conditions for proscribing militant/terrorist organisations. It has followed up by issuing a list of 68 organisations, including the JeM and LeT, that stand “proscribed”. Pre-emptive detentions have been carried out of prominent militants. Is this action sufficient for the international community that wants to appease India and avert an escalation of the conflict?
Inevitably, it will be asked what progress, if any, has been made vis a vis eliminating these “banned” organisations since the list of 68 pertains to those who have been progressively banned since 2001. It will also be pointed out that the two most “wanted” persons, Maulana Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed, are still scot free. It will be noted that two offshoots of the LeT, namely Falah-e-Insaniat and Jamaat ul Dawa (both led by Hafiz Saeed) were omitted from this list earlier and have only now been put on the Interior Ministry’s “Watch-List”. In other words, the world will want to determine if Pakistan’s Miltablishment has genuinely decided as a matter of strategic policy to disband the India/Kashmir oriented NSAs or whether these measures are just tactical moves to relieve the current pressure. On that score, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating of it. What if, as is likely, Indian repression in Kashmir continues unabated and provokes Uri or Pulwama-type resistance for which “credit” is taken by Pakistan-based NSAs or their affiliates in Kashmir?
It isn’t only the international community that is asking such questions. An increasing number of influential and concerned voices in Pakistan are also nagged by such doubts. Nawaz Sharif’s peace initiative with Narendra Modi in 2014 was derailed by certain NSAs. But when he proposed action against them, he was accused of being an “Indian agent” and Dharnas and Dawnleaks were drummed up to try and overthrow him. Now the same people are desperately trying to flog an old vice under Nawaz Sharif as a new virtue under Imran Khan. By way of explanation, if not justification, it is being argued that mutual trust between the Miltablishment and Imran Khan is responsible for this policy turnabout as opposed to a lack of it during Nawaz Sharif’s time. But no one is asking why there was such a trust deficit between an elected government and the Miltablishment at that time and why they are on the “same page” now, which would lead directly to the core issue of whether a strategic change of policy is possible today.
Pakistan’s defense policies, which include a significant role for certain NSAs, are inextricably tied to conflict with India over Kashmir. Therefore, one should not expect dramatic and unilateral strategic change until India sincerely attempts to resolve the problem of Kashmir to the satisfaction of the people of Kashmir.
Thus spake Bilawal!
Bilawal Bhutto has sprung into action. He kicked off with a hard-hitting speech in the National Assembly, blasting the Miltablishment for nurturing non-state actors who have become Frankensteins, endangering internal stability by attracting severe international censure. Then he called on Nawaz Sharif in prison and supported the demand for his freedom on medical grounds, prompting Maryam Nawaz to tweet a “thank you”. But he also chipped in with the interesting observation that the time had come to revive the cooperative spirit of the Charter of Democracy, signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in 2006 when they were both in exile. Now he has come out all guns blazing. Bilawal has “warned” the “powers-that-be” that if the hounding of the PPP, in particular Asif Zardari/Feryal Talpur, by NAB and FIA doesn’t stop, the PPP will launch a protest movement. Is this a credible threat? Are we about to see a united front of the PPP, PMLN, and their allies, like the JUI’s Maulana Fazal ur Rahman, that will spell the end of the “unholy alliance-regime” of the PTI-Miltablishment?
It is perfectly understandable why the Bhutto-Zardaris are up in arms.
The Miltablishment had given them a free hand to contest and win the 2018 provincial elections in Sindh, and go on to make the provincial government, even as it had pulled out all the stops to make sure that the PMLN lost in Punjab and therefore in Pakistan. By way of cementing the “deal”, Mr Zardari had made an “advance payment” before the elections by manipulating a revolt in the Balochistan Assembly to overthrow the PMLN government and then making “balance payment” by ensuring the election of the Miltablishment candidate from Balochistan as Speaker of the Senate. After the elections, he resolutely refused to make a power-sharing alliance with the PMLN, thereby enabling the PTI to woo a crucial clutch of winning Independents and form governments in Islamabad and Lahore.
But the “deal” with the Miltablishment is now unravelling because Imran Khan is no longer “buying in”. Indeed, he is pressing NAB, FIA and other state agencies to go after both the leaders of the PMLN and PPP as part of his post-election strategy to strengthen himself and decimate the two mainstream parties, both as insurance for political survival and as a guarantee for winning the next elections. Indeed, it is an article of political faith for him that the focus of the people and media should remain concentrated on the “corruption” of the two parties and their leaders to divert attention from his party’s infirmity and his government’s incompetence.
The swords of NAB and FIA are now within striking distance of Mr Zardari, Feryal Talpur et al. The JITs are done collecting damning evidence of corruption and money laundering. The Supreme Court is itching to bang the hammer and wreck the “deal”. The PPP is in desperate straits. It must decide immediately whether to change course, and aggressively join hands with the PMLN against both the PTI and Miltablishment, or to hang on to the coattails of the Miltablishment in the hope that it can halt Imran Khan’s push against the PPP. The credibility of an alliance with the PMLN aimed at overthrowing the PTI would be called into question if it follows rather than precedes any hard action against Mr Zardari and Co. Imran Khan and his front-line strikers like Asad Umar and Fawad Chaudhry have already begun to issue dire warnings that, under the garb of protecting free speech and democratic rights, “the corrupt Sharifs and Zardaris are joining hands to protect their ill-gotten gains”.
It is probably true that if the PPP and PMLN were to cement an aggressive anti-Miltablishment and anti-PTI alliance, they would create serious problems for the ruling junta. But it is truer still that the opposite side would not sit idly by and allow them to get away with their plans. At the very least a lot of top PPP/PMLN people would face arrest and those already in detention could not hope for any relief from the courts or the Miltablishment, whether on legal or humanitarian grounds. Since both parties are already fatigued and demoralized, the prospects of launching a successful joint movement without their top leaders in attendance are dim. It is also true that the PMLN is riven by internal disagreements between a section lead by Hamza and Shahbaz Sharif that advocates an unabashed surrender to the Miltablishment, and another led by Maryam and Nawaz Sharif that refuses to throw in the towel. On the other hand, the Miltablishment might prefer to nip Bilawal’s threat in the bud by managing to exile Nawaz Sharif on medical grounds, and thereby buy his silence, and diminish Imran Khan’s ire by putting Mr Zardari in prison.
Whose stones will kill which birds should be clear soon enough.
The leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Shahbaz Sharif, insists that an in-camera briefing by the Miltablishment on the way forward on the National Action Plan against terrorism scheduled for 28th March should be in front of the full House so that a lively discussion can take place in the national interest. This briefing will aim to lay the basis of the government’s report to the FATF next month. Maulana Fazal ur Rahman, whose stakes as leader of the most important religious party in the country are directly affected by actions proposed in the NAP, has echoed the same view. But the significant development is in Bilawal Bhutto’s stance. Until recently, the PPP was hand-in-glove with the Miltablishment in many of its machinations in domestic politics. But since the NAB axe began to loom ominously over Asif Zardari and Feryal Talpur, young Bilawal has come out all guns blazing. The problem is that he is focusing his gunsights on a matter of national interest rather than sole Miltablishment interest. Consider.
Bilawal wants NAB laws reviewed and amended. That’s fine. There is a national consensus that NAB needs to be reined in because it has become arbitrary and discriminatory. He wants at least three PTI cabinet members with avowed links to banned organisations to come clean and be shunted out. That’s political point scoring. Which party hasn’t, at one time or another, played footsie with organisations that are today blacklisted? He is questioning the impartiality of the judiciary. So are we all. But his position on two points is provoking the ire of the Miltablishment. He says “come what may, the PPP will not allow military courts to return to the fold”. And he is questioning the sincerity of the Miltablishment in putting down certain non-state actors as demanded by the international community via FATF. In one angry retort, he has asked why Ehsanullah Ehsan, the notorious TTP spokesman in the Miltablishment’s protective custody, who used to brazenly announce thousands of civilian casualties in TTP acts of terrorism, has not been investigated by a JIT and charged accordingly. Now this is wading into dangerous waters.
It is in Pakistan’s national interest not to be shoved into the black list by FATF. This is the time for all to unite and present a policy of action that is not merely aimed at appeasing FATF but is genuinely concerned with eliminating the adverse consequences of non-state actors for domestic stability and regional peace. If some of these were once dubious state “assets” in the conflict with India over Kashmir, then they have clearly become dangerous state “liabilities” now. The Pulwama attack was laid squarely on Pakistan by the international community and almost provoked a full-scale war between two nuclear armed neighbours after breaching several red lines. This is an unacceptable situation, especially since Pakistan is currently grappling with several other political and economic crises that have sapped national unity and cohesiveness and triggered alienation and anger across large swathes of people and territories.
But it is not just the opposition parties and their leaders who should be aware of their national responsibilities over and above parochial party or mundane personal interests. It takes two hands to clap. The ruling PTI and the institutions of the state which are persecuting the opposition must step back and allow them to play their role as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, loyal to the state, not governments. The judiciary and NAB need to redress the impression of acute bias. The ruling party needs to show it can govern instead of constantly trying to divert attention from its incompetence by screaming about the opposition’s “corruption”. And the Miltablishment must verifiably change course on non-state actors that have plunged Pakistan into international isolation.
Some good news may be expected if every stakeholder can lend a shoulder to the task of dismantling these unacceptable non-state actors. China has blocked the banning of Jaish-e-Mohammad’s leader, Masood Azhar, at the UN. But, it has assured India and the international community that this is a temporary measure. Clearly, some modus operandi is being fashioned behind the scenes between China and Pakistan to resolve this issue. A ban on Masood Azhar would imply the freezing of his assets, including madrassahs that are also training camps or indoctrination centers, a ban on travel and a zipping of his mouth. This is easily done without fear of provoking a backlash as happened during General Musharraf’s time. Similarly, the mainstreaming of some other extremists can proceed apace within prescribed limits.
Even if all this is done inside Pakistan, however, one serious problem will remain and endanger peace and stability. That is India’s repressive policies in Kashmir that continue to produce indigenous freedom fighters who use terrorism as a weapon of resistance. What if, despite Pakistan’s credible anti-non-state actor measures, there is another Pulwama and mischief is made by pointing the finger at Pakistan again? Clearly, the world must impress upon India too to put its house in order if regional peace is to be assured.
Waiting for Godot!
In an unprecedented decision, the Supreme Court (SC) has given bail on medical grounds to Mian Nawaz Sharif, subject to the condition that it is only for six-weeks and he cannot leave the country. Mr Sharif can use this precedence to approach the Islamabad High Court and SC for bail at any time during his captivity if his medical condition so warrants. But there is no guarantee of success. In other words, he is a “free” man only so long as relevant state institutions are agreeable. Six months of political silence have bought him six weeks of conditional relief. If he gets up to any mischief by word or deed, he will be back in the clink. He stands convicted in two cases of corruption and more are being filed against him. His Appeals are pending and he is not going to be acquitted in a hurry. He is 70. Is it the end of the line for him?
This is the third time that Mr Sharif has been ousted from elected office for refusing to take “dictation” from the Miltablishment. After the first sacking in 1993, he was able to contest the elections in 1997. After his second ouster in 1999, he was jailed and exiled to Saudi Arabia. But he returned to politics in 2008 and won the 2013 elections. Now he is a full-fledged convict banned from ever contesting elections
There are two curious facts in the developing situation. First, the more he has defied the Miltablishment, the more popular he has become. Second, the more he has defied the Miltablishment, the more acute his immediate personal and political predicament. This time, however, his ailing health has added to his troubles.
His options are clear. He can either admit to his political miscalculations and throw in the towel; or he can continue on the path of defiance and suffer imprisonment and stress. The first route would mean relinquishing control of the PMLN to Shahbaz Sharif and enabling him to serve the Miltablishment with due diligence. The second would imply sacrificing self so that his popular legacy can pass to his daughter Maryam in time to come. But it seems that Mr Sharif is considering a third path.
His experience tells him that nothing is permanent in the unstable world of Pakistani politics, that political crises can erupt at any time, that external factors can have a significant bearing on domestic affairs, that economic necessities can finesse political certainties. So long as he remains popular with the electorate, so long as his opponents are floundering, so long as the crises of political economy confronting Pakistan continue to expand or deepen, he always has a chance of staging a comeback. Why not zip up and hunker down and let Shahbaz steer the PMLN ship in these tumultuous times? In other words, why not live to fight another day?
But Mr Sharif isn’t the only one whose political miscalculations have landed him in the soup with the Miltablishment. Mr Asif Ali Zardari is also comprehending some hard truths about it. The Miltablishment has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. He thought he would help the Miltablishment nail Nawaz Sharif and elevate Imran Khan in exchange for being let off the hook. Now he finds himself at the receiving end from Imran Khan while the Miltablishment stands by and clucks in sympathy.
The fact is that Mr Zardari was played by the Miltablishment to get Mr Sharif. Now Nawaz has been stitched up and it is time to get Zardari. The likelihood is that he too will be hounded from one court and cell to another in exchange for abject cooperation from his son and Party Chairman Bilawal in core areas of concern.
Meanwhile, the Miltablishment will have increasing cause to reconsider its strategic policy of putting all its eggs in Imran Khan’s basket. If he has proved anything in his first eight months in office, it is this: his decisions are not always informed by rationality and common sense (Buzdar as CM Punjab); He is prone to rewarding cronies despite lack of merit (the list is too long); he is arrogant and stand-offish (contempt of Parliament); he disdains constitutional practices (refusal to accord due recognition and respect to the role of the Leader of the Opposition); his failure to learn the art of diplomacy in negotiations (a string of faux pas with the US, India, Afghanistan); worst of all, a stubborn refusal to learn the basics of economic management of the state, especially when its finances are in dire straits.
Imran Khan is lucky that the conflict with India didn’t escalate because the Miltablishment would have thrown him overboard if the outcome had been adverse. Now he must shoulder responsibility for getting Pakistan off the FATF hook, roping in the IMF and compelling Pakistanis to tighten belts all round for a few years more. The Miltablishment is anxious. Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are praying. Shahbaz Sharif is hoping. Pakistanis are stressed. Everyone is waiting for Godot!
A single spark
Prime Minister Imran Khan has formally applied to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to act against TV Channel24HD which hosts the “Najam Sethi Show” for airing a statement that allegedly defames him. PEMRA has promptly fired off a notice to Channel24HD to immediately appear before its Complaints Committee and defend itself, failing which it threatens to take an “ex parte” decision against the channel and host of the show. Simultaneously, mysterious phone calls from “unknown” numbers have been made to cable operators across the country to block Channel24HD. PTCL Broadband, the semi-official carrier, has dutifully complied. Indeed, as things stand, Channel24HD is off-air in over 90 percent of Pakistan.
To be sure, the channel’s management is expected to put up a robust defense of its rights. Certainly, no public figure, least of all a prime minister, can claim that his or her “private affairs” are out of the scope of public scrutiny and accountability, especially if they impinge on questions of ethics, morality, integrity, character or matters of government and state as covered by Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Indeed, scores of politicians, public figures and celebrities across the world are everyday investigated by the global media for “private” transgressions of the public interest and many have lost their jobs in the bargain.
The PTI government is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its quest to stifle dissent. This is in direct proportion to a rising tide of popular angst at its dismal performance in the last eight months in office. Unfortunately, some “pillars” of the state and society, including many sections of the media, are so in awe of the cult of Imran Khan that they cannot bring themselves to chastise some of his unacceptable behavioral traits. Some have a vested interest in propping him up for one reason or another.
Nine months ago, we were apprehensive, for a host of reasons, that the coming PTI government would make a mess of things. [https://www.thefridaytimes.com/welcome-to-new-pakistan/]. This is what we said.
The PTI would restrict fundamental rights and pave the way for a witch hunt of political and media opponents in order to satisfy the bloodlust of the winners, protect them from any potential buffeting by a disgruntled opposition and detract criticism from unpopular policy decisions or incompetent and corrupt mismanagement. If that happens, we should expect NAB, FIA, FBR and IB to get hyper active after all state institutions are brought on the same page…The constitution may also be targeted for amendment. The 18th Amendment, for starters, has become irksome because it shaves the federal pool — which is required to pay for increasing defense expenditures and pensions— by devolving financial resources to the provinces. A need may also be felt to reduce the size and strength of Punjab in the scheme of things…Plans remain on the anvil to carve it up into three or more ‘units’ that are politically more ‘manageable’… But the ‘new dream team’ that is lining up to run the ‘new Pakistan’ will not find it easy going. The economy needs more than a shot in the arm. Hard times are upon us and the very middle-classes and rich that have catapulted Imran Khan to office will have to pay the price of their convictions. The value of their rupee is going to fall, so their everyday needs will become expensive; they will have to pay more indirect taxes and duties; and IMF structural reforms will dampen infrastructural growth and employment. This will give grist to the opposition, media and judiciary to stand up and create hurdles in his path.
Much of what we predicted is already evident. But if the opposition, media and judiciary have not yet banded together to challenge Imran Khan, it is only a matter of time before they do. The more the PTI government falters and takes one U-Turn after another, the more it will be discredited. Popular disenchantment with it is being rapidly converted into outrage.
The economic outlook is dismal. GDP growth is expected to fall to 3%; at least 4 million people will fall below the poverty line; inflation is forecast to rise to 15 per cent; out of the 1.8 million youngsters coming into the job market, at least 1 million will remain jobless. And so on.
Worse, the PTI is riven with bitter internal divisions. Stalwarts FM Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Jehangir Khan Tareen (JKT) are slugging it out in the open; MOI Fawad Chaudhry is blasting away at the MD PTV who is protected by a cabal close to the PM; and there is a subterranean battle underway among JKT, MOF Asad Umar and MOC Razzak Dawood. Ex-ATM Aleem Khan is bitter, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Sarwar is sulking and ex-CM KP Pervez Khattak is simmering. Ominously, the Miltablishment is beginning to wonder whether all its eggs are safe in IK’s basket.
A single spark can light a prairie fire.
“Imran Khan will have to go home”, declared Asif Zardari recently. Alas, that’s easier said than done. If only Mr Zardari hadn’t been so cocksure about his “strategy of cooperation” with the Miltablishment. But Nawaz Sharif is in the same boat. If only he hadn’t been so rigid about his “strategy of defiance” of the Miltablishment. Indeed, if only both had not underestimated the rising worth of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to the Miltablishment.
The traditional parties are now paying the price for being unable to discern the rise of an angry, youthful, insecure, urbanizing middle-class that forms the support and recruitment base of both the PTI and the Miltablishment, which colours their mood and outlook and gels both together. The buzz word for both party and institution is “corruption”. Both passionately believe that an end to “corruption” will usher in an era of economic growth that would provide more, better paying jobs to the one and bigger “defense” budgets and security to the other. Both also favour a certain administrative set-up to achieve this end – a non-party local government at the lowest rung of the political ladder and a powerful political leader (President) right at the top in line with their mutual interests – Imran Khan being the charismatic, cultish agent for the change in the status quo that they seek. Both are pressurizing the other institutions of state and society like the judiciary, media, public accountability watchdogs and corporate regulators to do their bidding. The PTI provides the legitimate cover for the use of forceful measures by the Miltablishment.
It doesn’t much matter to them that there is no organic link between corruption and economic growth or political and administrative systems. Some very corrupt countries like China (a dictatorship) and India (a democracy), show the highest economic growth rates in the world. Nor indeed is there any evidence that the politico-administrative system they have in mind, which has been tried and abandoned at least three times in the past – during the decade-long dispensations of Generals Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf and their civilian collaborators and puppets – will deliver this time round.
The Miltablishment has been an enduring pillar of the Pakistani state. Progressively, however, its Intel Agencies have acquired greater say in how its interests are managed. This is largely due to an overload of “national interest” duties beyond its eastern and western borders in the last four decades which have necessitated appropriate “political management” at home to be effective during times of civilian rule. This management began to make inroads into the political system during the PPP regime from 2008-13 when the PMLN, superior judiciary and corporate media were all successfully nudged into destablising the Zardari government and relegating the PPP from a national to a regional party. During the subsequent regime of Nawaz Sharif, a two-pronged strategy was undertaken to weaken it. First, Mr Sharif was pressured to go after Mr Zardari and the Sindh government on the pretext of a definite link between corruption and terrorism. Then, having alienated the two mainstream parties from each other, new life was breathed into the PTI and Imran Khan was catapulted to the commanding heights of opposition. Panamaleaks fortuitously provided a convenient plank to undo Mr Sharif while Mr Zardari watched anxiously from the sidelines. Come Elections 2018 and the dye was cast.
If Mr Sharif had played into the Miltablishment’s hands by targeting Mr Zardari, the latter now went the extra mile to endear himself to it by facilitating the rise of the PTI and its capture of parliaments at the centre and in the provinces in exchange for being allowed to rule in Sindh. Now, having rendered the PMLN and Mr Sharif impotent, the Miltablishment is going after Mr Zardari.
Both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif have been “played”. Imran Khan has been planted firmly in the saddle. Efforts are afoot to “play” Shahbaz Sharif by driving a wedge between Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif so that all remaining opposition to the Miltablishment’s “Grand Scheme to Reform Pakistan” is decimated.
Shortly after the 2018 elections, Maulana Fazal ur Rahman echoed Nawaz Sharif’s charge that the elections had been stolen from them. He asked both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari not to sit in parliament and legitimize the new dispensation. Mr Zardari refused because he thought he would have at least a free hand to rule in Sindh. Nawaz Sharif refused because Shahbaz Sharif urged him to seek relief from imprisonment by cooperating with the Miltablishment. Now both must realise the grave error in their calculations.
Maulana Fazal wants to launch protests after the budget is announced because the people will be angrier and the Miltablishment possibly restless with Imran Khan’s leadership. Do Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari have the political courage to sacrifice their personal interests and endure hardship for the sake of their parties by heeding the Maulana’s advice? Or will they be “played” again? Crunch time is here.
Truth to power
Every ten years or so, some “interested” quarters start hankering for a “strong” presidential system of government along with “true” grass roots local government. Until now this wish was granted by coup-making military dictators like Generals Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. But, as these generals found to their acute discomfort, sooner or later they were compelled by the force of political circumstance to dilute their grand centralizing designs and share power with a bicameral parliamentary system bound together by four provinces. This “hybrid” system was finally overtaken by the 18thconstitutional amendment in 2010 passed jointly by the PPP and PMLN parties – exactly 37 years after it was first introduced by the 1973 constitution – whereby the Presidency became purely ceremonial and political and legislative power at the federal level was transferred exclusively to the prime minister/cabinet and the national assembly and senate respectively. Most significantly, however, the 18th constitutional amendment devolved more economic and administrative power to the provinces on the expectation that they would in turn devolve such power to local government.
But that hasn’t happened. The provinces are uniformly averse to establishing vibrant local governments headed by local leaders with an adequate purse from the provincial government. Worse, the federal arrangement is now wilting under the weight of rising defense and debt expenditures and regretting having to fork over a greater share of the central resource pool to the provinces as required under a National Finance Commission Award tied into the 18th constitutional amendment. So we have a political and economic crisis at the very top and bottom simultaneously that is creating anxiety about the “effectiveness” and “desirability” of the current governance system and a yearning for a system that is supposedly effective at the very top and bottom.
The fact, however, is that while we may have made the Presidency ceremonial and devolved more autonomy to the provinces, nothing has been done to rein in the centralizing instincts, demands and powers of the Miltablishment. Having lost the umbrella of the Presidency, these are now expressed more directly and ruthlessly than ever before by the “deep” organs of the state. In recent times, this “deep” state has engineered the rise and fall of political leaders and governments, manipulated elections and conducted foreign policy independently. Now, as the crisis of economy and governance deepens and criticism of its mishandling increases, the Miltablishment is getting impatient with some checks and balances that remain in the system in the form of small pockets of resistance in the judiciary and media.
The media has been effectively throttled by direct and indirect pressure. Direct pressure is exerted via door knocks, calls from unknown phone numbers and, in extreme cases, “disappearances”. Indirect pressure is exerted through PEMRA, cable operators, the FIA, NAB and FBR. In a unique innovation, we have now a band of unknown “concerned” citizen-vigilantes posing as petitioners for constitutional rights to protect national security institutions from “smear” campaigns by “unpatriotic” persons.
This method of harassment is now being applied to a category of judges as well. These judges are deemed “errant” because they have dared to speak truth to power. The first judge to taste this Miltablishment medicine was Justice Shaukat Siddqui of the Islamabad High Court. A maverick who had traditionally stood with the deep state but challenged it recently in a fit of pique rather than principle, he now faces a Reference in the Supreme Judicial Council.
Now we learn that Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court is overwhelmed by nine petitions challenging his judgment and remarks in a suo motu case relating to misuse of authority or deliberate inaction on the part of certain politicians and state institutions during a demonstration by Labaik Ya Rasool Allah last year before the general elections. Justice Isa criticized PEMRA for not fulfilling its duty against TV channels which violated the terms of their licences by airing and propagating the hate speech of the LYRA and failing to protect the rights of broadcasters. He held that politicking, manipulation of media undermines the integrity of the armed forces; he was perturbed by a perception of an intel agency’s involvement in matters that are not its concern; he reprimanded the Election Commission of Pakistan that its responsibilities are not optional; and he took to task inflammatory statements and behavior of politicians like Sheikh Rashid and Ijaz ul Haq and parties like the PTI. They have all petitioned the bench to review its remarks and exonerate them, or at least expunge some of its indictments. There is also talk of filing a reference against him in the Supreme Judicial Council, a foolish move that is bound to turn the spotlight back on its movers and shakers.
As our political history shows, neither the presidential system nor overt and covert interventions by the Miltablishment can deliver a prosperous and stable Pakistan. This is too complex and burdened a country for such simplistic solutions. Only by painstakingly building a national, democratic consensus can we save our soul.
Let’s chew on a new conspiracy theory. It goes something like this:
The Miltablishment has reviewed its Political Engineering Design and finds that it is woefully short on expectations. Imran Khan’s parliamentary team is nothing short of a disaster. Worse, because its ownership falls squarely on the shoulders of the Miltablishment, it is bringing it into disrepute. Something needs to be done quickly before it all goes down the tube. A redesign is proposed. Imran Khan may throw up his hands in despair, claim that he is being thwarted from reform, dissolve the Assemblies, call fresh elections, and ask the people to give him a two-thirds mandate so that he can do the job he was ordained by Allah to do. A caretaker set-up of technocrats is firmed up. It imposes a Financial Emergency and requests the Supreme Court to allow a postponement of the elections until the country is out of the crisis (or until Imran Khan is somehow enabled to sweep the elections). In the meanwhile, NAB is spurred to knock out all the Zardaris, Bhuttos, Sharifs and their lieutenants so that the field is cleared for him. As a prelude to the redesign, the existing local government in Punjab – which is choc a bloc full of PMLN supporters — is dissolved by the passing of the new local government bill (which targets new elections a year hence) and the province is fully handed over to ever-loyal bureaucrats to assist in the project.
This theory is lent weight by one significant development. Instead of focusing on governance, Imran Khan has suddenly taken to travelling across the country to areas where the PTI is thin and addressing sizeable crowds herded into compounds by the bureaucracy, there to breathe fire and venom against the leaders of the PMLN, PPP and JUIF, announce new local development grants and projects. This is the sort of canvassing one does before an election, not after.
What if Justice Asif Saeed Khosa and his colleagues reject the feelers and are not ready to play ball? Well then, let’s check out Plan B. It goes something like this:
Ideally, a Presidential system with Imran Khan as President and empowered non-party local governments at the bottom would best suit the Miltablishment. That is the formula enjoyed by all our military dictators in the past. Such a system can be introduced via the sort of Yes/No Referendum employed by Generals Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. The Constitution requires both the Senate and the National Assembly to pass such a resolution by a majority. But the Senate is currently in opposition hands and will shoot down any such attempt. So Plan B is to install pro-Miltablishment provincial CMs coupled with technocrats and bureaucrats in all core ministries as advisors/special assistants/secretaries/IGPs etc and keep the ball rolling until the next Senate elections two years hence when the PTI can muster a majority in the Senate and introduce the Presidential system if necessary.
On paper, these political machinations seem do-able. After all, the Militablishment is all powerful and the opposition is divided and its leadership has been backed to the wall. But serious questions can be raised about the desirability of political engineering based on eliminating the opposition parties and setting up a one-party Miltablishment dictatorship at a time when the country is passing through its most acute economic crisis and is threatened by India, Afghanistan and Iran on three borders, an overly aggressive and interventionist United States and an unduly restrictive IMF. One would have thought that a national consensus comprising all the political parties binding the nation together would have served the Miltablishment better at such a juncture instead of a bitterly divided polity. Indeed, we might pause to consider what might have happened if the conflict with India in February had escalated to a point where the Miltablishment-government would have sought the opposition’s support and found it lacking – at the very least the PTI government would have been the “fall guy” for any negative consequences arising out of it.
In fact, we may realistically predict the following developments in the next two years or so. First, the economic crisis is going to leave most Pakistanis angry and alienated from the PTI government. A single spark could light a prairie fire. Second, The US-Saudi-Israeli plan for regime change in Iran is going to embroil Pakistan in its blowback by strengthening the India-Iran axis. Third, the US exit from Afghanistan is predicted to be humiliating, Washington will accuse Pakistan of facilitating its debacle and plan to take revenge by further cozying up to India. Fourth, the re-election of Narendra Modi will lay the ground for further destabilization of Pakistan. At times like these, nations need all their hands on deck.
One last point for consideration. An anti-opposition, anti-corruption agenda is fine during elections. Indeed, it is necessary in times of economic growth when opportunities for corruption are great. But when Pakistan is in the political and economic doldrums, political consensus and business confidence are essential to pull it out of the crisis.
Time’s not up
In a wide ranging and far reaching “briefing”, Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor, DG-ISPR, has laid down the grundnorm of state realism. But consider.
He says there is no organized terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. True, the military has knocked out Al Qaeda/Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and degraded the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. But a question mark still hangs over the fate of our “freedom fighter” jihadi organisations which are deemed to be “terrorist” by the international community. That is why Pakistan is struggling to remain off the FATF black list. The Maj-Gen says Pakistan has paid a huge price in the martyrdom of 81,000 citizens in the war against terror. True, but the world couldn’t care less: these homegrown terrorists were the outcome of our own misguided policies. He says that “radicalization” took root in Pakistan due to the Afghan jihad. True, but we were more than willing partners in that project. He says that terrorism came to Pakistan after the international community intervened in Afghanistan. True, but we provided safe haven to the Taliban for nearly twenty years and allowed them to germinate in our womb. He says it was decided last January to “mainstream” proscribed organisations. True, but what took us so long to tackle a troubling problem for twenty years when we were not busy in “kinetic operations”?
Maj-Gen Ghafoor says madrassahs will be mainstreamed under the Education Ministry. A noble thought. However, far from being mainstreamed, the madrassahs have so far refused to even get themselves properly registered as per the National Action Plan. Now the Punjab government and religious parties have refused to comply. Indeed, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government is actively funding some big ones which have provided the backbone of the terrorists.
But it is Maj-Gen Ghafoor’s briefing on the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) that has generated the most controversy. He says the military has responded positively to its demand to de-mine FATA and reduce check posts but is constrained by lack of civil administration in the area and resurfacing of terrorists from across the border. Fair enough. But most of the “disappeared” are still “disappeared” and extra-judicial killings, like those of Naqeebullah Mehsud, are not being investigated. He wants to know why the PTM asked the Afghan government not to hand over the body of Dawar to the Pakistan government. He has accused PTM of receiving funds from hostile intel agencies. If that is proven it would be a damning indictment of PTM.
The PTM has responded by accusing the military of being unaccountable and repressive, a view that is echoed by many rights groups, media and political parties across the country.
In response, Major General Ghafoor has threatened: “Time is up”. Presumably, the military wants to detain and charge some PTM leaders as “traitors”. That would be most inadvisable. It will only serve to swell the PTM ranks. It may even precipitate an armed resistance, given the propensity of foreign intel agencies to fish in troubled waters. We also know how the various “traitors” in Pakistani history have ended up acquiring heroic proportions while “state realism” dictated otherwise. The list is long and impressive: Fatima Jinnah, Hussein Shaheed Suharwardi, Mujeebur Rahman, G.M. Syed, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Khair Bux Marri, Ataullah Mengal, Akbar Bugti, etc. etc. We also know the fate of “banned” organisations – they simply reappear under another name.
The PTM has arisen because of the trials and tribulations of the tribal areas in the last decade of terrorism. The Pashtun populace has been caught in the crossfire of insurgency and counter insurgency. The insurgents were once state assets with whom the populace was expected to cooperate. Those who didn’t suffered at the hands of both. But when these “assets” became “liabilities”, those who didn’t cooperate with the one were targeted by the other. In consequence, from racial profiling to disappearances, a whole generation of tribal Pashtuns is scarred by state policies. The PTM is voicing that protest. If neighbouring foreign intel agencies are exploiting their sentiments, it is to be expected as a “realistic” quid pro quo for what Pakistani intel agencies have been serving its neighbours in the past. New York City destination wedding packages for perfect elopement . We plan affordable weddings at Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, Top of the Rock and other places.
If the Pakistani Miltablishment has been compelled by the force of new circumstances to undo its own old misguided policies, it should at least recognize the legitimate grievances of those who have paid the price of its miscalculations and apply balm to their wounds. Every other household in FATA is adversely affected one way or the other by the “war against terrorism”. The PTM is their voice. It needs to be heard. The media should be allowed to cross-examine it. In turn, the PTM must be wary of being tainted by the “foreign hand” and stop abusing the army.
The civilian government and opposition in parliament should sit down with the leaders of the PTM and find an honourable and equitable way to address mutually legitimate and “realistic” concerns. The military’s self-righteous, authoritarian tone must give way to a caring and sympathetic approach. Time’s not up. It has just arrived.
He doesn’t know
Acheeky reporter asked Imran Khan the other day whether it was easier to lead the opposition than to run government. Pat came the reply: “Government”. The Prime Minister couldn’t be more wrong. As he stumbles from one stupid decision to another, he would be advised to heed the wise old man with a leaky umbrella: If you know that you don’t know, you can learn and become a wise man; but if you don’t know that you don’t know, you’re a fool who will court disaster.
It has taken Imran Khan over nine months of U-Turns to finally decide that Pakistan cannot do without an IMF bailout plan. In the process, he has thrown Asad Umar overboard, his avowed right hand finance minister, and sacked Tariq Bajwa, Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, whose three-year constitutional term still had a year to run. The irony is that both home spun gentlemen were striving to conclude a realistic adjustment programme with the IMF so that the expected hardship could be spread over the populace less inequitably and more gradually. On the other hand, the two gentlemen he has imported to replace them, Hafeez Sheikh and Raza Baqir, are blue-blooded by the standards of international donor finance institutions, including the IMF, and are likely to sign on the dotted line as and when required. The irony is that the IMF has long advocated the necessity of the SBP being independent, or at least autonomous, of the Finance Ministry. Now it is rubbing its hands in glee at the effective merger of the SBP with the Ministry of Finance under two IMF-chosen “experts”.
The PM’s decision to appoint Shabbar Zaidi as Chairman FBR, even as the incumbent, Jehanzeb Khan, is still working overtime to prepare budgetary plans, is another lesson in arrogant recklessness. The Establishment Secretary’s note for approval of the cabinet says that there may be a conflict of interest in Mr Zaidi’s case and contempt of court if proper procedures and concerns for selecting someone to such a post aren’t followed. The PM didn’t like this summary and ordered it replaced with a one point note seeking approval of the appointment on a pro-bono basis. It may be recalled that in at least four judgments between them, the Supreme Court, the Islamabad High Court and the Lahore High Court have struck down earlier Prime Ministerial appointments of Chairman Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority, Tariq Sadek; Chairman FBR, Ali Arshad Hakeem; Chairman Securities and Exchange Commission, Mohammad Ali; and Chairman PEMRA Absar Alam, for failing to follow strict guidelines of selection, competition and transparency. Indeed, even Presidential appointments without due process are open to challenge in the courts, as evidenced in the case of Salman Farooqui some years ago. Bilawal Bhutto says he may challenge Baqir’s appointment. Meanwhile, the appointment of Hafeez Sheikh has already been challenged in the Peshawar High Court and there is resistance from the FBR Officers Association to Mr Zaidi’s proposed nomination. The likelihood is that either Mr Zaidi will extricate himself from this mess by withdrawing his candidature or Imran Khan will ride roughshod over all objections and appoint him, only to face legal challenges in due course.
The recent cabinet changes also confirm the fact that Imran Khan is clueless about how to pick and choose a successful team. Why Usman Buzdar continues to be Punjab CM remains a mystery that has stricken half of Pakistan. Why Fawad Chaudhry, who was an effective pain in the opposition’s neck, was shunted to the Ministry of Science (“Hubble telescope was put into orbit by Suparco” will remain a priceless gem for a long time) and replaced by Firdaus Awan of no particular virtue, will rankle for months to come. Why, after having kicked out Asad Umar ignominiously, the PM is now desperate to bring him back into his fold, is equally baffling. And so on.
In a meeting of the PTI parliamentary Party last Wednesday, the PM was confronted with awkward questions. Why was Asad Umar sacked? Why are blue-eyed IMF boys being imported to run the economy when everyone knows the IMF programme is going to alienate the populace and make it bitterly angry at the PTI? Why are parliamentarian legislators being shunted from ministerial positions as enjoined by the constitution and replaced with non-accountable advisors and special assistants? Does the PM have any idea of how the graph of the PTI is falling outside the PM House and why his MNAs and MPAs are unable to show their faces in their respective constituencies?
Imran Khan’s response was not surprising. I am the PM. I am answerable to the people and not you. I will take whatever decisions I think are in the people’s interest. In effect, shape up or ship out.
It didn’t occur to the “selected” PM that this applies more than ever to him rather than anyone else. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.
Finally, after flip-flopping for nine months, the PTI government has signed on the dotted line with the IMF. It has also revived the PMLN’s tax amnesty scheme that it once lambasted as “a national security threat”. In the bargain, it has ditched the finance minister, Asad Umar, and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, Tariq Bajwa. Both gentlemen seemed to be overly concerned about protecting Pakistan’s interests , while their boss, Prime Minister Imran Khan, was ready to throw in the towel. Peeved, Mr Umar is threatening to reveal details of his disenchantment with the IMF.
To be honest, though, there’s no point in haggling when you don’t have a leg to stand on. Without the IMF’s financial assistance, we will default on our external payments and be declared bankrupt. Without an extra injection of funds from the Tax Amnesty Scheme, we will have to cut back on defense or development expenditures, which we can ill-afford.
The “deal” with the IMF is subject to certain tough conditions. First, we must get the green light from FATF. As we speak, Pakistani officials are negotiating compliance before the Asia Pacific Group of FATF chaired by India. A lot of homework has been done. But this will be an on-going review process. If there are terrorist attacks in India whose footprints can be traced to Pakistan, the FATF file on Pakistan will be opened again.
Second, the IMF wants Pakistan to roll over its debts to China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE so that the burden of debt payments can be staggered over time. So Prime Minister Khan will have to pick up the begging bowl and grovel in faraway capitals all over again.
Third, the provinces will have to be pressured to accept a cut in their constitutional share of federal revenues so that IMF targets of the primary deficit can be met. While PTI governments in three provinces may be expected to roll over and play dead, Sindh will scream. But NAB can be leveraged to silence it.
Fourth, the IMF wants to “facilitate trade”. This will mean an end to export subsidies and restraint on increasing import duties. In other words, trading volumes will be determined exclusively by the exchange rate.
Fifth, the exchange rate will float freely so that the SBP doesn’t deplete its reserves by selling forex in the market in order to prop up the rupee. In other words, there will be continuing devaluation and rising inflation.
Sixth, the IMF wants to encourage spending on development and poverty alleviation. With given debt payments, that will lead to pressure on defense expenditures. Can we expect the brass to receive this with equanimity?
Last, but most important, it is an established fact that Washington leverages the IMF, World Back, Asian Development Bank and other international financial institutions through the US Treasury to achieve its foreign policy goals. Should Pakistan fail to deliver on US objectives in Afghanistan and India – a difficult task – we may expect these institutions to get tougher on future installments of funds.
The PTI Tax Amnesty Scheme is not dissimilar to the PMLN scheme that fetched less than Rs 100 Billion. But with the economy headed into a deeper trough, even that amount seems far-fetched. Some wisdom has therefore prevailed in allowing tax payable to be determined in the next six weeks but payment made over the course of the next twelve months, albeit with some surcharge.
But, like the PMLN scheme, the PTI scheme suffers from one major defect. It excludes “holders of public office” in the last twenty years. Why twenty years? Why not the last five or last thirty? What is the objective criterion for this cut-off date? Then there’s the definition of public office. It is all encompassing, spanning full three pages of an Ordinance. It includes everyone from the President of Pakistan at the top to Tehsil Nazims at the bottom, including paid private sector executives, advisors, consultants, etc., of statutory organisations or institutions or organisations in the control of the government of Pakistan. In other words, it excludes tens of thousands of officials and “public” representatives who are amongst the most corrupt in the country. This is the cream of the elite that has captured the state. This is the elite against whom we all love to rail. But what is good for the goose is not good for the gander. It seems that the bowels of the state of Pakistan are not to be cleansed after all.
The Tax Amnesty Scheme was nine months in the making. If the PMLN scheme had been extended when the PTI government took over, there would have been a lot of money in the coffers today. In the event, it took half a day to be promulgated via a Presidential Ordinance after proroguing the National Assembly so that it couldn’t be debated.
The small print in the IMF Agreement and Tax Amnesty Scheme testifies to the incompetence of the PTI regime in the face of rising national security challenges to the state of Pakistan. The forecast is grim.
Faites vos jeux!
Maulana Fazalur Rehman’s efforts to unite the PMLN and PPP and launch agitation against the PTI government have finally borne some fruit. An Iftar dinner last week of all opposition parties was presided over by Bilawal Bhutto and included Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Mariam Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazal and a clutch of leaders of small parties. The moot agreed on one point: a consensus strategy on the way forward would be stitched up at an All Parties Conference after Eid. But differences of emphasis and opinion were conspicuous.
Both the PPP and PMLN say the PTI government should be allowed to complete its tenure. Neither said a word against the ubiquitous Miltablishment they hate as the bane of their existence. Both want to peg the agitation to the discontent of the masses following the IMF’s harsh measures. Both are at pains to ‘clarify’ that their opposition is not related to the corruption trials and tribulations of their leaders at the hands of the PTI government, Miltablishment and NAB.
The ANP leader from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, whose only son was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban, was more forthright. He laid the multiple woes of the country, including the rigged elections of 2018, squarely at the door of the Miltablishment. But the JUI’s Maulana Fazal and the two leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement present, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, were more circumspect, refraining from attacking the Miltablishment, a notable departure from earlier practice.
Clearly, there seems to be a consensus that the attack should be focused on Imran Khan and NAB, and the Miltablishment should not be provoked further.
What happens at the APC after Eid when the austerity budget will be announced by the PTI government will depend on how events shape the political fate of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari. The former is desperate to get bail and exit the country. The latter is anxious to avoid arrest by NAB in multiple cases of money laundering and corrupt practices. Whoever gets some palpable relief will not wish to antagonize the Miltablishment (that is fully backing the PTI government) by wholeheartedly participating in any anti-government agitation. But if both leaders are crucified, then we may expect their parties to mount an agitation on the back of widespread popular anger at galloping inflation and soaring joblessness.
Mr Zardari is running from court to court, posting or extending bail. He could be arrested at any time. But Mr Sharif’s fate will take longer to decide. His bail application in the Islamabad High Court and pursuant appeals in the Supreme Court will not be conclusively decided in less than two or three months. So it is unlikely that the PMLN will risk any direct confrontation with the Miltablishment-backed PTI government until then. In other words, the probability is that the APC after the budget will be more sound and fury than militant protest.
As a measure of what lies in store, a recent interview by the NAB Chairman, Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, to a TV anchor and columnist has diluted the media impact of the Iftar dinner. He says Asif Zardari and Hamza Shahbaz will be arrested soon. He implied that the Sharifs want an NRO deal. He admits that the PTI government won’t last ten minutes if NAB were to open cases against its political allies and new entrants but revealingly adds that he doesn’t want to create political instability. In short, his interview has confirmed the counter charge that NAB is under pressure from the PM to pursue the PPP and PMLN and sway public opinion against the opposition leaders.
Meanwhile, before they chalk out their respective strategies, the opposition political parties would do well to make a proper determination of the exact power dynamics of the relationship between Imran Khan and the Miltablishment. Some people think that Imran Khan has considerable autonomy in taking core political decisions, especially in relation to the opposition. Others believe that the Miltablishment calls the shots and Imran Khan is a mere puppet. If the former is correct, then a policy that focuses on confronting Imran Khan will pay dividends. But if the latter is the case, then nothing will be gained by tiptoeing around the Miltablishment. Indeed, a better policy might be to attack Imran Khan for the worsening economic and social conditions of the country while simultaneously alluding to the real puppet master behind him. This assessment would also imply that the Miltablishment has taken Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari for a ride and is wholly responsible for their tribulations. It would, in the event, compel the opposition to calibrate its policies accordingly.
In the next six months, three developments will cast a shadow over political stability in Pakistan. First, the personal fate of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif at the hands of NAB and the courts. Second, the simmering rage of the people at their IMF-sponsored disembowelment. Third, change or continuity in the Miltablishment high command. Faites vos jeux, place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!
Hope vs reason
The economy is in tatters, inflation and joblessness are stalking the landscape. Both western and eastern borders are insecure – a civil war is threatening to spill over one border while an invigorated predator is sizing up its prey on the other. Terrorism/insurgency in Balochistan is barely manageable even as another threatens to shatter the newfound peace of FATA. Hounded to the wall, the mainstream opposition is inching towards mass agitation. Yet the PTI government of the day – hanging by an arrogant and unaccountable puppeteer’s thread — is bent upon imprisoning popularly elected leaders of Sindh, Punjab and FATA, blackmailing the NAB Chairman to do its bidding, prosecuting an honourable judge who dares question the writ of the puppeteer, extinguishing a rising star from lighting the path of the opposition and gagging the media from speaking the truth. Under the circumstances, can we shut our minds to reason and hope that all will be well? Or will defiance trump logic and set things right?
The Afghan Taliban are not likely to concede core American demands. In time, the Americans will blame Pakistan for not doing more to bail them out. President Trump has already teamed up with PM Modi to contain, if not confront, Pakistan’s lifeline ally China. Before long, both will turn the screws on Pakistan, the former via the US Treasury’s manipulation of the IMF and FATF and the latter by priming its “offensive-defense” proxy war doctrine. This will transpire when the ruling Puppeteer–PTI clique stands totally alienated and isolated from most sections of state and society.
The confrontation in FATA between the “patriotic” army and “treasonous” populace may get worse. Both sides have wantonly crossed red lines. In the heat of the moment, the protestors tried to overrun a security check post. The army shot and killed several of them. Next time, the protesting crowds will be bigger. If a new insurgency is born, it will doubtless be aided and abetted on a bigger scale by hostile neighbours.
The NAB chairman was spoiling to be hoist on his own petard. But the PTI exploited his weakness to advance its anti-opposition agenda. Now, if he throws in the towel and the government is successful in empowering its hand-picked Deputy Chairman, then there will be more confrontation, more repression, more political instability, more economic chaos. It is remarkable, isn’t it, that the media managers of the government, in cahoots with a civilian intel agency, should have successfully staged such a coup? No wonder, the government is adamant in denying a proper investigation into L’Affaire Chairman!
The decision to target a Supreme Court judge and teach a suitable lesson to other wayward judges was expected. The good judge had dared to tick off the Intel Agencies and seemed inclined to read out the “democracy” sections of the constitution to them. Horror of horrors, he was also lined up in due course to rule as the chief justice of Pakistan for many years. Confronted by leaked reports of a Presidential Reference to the Supreme Judicial Council to defame him, he has demanded to know the veracity of the reports. The Additional Attorney General in Karachi has resigned in protest. If other judges don’t resist such machinations, the peoples’ struggle for an independent judiciary will be lost. Certainly, there is at least one other judge who may be on the hit-list for ruffling the untouchable feathers of certain VIP housing societies across the country.
Next in line is the Election Commission of Pakistan. Having advisedly taken a soft look at the shenanigans of the Prime Minister, it is now being pressured to take a hard stance against Mariam Nawaz Sharif. If it does the government’s bidding, it will join the queue of discredited state institutions that are paving the way for societal anarchy and states of siege.
The worrying future is already upon Pakistan. The US is gearing up India and others to confront and contain China in the Asia-Pacific and Asia-West region. China’s Road and Belt project, in general, and CPEC, in particular, will be targeted. It is also engaged, along with Saudi Arabia, UAE and others in trying to force regime change in Iran as a prelude to redrawing the map of the Middle-East. This makes Pakistan’s third southern border vulnerable. It also threatens to open deep sectarian divisions within the country.
Wiser counsel would surely advise a contrary path. A national all-parties government headed by a stolid prime minister who can disarm domestic critics, build trust with prickly neighbours, manage the economy dispassionately and herald certainty and stability would do Pakistan much good. Such a dispensation would heal the wounds between provinces, between state institutions, between political parties, between classes and ethnicities, between Pakistan and its neighbours while pulling the economy out of its current trough. A nation united and at peace with itself is bound to be a nation united and at peace with the rest of the world. More than anything else that is the need of the hour.
Will hope be rekindled at the altar of realism? Or will despair be our lot when reason is sacrificed?
Supreme Court Justice Qazi Faez Isa is in the eye of a storm. It doesn’t require rocket science to figure out what happened and why.
Justice Isa has committed three cardinal sins. He was the author of the Quetta Commission Report into the bombing in August 2016 wherein he noted the complicity of terrorist and jihadi organisations with the security organs of the government. Then he took suo motu notice of the 21-day long Faizabad dharna staged by the Labaik Ya Rasool Allah in November 2017 and censured the dubious role therein of civil-military intelligence agencies, the Election Commission of Pakistan, PTI and touts like Sheikh Rashid, Ijaz ul Haq etc. Last month, he made bold to deliver a lecture to a gathering of civil society in Lahore on the merits of democracy, the protections afforded to it in the 1973 constitution of Pakistan and how these have been violated from time to time to the detriment of the judiciary and Pakistan. Wounded, all the “aggrieved” parties filed review petitions in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, seeking a reversal or expungement from the record of the stinging remarks passed by the good judge. Meanwhile, a conspiracy was hatched to discredit and maybe even get rid of him from the SC. After all, the Miltablishment has no love lost for judges who are inclined to rock its boat. In this case, the motivation is doubly reinforced: the troublesome judge is lined up to be the Chief Justice of Pakistan in a few years’ time.
But the ironies in this case should not to be missed. Qazi Faez Isa was the very judge who presided over the Memogate case in 2011 in which the PPP’s Ambassador to Washington, Hussain Haqqani, was hauled over the coals by the Miltablishment. Then Qazi Faez Isa was deemed patriotic, now he is subversive. Hence the Reference for Misconduct filed by the President of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, upon the advice of the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, both of whom have been suitably guided. The Reference was stitched up by two of the PM’s point-men in such matters: the man who drummed up the complaint, Shahzad Akbar, the PM’s special assistant on accountability heading the newly established Assets Recovery Unit, and Farogh Naseem, the Miltablishment’s favourite [Law] Minister who was also General Pervez Musharraf’s lawyer. Mr Alvi, it may be recalled, had tweeted in high praise of Justice Isa in 2015 and Ms Shirin Mazari had lauded his upright and independent stature as a judge. The former has now blithely signed on the dotted line while the latter is conspicuous by her stunning silence.
Whether or not Qazi Faez Isa was obliged by law to declare some of his foreign wife’s assets in his own wealth statement, the political motivation to gun for him cannot be denied. The PM and President come to the Reference with unclean hands, bad faith and mala fide intentions. This fact alone will certainly cast a dark shadow over the trial. This case also has the potential to weaken and drain the SC by subjecting its judges to “accountability” trials for political reasons. As it is, the Court is already in the dock of the PMLN and tens of millions of its supporters for stringing up Nawaz Sharif on the dry twig of Iqama. It is doubly ironic that this Supreme Court comprises judges who were in the vanguard of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy a decade ago against the authoritarian whims of a military dictator. Should they again succumb to pressures from similar quarters, they will be signing off on the chapter of their collective demise in the people’s history of Pakistan. After the siege of the mainstream parties and the capitulation of servile media owners, the SC is the last bastion of the Republic. As we speak, there are loud whispers that the next-Chief Justice of Pakistan, Gulzar Ahmad, is also in the gun sights of the same forces for censuring their pet housing societies.
The agitation brewing outside the SC should not be dismissed out of hand just because the two mainstream political parties, PPP and PMLN, are crippled by the incarceration of their respective leaders. Civil society and lawyers countrywide are beginning to stand up as much in personal support of Justice Faez Isa as for the principle of judicial independence and opposition to Miltablishment meddling. The Additional Attorney General in Karachi has resigned in protest; national and provincial Bar Associations have resolved to resist such conspiracies; leading lawyers, retired judges and independent media persons are speaking up. Despite the censorship and blackmailing threats, there are stirrings of resistance everywhere.
PEMRA is trying desperately to stop the media from airing contrary opinion and the facts. No matter. The truth will out and this attack on the judiciary will be repulsed. The puppeteer and the selected government will rue the day their arrogance and self-righteousness got the better of them as General Pervez Musharraf learnt to his abiding regret.
Political Economy of Budget
The PTI government has unveiled a harsh budget. The FBR aims to collect about 40% (Rs 1.5 Trillion) more taxes in the next twelve months compared to last year, despite forecasts of a fall in GDP growth from 3.3% to 2.4%. Every reputed economist says this is grossly unrealistic and we should expect periodic mini-budgets when the government misses its IMF-dictated targets and is compelled to dish out more of the same medicine (increase in tax rates). Under the circumstances, how can the economy be “stabilized” when the fiscal deficit is targeted at 7.2% but may in fact hit 9% if the revenue targets are missed?
The Finance Minister, Hafeez Sheikh, claims the new budget is anti-rich and pro-poor. To give the devil his due, the rich will certainly have to fork over more, which is as it should be. So-called “non-tax filers” will be brought into the tax net by various means; property speculators will have to pay capital gains tax; property valuation for tax on registrations and transfers will be significantly increased to reflect market rates; dividend income tax will go up; rental income tax will be progressively at par with income from other sources; questions will be asked about source of foreign remittances for investment if these exceed Rs 5m; those who don’t disclose foreign assets can be imprisoned for up to 7 years apart from paying hefty fines; “gifts” from non-family sources will be taxed as income; the condition of foreign residency – used to evade filing tax returns in Pakistan – has been increased from six to nine months. The super-rich will have to cough up as much as 35% of their income. And so on. What is conspicuously missing in this area are death duties and inheritance taxes. Both are levelers of wealth in rich countries but haven’t been countenanced in Pakistan! Similarly, corporate tax rates remain low, having fallen from 33% in 2015 to 29% last year and today.
But the poor will be at the receiving end of the stick. The burden of a regressive income tax structure on the salaried lower and middle classes is all too palpable – for instance, as noted economists have argued, those in the salary range of Rs 30,000 -50,000 per month are fated to lose the equivalent of two salaries in the year due to various tax measures. Given the recent devaluation of 25% and the additional burden of heavier import duties on edible oils, pulses, tea, and a range of household items, inflation of 15% is bound to hurt the relatively poor more than the rich. Indeed, over 2400 import tariff lines are going to be enhanced, some of which will inevitably take a toll of the lower and middle classes. Similarly, a substantial increase in the taxes on cement, sugar, juices, aerated water, etc, will hurt the consumption of the middle classes. Taxes on retail have been extended across the board.
There are misgivings in other areas as well. The PSDP is frozen and the budgeted outlays for CPEC related projects are down by 40%. Both are critical to economic growth and employment.
The government’s problem relates to two main necessary expenditures: debt service and defense. The former will gobble up 50% of all projected revenues while the latter will account for up to 34%. We were told that the defense budget would be cut. In fact, however, it is proposed to rise by 11% from last year’s budgeted sum of Rs 1694 Trillion to Rs 1882 Trillion this year. But that is partly because of overruns last year owing to tensions with India.
The PTI government doesn’t inspire confidence. It has missed major targets in the last twelve months. Despite a devaluation of 25%, exports haven’t registered any rise. Large scale manufacturing was targeted to grow by 6.8% but it fell to 2.9%; Agriculture growth was set at 3.8% but scraped through at 0.8%. The IMF program was delayed by nine months. A U-Turn was taken on the Amnesty Scheme after a year of vacillation and, despite repeated exhortations by Prime Minister Imran Khan, not much has come of it.
In a veritable midnight knock, Mr Khan has ranted about the piling up of the national debt to crippling proportions “in the last ten years”. He is setting up a task force to determine who is responsible for this policy debacle. But, instead of economic and finance experts, this will comprise civil-military intelligence and criminal investigation agencies and the tax collection authorities. His intention is clear: to further castigate the PPP and PMLN regimes of the last decade to divert attention from the PTI’s own mess-ups.
This Miltablishment-dictated model of political economy comprises elements of state repression, media suppression, judicial interference, enforced extraction and dispossession, as in Turkey and Egypt. Both these countries are autocratic, relatively homogenous and enjoy foreign backing. Still, they are racked by high inflation and simmering political discontent. But Pakistan is bristling with passionate ethnicities, class inequalities, regional tensions, foreign hostilities, resilient party political structures and “civil-democratic” traditions. It won’t work here.
Propaganda, no substitute for governance
The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf’s strategy for survival is not based on good governance or performance. It is based on two Goebbelian propositions: first, if you lie about something time and again, the gullible masses will begin to treat it as the truth. Second, if you continuously hound your enemies to the wall, they will have no time to focus on your failures. Thus the tall claims made by Imran Khan and his cohorts about their own successes and the crimes of their political opponents.
Shahzad Akbar, the PM’s Special Assistant on Accountability, is wont to making tall claims but has seldom much to show for them. Recently he outdid himself when he boasted that the PTI government had signed an Extradition Treaty with the British government whereby Ishaq Dar, the ex-PMLN Finance Minister, “hiding” in London would be repatriated to Pakistan, after being brought before a British magistrate, to face various corruption charges. But a day later, an intrepid reporter in London asked the British Home Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to clarify the situation. Pat came Mr Hunt’s response in the presence of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “There is no extradition treaty that the UK would ever sign that would allow for politically motivated extradition”, said Mr Hunt. Mr Qureshi could only muster one word in concurrence: “Correct”. It seems that Mr Dar hasn’t been sitting at home twiddling his thumbs. He had already met with officials of the Home Office to acquaint them with the facts of the political victimization of the PMLN’s leading stalwarts, including himself.
It seems that Mr Hafeez Sheikh, Pakistan’s finance minister appointed by the IMF to negotiate with the IMF, has also succumbed to this Tall Claims disease after rubbing shoulders with Imran Khan. He recently announced that the Asian Development Bank would chip in with over US$3.4 billion in aid to Pakistan. Stunned by the falsehood, the ADB had to pull out its spokesman from his weekend reverie and issue a swift denial.
Award for the Tallest Claim, however, goes to Imran Khan himself. Not so long ago, he announced a bonanza of oil and gas off the shores of Karachi that would transform Pakistan from a hell of poverty into a paradise of plenty. The ministry concerned and the American oil drilling company were not amused: they were shutting up shop and heading home after confirmed failure to discover anything when the prime minister was exhorting Pakistanis to offer “thanksgiving” prayers to the Almighty for showering them with his largesse. Mr Khan has now achieved legendary status as the Pied Piper of Pakistan. He claimed he would end corruption in 90 days. He claimed that he would attract hundreds of billions of dollars from expatriate Pakistanis for investment in Pakistan. He pledged to present 5 million houses to the poor. He vowed to plant 1 billion trees in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He also said he would commit suicide before begging the IMF for money (pity that he didn’t). The list is unending.
Not to be forgotten is the PTI Minister, Faisal Vawda who recently claimed that his government would provide 1 million jobs to Pakistanis in a matter of weeks.
Now the government has sourced a report that claims “India has responded positively to Pakistan’s offer of talks”. Delhi says no such thing has happened.
As if the NAB witch hunt against the PMLN and PPP isn’t enough to detract attention from the PTI government’s resounding failures on every front, the doer prime minister has now established a commission of inquiry to investigate why the national debt has ballooned in the last ten years. This commission is headed by a police officer in NAB. It comprises investigators from various government agencies and departments like a veritable JIT. This is remarkable, considering that economic policy rationale is the supposed subject of the inquiry, which an A-Level student of Economics can give us on the basis of facts and figures supplied by the State Bank of Pakistan and the Finance Ministry. Equally, Dr Hafeez Sheikh, the PTI’s finance minister who was part architect of some of those debt-driven economic policies in the Musharraf and Zardari governments, can brief the PM about the logic behind them. But no. The PM would rather treat this exercise as a criminal offense by the PPP and PMLN. Hence there is no attempt to even consider what happened under military governments.
That indefatigable warrior against corruption, Shahzad Akbar, has explained that this commission will probe, with the help of the Auditor General of Pakistan, all the economic projects of the PPP/PMLN governments that have shaped the debt profile of the country with a view to unearthing the corruptions that lined the pockets of PPP/PMLN politicians and their families. In other words, more of the same propaganda against the opposition.
This strategy is not a substitute for governance. Propaganda cannot provide employment, health, education or homes. It cannot put money into the pockets of the needy. This everyday truth will come to haunt the PTI in time to come.
Hugging and puffing
After a month of thundering how they would all heave the PTI government out of Islamabad, a gaggle of big and small opposition parties that met last Wednesday in Islamabad could only muster an agreement to huff and puff without bringing the House down. The truth is that nothing more was expected of them.
Everyone has known of tactical and strategic splits within the PMLN, with Nawaz and Maryam Sharif urging the party to charge the citadels of the Miltablishment and Shahbaz Sharif stolidly in favour of appeasing it. This was embarrassingly evident in the run-up to the All Parties Conference: Shahbaz proposing a Charter of Cooperation on the Economy with the PTI government and Maryam dismissing it as a veritable joke! In the APC, neither pressed his/her point and let the discussion meander to its logical non-end.
The PPP was always circumspect. The Co-Chair, Asif Zardari, had done a deal with the Miltablishment before the elections whereby, in exchange for being given a free hand to win and run Sindh, he had delivered a government in Balochistan to the Miltablishment and thrown in the Senate Chairmanship for good measure. How could he now jeopardize his party’s provincial gain by burning his personal boats, especially since he still had a couple of cards up his sleeve while he waited and watched for some sign of relief from his erstwhile “partners”? Better, he reasoned, to encourage young Bilawal to spit fire and venom against the PTI government while he personally maintained a studied non-committal gravitas.
Maulana Fazalur Rahman’s case is different. He believes passionately that his JUI was robbed of precious electoral seats, including his own, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa because of a Miltablishment conspiracy to cut him down to size. Therefore, he has everything to gain if there is a new election or if he is accommodated in parliament following some change of government in Islamabad. That is why he has been playing on the front foot, as it were, demanding en masse resignations from parliament and a “million-man” march on Islamabad to dislodge the PTI from power. He must be disappointed that all he has got from this exercise is the promise of a JUI man as Deputy Speaker of the Senate, following the proposed ouster of the current Chairman and Deputy next month.
The rest were largely small fry who didn’t much matter. The two parties that could have helped fuel street agitation or resistance in their own spheres of influence, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Baloch National Party, didn’t bother to attend. The JI is wary of wielding its street clout in favour of two parties (PPP and PMLN) that its electorate immensely dislikes. The BNP was wooed over with sweet nothings at the last minute by no less than the PM himself. Mr Akhtar Mengal, its leader, probably reckons that the Miltablishment and PTI alliance is unshakeable, for the time being at least, and there is no point being at the receiving end all over again.
Now we have the future charter before us. The opposition parties will mull over how to persuade the Senate Speaker to quit voluntarily (because he’s a decent man), failing which they may serve a formal notice to him to quit or face a no-confidence move. If the Senate falls into their hands, they can create many logjams for the PTI government even if they can’t oust it. Beyond that, there was a meek call for a Black Day next month and a litany of demands, demands and damned demands, all of which the PTI government can blithely ignore as it has done in the past.
We can draw one conclusion for sure from this charade. Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif and many of their party stalwarts are not yet ready to face long imprisonments. All are still hoping for some sign of personal relief from the Miltablishment. If it comes, well and good; if it doesn’t, the option of burning their boats is still there at a better time, that is when Imran Khan has completely lost his sheen and the masses are thoroughly fed up and ready to rise and revolt against the PTI.
Does this mean that the status quo is solidly entrenched for five years? Not at all.
No one, least of all the Miltablishment, is under the delusion that Imran Khan has the experience or ability to deliver on the multi-faceted national crisis at hand. But its options are decidedly dismal. After having spent the better part of the last five years destabilizing and demonizing the two mainstream parties, how can “they” ask any one of them to form a new government even if the chosen one is ready to bow and scrape before them? A “national government” is an option whose time hasn’t come because Imran Khan’s voters may be sullen but the economy hasn’t yet bitten them severely enough in the behind for them to scream for his scalp.
Meanwhile, there are pressing issues to attend to, like matters of postings, transfers and extensions.
Mariam Nawaz Sharif has finally shrugged off her ailing father’s mantle and come into her own. Sitting center stage with PMLN President Shahbaz Sharif and ex-PMLN Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on either side, she stole the show exposing the dubious role of NAB Accountability Judge Arshad Malik in the conviction of Nawaz Sharif in the Avenfield Flats Reference that sent him to prison for ten years. It was, by all accounts, a forceful performance which has set the stage for a revival of the beleaguered PMLN’s fortunes in the face of a relentless assault by the government and Miltablishment. Last week, Mariam whipped up an impressive rally in Mandi Bahauddin without the key stalwarts of her party in attendance. Throughout her campaign, her tweet brigade has hogged social media with stinging barbs at the “selected” and “fake” prime minister.
The PTI government has responded by pressurizing the mainstream TV media to black out her presence. Three “errant” TV channels led by Channel 24HD were taken off air for showing her rally. Channel 24HD has cancelled a scheduled “Up, Close and Personal” interview with Mariam. Now the government has ordered NAB to file another case against her. But, instead of being cowed down, Mariam has warned that if she is dragged to the courts again in trumped up cases, she will exploit the opportunity to reveal the shady role of high functionaries of state organs in compelling Judge Malik to pronounce her father guilty.
In the new NAB case she is accused of submitting a fake Trust Deed in the Avenfield Reference. The maximum punishment for such an offence is six months. But she has already been awarded a seven-year sentence in the same case because the judge did not accept the validity of the Trust Deed. The case is also hollow on one critical ground. The NAB Ordinance specifically bars the judge from entertaining an application from NAB seeking a fresh conviction on any aspect of the case after 30 days of the pronouncement of the judgment, which was pronounced over a year ago.
Clearly, the aim of NAB is to intimidate and harass Mariam. The government has already stopped Nawaz Sharif from meeting visitors apart from core family members. It has also stopped him from receiving food from home even though he has charged the prison administration of “poisoning” him to aggravate his illness. Mariam has threatened to go on hunger strike outside Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore if these rules are not relaxed. The government has now allowed a family doctor to see Nawaz Sharif once a week. She has upped the ante by releasing another incriminating video against Judge Malik.
Shabaz Sharif is silent. But Mariam’s daring has compelled Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to stand up and be counted too. He has gauged the mood in “relevant quarters” and said that tenure extensions have not served the armed forces well in the past, therefore General Qamar Javed Bajwa, COAS, will not seek an extension in November this year. Ominously, though, he says the PTI government will fall before November.
Mariam’s courage is infectious. Respected voices in mainstream media are beginning to openly resist government diktats through PEMRA. Pressure is mounting on judges to thwart the blackmailing tactics of the Miltablishment. Even though many lawyers bodies have been bribed by the government (in the form of monetary grants by the Law Ministry) not to agitate against a cooked-up Reference in the Supreme Judicial Counsel against Qazi Faez Isa, the Supreme Court judge who has dared to chide various organs of the state for overstepping constitutional red lines, a majority are still geared up to defy.
Elsewhere, agitated business bodies have either shut shop or are threatening to strike against crippling IMF-dictated tax impositions while the public is groaning under the weight of double digit inflation following 40 per cent rupee devaluation in the first year of PTI government.
The combined might of the PTI government and the ubiquitous Miltablishment has not been able to consolidate the gains of the rigged elections of 2018 for two basic reasons. The “Selected” prime minister is clueless about how to select and manage his team. He has wasted one full year taking policy U-Turns and shuffling ministers, compelling the IMF to blame the PTI government no less than the PMLN for the current economic mess. He has also focused on hounding the PPP and PMLN instead of delivering on his good governance promises to the people. Worse, his tactics have forced the hitherto warring mainstream parties to join hands and try to oust him from power. The instability and uncertainty thus engineered has exposed the many fault lines in state and society and made the prospect of a “New Pakistan” full of doom and gloom.
Leaders are born in the crucible of resistance to tyranny, oppression and injustice. Like it or not, Mariam Nawaz Sharif is the new star on the horizon eclipsing Imran Khan.
Political economy of growth
Rana Sanaullah, the feisty President of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), is in the clutches of the Anti-Narcotics Force, (ANF) facing death or life imprisonment because 15 kg of heroin was recovered from his family car. Prime Minister Imran Khan had publicly vowed to drag him by his moustache and bung him into prison. Next: Ahsan Iqbal, the PMLN’s ex-interior minister, is lined up for discovery of a couple of cruise missiles from the boot of his car. He too has been a pain in the neck, rattling off facts and figures to the acute embarrassment of the PTI government. Not to be forgotten is Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, ex PMLN prime minister, who is going to have a hard time explaining how four goats belonging to the prime minister have ended up grazing in his backyard. Last, but certainly not least, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, should be careful lest a miniaturized nuclear device camouflaged as an iPhone is discovered in her Chanel bag when she ventures out to address a charged anti-IK crowd in Mandi Bahauddin.
Mr Hanif Abbasi, President of the PMLN Rawalpindi, has faced harrowing months of incarceration courtesy the ANF because he had the audacity to petition the courts regarding a personal matter pertaining to the prime minister. Rana Sanaullah is also paying the price for alluding to similar issues. Some troublesome journalists, too, never tire of pointing out inconsistencies in the record of ownership of the prime minister’s Bani Gala estate. This issue acquires a degree of irony because the PTI government has just seized large tracts of valuable urban lands ostensibly belonging to ex-President of Pakistan, Asif Zardari, and PMLN’s Senator Chaudhry Tanveer which are listed as “benami”. Many more opposition politicians are likely to be targeted. Another journalist has been stopped from airing the contents of an interview of Asif Zardari in which he predicts trouble for the prime minister in a case unfolding in the UK and USA.
Increasingly, it seems, that the government is resorting to the use of state institutions and national security organs for repressing the opposition and media and pressurizing the courts and commissions. Ominously, therefore, these “national” institutions are losing their constitutionally ordained political neutrality so critical to their efficient and credible functioning. Anti-state slogans and sentiments that were once heard in disgruntled or alienated peripheral regions of Pakistan like FATA and Balochistan protesting state repression are now common even in the heartland of Punjab whence over 70% of state organs are recruited. By any stretch of the imagination, this meltdown of the steel framework of the state cannot be good for the stability and longevity of Pakistan.
The greater tragedy is that this repression of political opponents and hounding of journalists and civil servants is inimical to the economic reforms of the PTI government that are desperately needed to put the country back on track.
The resort to the IMF and international donors, however belated and controversial, could not have been avoided, given the desperate straits into which the economy was about to plunge. Tax reform was equally necessary, even though we can disagree with some details and timings, to stop the government and country going bankrupt. The PTI’s tax amnesty scheme, too, is welcome, no matter that Imran khan had opposed the PMLN tax amnesty scheme in 2018 that netted about Rs 140 billion in additional revenues from about 90,000 new and old tax filers. The new scheme has generated about half as much in revenue records. In all, both schemes have recorded about Rs 6 trillion in hitherto undeclared assets and added over 100,000 new tax payers. The law against “benami” assets is also good. This was an outrageous anomaly that facilitated money laundering by the rich. It is, of course, unfortunate that the rupee has greatly devalued in the reform process and will hurt many sections of the population whose standard of living is linked to cheap imports of food, medicines and industrial raw materials, etc. But it was about time we learnt to live within our means instead of banking on foreign handouts to maintain an artificially propped up lifestyle.
To be sure, economic or political reform is always painful for vested interests that stand to lose their perks and privileges. Inevitably, such vested interests will resist their losses by resorting to protests, strikes and lockouts. The poor, especially, will be hard pressed to keep their head above water. Naturally, they will be angry, alienated and prickly. In such a situation, a single spark can light a prairie fire and bring the government down and doom the reform program.
National consensus, political stability, media accountability and economic certainty are a necessary condition for economic development that breaks the chains of external dependence and internal mismanagement. That is why, instead of beating the opposition black and blue, stifling reasoned criticism and bringing state organs into disrepute, the prime minister would be advised to offer principled reconciliation in the national interest.
Big Brother’s Heel
Media rights have come full circle. Three decades of relative freedom are over. We are well and truly shackled. Consider.
For four decades after independence, from 1947-1988, the media was, in Zamir Niazi’s immortal word, “in chains”. During the decades of dictatorship under Generals Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq or under Z A Bhutto’s autocracy, Pakistanis were compelled to tune into BBC Radio to know what was happening in their country.
But after the fall of General Zia in 1988, democratic elections were ordered and a caretaker government amended the Print and Publications Ordinance of 1962 and freed the print media. Benazir Bhutto didn’t warm to criticism in her first regime from 1988-1990 but learnt to live and let live, as she put it, “in the din of democracy”. Nawaz Sharif was inclined to be less tolerant from 1990-1993 but generally didn’t kick the media about. While Ms Bhutto remained true to democratic form in her second term from 1993-1996, Mr Sharif’s “heavy mandate” in 1997 went to his head and he started to get tough with dissenting voices in the media. Both were wary of allowing the print media to venture into the electronic age.
Then General Pervez Musharraf became a darling of the media in the early 2000s when he opened the floodgates of TV licensing and lapped up media compliments for being a hybrid democrat who had got rid of a budding “Amir ul Momineen”. A hundred TV channels bloomed. The media promoted the good general’s government and all was hunky-dory, until he made the fatal mistake of rounding on a maverick judge and lit a prairie fire. The media that he had freed now turned on him and turfed him out.
Asif Zardari’s regime (2008-13) was very tolerant even though the media was very sharp. So was Nawaz Sharif’s (2013-2018) even though he lost his job, thanks to Panamagate scooped by the media.
But one important development in the media was already becoming evident in the last decade – corporatization. Increasingly, big business was seizing control of print and electronic organs and beginning to downgrade journalistic ethics, standards and independence at the altar of vested corporate economic and political interests. One unfortunate consequence of this development was the ease afforded to the Miltablishment to make inroads into the media and influence its editorial policies on the pretext of the patriotic “national interest”. Democratically elected popular civilian governments were now subjected to Miltablishment pressure and criticism via the popular media when they ran afoul of it. This began during the Zardari tenure and acquired sinister proportions during the last Sharif regime.
The Miltablishment has changed over the years. Its rank and file are more intrusive, more aggressive, more self-righteous than ever before. This is part of the “nationalistic” anti-liberal status quo wave sweeping across the Millennial globe. One consequence is that the ISPR has started to loom larger than life. After General Musharraf’s exit, its DG was upgraded from the rank of a serving Brigadier to a Major-General. Its HQ was rebuilt and modernized. It was flushed with funds. Its scope and mission statement was enlarged. The DG’s press statements, conferences and tweets were now splashed across the front end of the news cycle. Millennial reporters and TV anchors tripped over themselves to showcase their “patriotic” credentials and consolidate their jobs with business bosses. The elected leaders in government were subjected to a barrage of hostile media fire. Their inefficiency and corruption – notions rooted in the training and ethos of the Miltablishment – became the buzzwords of the new media to besiege the democratic process.
Everyone knows that the elevation of Imran Khan and Millennial-backed PTI is owed in great measure to the tactical and strategic policies of the new Millennial Miltablishment. Now we are reaping the fruits of this unholy political alliance.
PEMRA was supposed to be an independent media watchdog. Now it has become a potent anti-media weapon in the hands of the Miltablishment-Government. The cable operators in the private sector were expected to be business-neutral. Now they are only an unknown phone call away from blocking channels. Social media thought it could function freely in the rarefied space of the Worldwide Web. But Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are routinely petitioned by the PTI government to take down hostile voices. Sometimes social media critics are “disappeared” to teach everyone a lesson. Now plain clothed agents have taken to visiting journalists and advising them to behave, or else. More ominously, prominent journalists are being accused of being “unpatriotic” and cases of “treasonable” behavior are being lodged in police stations across the country. Media owners are sacking “troublesome” journalists and anchors, even going so far as to ban some of them from tweeting opinion from their personal social media platforms. Journalists’ protests are routinely blacked out by their own organs.
The judiciary is not affording any relief. Even the mighty BBC has been sent packing.
Pakistan’s “democracy” is now firmly situated in George Orwellistan. We are under the heel of Big Brother.
Upon his return from the US on July 24, Prime Minister Imran Khan told a charged welcoming crowd of PTI activists at Islamabad airport that “I feel as if I have returned after winning the World Cup”. What, exactly, is the Herculean feat that he claims to have performed in Washington?
In a speech at the United States Institute of Peace, Mr Khan said he was “bowled over” by President Donald Trump. Unfortunately, we haven’t heard any such reciprocal sentiment from President Trump. This is the same President Trump who called ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif “a terrific guy”.
The PTI government is crowing about President Trump’s offer to “mediate” the Kashmir dispute as a great initiative by PM Khan. Alas! There is no such mention in any press briefing or statement by the US State Department or White House, and New Delhi has swiftly put paid to the notion that any third-party mediation over Kashmir was ever mooted between Indian PM Narendra Modi and President Trump. Washington insiders clarify President Trump’s statement as another one of his notorious gaffes.
Mr Khan claims that he did not seek financial or security assistance from the US because he abhors “dependency”. We note only that President Trump referred to the possibility of “incentivizing” Pakistan in the distant future only if – and this is the Big IF – Pakistan were to “do more” to facilitate the US end-game in Afghanistan. True, Mr Trump held out the carrot of “trade and investment”. Curiously, however, he only talked of how US exports to Pakistan in agriculture and energy could be increased without once mentioning how Pakistani exports to the US might be facilitated in the future.
We know that Pakistan pulled out all the stops to get this appointment with President Trump. So what’s the Big Deal now that the two great leaders have met?
It appears that the sole aim of Mr Khan’s visit was to establish a “personal rapport” with President Trump and charm him to death so that the US is more sympathetic to Pakistan’s myriad internal trials and external tribulations, so that the US trusts Pakistan not to play “double games” as in the past but also understands why Pakistan cannot fully and quickly deliver Washington’s foreign policy agenda in the region in view of the “complex situation” in Afghanistan. Equally, Pakistan hopes Washington will not lean on FATF and the IMF to tighten the screws. If this mission has been accomplished, then Mr Khan can genuinely claim to have secured a great diplomatic success. But the jury is out on this critical matter.
America wants the Taliban to cease fire, start talking to President Ghani and his coalition Northern Alliance partners, agree to a power sharing formula based on a constitutional consensus, participate in the forthcoming elections and usher in peace and stability so that an agreed timetable for US troop withdrawal can be implemented. All this must be done in the next few months. If this isn’t a tall order which Islamabad is expected to furnish, we don’t know what is.
Mr Khan has informed the Americans that he intends, very soon, to meet with Taliban leaders and convince them of the need and urgency of accomplishing these goals. But he has also cautioned that there are strong vested interests, internal and regional, which do not much care for peace and stability in Afghanistan along the lines advocated by Washington and Pakistan. He has exhorted the US administration to stop these from putting a spanner in the works, an allusion to India which is cut up by its exclusion from the regional dialogues (US, China, Russia and Pakistan) taking place about the way forward in Afghanistan.
Mr Khan has also warned about the likely regional and global consequences of a US-Iran armed conflict, especially during the current window of opportunity to “sort out” Afghanistan. This is a bold and timely intervention, for which he must be praised, given President Trump’s hostile attitude towards Iran and countervailing military moves in the Persian Gulf and Straits of Hormuz.
Mr Khan admits that “mutual trust” between the US and Pakistan has been lacking in the past. He attributes this to the different national interests and narratives of each side which haven’t been squarely put on the table and reconciled honestly. He says he’s a straight talking person and hopes to bridge this gap. He holds out the assurance that he will be as good as his word because, unlike in the past, the Pakistani Military and civilian government are on “the same page” viz a pragmatic “resetting” of not just Pak-US relations but also Pak-Afghan and Pak-India relations.
In international relations, trust is built by delivering on mutual interest. The Trump administration is also in a hurry to announce a “successful” pullout from Afghanistan in election year. If Imran Khan can deliver on this external agenda no less than on his internal reform program, he will truly deserve a second World Cup trophy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is about to detonate a political device in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir whose “nuclear fallout” may spill over into Pakistan with far reaching adverse consequences. At this stage in regional dynamics, exactly the opposite is the need of the hour for Pakistan. It could also destabilize Pakistan internally, derail its Afghan-reconciliation and peace policies and thereby strain relations with America once again. Consider.
Mr Modi has announced his intention to repeal Article 35A of the Indian Constitution that allows the Parliament of Jammu and Kashmir to define “permanent residents” of the state regardless of any rights granted in this context to citizens of the rest of India by the Indian Constitution. The J&K state law restricts “outsiders” from acquiring immovable property, getting jobs or scholarships in the J&K government or “settling” in the state. This right was granted in 1954 by a decree of the Indian President incorporated into the Indian constitution in the context of Article 370 according “Special Status” to J&K in 1952.
Various arguments for and against its repeal have been advocated in India. But the Modi government’s decision will be challenged in the Supreme Court of India. If the SC holds in the government’s favour, J&K will “explode”, to use Kashmiri leader Mehbooba Mufti’s word of warning. Indeed, Kashmiri leaders across the political divide have vowed to “resist” this encroachment on the rights of the state because they fear its true objective is not just to transform the demographic profile of their state to advance the cause of “communal-minded majoritarianism” espoused by the Sangh Parivar as “an ideal solution to the problem of Kashmir” but also bury all notions of J&K autonomy and its “disputed” status vis a vis Pakistan. Put bluntly, Mr Modi wants to “settle” J&K in the same manner that Israel has “settled” Palestine – by rooting in it strong Hindu vested interests aligned to New Delhi.
This move comes at a time when J&K is already in violent revolt against its “occupation” by New Delhi, when India-Pakistan relations are at their lowest ebb following the armed conflict because of the Pulwama incident earlier this year, when soldiers and civilians of both countries are daily dying across the LoC by the retaliatory shelling of the two armies. As a measure of its urgent purpose in anticipation of renewed resistance, New Delhi has hurriedly dispatched over 10,000 soldiers to J&K to buttress an existing force of over 500,000 troops, para-militaries and police. The irony is that this “warlike” development comes in the wake of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent request to US President Donald trump to “mediate” the Kashmir dispute (which met with favour) so that Pakistan can give its undivided attention to stitching up peace in Afghanistan as part of an “honourable” exit strategy for the US in the long war with the Taliban.
As the wannabe regional hegemon, Modi’s India is cut up by exclusion from the round table comprising Pakistan, China, US and Russia that is now deciding Afghanistan’s future. It has invested over US$2 billion in Afghanistan’s infrastructure. It has invested geopolitically in the development of Chahbahar Port in Iran and a road and rail line from there to Afghanistan as a foil to Pakistan’s stranglehold over routes to the land locked country. It has persuaded the international community to wield the sword of FATF and isolate Pakistan diplomatically as a “terrorism exporting” country. A reset in US-Pak relations favourable to Islamabad’s strategic objectives in the region that leaves New Delhi out in the cold is unacceptable to India. Now, when the Pakistani polity is deeply divided, when its economy is nose-diving, when the Pakistani army and ISI are stretched politically and militarily, internally and externally, Modi’s India has launched its Kashmir “colonization” policy with one main objective after severing links between pro-resistance jihadi forces in Pakistan and Kashmir via FATF – to consolidate its hold by effecting demographic change in J&K through a repeal of Article 35A.
If this plan unfolds in this manner, the ruling civil-military junta in Pakistan will be hard pressed by the opposition parties and the jihadi groups to switch back into aggressive anti-India and pro-Kashmir resistance mode. Both are bristling with hostility towards the current political rulers of Pakistan. They will clutch at any opportunity to embarrass and divide their nemeses. The Pakistani media, which is also suffering at the hands of the same junta, will fan the flames of ingrained anti-India nationalism and back the political opposition-jihadi narratives. So too will the people of Pakistan who are laboring under the burden of harsh US-IMF sponsored economic conditions. Such a development will weaken the ruling junta and divert its focus from external to internal stabilization. This will displease the US whose exit strategy may be adversely impacted by a sudden deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with India.
Beware! The repeal of Article 35A threatens to unleash a dangerously destabilizing dialectic in the region.
Crisis of National Power
Shortly before the Indian elections, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, wishfully declared that a win for Narendra Modi would prove to be good for peace between India and Pakistan. In the event, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
By separating Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir and annexing both as Union Territories, Mr Modi has torn up Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution that granted Special Status to Jammu and Kashmir pending a settlement with Pakistan. Outraged, Pakistan reacted by downgrading diplomatic ties with India, suspended trade and airspace and vowed to internationalize the dispute.
Mr Modi couldn’t care less. He had other plans from the start. He won the election by stoking fears about Pakistani-sponsored terrorism and followed up by delivering “strategic strikes” against the old enemy. After winning New Delhi, he put together a coalition government in Kashmir; then, by turns, he engineered the fall of the state government, imposed Presidential Rule, dissolved the state assembly and, as required in the absence of the state legislature, obtained the President-appointed Governor’s ascent for the President’s attack on Article 370.
Imran Khan has been clean bowled. He didn’t know what to think of Mr Modi’s pre-emptive additional troop deployment in Kashmir or the travel advisories to tourists and Hindu Yatris to quit Kashmir. He didn’t even know what to say in Parliament after the shocking event. He waited for a cue from the Corps Commanders meeting but when they didn’t come up with a “befitting” response – what’s the big deal, they said, Pakistan hadn’t accepted the legitimacy of Article 370 and 35A in the first place because of the primacy of the UN Resolutions – Mr Khan followed suit. Why, he thundered, we have known all along about the BJP’s anti-Muslim ideology, its thinking about revoking the Special Status of J&K (it’s in their manifesto, silly!) and so on, and this makes not a whit of difference to our traditional stance about a permanent solution based on a UN-sponsored Plebiscite. However, for the international record, he warned about massive repression in Kashmir, fierce resistance, an act or two of “terrorism” that would be laid at Pakistan’s door as in the case of Pulwama, heightened tensions along the border leading to conventional military conflict and, given the military imbalance, nuclearisation of the conflict with horrendous consequences for the region and the world.
But nobody seemed to much care about Pakistan’s dilemma, not even traditional Muslim allies like Saudi Arabia. Even China only put out a temperate statement asking both countries to resolve their disputes peacefully. And that great crowing “reset” with the US that Mr Khan had earlier likened to a second World Cup victory, following his “successful” talks with President Donald Trump in which he offered to mediate the Kashmir dispute, only yielded a denial that Washington was ever in the loop about Mr Modi’s intentions, a charge that India’s foreign policy establishment had cunningly leaked earlier. Fearing a public backlash about Pakistan’s “soft” response, a hurried huddle of the National Security Council, that includes the top brass, declared trade, airspace and diplomatic suspensions. Two days later, however, there was backtracking on most “suspensions”, raising suspicions that some “deal” at least on facilitating India-Afghan trade via Pakistan had already been brokered in Washington earlier and couldn’t be retracted.
The Miltablishment is in a royal fix. Over the decades, it has so injected the narrative of “Kashmir is Pakistan’s jugular vein” into the body politic of the state and people that anything short of “Kashmir banay ga Pakistan” is hard to sell at home. Nawaz Sharif twice tried to build a narrative of peace with India pending a final solution to the Kashmir dispute but he was castigated with the slogan “Modi Ka Jo Yaar Hai, Ghaddar Hai, Ghaddar Hai”! The Miltablishment is desperate to cement the status quo with India while it focusses on resolving Afghanistan to its advantage and enabling an “honourable” exit for the US. But Mr Modi has thrown a spanner in the works.
Public disquiet over Miltablishment policies regarding India and the US, suspicions that perhaps some other secret deal to “sell-out” on Kashmir has also been struck with Washington, coupled with rising anger over IMF sponsored economic policies, is a powder keg. The Opposition and media have already been hounded to the wall and are looking for an opportunity to stick the knife. The country is bitterly divided at home and isolated abroad. India’s leaders sense this as a particularly weak moment for Pakistan and are aiming to exploit it fully.
Unfortunately, the Miltablishment is at its wits end. Having put all its eggs in Imran Khan’s flaky basket and approved his decimation of the opposition and gagging of the media, it has left itself with few allies or options in the event of a strategic or tactical mishap, when Mr Khan will have to be scapegoated. The longer it takes to realise this unfolding crisis of National Power, the more problematic the solution will be when it explodes.
Pakistan is in the eye of a gathering storm. All the dangerous signposts ahead are clearly marked. For better or for worse, the decisions made and routes taken by our current civil-military leadership will make all the difference. Consider.
There is, truly, an unprecedented economic crisis. The leadership is still floundering after a full year of indecision or misplaced concreteness. Assistance from Saudi Arabia, China and the IMF is not without stiff political and economic conditions. By all independent accounts, many of these conditions relating to fiscal and trade deficits, inflation, growth, etc., will remain woefully unfulfilled. This will lead to stop-go logjams, uncertainty and political instability on the back of pervasive hardship for the common man.
There is also a simultaneous geo-strategic crisis at hand. On the one hand, America is leaning upon Pakistan to fulfill its pledge to pressure the Taliban to deliver a stable and peaceful power sharing dispensation in Kabul that allows for a safe and honourable exit for US troops from Afghanistan next year. On the other, India is determined to degrade whatever advantage Pakistan can derive from such an arrangement no less than the other Afghan players who are all inclined to lean towards India. But, significantly, the US and Kabul are both insisting that Pakistan must not link a multilateral Afghan “solution” to its bilateral problem with India even as the latter is making aggressive moves against Pakistan.
The problem for Pakistan is therefore two-fold. In order to continue receiving economic assistance from the IMF and other international financial institutions controlled by the US, Pakistan is obliged to comply fully and irrevocably with Washington’s political agenda on its terms. This is going to be a tough job. Simultaneously, Pakistan cannot afford to be baited by India vis a vis its recent unilateral annexation of Jammu and Kashmir, its proxy warring in Balochistan and FATA, and its border incursions. If economic management in such a harsh environment is going to prove difficult, imagine how much more impossible it will be for the civil-military leadership not to respond in equal measure to India’s aggressions. For seventy years, the theory of Realism has compelled a zero-sum game between the two adversaries. Now, however, it seems as if India is going one-up and there is nothing Pakistan can do about it. In the old days, Pakistan would have jumped into the Kashmir fray with state and non-state action. Now the best it can do is downgrade diplomatic relations and suspend trade, even though the former is meaningless and the latter will hurt Pakistan’s economy more than India. This will lead to bitter and sometimes unbridgeable angst not just within the rank and file of the civil-military leadership but also among its support base in the people of Pakistan.
In short, the critical “reset” that the civil-military leadership is now seeking with the US is fraught with pitfalls. It also implies a “reset” of its thinking about the role and status of Afghanistan in Pakistan’s National Power strategy. More importantly, because Pakistan’s Afghan strategy emanates from the compulsions of its strategy vis a vis India, there will be enormous international pressure to “reset” this relationship with India too at the same time. That would help to explain the timing of India’s move to annex J&K and conclude the “unfinished business of Partition” to its advantage.
Therefore, four hard, critical and simultaneous “resets” are required from the civil-military leadership. The economic “reset” cannot be accomplished without US support. US support won’t be forthcoming if its Afghan agenda is not delivered. The Afghan agenda can’t be delivered as long as India, with implicit support of the international community, is threatening to undo 70 years of Pakistan’s National Power policy. The problem is magnified by the fact that Pakistanis are not ready to meekly submit to economic hardships; the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders are not ready to accept Pakistan’s advice or pressure; the US is not ready to accept “excuses” for failure, and India is determined to push ahead with its advantage.
On its own, the civil-military leadership is in no position to manage these four “resets” without major upheavals in the framework of state and society. One precondition in preparation for confronting these harsh realities is national consensus and political unity. But the civil-military leadership is lacking on both fronts.
In fact, it can be argued that the civil-military leadership seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Instead of bringing all political stakeholders to the table, it is putting them into prison. Instead of encouraging the critical media to invigorate the debate over the four “resets”, it is gagging it. Instead of striving for a national consensus on the way out of this multi-faceted crisis, it is confusing and alienating public opinion. The economy has taken the old tactical and strategic equations hostage. Under the circumstances, it is past time for this leadership to shape up and “reset” itself.
All bets are off
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s grant of a three-year tenure extension to General Qamar Javed Bajwa, COAS, hasn’t come as a surprise. Miltablishment-favoured journalists have been “breaking” this news for months. Indeed, each is now tripping over himself to claim he was the first to predict the earth shattering news. Nor is it surprising that Mr Khan has done yet another U-Turn, having earlier criticized the PPP government of Yousaf Raza Gilani for granting COAS General Ashfaq Kayani a three year extension and praising COAS Raheel Sharif for announcing well in time that he wasn’t interested in an extension from Nawaz Sharif. This is Imran Khan’s nth U-Turn, and we are still counting. If we continue to think Mr Khan means what he says or says what he means, we have another thought coming. He has made a fine art of deception that would do any politician proud.
What is surprising, though, is the form and timing of the announcement. There are still three months to go before Gen Bajwa’s first term ends. One can only speculate that the hurry may have been prompted by the need to divert attention from a chorus of angry voices criticizing the ruling junta’s mishandling of the Kashmir crisis, especially after crowing about President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the conflict between India and Pakistan and likening Imran Khan’s trip to the US as a second World Cup victory!
Evidence of a hurried decision comes from three pointers. The first is the brief notification signed by the Prime Minister. It bypasses the President of Pakistan upon whose authority, on the written advice of the Prime Minister, such an appointment or extension is constitutionally made. No such advice was given before this notification was signed on 19 August. Second, it follows on the heels of the hurried arrest of Mariam Nawaz Sharif who was outspoken in her critique of the junta’s Kashmir policy and was expected to denounce the extension decision as well if she had been free. Third, the reason given for the extension – continuity of national security command in view of the regional situation – is thin on the ground. Inspired talk of the extension was leaked months ago when there was no India-provoked crisis in the region. It is also a poor reflection of the military’s institutional decision and command structure that it should admit dependency on one particular person at its apex.
The stunted response of the mainstream opposition parties isn’t surprising either. Apart from the usual suspects – like Farhatullah Babar of the PPP and a spokesman of the ANP who have taken principled stands – Mr Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto and Shahbaz Sharif are conspicuous by their silence. It is as if their silence was “coaxed” before announcing the decision so that no controversy would taint it. Under the circumstances, if the government, opposition and military are all “on the same page”, why should the media risk life or limb by not pretending that all is proper and well in the “national interest”?
PTI stalwarts have heaved a sigh of relief that General Bajwa will be sticking around for another three years to make sure that Imran Khan will complete his five years in office (if not in power). Indeed, some are going so far as to predict that Mr Khan will get another five years after that because the General-in-Waiting (who is said to have masterminded the Grand Slam that knocked out Nawaz Sharif, hoisted Imran Khan and ensured General Bajwa’s extension smoothly, will ascend the Miltablishment throne in November 2022 and continue on the path of the good and grand transformation of state and society launched in recent times.
Such is the stuff of hopeful elite chatter in drawing rooms no less than the hopeless refrain of the common man on the street.
But the perennial naysayers have not lost all hope yet. Politics, like everyday life, is not without its black swan. When Generals Musharraf and Bajwa were handpicked by Mr Sharif, no one could have imagined what role each might end up playing in their benefactor’s political ouster. Similarly, it would require a heroic feat of the imagination on the part of Imran Khan to think that he can remain in the great General’s good books for long if he slips up on delivering the tough economic and geo-strategic agenda at hand. At the end of the day, as the saying goes, a Pakistani Army Chief who can move a million armed men at the wag of his little finger is no one’s man except his own. Indeed, if the PM begins to think he has done the COAS any favour that must be returned, surely the COAS must be in a hurry to dispel such an impression in order to remain in command, and retain the respect of his rank and file.
The next year or two are going to be a hard test for the “same page” civil-military doctrine that is currently sprouting from every PTI rooftop. All bets are off!
The first year of Imran Khan’s government is the bleakest in living memory. Part of the blame must rest with the Miltablishment that selected and hoisted him to power and condoned his bumbling, stumbling U-Turns. Unfortunately, despite pious statements from a battery of spin masters, the outlook for the next twelve months is extremely depressing. Consider.
Economic Policy: The fiscal deficit for 2018-19 was 8.9% of GDP (first target 4.9%, second target 7.1%), the highest in 40 years. This was largely due to IMF conditions regarding interest rates and rupee devaluation that bloated debt payments. Matters deteriorated when the PTI government’s mismanagement led to a drastic fall of the Tax/GDP ratio from 15.2% in 2017-18 to 12.7% in 2018-19. Inflation is the highest in decades, the poor are drowning in it. Business confidence is rock bottom, investment has ceased. The bureaucracy is afraid to sign off on projects. CPEC has ground to a halt. Standard & Poor rating agency has downgraded Pakistan’s yearly outlook from B to B-. The revenue in the first quarter of the new fiscal year is far short of targets. Development budgets have been slashed. Privatisation policy is uncertain and confused. Public sector development in health, education and the social sector is dismal. Exports remain sluggish. There are no foreign investment inflows on the horizon. The large-scale manufacturing sector is sagging. Forex Reserves are falling. Unemployment is rising.
Foreign Policy: Pakistan’s isolation is unprecedented. Barring Iran and Turkey, no Muslim country has supported Pakistan’s position on the annexation of Jammu & Kashmir by the Narendra Modi government. Indeed, several of them have lined up to invest big time in India and award Mr Modi with medals for being a high achiever. Even US President Donald Trump has withdrawn his offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict. Indeed, he has gone so far as to support Mr Modi’s position that the two neighbours should resolve their problems bilaterally. At home, the Miltablishment-Government is up the creek without a paddle. It is beating its chest and running out of breath. While Mr Modi is treading the red carpet in the capitals of the world, our own Imran Khan is regaling us to death with history lessons about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Regional Security: Ominously, President Trump has publicly confirmed that India is a strategic stakeholder in the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan even as we are being assured by our Miltablishment that a big breakthrough – a deal between the Taliban and Washington – auguring well for Pakistan is on the cards. But this isn’t clear at all. There is no assurance that the Taliban will ceasefire for long, nor that they will effectively share power with the pro-American government and other stakeholders in Kabul. In other words, a deal with the Americans doesn’t automatically imply a deal between the Afghans, which means that the civil war may simply take another turn after the Americans’ exit, prompting regional countries like Iran, India and Russia to restart proxy interventions and wars.
Internal Conflict: The unrelenting clampdown on the opposition and media has sharpened divisions at home and weakened the national resolve to confront national crises together. The exploitation of NAB, FIA, IB, ISI, FBR, etc. for persecuting political opponents has damaged the credibility of state organs by eroding the notion of a constitutional contract between the rulers and ruled. Parliament hasn’t passed a single law in the last twelve months. The President of Pakistan has been issuing Ordinances and References without fulfilling his constitutional duty to vet these for propriety, resulting in an embarrassing blowback from the Chief Election Commissioner, Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court and various organs representing the bar and bench. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Pakistan and certain judges have been so politicized in the blind subservience of the Miltablishment and government that the notions of justice and trust on which the modern state rests have been rapidly eroded.
Spectre of War: The failure to anticipate the turn of events in India and fashion internal and external policies to confront them has raised the spectre of war with India at a moment in time when we are economically and institutionally weak and when the chances of any “settlement” with India are truly remote. Even a limited conflict will exact a heavy toll of our economy. But an escalation will draw foreign powers into the conflict and they will tend to lean on India’s side. This will lead to political upheaval at home and plunge the country into an existential crisis when we are not equipped to cope with it.
Way Forward: In this situation, it is insufficient for the Miltablishment and PTI government to be “on the same” page when the mainstream opposition parties are in the dock, when the independent media is gagged, when the courts, Election Commission, NAB etc. are under pressure to give biased judgments, when parliament has been rendered impotent, when the people are simmering, and when international powers are conspiring. A strong national government is the need of the hour.
Conspiracy theories of a “deal” between the Sharifs and the Miltablishment originate mainly from media touts of the Miltablishment or PTI. They allude to secret meetings between Miltablishment emissaries and Shahbaz Sharif focused on the “voluntary” exile and silence of Nawaz and Mariam, plus a pledge not to undermine the Miltablishment or destabilize the Imran Khan regime, in exchange for some relief from NAB prosecution of the Sharif family and an enlarged role for Shabaz Sharif in the affairs of the current parliament and future government.
But since the Miltablishment must always come out looking good and the Sharifs as smelling foul, Nawaz and Mariam are “reported” to be desperate to get off the hook. One TV tout recently assured his viewers that the Sharifs had agreed to part with “trillions in looted money” in a plea bargain for freedom from jail and prosecution. This is aimed at confirming the PTI narrative that the Sharifs have stolen oceans of money and are ready to admit guilt by returning some of it. In one variant of the deal syndrome, Shahbaz Sharif is being encouraged to “break” with Nawaz Sharif so that he can curry favour with the Miltablishment.
The truth of the matter is more complex. Consider
The Miltablishment is “soft” on Shahbaz and “hard” on Mariam and Nawaz for sound reason. Shahbaz has always advocated a “big brother” role for the Miltablishment in government and advised Nawaz not to get entangled with Miltablishment demands and priorities in practical recognition of its enormous and unaccountable power. But Nawaz has constantly sought to establish the hegemony of parliament, prime minister and cabinet over the organs of the state who are constitutionally obliged to obey the “sanctity of the vote”. On three occasions in the past – 1993, 1999 and 2017 — he has lost his prime ministership by insisting on the primacy of this constitutional position. Now both he and his daughter are in prison, having consciously returned to Pakistan from a temporary reprieve in London, to stand up and face the consequences of demanding their democratic rights. Nawaz’s incarceration has adversely impacted his health while Mariam’s courage in resistance has landed her in the clink.
In the event, father and daughter have received succor from large swathes of Pakistanis, suggesting that the anti-Sharif “corruption” narrative has failed to take root beyond the PTI’s die-hard voter. That is why the last election was stolen from them and that is why efforts are now underway to neutralize their opposition to the “selected” government propped up by the Miltablishment. Therefore, it is not the Sharifs who are fishing for “deals” but the Miltablishment that is constantly baiting them.
In this unfolding scenario, the role of the judiciary in general, the visible conduct of certain judges and biases of judgment have been noted with increasing unease. That is why all potential “deals” with the Miltablishment involve equally “suitable” decisions from the judiciary. Today, there is no merit in Nawaz Sharif’s application for relief on health grounds but tomorrow if a “deal” is materialized the same grounds could become suddenly relevant. Today, the argument goes, judge Arshad Malik’s video is suspect. Tomorrow, if a “deal” is signed, it could lead to bail, if not quashing of Nawaz Sharif’s conviction, in the Avenfield Flats case.
This leads to one question: why is the Miltablishment keen on a “deal” with Nawaz?
There are two main reasons for this initiative. The first is the abysmal failure of the Imran Khan regime to deliver the Miltablishment agenda of good governance and development without which no artificial political dispensation can last for long. The second is the nature of the geo-strategic crises facing Pakistan which can only be contested successfully on the basis of a national consensus which is lacking because of Imran Khan’s vindictive, single minded pursuit of one sided “accountability” via NAB.
The Miltablishment’s dilemma is accentuated by the fact that the more the judiciary bends before its will, the more it loses credibility; the more Imran Khan’s “selected” government flounders, the more its puppeteer is discredited; and, by corollary, the more Nawaz and Mariam Sharif’s narrative gains in the popular imagination.
Until now, the Miltablishment has got away with its political shenanigans because two opposition leaders have gone against the grain of popular opinion. Asif Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif have not sided with Nawaz and Maulana Fazal ur Rhman in launching a popular movement to dislodge the PTI government. Amidst the mounting economic crisis, a great opportunity presented itself recently for agitation when the Miltablishment-PTI junta was all at sea in the confrontation with Modi’s India. But both shied away from exploiting it.
That may change in time to come when another such crisis hits Pakistan. That is why the Miltablishment is keen to cover its flanks by doing some sort of a deal with Nawaz Sharif. But the longer Nawaz and Mariam hold out for their own terms, the greater the likelihood that they will emerge as the ultimate winners.
Peace Deal Trumped
US President Donald Trump has junked the proposed Afghan peace agreement with the Taliban cobbled by his handpicked emissary, Zalmay Khalilzad, over many rounds of meetings with stakeholders in Qatar, Islamabad and Kabul. He says he had planned to bring Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban leaders to Camp David for a historic signing but cancelled at the last minute because the Taliban continue to launch attacks on American and Afghan forces and won’t agree to a ceasefire.
This is a sloppy excuse. The Taliban say they never agreed to any signing in Camp David – the agreement was for an announcement in Qatar where all the talks have been held. The Taliban also say that they have consistently rejected the proposal for a ceasefire before the agreement as they have of any direct meeting with representatives of the Ghani government. The record bears them out. There were only two main points to the agreement: a firm American timetable for withdrawal and a pledge by the Taliban not to allow any terrorist activity from Afghan soil in America.
Clearly, Mr Trump has been clever by half. The Camp David scene was set to sell a “historic agreement” to the American people in which the US would have been billed as the victor in a long, bloody and costly conflict. But the Taliban rejected it because they are the victors in Afghanistan and don’t want to be portrayed in America as the losers. Certainly, their own constituents would have disowned their leaders if they had allowed themselves to be bullied into embracing sworn enemies Presidents Trump and Ghani.
But President Trump’s own team was also increasingly unhappy about the proposed deal. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already expressed reservations and said he wouldn’t sign off on it. NSA John Bolton consistently argued for a much harder line with the Taliban and has been forced to resign because of disagreements with President Trump. Core right-wing Republicans in Congress and the Administration were also uneasy – they thought that, with Taliban attacks continuing, the deal wouldn’t even serve as a fig leaf for US troop withdrawal and provoke a domestic backlash, especially if the “murderers” of yesterday were feted as the “friends” of today on American soil.
Postscript: Mr Pompeo has tried to reassure Americans that US forces have “killed over 1000 Taliban in one month alone” and will continue the good fight against the forces of evil in Afghanistan. And Mr Trump insists he has junked the deal for good because the Taliban won’t agree to a ceasefire or talk directly with the Ghani regime. What next?
Clearly, Mr Trump is not about to junk his oft-repeated campaign pledge to the American people that he will bring American troops home from Afghanistan next year. So we may expect that after strong words have been exchanged between both adversaries, including well publicized attacks on each other’s forces in Afghanistan, they will be inclined to re-start talks sooner or later. Therefore, President Trump will now put great pressure on Pakistan not just to help restart the dialogue but also to “do more” to get a better deal from the Taliban for America. He will reinforce the traditional “carrot and stick” policy in hand: the carrots are spares for American weapons systems with Pakistan, Coalition Support Fund handouts, trade incentives, etc, while brandishing FATF and IMF sticks to drive the point home.
But this is easier said than done. There are many complications ahead.
The Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for later this month. If these are not postponed indefinitely pending an agreement with the Taliban, there will be massive bloodshed and instability because the stakes are very high for those who wish to participate and for those who wish to derail them. New vested interests on both sides will be consolidated and it will be difficult to undo them later. Apart from the US, which will be compelled to support the Afghan regime with more money and weapons, India, Russia and Iran will also strive to obtain leveraging footholds in the developing scenario from which they will not budge easily later. And Pakistan will find it difficult to convince the Taliban to concede some chips to America before all this happens.
President Trump’s wacky decision has put the Bajwa-Imran junta on the spot. They thought they had stitched up a win-win situation for Pakistan vis a vis the Taliban and the Americans, while managing to isolate and weaken the pro-India Afghan regime of President Ghani. Indeed, their glib spokesmen were prone to tick off critics who questioned the significance of the of the 21-gun welcome salute they received in Washington last month. Now it is back to the drawing board, with President Trump menacingly looking over their shoulder.
Pakistan’s trumped up “reset” with America has been unilaterally undone by President Trump. The junta will have to “Do More” to earn it now. That won’t be easy without economic revival, political stability and national consensus at home.
The illegitimate political system thrust upon Pakistan last year, with the fig leaf of a “selected” prime minister, has come a cropper. This was a chronicle foretold by some political analysts. But, understandably enough, few dared to challenge the Man on Horseback. There are too many ethnic, regional, sub-nationalist, class, sectarian, institutional and ideological interests competing for a slice of Pakistan’s political economy to blithely accept such an authoritarian formula. It was only a matter of time before the contradictions, tensions and pressures of these competing interests rose to the surface and exposed the brittle nature of the political engineering carried out by the Miltablishment. The truth is that the complex crises facing Pakistan – economic, constitutional and regional – cannot be faced without a consensual national narrative at home. Consider the emerging fissures in the system.
The popularity of the mainstream PMLN that has been excluded from office in Islamabad and Lahore has risen in direct proportion to the failure of the PTI to “deliver”, no less than the plummeting credibility of certain state institutions to deliver “insaf” to Nawaz Sharif whether through the courts or through the NAB. Indeed, contradictions have arisen between the courts and NAB, with the former trying to protect its credibility by bending before the Bar while pointing an accusatory finger at NAB for discriminating between government and opposition. The recent conduct of the Supreme Court under CJP Asif Khosa to redress the imbalance, albeit belatedly, as evidenced in the latest developments in the Qazi Faez Isa case, should not be missed.
Much the same may be said of the Chief Election Commissioner, a retired high court judge, who has finally plucked up the courage to call a spade a spade. For obvious reasons, the CEC may not be keen to speed up the disqualification petitions against the “selected” prime minister, Imran Khan, but he has put his foot down on two important cases that have a direct bearing on political developments in Pakistan: he has refused to accept the PM’s two nominees on the ECP because these have not been sanctioned via due constitutional process; and he has allowed Mariam Nawaz Sharif to retain her Vice-Presidency of the PMLN.
Much the same sort of tremors are beginning to be felt in the media. The independent press, which had succumbed to junta pressure, is beginning to anticipate the prospect of breathing freely again. Proof of a halting revival comes from two opposite developments: a significant gang of “journalists” who had sold their souls to Imran Khan, or simply couldn’t resist the indiscreet charm of the Miltablishment, have suddenly taken a U-Turn and launched a barrage of criticism against the cult hero for whom they voted. Alarmed, the PTI government is trying to rush through emergency legislation to establish anti-media, speedy Tribunals, an effort that is likely to be fiercely resisted by the opposition in the Senate no less than by the media in the courts.
Cracks are also beginning to appear in the upper echelons of the Miltablishment. The loudest whisper is that not everyone is happy with the PM’s decision to extend the tenure of the army chief. And the more the political model fails to deliver, the more its chief architects and beneficiaries come under critical scrutiny. Indeed, the fact that the Miltablishment is facing a loss of credibility, trust and legitimacy in its bastion of Punjab whence its rank and file is largely recruited is cause for serious concern amongst its supporters. The fact that the chief minister of Punjab, a dubious selection, is the butt of both crude jokes and frustrated rage, is sufficient to reinforce the perception of unremitting, abject failure.
The continuing mismanagement of the economy and its ensuing hardships, in the backdrop of developing crises in relations with India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, America and Afghanistan, is giving sleepless nights to all and sundry.
Now Maulana Fazal ur Rahman has announced a million-man march on Islamabad. Nawaz Sharif is on board even if Asif Zardari is still hedging his bets. At the minimum, this will destabilize the government and set back its reform agenda. Maximally, it may spur a change of horses mid-stream to salvage the situation.
The most important factor in the dynamics of success and failure of any political strategy is popular perception of its strengths and weaknesses. Until recently, the Miltablishment was perceived to be ubiquitous, omnipotent and infallible; the combined opposition was imagined as weak, vacillating and divided; and the selected prime minister was lauded for his inspirational leadership qualities. But all that has, by turns, rapidly evaporated. The legitimacy of the political engineering has been corroded by the arrogance, incompetence, bias and unaccountability of its main practitioners in the organs of the state while the credibility and strength of the opposing forces, inspired by the courage and resilience of Nawaz and Mariam Sharif, has risen exponentially.
The sooner we recognize our failures and correct course, the better it will be for Pakistan.
“Hindu” India is in raptures over the massive “Howdy Modi” reception accorded to its prime minister in Houston by expat Indians. Images of a triumphant Mr Modi and a beaming US President Donald Trump wading through the 50,000 strong crowd, hand in hand, are plastered all over Indian social media, signaling a solid relationship between the “greatest” democracy and the “biggest” democracy in the world. The implied textual reading is that America has bought the Indian stance on Pakistan, hook, line and sinker.
Interestingly, only last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also received a tumultuous reception from around 10,000 Pakistani fans in Washington. Proportionately, speaking, this was even more significant, considering there are ten times as many Indians as Pakistanis in America. President Trump also had some flattering remarks to make about Mr Khan and Pakistan and the close cooperation and understanding between them going forward. That is when Mr Trump revealed that Mr Modi had asked him to mediate conflict between India and Pakistan, a claim that was promptly denied by New Delhi but without any impact on Mr Trump who has continued to publicly offer his services to both countries as an effective mediator.
What is significant about the separate meetings of the two sub-continental prime ministers with President Trump is the different meanings both have drawn from their joint press conferences with him and assorted statements later attributed to him.
The Indians say that President Trump has bought their argument about Pakistan as a “state sponsor” of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and approved Modi’s formal annexation of the state. The Pakistanis say that, on the contrary, President Trump is aware of the relevance of the UN Resolutions on Kashmir and is disturbed by the large scale, unprecedented violation of human rights in the Valley following the Indian “lockdown” in Kashmir.
The Hindu newspaper reports that the “Indian and US sides offered summaries of the meetings (of Mr Modi and Mr trump) that were, in some respects, at variance with one another”. The paper pointed out that “at least two differences between the two accounts – one on Afghanistan and one on terror and Kashmir – were substantive. The Indian account … said that Afghanistan had not been discussed …; the US administration, however, said that the two countries discussed Afghanistan”. The Indians said that “the session was split equally between a discussion on terrorism and trade” and that Mr Modi explained in detail “the challenges India had faced from terrorism, especially in Jammu and Kashmir over the last 30 years”. However, wrote The Hindu, “there was no mention of terrorism in the White House readout … Additionally, the (US) President encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan and fulfill his promise to better the lives of the Kashmiri people”. The Hindu failed to note another difference: while the Indians claim that Pakistan’s terrorism was discussed, the White House declares that terrorism in Afghanistan was discussed!
Clearly, both India and Pakistan have articulated their respective positions to President Trump and, clearly, he has made reassuring noises in private to both. Clearly, too, he has been careful in public not to appear to be taking sides in the India-Pak conflict by fully endorsing anyone’s point of view. But it is significant that President Trump recognizes the potentially disastrous consequences of any military conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations because he keeps repeating his offer to mediate between the two countries.
The fact of the matter is that the US is walking a tightrope between two objectives: in the short term, it tactically needs Pakistan’s unstinting support to extricate itself honourably from Afghanistan – it now wants Pakistani to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table with the US – and it needs Pakistan to stand with it and Saudi Arabia in their simmering conflict with Iran; in the long term, the US is committed to propping up India as a strategic partner in its conflict with China. The last thing President Trump wants in his election year is a conflict between India and Pakistan that drags Pakistan away from focusing on getting America a good deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. When Mr Khan was asked whether President Trump had sought his mediation between the US and Iran, Mr Khan replied: “President Trump asked me to talk to Iranian President Rouhani which I did…”, without elaborating further.
There are two complications in this developing scenario. First, Mr Modi has ratchetted up tensions with Pakistan to such a point that if he doesn’t do anything to “teach” Pakistan a “lesson” soon, he will lose credibility with his Hindu nationalist constituency. Second, Mr Khan has ruled out the possibility of any dialogue with India unless the original Article 370 status of J&K is restored.
It’s no wonder then that Imran Khan told Richard Haas at New York’s Council on Foreign Relations that if he (Mr Haas) had had to deal with this situation, he would have had a heart attack!
Tryst with democracy
According to his never-say-die supporters, Imran Khan has returned from New York a “conquering hero”. There were even endorsements of one loyalist suggestion that the commercial plane carrying him back from Jeddah to Islamabad should be escorted by a fleet of F7 Thunder jets as a mark of honour. Imran bravely spoke “straight from the heart”, they say, and swept all Doubting Thomases before him, highlighting the critical issues facing the world today: climate change, Islamophobia, safe havens for money laundering and the Kashmir lockdown. Never mind that the hall was only half full. Never mind that he admitted Pakistan’s culpability in germinating Al Qaeda. Never mind that he raised the world’s hackles by brandishing nuclear weapons and threatening Armageddon. Never mind that the vicious Indian lockdown in Kashmir persists. Never mind that the prospects of Indo-Pak dialogue are dimmer than ever before. Never mind that a territorial state conflict has been relegated to a clash of fierce ideologies representing “Islamic” Pakistan and “Hindu” India.
There were some unintended consequences of the trip too. Inexplicably, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was so alienated by some dimensions of the Pakistani prime minister’s diplomacy in New York – he couldn’t have been happy at the prospect of Imran Khan, Recip Tayyib Erdogan and Mahathir Mohammad planning to jointly represent the Islamic bloc, nor with Pakistan’s interlocution with Iran without his explicit approval — that he visibly snubbed Imran by ordering his private jet to disembowel the Pakistani delegation. Significantly, too, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, lost her job (did Khan’s cronies have anything to do with it?) before the dust of “victory at the UN” had settled.
Regardless, a besieged and floundering Prime Minister has been given a lease of life by his foreign sojourn. Upon his return after scoring this “great victory”, Imran Khan has taken a “fresh stance”, as they say in the cricketing parlance so dear to him, and ordered a reshuffle of the confederacy of dunces surrounding him. We may recall his inflated sense of importance after his trip to Washington earlier this year in which he said he felt he’d won a second World Cup by charming President Donald Trump to death! In the event the US is still asking Pakistan to “do more” by leveraging the IMF and FATF.
Pity the nation that is so forlorn of substance, support and leadership that it must clutch at empty nationalist rhetoric to redeem some self-respect.
One is reminded of the hero’s welcome Zulfikar Ali Bhutto received after his address to the UN on the night of December 15-16, 1971, when Dhaka fell. “I will not be a party to it”, he thundered. “We will fight; we will go back and fight….Why should I waste my time here in the Security Council? I will not be a party to the ignominious surrender of a part of my country”. And it came to pass that Mrs Hasina Wajid, the daughter of the “traitor” Mujibur Rahman who led the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, spoke at the UNGA after Imran Khan and “reminded” the world how many “millions” of Bengalis died and how many “hundreds of thousands of women” were “raped” by the Pakistan Army, an affront no less outrageous than the one caused by Narendra Modi’s naked annexation of Kashmir.
The truth is that the world doesn’t give a damn about the UN resolutions on Kashmir. The truth is that Pakistan’s intelligence and diplomacy failed to anticipate Modi’s moves and devise appropriate pre-emptive policy. The truth is the world is now ready to live with India’s annexation of Kashmir. The truth is that Pakistan is internationally isolated. The truth is that Pakistan is bankrupt and desperately dependent while resurgent India is globally wooed.
But we are fortunate that some more powerful truths are eclipsing these realities. Narendra Modi has internationalised the Kashmir dispute by an unprecedented lockdown and violation of human rights, something that Pakistan’s civil-military leaders failed to do in seven decades of conflict, four wars and loss of half the country. Mr Modi has sown the seeds of irrevocable alienation of 200 million Muslims in India that is bound to engender greater violence and bloodshed. He has blotted the secular spirit of the “biggest democracy in the world”, abandoned its pluralist tryst with destiny and eroded the pacifist spirit of Gandhi that begat India’s great romance with the world. And he has brought the subcontinent to the brink of war, death and destruction like no other Indian leader has done in the past.
General Qamar Bajwa, the Pakistani army chief, tells everyone he wants to positively “reset” relations with the West, in general, and the US, in particular. That is a welcome dose of “strategic realism” long missing in Islamabad. But he must not forestall a national consensus to achieve Pakistan’s own tryst with democracy. That is not possible so long as Imran Khan remains obsessed with his brand of divisive, confrontational politics that weakens Pakistan.
In a significant display of political craftsmanship, Maulana Fazal ur Rahman has managed to stay on the front page for many months despite being unprecedentedly stripped of all electoral relevance in the JUI’s traditional strongholds in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and, consequently, in the National Assembly. His latest move to march to Islamabad and besiege the capital on October 27 has sent political pundits scrambling for their thinking caps. Who has prompted the good Maulana to destabilize and possibly overthrow the PTI government? What does the Maulana expect to get out of it? Why hasn’t he been able to persuade the mainstream PMLN and PPP to fully throw in their lot with his Long March?
Maulana Fazal attributes his party’s lack of success in the 2018 elections to an electoral rigging conspiracy by the Miltablishment to bring Imran Khan to power in Islamabad and subsequently deliver both KP and Balochistan to him. From Day-One he has not been afraid to say so openly even as other political leaders who also allege election rigging have been circumspect. Consequently, his demands are understandable: resignation of Imran Khan and fresh elections without any administrative or overseeing role of the armed forces in managing them as evidenced in 2018.
The good Maulana’s track record shows him to be always on the right side of the Miltablishment. Indeed, that is why he was afforded an opportunity to form the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal by the Miltablishment under General Pervez Musharraf and handed over the reins of power in KP after the 2002 elections. That is why he was always able to clinch the slot of Chairman of the NA’s Parliamentary Kashmir Committee. That is also why both PPP and PMLN governments always considered it prudent to include him in their power-sharing schemes.
This factual reference leads pundits to the conclusion that Maulana Fazal could not have threatened his long march without a wink or nod from the Miltablishment. But, in turn, that leads logically to another question: why would the Miltablishment do any such thing when it is constantly reminding everyone that it is on the “same page as the PTI government” and backs it wholeheartedly? Indeed, the confusion is compounded by the fact that the PMLN and PPP — without whose full throttled participation any long march aimed at overthrowing the PTI government cannot be successful — have not received a green light from the same Miltablishment. If they had, they would have happily led the long march instead of flapping about determining the nature, timing and extent of their participation.
Logically, this would lead to the conclusion that the Miltablishment is only seeking to bring Imran Khan under some controlled pressure via Maulana Fazal in order to compel him to concede some of its demands and concerns – the two top ones being replacing Usman Buzdar as CM Punjab and giving an extension to the army chief – instead of getting rid of him altogether. This makes sense considering that the only politically popular and natural alternative to Imran Khan is Nawaz Sharif, who is anathema to the current leaders of the Miltablishment.
It can be argued, of course, that there is a middle way out of this mess. If controlled pressure on Imran Khan can be brought to bring an in-house change in the National Assembly that leads to the ouster of Imran Khan as PM without immediately leading to a new general election or to the installment of a PMLN government in Islamabad, that would work to the advantage of the Miltablishment. Such a dispensation would be in the form of a “national government” of sorts led by an “acceptable” Prime Minister, all beholden to the Miltablishment. It would also end the political polarization in the country and bring all the parties together to jointly confront the multi-faceted national crisis facing the country.
The key word here is “controlled” pressure. A malleable Maulana in the lead can be “controlled” by the Miltablishment but a rigid Nawaz Sharif in the lead cannot be “controlled”. That is why the Maulana must be the pivot of such pressure and the leader of the long march so that the limited goal of the Miltablishment can be achieved through the flexibility of its key player when the time comes to heed the Miltablishment’s tactical advice. That is why, instead of a green signal only an amber light is flickering for the PMLN and PPP. Naturally, under any such “national” dispensation in Islamabad, Maulana Fazal may expect to reap great dividends both personally and for his JUI party. At the very least, he could expect a JUI stake in KP and Balochistan after the PTI-led governments there are also ousted in due course.
This course correction must be accomplished before a particular Miltablishment deadline expires in less than six weeks. Hence Maulana Fazal’s refusal to delay the long march. Only two questions remain. Can Imran Khan throw a spanner in the works by conceding the demands of the Miltablishment? Or has the Miltablishment decided to dispense with him, regardless, and steer a more “national-consensus” course for Pakistan?
It’s the economy, stupid!
In the last year or so, Prime Minister Imran Khan has spent a lot of time to-ing and fro-ing to China and Saudi Arabia. Now he has added the US and Iran to his itinerary. What is the purpose of these trips? Shouldn’t he spend more time focusing on the economy and political developments at home?
China is the largest foreign investor and trading partner of the country and it is the sole defense and strategic geo-political ally of Pakistan. Of late, however, the Chinese have expressed concerns about the fate of various CPEC projects launched during the PMLN regime that are languishing since the arrival of the PTI government. Four broad reasons are attributed to this slowdown: the PTI government’s investigations into the alleged “corruption” of the PMLN government in awarding contracts to Chinese companies; the PTI government’s inability to cough up countervailing funds for Chinese projects from its severely constrained budget; the IMF’s insistence on inspection of such contracts that have hitherto remained confidential and its advice to curtail further Chinese debt because of Pakistan’s inability to service it without dollops from Western aid agencies; and the lack of a modus operandi to accommodate the military establishment’s insistence on decision making regarding CPEC in equal measure with the civilian bureaucracy. Clearly, a lot of ironing needs to be done, both internally and with the Chinese government and companies so that misunderstandings are avoided and commitments are fulfilled with an all-weather friend and ally.
Saudi Arabia also occupies a unique position in Pakistan’s firmament. Put simply, Pakistan cannot “afford” to antagonize or alienate it under any circumstance. There are over 2.6 million Pakistani workers in the Kingdom; they remit over US$5 billion every year to Pakistan (about 25% of its total receipt of foreign remittances); the Saudis provide several billion dollars of deferred oil payment facilities to Pakistan; and have recently lent $ 3 billion to prop up Pakistan’s forex reserves. Additionally, over 70,000 Pakistani servicemen are employed in the Saudi military and defense infrastructure. Recently, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was personally instrumental in facilitating the Pakistani Establishment’s “reset” in relations with the US which led to Pakistan’s renewed engagement with the Taliban to facilitate a favourable US exit from Afghanistan. In return, President Trump is leaning on India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to tone down his aggressive rhetoric against Pakistan, to lift the lockdown in Kashmir and avoid precipitating military conflict with its neighbor. His support is also critical to continued international financial assistance to Pakistan, especially from the IMF, no less than to stop Pakistan from sliding into the FATF blacklist which would put paid to its efforts to keep its economy afloat in a sea of indebtedness.
In recent years, however, tensions were reported between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia after the former refused to sanction military troops in aid of Saudi forces in the war in Yemen or take its side in its conflict with Iran. Indeed, the Saudis were so irritated when Imran Khan recently said in New York that he had been asked by Prince Mohammad bin Salman to mediate on his behalf with Iran that they promptly issued a statement denying any such request. Now Imran Khan has scurried to Riyadh to smooth over its ruffled feathers rather than report on any unwanted mediation with Iran.
After he became Prime Minister last year, Imran Khan announced he would not take foreign junkets and concentrate instead on arresting corruption, bringing back hundreds of billions in “looted” money in safe havens abroad, incentivizing expatriates to invest generously in Naya Pakistan, catch tax thieves and spurn foreign loans and debts. Under the circumstances, one year down the line, he has not succeeded in any of his objectives. International debt has piled up. Tax amnesty schemes have been launched. Only the tip of corruption has been tackled by NAB and that too at a huge cost – the civil bureaucracy has been rendered impotent and businessmen are scared of investing in Pakistan. Expatriates are not confident about the future of Naya Pakistan. Consequently, the economy is racked by crippling inflation, shutdowns, layoffs and rising popular discontent. A recent survey shows the PMLN’s popularity on the upswing and the PTI’s plummeting downhill. The disenchantment of Pakistanis with the Miltablishment for bringing in and then propping up Imran Khan is palpable.
Imran Khan has wasted a lot of time and energy making and unmaking economic and foreign policy. Someone should remind him that “it’s the economy, stupid!” It can’t be run by fiat or pious hope. It certainly cannot be revived amidst the gathering storm of political confrontation between the government and the opposition. Good governance is as much about political stability as it is about economic certainty. The recent announcement by the IMF that economic growth will fall to about 2.4 percent next year is ominous. Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s statement that people shouldn’t look to the government for jobs is another nail in the PTI’s coffin.
Nawaz Sharif is reportedly at death’s door. He has been treated in a most inhumane and callous manner while in custody. This is a thrice-elected prime minister who voluntarily returned from London and went to prison. This is a man who was kept in jail while his wife was dying in London. This is a man who has been convicted by the Supreme Court on the thread of a loose definition of “assets” in an unauthorized reference dictionary in the prejudicial context of “Sicilian Mafia”. This is a man who has been convicted by a judge who was blackmailed to get his conviction. This is a man who has resolutely resisted the various offerings of the Establishment to leave Pakistan and quit politics. His crime: he ran afoul of the Establishment by mistaking the elected office of prime minister for the font of power in Pakistan. Worse, he refused to learn and repent.Popular opinion holds that Imran Khan is personally responsible for Nawaz Sharif’s deteriorating health. His government has tightened the screws by withdrawing all manner of decent prison and medical facilities befitting an ex-prime minister. Yet when a reporter recently confronted Mr Khan with this perception, “he threw his arms up with a bewildered look on his face: ‘Am I the doctor? Am I the court’?” The reporter added that shortly thereafter Mr Khan called up the Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and ordered him to arrange a meeting between Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Mariam. A day earlier, Mariam’s request for such a meeting had been denied by a NAB accountability court. Clearly, Mr Khan has answered his own questions.
Mr Khan also told reporters that there was a “foreign hand” behind Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s long march and dharna. Incredibly enough, he pointed a finger at India! If he had hinted at another foreign power with which the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and its leader has had traditional religious relations, he might have been less incredible. But how could he have summoned up the courage to bite the hand that feeds him?
The Maulana is still talking tough. But suspicions have arisen about his aims and objectives. It has been reported that he met Establishment Big Wigs recently and was told flatly that there would be no minus-Imran solution and that there might be other “minuses” amongst politicians. Curiously, opposition party activists are being arrested daily even as Mr Khan has belatedly allowed the dharma to proceed to Islamabad. The Establishment has reportedly told the Maulana that his dharna should be short and peaceful, otherwise it would do its “constitutional duty” to protect the “lawful” government. This is in sharp contrast to what it did during Mr Khan’s long drawn out dharna.
The fate of Nawaz Sharif hangs in the balance. Some “connected” journalists are claiming that both father and daughter will be allowed to go to London without an NRO because Nawaz is precariously ill and the Establishment doesn’t want his blood on their hands – they are still reaping the political backlash from the assassinations of two Bhuttos. The popular mood in the Punjab – the recruiting ground and bulwark of the Establishment – has palpably turned against it. This is unprecedented.
We – people and institutions – are all drinking from a poisoned chalice. Imran Khan is guzzling from the poisoned chalice of a rigged election. The people are choking on the poisoned chalice of the IMF. The opposition parties and leaders are swallowing from the poisoned chalice of their corruptions and commissions. The Establishment is gulping from the poisoned chalice of its regional adventures and internal interventions. The judiciary is swigging from the poisoned chalice of its great betrayal of the lawyers’ movement.
This need not have been the case. Only six years ago, we witnessed a peaceful transfer of power, the second consecutive handing over of the baton from one elected government to the next. The judiciary gave hope with its newly grown spine courtesy the successful lawyers’ movement. The media, though raucous, was reverberating with the din of democracy. Nawaz Sharif’s government was making regional alliances and reaching out to neighbours. The 18th Amendment had devolved power to the provinces, fulfilling a long-standing demand of Pakistan’s alienated ethnic populations. This was in the natural order of things: the system growing, changing, adapting, on the road to cleansing itself.
But these very changes threatened to whittle down the power of Pakistan’s deep state. The latter’s response was concerted and fierce. We all know what happened thereafter but it is deeply ironical that we are once again desperate for the reprieves that were all within grasp only a few years ago – peace at home and goodwill abroad, relief from international punitive actions, a buoyant economy, a developing democracy worthy of respect. We cannot upturn the natural order of things and expect to come up trumps again and again. Our chalices will remain poisoned until we purge ourselves.
Two powerful and unprecedented narratives are playing havoc with the sentiments of the nation. The first is about Nawaz Sharif’s disqualifications and convictions, personal health and heir apparent. This narrative is fast assuming critical mass in the democratic struggle for civilian supremacy over the Miltablishment. The second is about Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s “long march” that has arrived in Islamabad and captured the stage for ousting Imran Khan and his PTI government.
The success of one narrative feeds into the other. Together, they serve to reinforce the popular rejection of the unholy alliance of the Miltablishment with the PTI that seeks, first, to exclude the two mainstream PMLN-PPP parties, the JUI and smaller regional parties and their political leaders from the political stakeholder landscape and, second, to establish a one-Miltablishment party rule in the country that diminishes the constitutional rights and autonomies of civil society, media and judiciary.
In an extraordinary display of personal courage and political astuteness, Nawaz Sharif has resisted Miltablishment efforts to emasculate him physically and politically so that the PMLQ reverts to its traditional King’s Party role. The more Nawaz has stood his ground despite failing health, the more popular he has become; the more the Miltablishment joins with select judges to thwart him, the more discredit they heap upon themselves. It has now come to pass that the Miltablishment is desperate to let him go so that his failing health doesn’t become a millstone around its neck.
Maulana Fazl has sprung up out of nowhere to seize the moment. His JUI is a most unexpected and unsuitable substitute for the PPP or PMLN. But he has filled the vacuum created by the decimation of the leadership of both parties and captured the imagination of the people. The Miltablishment is now scrambling to save its nth political experiment in extra-constitutionalism.
Several questions have arisen. If Nawaz Sharif has dug his heels in to resist the Miltablishment, why isn’t the rest of the PMLN parliamentary leadership in step with him? The pressure on him from Miltablishment, party and “family” to leave the country and quit politics is relentless. Indeed, that is why the PMLN has not actively lent its crowds to swell the long march heading to Islamabad. Much the same may be said of Asif Zardari and the PPP. Is it because both PMLN and PPP are cowering in shame and impotence following credible charges of corruption against party bigwigs, and wish to avoid coming under the Miltablishment heel any more forcefully?
This raises the question of why Maulana Fazl has decided to take a solo flight at the end of October and refused to postpone it even by a month at the request of both Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto. Never one to resist the inducements of power, he has taken on both the PTI government and the Miltablishment. If his purpose was merely to oust Imran Khan, his mission would have been better served by taking along the PMLN and PPP and delaying the Long March. No, it does seem that he has thrown the gauntlet to that section of the Miltablishment and PTI that is constantly threatening all and sundry with its “same-page” unity because he has the implicit but firm support of those in the same constellation who are not on the same page.
One issue, above all, has muddied the waters. That is the matter of the extension in tenure of COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Since both Gen Bajwa and Imran Khan never tire of reminding everyone of unity and continuity in command, this was a no-brainer. Yet some decidedly curious steps and statements have clouded the issue. In mid-August we were shown a “notification” from the office of the PM, signed by Imran Khan, giving an extension of three years to Gen Bajwa. But when it was pointed out that the notification must come from the office of the President of Pakistan, there was a stunning silence. In mid-September, a journalist asked President Arif Alvi whether he had signed and issued any such notification. His reply: “Although a decision has been taken to extend Gen Bajwa’s tenure, the file has not yet been sent up to me for signing.” Now, on the eve of the Maulana’s entry into Islamabad, a journalist has been put up to “confirm” that such a notification has indeed been signed by President Alvi. If that is the case, why is everyone pussyfooting around the subject? Why don’t we get to see the notification? Has it been signed but not declared in the public domain for some reason? Might the invisible “notification” be withdrawn or substituted by another notification in the near future? Does Maulana’s demand for Imran Khan’s ouster have anything to do with it? Who is going home? How close are the objectives of Nawaz Sharif and the Maulana? The answers are blowing in the wind.
Maulana Fazlur Rahman has been described by pundits as “a wily old fox” and an “experienced and astute political player” who rarely makes a false move. Yet the same pundits are scratching their heads trying to fathom the strategy behind the Maulana’s long march to Islamabad, solo, without the support of the mainstream PMLN and PPP to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. It is pointed out that such “mob” tactics are bound to fail, as they did during Imran Khan’s 126 day long “dharna” against Nawaz Sharif in 2014.
But that’s not the only question agitating analysts. Why, it’s asked, was the Maulana adamant on launching his march in November without any wind in his tail – there’s no mass agitation in the country despite the economic hardships and political anguish caused by NAB – when he was repeatedly requested by his erstwhile partners to postpone it by a couple of months. It’s also a mystery why the Maulana is tight lipped about how he means to achieve his maximalist demands.
The threat by the Maulana to use any one of several “religious” cards has also upset many “modern” or “liberal” minded folk and stopped them from supporting his dharna. “Democracy is a cover”, they say, “because his movement has largely been built around religious issues”, never mind that the PTI, PPP and PMLN and their leaders have rarely shied away from succumbing to the same expediencies when it suited them.
The most perplexing factor relates to the Maulana’s historical relationship with the ubiquitous Miltablishment. The Maulana has rarely, if ever, stood on its wrong side. Indeed, he was cozily embedded with the Musharraf regime for many years as a part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal government that ruled Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for five years. In fact, he seemed to forever serve as Chairman of the National Assembly’s Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir with the approval of the Miltablishment. And yet, here he is today, brazenly accusing the Miltablishment of having rigged the 2018 elections to hoist Imran Khan as prime minister, of abandoning the jihadi case of Kashmir and demanding that the Election Commission of Pakistan ban the entry of soldiers into polling stations and election booths on election day. This is such a radical demand – the Miltablishment will surely see it as an outrageous affront – that the mainstream parties have shied away from making it.
When concrete information is hard to come by as an explanatory factor, conspiracy theories are bound to take root. According to one, flogged by the government and Miltablishment, the Maulana is funded and guided by India because only India can stand to gain by the chaos and conflict that threaten to destabilize Pakistan. But this is laughable. The Maulana has been thundering against India, Israel and the lukewarm response of the Pakistani Miltablishment against India’s annexation of Kashmir.
Another conspiracy theory claims that elements of the Miltablishment who are unhappy at the extent of naked support given to Imran Khan, which has discredited the organs of the state in the eyes of the people, are egging on the Maulana to “attack the headquarters” for failing to remain politically neutral. This seems like a throwback to Chairman’s Mao Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when the Great Helmsman urged the rank and file of the Chinese Communist Party to attack its leaders in government for revisionism that amounted to a betrayal of the purity of the Chinese Revolution.
Although the Miltablishment is a sealed book in so far as internal dissent is concerned, conspiracy theorists have been clutching at some signs to argue their case. How come the Maulana has been progressively upping his critique of the Miltablishment’s “unholy alliance” with Imran Khan, something that the mainstream parties most adversely affected have consciously refrained from doing explicitly? How come the Maulana was “summoned” to a talking-to at headquarters and ordered to get off his high horse, or else? How come, indeed, the Maulana gave as good as he got and returned without a ruffle in his turban?
The answers, claim such conspiracy theorists, lie in the timing of the Maulana’s long march. It arrives on the eve of a decision by the government end-November that will either lead to continuity or change in the leadership of the Miltablishment and thereby set the parameters of the political dispensation for the foreseeable future. Statements by the government and allied vested interests insist that the decision for continuity has been signed and sealed. But there is no sign of any formal notification of it.
This conspiracy theory would confirm Maulana Fazal ur Rahman as a veritable practitioner of Liddelharts’ Indirect Approach. Instead of going directly for Imran Khan, he thinks it is a better idea to shake up the Miltablishment pillar on which Imran stands. Shorn of its blind support, he will be easy to fell in the second round. In fact, change or continuity, the Maulana’s various charges against the Miltablishment during the dharna are laying the groundwork for Imran Khan’s isolation and ouster sooner than later.
Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s long march/dharna promised a big bang in D Chowk in Islamabad but has seemingly retreated with a whimper. His obedient supporters will now partially block some roads and arteries until his demand for the prime minister’s ouster followed by fresh elections are met or, failing that, he is obliged to shift gears into Plan C, whatever that might be. This tactic will certainly keep him on the front page – albeit reduced from four columns to two and even one in due course – even if it doesn’t succeed in outing Imran Khan. But, surely, the Maulana has known this truth all along.
This brings us full circle to a set of questions we have asked from the outset: What are the real motives behind Maulana’s dharna? Why was the Maulana adamant on launching it in November? Why didn’t the PPP and PMLN join forces with him, especially since they have the most to gain from ousting Imran Khan?
A second initiative seems to have got unstuck too. That is Shahbaz Sharif’s efforts to put ailing Nawaz Sharif on a plane to London for medical treatment. But it suddenly transpires that the PTI government won’t let Nawaz Sharif out of sight without compelling him to cough up Rs 7 billion – the amount of corruption attributed to his account by two judges – that would, in effect, amount to a confession of guilt on his part. Wags say that Imran Khan has put a spoke in the “understanding” reached between Shahbaz Sharif and the “Establishment”, which would lead to the more ominous conclusion that the government is no longer on the same page with the partner who “selected” it and put it there in the first instance.
Is there a common factor that might explain these two new developments?
The Maulana has been hard on the Establishment, constantly accusing it of disrepute for aligning itself so closely with a “failed” prime minister and incompetent government. He has gone so far as to publicly accuse it of “disappearing” persons, rigging elections, selecting Imran Khan and abandoning the cause of Kashmir. In contrast, Shahbaz Sharif purrs like a kitten whenever the “Establishment” finds mention and Asif Zardari is conspicuous by his studied silence on the same subject. What is it about November and the Establishment that puts Maulana Fazal, Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan on high alert and compels them to tug in so many different directions and ways?
Let’s stop pussyfooting about the subject. Everyone and his aunt has been speculating for months about one issue that is dead-lined for resolution end-November when the term of the current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ends. Government ministers have proclaimed that this is a non-issue since an extension in tenure for three years has already been granted to Gen Bajwa and President Arif Alvi has confirmed signing the relevant notification. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, this notification remains in the pocket of Gen Bajwa and has not been officially notified in the public domain even though a couple of journalists have been “shown” it unofficially.
Is it conceivable that Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s behavior, no less than that of Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan, remains contingent on whether or not General Bajwa agrees to serve as army chief for three more years? One might imagine that the Maulana’s backers would like the business of extensions to be done away with in the larger institutional interest of the army and are hoping General Bajwa declines to accept the extension. Equally, Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari are taking no chances siding with the Maulana, just in case Gen Bajwa decides to stay on as the most powerful player in the arena. But it is Imran Khan’s behavior that is both intriguing and revealing. On the one hand, he has signed away the extension; on the other, he hasn’t put it in the public domain; on the one hand, he is constantly at pains to insist that the government and Establishment are on the same page; on the other, he is clearly not on the same page as the Establishment in so far as dealing with the political opposition is concerned.
The Establishment is concerned that another Martyr – and a popular Punjabi one to boot – would severely undermine its institutional interests. It may also be concerned about the disunity in the country provoked by Imran Khan’s obsession to wipe out the leadership of the PPP and PMLN at a time when Pakistanis are heaving under the yoke of severe economic pressures and hostile regional powers may be conspiring against the country.
Has the Maulana been conveyed some assurances? Certainly, Imran Khan’s latest spanner in the works would suggest a degree of boldness that can only result from the knowledge or perception that General Bajwa has decided to go home. He would be a very foolish man to take this stance if he knew that Gen Bajwa aims to wield the stick for another three years.
Some people think that the Military Establishment – Miltablishment – has emerged stronger than ever from the recent crisis. They say Imran Khan has been weakened, Nawaz Sharif has “fled” the country like a coward, Maulana Fazalur Rahman’s dharma has flopped, the judiciary has been discredited and the media remains in chains. But there’s another way of reflecting on the current situation.
The big loser is the Miltablishment. It has been stripped off its “sacred cow” status and thoroughly discredited for its blundering political interventions. The first stone was cast by Nawaz Sharif when he alluded to the rigging of the last elections by “Khalai Makhlooq”. Then Maulana Fazal pitched in with his priceless remark about “Nikay da Abba”. By the time his Dharna took place, the Maulana and his lieutenants were openly accusing the Miltablishment by name of “disappearing” people, rigging the elections, selecting the prime minister and manipulating the judges. Such discrediting is more troubling because it is happening, for the first time, in the Militablishment’s home ground of Punjab. Worse, the PTI that has most benefitted from the military’s interventions is dejected because it suspects that Nawaz Sharif’s exit could not have materialized without the Miltablsihment’s active involvement, leading to speculation of some sort “deal” with the Sharifs at the expense of Imran Khan. Now someone has had the gall to petition, on grounds of religious faith, the Peshawar High Court against the extension to the army chief given by the Prime Minister. Now the Pakistan Bar Association has announced November 28 as a “black day” to protest the army chief’s extension!
This is shocking. Until recently, no one could say a bad word or attribute a selfish motive to the military and its leaders. Indeed, we were compelled to use the term “Establishment” when discussing military matters. Challenging the army chief by name was unthinkable. Now all this is par for the course because the military leadership has started to engineer the political system and manipulate the political parties quite nakedly, the more so since such interventions have been exposed to be shoddy, biased and unworkable. This was bound to happen when all popular stakeholders in the political system are blatantly marginalized and harassed to the point where they have nothing to lose by naming names and shrieking murder.
As far as the Maulana’s dharna is concerned, it is true that he couldn’t extract the PM’s resignation and compel another round of elections. But it can be argued that perhaps that was only his stated objective while the true motive of the dharna was to focus on, and undermine, the Miltablishment leadership that “selected” Khan in the first place and has propped him up since. The logic of this indirect approach is inescapable: by challenging and exposing the Miltablishment, he was buffeting the pillar on which the PTI government stands and deepening the cracks in that unholy alliance. Certainly, the pointed accusations during the dharna, followed by the petition in the Peshawar High Court, would seem to confirm this line of reasoning. Indeed, the timing of the dharna in November may be said to align with the proposed retirement/extension in the tenure of the army chief most directly charged with the political engineering that has aroused the ire of all the other stakeholders. So when the Maulana claims his dharna was successful and he got what he wanted, we can only deduce that it has must have something to do with the Miltablishment which should become clear soon enough.
Nawaz Sharif’s narrative is also alive and kicking. His supporters and voters in the Punjab are relieved that he will live to fight another day. They are a cynical lot, having learnt to shrug off the martyrdoms of the Bhuttos. They rallied around Nawaz when he returned to Pakistan after ten years in exile and they will likely do the same again when he returns or when his heir apparent Maryam steps into the arena.
Imran Khan is the biggest loser. His “same page with the Miltablishment” roar is sounding hollow. His allies are beginning to flap their wings. His words and body language suggest an erosion of trust with the “Selector” and deep anguish about the current situation. He senses a state of siege, and therefore wants to bring back loyalists into the team. Now the NAB chairman has announced his intention to target the PTI to redress the balance. And the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Asif Khosa, has ticked him off for doubting the credentials of the judiciary by letting Nawaz Sharif off the hook.
The Miltablishment’s “experiment” with Imran Khan has come a cropper and its credibility has plunged. Imran Khan is clearly not the man of the hour billed by his supporters. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif’s popularity has soared (a recent poll shows he would sweep the elections now) while Maulana Fazal has overnight become a leader of substance. It’s only a matter of time before the Miltablishment’s latest experiment is relegated to the dustbin of Pakistani history and we are obliged to start at the beginning all over again.
The gallery is sorely disappointed. Shouts of “Noora Kushti”, “Topi Drama”, and many foul expletives deleted that leave nothing to the imagination rend the air. The people are variously cynical or outraged.
But Imran Khan, for one, has tweeted his delight that the opposition’s hopes of a clash of institutions have been dashed. After the short order, the two most incompetent spokespersons of the PTI government, Firdaus Awan and Farogh Nasim, were veritably sweating with relief.
Is the crisis over? Have the judges resolved the crisis? Will everything be hunky dory now?
No, on all counts. A new political crisis has just begun. Consider.
The short order sets out to clarify some murky areas that have historically bedeviled civil-military relations and tilted the balance in the Miltablishment’s favour. After the fallout, the legal and constitutional ambiguities in favour of the Miltablishment will inevitably be ironed out in favour of civil society. The fact that the judges have only given a sitting army chief a reprieve of six months and put the selected government on notice to sort out the matter in the highest civilian forum of the country, parliament, is sufficient proof of this mood. That is the good part.
The case exposes the PTI government to be unprecedentedly incompetent and dangerously stupid. It is bound to trigger some serious rethink in the Miltablishment about the quality, reliability and sustainability of such a sole political partner for the breadth of socio-economic transformation it has in mind. By dragging the army chief into the dock, yoking him with a six-month extension and compelling the brass to go back to the drawing board and war game the near political future, it has opened the floodgates of nasty debates and speculation about his person no less than his institution. The “same page” narrators must be seething with rage at the exposure of their hollow claims. This is also all for the good.
If truth be told, the judges could not, realistically speaking, have sent an army chief packing. Nor could they have ignored the blatant errors of omission and commission by the PTI government. They have done the next best thing: kept the ball in flight and kicked it in the direction of parliament where it belongs.
Two broad conflicts will open shortly. The first is legal. Does the order envisage a constitutional amendment or will a simple act of parliament suffice to resolve the matter? The debate will rage far and wide. The first requires a 2/3 majority in parliament which cannot be obtained without the support of the opposition. There’s no way the opposition can concede it without a big quid pro quo, as much from the PTI as from the Miltablishment, unless it is ready to commit political hara kiri exactly when it can smell its enemy’s blood. The other option will be challenged in parliament and in the courts again, making it a long drawn out and noisy affair that will keep everyone guessing while destabilizing economy and society.
The second is political. Resolving the matter in six months without the opposition’s agreement is going to be a tall order. If, as is likely, Imran Khan persists with his victimization campaign, the opposition will see the political wisdom of not succumbing to any Miltablishment pressure. This may provoke the Miltablishment to lose patience with Imran Khan and fall back on Plan B. If Nawaz Sharif’s recent “relief” case is an indication of the suspicions aroused in the PM’s camp, which led to tensions with the judges and Miltablishment, we can imagine a worse scenario in the near future.
While new confrontational fronts are going to open, we can be sure that existing ones will be accentuated as a perception grows that the PTI’s expiry date is nearing with the Miltablishment’s Khan romance on the wane. The foreign funding case is “open and shut”, and if the current Chief Justice of Pakistan doesn’t deliver justice, the next one is going to be under greater pressure to assert his honour. Similarly, the judges may drag their feet on the Musharraf case but the verdict cannot be sidestepped much longer. If the Miltablishment’s back is going to be scratched in one case, a balance is likely to be struck by spiking Imran Khan in the other.
Whichever way one looks at it, it will require a Herculean effort of stupidity by the combined opposition to fritter away the best opportunity to come their way in a long time to drive an irrevocable wedge between the PTI and Miltablishment. Either the Miltablishment can continue on a path with the PTI that has brought anguish and discredit to it or it can ditch it, making new allies and cutting its losses. Certainly, the current junta has lost face in the eyes of the people.
If Pakistan’s power-stakeholders are not to confirm the country’s “banana republic” status in a moment of national crisis, they should help restore law and democratic order under a competent consensus government.
The game is on
Despite the Supreme Court’s instruction to the federal government to amend the laws relating to the extension in tenure of the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the matter is still hanging fire because it’s not clear how this is to be done. The bitter rift between the government and the opposition is also likely to cast a shadow on Gen Bajwa’s fate.
Until the SC issues its detailed judgment, the government cannot finalise its legal strategy. Will a simple amendment to the Army Act by a simple majority in parliament suffice to produce the desired result or will the cooperation of the opposition be needed to amend the constitution by a 2/3 majority? If the government takes the former route, will the opposition challenge it in the courts and delay a definitive conclusion to the matter and make it more controversial? If the latter route is required, what is the quid pro quo that the opposition will demand of the government and will the government be amenable to it? What does the institution of the military think and how will it react to delay and growing controversy?
The government is preparing to confront both options. On the one hand it is readying a draft law to amend the Army Act with or without the opposition’s support but on the other it has set up a three-person committee to contact its allies and opposition parties to ensure cooperation and speedy progress in parliament. Two of the members of this committee, Asad Umar and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, are close to the military. So we can assume that this initiative has been taken at the behest of the military that would like the passage of the bill to be based on a national consensus rather than any lingering dispute. But suspicions and conspiracy theories abound in all quarters.
How is it conceivable that the government messed up a simple routine procedure relating to the extension in service of the army chief when there were several precedents on record? Why is the government’s explanation replete with lies and inconsistencies? Why did Gen Bajwa deem it necessary to personally oversee cabinet proceedings to ensure that the case was suitably presented by the government in the Supreme Court on 28th November? On the other side, too, no less than the prime minister, Imran Khan, has stridently voiced his suspicions about how and why Nawaz Sharif was able to get relief from the courts and go to London, an obvious allusion to some sort of collusion between the courts and the powerful Miltablishment. All this is happening in a political environment rife with talk of the imminent end of the line for Imran Khan through some secret alliance between the Miltablishment and Opposition.
The Opposition’s stance on the army chief’s extension is also instructive. The PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto says that Mr Khan has to go home before it will extend support to any change in the law on the matter. It does not say it is opposed to the extension. It has also changed tack and sought bail for its incarcerated leader Asif Zardari, an indication that it ready for some sort of deal with the Miltablishment. The PMLN wonders how it can cooperate with the government when it is being hounded from pillar to post via NAB and the FIA. Still, it has deferred its strategic response to advice from Nawaz Sharif. It is also not opposed to the extension in principle. Maulana Fazal ur Rahman is more definitive. He predicts that Mr Khan will be ousted in December and is demanding fresh elections so that the next parliament can deliberate on the matter of the extension. The ANP is straight and upfront: the army chief should resign, period, because he has muddied the waters by extensive and illegal political engineering.
The PTI government has responded by nudging NAB to approve six new corruption references, three investigations and 15 inquiries against the PMLN’s Shahbaz Sharif, Rana Sanaullah and Balighur Rahman and the PPP’s Nisar Khuhro, Agha Siraj Durrani, Senator Anwar ul Haq, etc., while seizing various properties of the Sharif family. It has also decided to challenge the bail applications of Rana Sanaullah and Fawad Hasan Fawad and lodge references against Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail. No less significantly, Imran Khan has defied the Miltablishment’s demand for replacement of Usman Buzdar as chief minister of Punjab by a competent and honest leader of action. More ominously, the PM has ousted an honest professional head of the FIA because he wouldn’t do his bidding in hounding opposition leaders and troublesome journalists, and installed the redoubtable, poker-faced witch-hunter Shahzad Akbar, to lord it over the FIA, thereby undermining the writ of the interior minister, Brig ®Ijaz Shah, a Miltablishment appointee.
The stage is clearly being set for renewed conflict between government and opposition and tension between government and Miltablishment. The Chaudhries of Gujrat, who are the weathercocks of all occasions and the perennial allies of the Miltablishment, are the center of attraction in the Punjab, no less than Mian Shahbaz Sharif at the centre.
For a year and more the PMLN opposition has been trying to sit together with the PTI government to stitch up a working relationship that enables parliament, government and opposition to do their respective jobs efficiently as envisaged in the Constitution. But the “selected” Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has consistently derailed all such efforts. Mr Khan refuses to consult and develop a consensus with the Opposition on various matters as required under the Constitution. That is why the Election Commission of Pakistan is non-functional and prospects for necessary electoral reform are dim. He refuses to enable the Public Accounts Committee to do its job because its head is a PMLN nominee as required under the Constitution. That is why audits of public sector companies by the Auditor General of Pakistan are in cold storage. He has ordered the Speaker of the National Assembly not to facilitate the production of incarcerated (but not convicted) PMLN leaders in Parliament. That is why Parliamentary proceedings are acrimonious and susceptible to disruption and walkouts. Worse, Mr Khan is using the FIA to settle personal and political scores and leaning on the NAB to hound the Opposition. For all these reasons the Opposition, which controls the Senate, has spiked various attempts by the government to bulldoze contentious Acts and Presidential Ordinances. It’s a sorry state of affairs that gives Pakistani “democracy” a bad name.
The PMLN has finally taken a decision with far reaching consequences. Its leading spokesman, Khawaja Asif has announced that the PMLN will no longer make any attempt to work with the government to resolve outstanding issues of national interest. In the immediate context, this means that the PMLN will not cooperate with the government to make appropriate laws to extend the tenure of the Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, as required by the Supreme Court; nor will it waste its time trying to nominate a consensus Chief Election Commissioner. Instead, another spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, has announced that the party’s focus will now shift to maneuvering for an “In-House” change in parliament as a step in the direction of free and fair elections as soon as possible.
In effect, this is the notorious “Minus-1” formula that has been floating around for some months. All it requires is for the allies of the PTI like the MQM, GDA, PMLQ etc. to desert the ruling coalition, send Imran Khan packing and elect a new Leader of the House in charge of a “national” or “unity” government for a specified period of time before calling fresh elections.
But this is easier said than done. The allies of the PTI were herded into its stables by none other than the powerful Miltablishment and will not bolt until the same Miltablishment gives a signal. How likely is that?
Until now, the Miltablishment has pulled out all the stops to protect and defend its political engineering in support of the PTI. That is why, despite periodic reminders of the abysmal performance of the PTI, its spokesmen are constantly regurgitating the “same page” mantra to counter naysayers. It is hard for the Miltablishment to admit that its great strategists and tacticians have failed in their attempts to establish “Naya Pakistan”, and that the option of reverting to “Purana Pakistan” makes them anxious.
But the fissures in the relationship between state and society are beginning to show. The Miltablishment is having to shoulder the blame and burden of the PTI’s dismal performance. Lay folks are flaying the Miltablishment openly and unabashedly in its home province of Punjab, compelling it to question the wisdom of its political engineering. Indeed, it is in the Punjab that the PTI’s performance is most pathetic since the PM’s handpicked chief minister, Usman Buzdar, is a shambolic shadow of Shahbaz Sharif, the dynamic PMLN chief minister renowned for his meritorious achievements. Make huge money above your imagination, I want to inform you of the latest and interesting facts of GETTING RICH ABOVE YOUR IMAGINATION, have you ever heard about DARK WEB, you can google it to understand better. We are Russian Hackers from the dark web and we offer different types of hacking services, follow the link for more details. GET OVER $100,000 MONTHLY THROUGH BANK TRANSFER HACKERS AND CLONE ATM CLONED CARDS. The North Korea has been benefiting from this scheme and recently hacked banks over $2 Billion USD which you can confirm it on google. WELCOME; Come and make your dream life a reality.
A fresh source of tension has now erupted. A simple matter of documenting the correct procedure for notifying the extension of the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has been blown into a full-fledged crisis that has hugely embarrassed him and simultaneously created uncertainty about his fate. This is the very stuff of conspiracy theories. In this case, it’s a moot point now whether Mr Khan wants to give the extension or not, and how he intends to proceed in this matter. From General Bajwa’s point of view, the matter should not have arisen in the first place but since it has cropped up it should be resolved asap and with the support of the Opposition so that it is committed to a national consensus. Predictably, the PTI government has compelled the Opposition to refuse such support and appears to be dragging its feet on resolving the issue quickly and efficiently.
It is significant, too, that Nawaz and Maryam Sharif, the two most outspoken anti-Miltablishment leaders of the PMLN, are finally conspicuous by their silence. One is already out of the country while the other is perched to fly off. This “Minus-2”’ factor appears to be setting the stage for Shahbaz Sharif, the pro-Miltablishment PMLN leader for all seasons, to negotiate the “Minus-1” option with confidence.
The conviction of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, ex-COAS, for High Treason, by a Special Court set up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, is an unprecedented and extraordinary act with far reaching consequences for the continuing struggle for supremacy between military dictatorship and constitutional democracy in Pakistan.
The 2:1 judgment awarding Gen (retd) Musharraf the death sentence for his action on November 3, 2007, suspending the constitution, slapping a State of Emergency in Pakistan, dismissing all the judges of the superior courts and compelling hand-picked ones to swear a new oath of office, is unfortunately marred by the remarks of J Waqas Seth (with which the other two judges disagreed) that, in the event of his death outside Pakistan, General (retd) Musharraf’s corpse be “dragged to D Chowk in Islamabad”, and hung there for three days. This has given grist to the mills of the Miltablishment and detracted from the essential integrity of the judgment. It’s no wonder then that the judgment is being blasted for being “unfair”, “hasty” and “politically motivated” and critics have seized on the D Chowk remark to call it “barbaric” and “mad”. A petition before the Supreme Judicial Council alleging J Waqas Seth to be “unhinged” is on the cards.
The DGISPR claims the military is in “pain and anguish”. He has declared the judgment to be against the norms of humanitarianism, religion and culture. He warns that the “enemy” within and without will not be allowed to sow divisions in state and society. The COAS, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, also wasted no time going to the SSG headquarters, Gen (retd) Musharraf’s alma mater, to raise a clenched fist, signaling resolve to resist the judgment. On cue, the usual suspects in the media and cabinet have started issuing dire warnings of how any “clash of institutions” (meaning “any challenge to the Miltablishment) is going to harm the “national interest”.
The PTI government, naturally, remains on the “same page”. It appointed Gen (retd) Musharraf’s lawyers, Farogh Naseem and Anwar Mansoor Khan, as the Federal Law Minister and Attorney General of Pakistan respectively. Both gentlemen desperately tried to derail or delay the proceedings in the case via various tactics — changing prosecution teams midstream, demanding the inclusion of “aiders and abettors”, submitting lists of several hundred witnesses for examination, etc., and applying to various High Courts to stall the Special Court. Imran Khan, the prime minister, has also, conveniently, repudiated his countless statements when in opposition demanding that Gen (retd) Musharraf be tried for High Treason.
Gen (retd) Musharraf’s accountability started on July 22, 2009 – ten years ago – when a full bench of the Supreme Court ordered him to appear and defend his actions. Musharraf fled Pakistan, only returning four years later in March 2013 to “contest” the general elections. But in June, the newly elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, asked the SC to set up a Special Tribunal to try Musharraf for High Treason. However, in April, 2014, COAS Gen Raheel Sharif signaled his resolve to “preserve the dignity and institutional pride” of the army (a view reiterated by the DGISPR in the last two days). The prosecution completed its arguments in 45 days but the defense adopted various delaying tactics and it’s no secret that Gen Raheel Sharif pressured Nawaz Sharif to facilitate Gen (retd) Musharraf’s exit from Pakistan in 2016 for medical reasons. However, when he failed to return as promised, he was declared an “absconder”. Three years later, in April 2019, after interminable delays and Gen (retd) Musharraf’s continued refusal to return or respond via Video Conference, CJP Asif Saeed Khosa ordered the trial to continue “in absentia”. The PTI government resorted to various delaying tactics, including nudging petitioners to approach the IHC and LHC to challenge the Special Court’s jurisdiction. But, in line with the SC’s orders, the Special Court rejected such pleas and announced its verdict on Dec 17, 2019.
No one expects Gen (retd) Musharraf to return to Pakistan or this “same page” PTI government to seek his extradition. Indeed, the law will likely be bent to enable the absconder to lodge a robust appeal in absentia in the SC. Indeed, if the Special Court judgment is a political miracle, it would be the Mother of All Miracles if the SC were to uphold it in its entirety, given the unfettered power and reach of the Miltablishment. Will the new CJP, J Gulzar Ahmed, pick up the gauntlet or will he consign the case to the same freezer like the ISI Election Rigging Case of 1990?
Notwithstanding the misplaced D-Chawk remark, the Special Court’s brave judgment is destined to become a landmark in the power struggle between the Miltablishment and civil society institutions. Despite countervailing pressure from three army chiefs to drop or freeze the case, the judiciary, media, PMLN and PPP have trudged on wearily to make sure that Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf does not have a moment of mental peace even in exile. A powerful deterrence has been lodged against any wannabe coup-maker of the future.
Who’s on trial?
The PTI government continues to witch hunt its political opponents through state institutions like NAB, FIA and ANF, eroding their credibility and straining the justice system. Since NAB and the ANF, in particular, are managed by serving or retired military officers, this practice is unfortunately tarring the image of the military as a “national” institution above the din and fray of “dirty politics”.
This developing angst in society is reflected in the recent verdict against General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in which a senior judge wrote that after the convict’s death in foreign lands “his corpse should be dragged to D Chowk in Islamabad and hung there for three days”. A second is the widespread view that by “selecting” and then siding openly with a failing government the military has put personal interests above institutional ones, most prominently in the case of the army chief’s tenurial extension. Yet another is the arrest of Rana Sanaullah Khan, the PMLN MNA, by the ANF last July, in which senior military officers in the ANF are perceived to have colluded in concocting a false case at the behest of the government.
In fact, despite a barrage of propaganda, Rana Sanaullah’s case has elicited strong public disapproval. He was detained in July but the ANF has failed to indict him so far. The tall claims of the minister in charge, Sheharyar Afridi, about the existence of video proofs are not backed up by the ANF. Rana’s bail applications were twice rejected by the special court, in one case the judge who was inclined to dispense justice was transferred in the midst of a hearing by, as he himself said in open court, “a Whatsapp message”, it being left to the Lahore High Court to eventually free him. Rana’s wife has taunted the prime minister: “You people said you would pluck out the hair in his moustache but, look, not a single hair is missing”!
NAB’s track record is, unfortunately, quite depressing too. It is chaired by a retired judge of the Supreme Court who is a decent fellow who wants to be even-handed but is being blackmailed by the government to be selective against the opposition. In an interview to a journalist some months ago, the NAB Chairman was confronted with charges of partisanship, upon which he pledged to go after the big fish in the PTI government, especially those involved in a couple of projects like the BRT and Malam Jabba cases that smack of big scale corruption. But then some videos suddenly emerged and went viral (thanks to a TV Channel close to the PTI government), compromising his person. Since then, NAB has stalled investigations into these projects, conniving with the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to seek “ stay” orders from the courts.
Now NAB has laid itself open to further public censure by arresting Ahsan Iqbal, the Secretary-General of the PMLN, hours after he publicly welcomed the verdict against General (retd) Musharraf and hoped that it would be a deterrent against military interventions in the future. Not to be left behind, the FIA has summoned the PMLN’s Pervez Rashid, who was targeted by the brass in the notorious Dawnleaks case but continues to speak up. The testimony of Bashir Memon, the FIA chief who stepped aside recently, points to the PM’s personal obsession with hounding PMLN and PPP leaders.
Worse, the media has buttoned up since the ISPR effectively seized control of PEMRA and started pressurizing it to start slapping “notices” on TV channels on how to dispense news and opinion and stop various opposition politicians from airing opinions in the media. Some TV shows and anchors have been banned outrightly, most others have to contend with hard censorship “advice”.
In this muzzled state of being, a couple of recent decisions by the higher courts – convicting General (retd) Musharraf and granting bail to Asif Zardari, Rana Sanaullah and Miftah Ismail – suggest signs of resistance. But two cases will test the mettle of the judges. The first relates to the fate of a serving army chief and the second to that of a retired one. Both raise important concerns about the nexus of the Miltablishment with a “selected” political party and leader.
The PTI government is petitioning the SC to review its judgment regarding the army chief’s extension rather than going to parliament to make a new law as advised by the SC. Why it has chosen this path is unclear. What if valuable time is lost without achieving its objective and the army chief is left high and dry in the end? Then there’s the question of the Special Court’s verdict against Gen (retd) Musharraf. Or will it uphold it or remand the case for fresh trial? It is significant that the Lahore High Court has already accepted a petition challenging the very constitution of the Special Court.
Let’s get this right. It is the very organs of the state, and not the PMLN and PPP or Media, that are on trial.
January 3, 2020
By any reckoning 2019 was a terrible year for Pakistanis of all classes.
Consider, first, the state of the economy.
The PTI government opted for an IMF program of “stabilization” that increased taxes, interest rates and prices of petroleum products. The rupee was devalued by 30%, leading to 15% inflation because the economy is heavily import-dependent both for consumer goods and producer goods. This reduced consumer demand, slowed down industrial growth, eroded the buying power of the lower and middle classes and increased the impoverishment of the masses. The government had promised to absorb 1.5 million new entrants in to the job market. But real and disguised unemployment have risen significantly with a halving of GDP growth.
Although tax revenues have increased significantly, the burden of debt servicing, defense expenditures and leakages in the public sector economy have taken a toll on poverty alleviation measures, social sector and infrastructure priorities and circular debt targets. The fiscal deficit is running at record high levels, fueling inflation and debt. Devaluation has not led to any significant increase in exports and the balance of payments crisis has not subsided significantly.
Under the circumstances, the economic outlook for 2020 remains grim. Hot money aside, the prospects of foreign or domestic investment spurring growth are dim. Even CPEC funds are likely to taper off as scrutiny and conditionalities are imposed to account for competitiveness and dependency. And any external shock – like an increase in international oil prices, deterioration in ties with America, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or a military conflict with India – will impose further strains and hardships.
Consider, now, the state of political development and democracy that are prerequisites for economic certainty, stability and growth.
Government-Opposition relations have hit rock bottom. The top leaders of the mainstream parties, PPP and PMLN, are in prison or exile or enforced hospitalization. Parliament is dysfunctional – the government’s preferred route to law making is through short-lived Presidential Ordinances, the working committees are non-existent or deadlocked, the leaders of the House and Opposition are perennially absent and debate is viciously personal. The only thought of reform pertains to the longevity of the term of the army chief as a misplaced security blanket against any direct military intervention.
The media and judiciary as the third and fourth pillars of the state are in a state of siege. Unprecedented censorship, threats, shutdowns and blackmail have laid them low. Even social media activists are threatened with disappearances and shakedowns. The government and Miltablishment have turned a deaf ear to critical appreciation for better governance.
Under the circumstances, this state of siege may continue into 2020 if the government and Miltablishment remain on the “same page”, overwhelmed by 5G war conspiracy theories.
The state of external relations is also uncertain.
Relations with America depend on the Pakistani Miltablishment’s ability to deliver both an “honourable” exit of US troops from Afghanistan and a “workable” formula to end the civil war among the Afghans so that some sort of stable national government comprising all the major stakeholders that is not anti-West is possible. While the first objective may be achieved only because President Donald Trump is ready, in the final analysis, to withdraw unilaterally, the second is unlikely. In the last two decades, the Taliban have demonstrated the will and firepower to hold out for nothing less than full control of Afghanistan. They are unikely to abandon their gains on the eve of a grand and historic victory. This will put Pakistan in the uncomfortable position of having to mediate Western demands to “do more” vis-à-vis a resurgent Taliban regime.
Relations with India will be even more problematic. Given Narendra Modi’s Hindutva agenda and his propensity to whip up anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiment, the probability of a military conflict along the LoC and even the international border is high. Certainly, the greater the civil society resistance in India to his Hinduisation project, the greater the chances that he will seek to dilute and distract his detractors by bogeying Pakistan. However limited, such a conflict will impose another burden on Pakistan’s economy. More ominously, if the conflict leads to some sort of military setback for Islamabad, it will shake up the “same page” political dispensation and unleash political turmoil, with unforeseen consequences.
Conflict in the Middle East will also hurt Pakistan by straining its relations with the contending Muslim nations. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms are very prickly about Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Turkey. Pakistan’s tightrope act involves joining the former because they give money and oil and the latter because they support the cause of Kashmir. It doesn’t help that America, which holds the strings of FATF, has solidly lined up against Iran and views Turkey’s growing ties with Russia with hostility.
A national consensus on critical issues at home between government, opposition and Miltablishment would help avert many looming pitfalls for economy and society. But this logic has so far been lost on the PTI government. Indeed, pundits are not hopeful that any abiding lessons have been learnt and will be applied.
January 10, 2020
The PTI government has passed three bills giving the prime minister, who already had the right to appoint the three Service Chiefs and the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, the right to extend their three year terms up to age 64. The exercise is significant for several reasons.
Apparently, the COAS, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, desired an extension in tenure. The Prime Minister, Imran Khan, thought it a good idea too. Both gentlemen have constantly made a song and dance of being on the same page for the sake of the country’s stability. Is this a big deal?
It’s not a big deal because such extensions have been par for the course in Pakistan’s history. All Martial Law dictators gave themselves unlimited extensions, legitimized by the courts, and one prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani of the PPP, says he’s actually very proud to have been given an opportunity to extend the term of COAS Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.
But one prime minister, Nawaz Sharif of the PMLN, has refused to accept the hegemony of the military and has never been on the same page with any army chief at any time. He handpicked three chiefs but ended up being embroiled in confrontation with them for one reason or another by turns. One, General Pervez Musharraf, ousted him; a second, General Raheel Sharif, sought an extension and, failing that, tried to oust him but didn’t succeed; the third, General Bajwa, decided eventually to “select” Imran Khan and has just claimed his reward.
So it’s a big deal because the PMLN has now meekly acquiesced in the grant of an extension to Gen Bajwa after having accused him of rigging (“vote ko izzat do”) the last elections and unfairly selecting Imran Khan to be prime minister. Indeed, Mr Sharif’s decision not to oppose the new laws comes as a shock to those ideologues inside and outside the party who are opposed to the hegemony of the military under a “democratic” constitution. The PMLN’s explanation – that it didn’t grant the extension but merely obeyed a Supreme Court ruling to the PTI government to amend the law to legalize an existing prime ministerial practice – is weak. It could have opposed it in light of Mr Sharif’s own restrictive practices as prime minister. At the very least, it could have insisted on certain relevant amendments to the sweeping new law or simply abstained from voting in its favour. But another explanation – that the Selector and Selected have jointly reduced the PMLN to a quivering mass of disability via NAB, especially in view of Mr Sharif’s ailing health — is more relevant. Under the circumstances, the view – that it’s important to remain on the right side of General Bajwa in the event that he decides to ditch Imran Khan for any reason and seeks options – can be subsumed under the adage “live to fight another day”.
Interestingly enough, the new law, itself, has started to generate juristic controversy. While it retains the prime minister’s constitutional right to appoint the army chief, it allows a degree of discretion to the President of Pakistan in according re-appointment or extension conditional to requirements of “national security” or similar “exigencies”. Some eminent legal eagles claim this Presidential discretion is unconstitutional and the law can therefore be struck down by the superior courts, unless the constitution is appropriately amended. This possibility might help explain why the government has simultaneously appealed the original SC decision that compelled it to amend the law relating to this issue. It fears that if the new law is examined under the spotlight and context of that decision and the various remarks of the judges, it could be found to be wanting or misplaced in more ways than one. Therefore, fearing the new law’s vulnerability, the government has sought a “stay” from the SC whilst requesting a bigger bench to hear the appeal.
So, if writs begin to fly, the “crisis” of the army chief’s extension could linger on.
The PMLN has also entered into a crisis. There is a shift away from the ideologues led by Nawaz Sharif in favour of the pragmatists led by Shahbaz Sharif. The significant irony is that it is the elder Sharif who has undoubtedly sanctioned this shift, however reluctantly. This decision will also serve to diminish the populist role of Maryam Nawaz Sharif and her team of hawks in the party. The likelihood therefore is that, for the foreseeable short term, Shahbaz Sharif will return to lead the opposition in Pakistan while Nawaz and Maryam Sharif will silently bide their time in London.
Indeed, the focus could now shift to the fate of Imran Khan. One false move and Gen Bajwa’s B Team could be readied for swift action. On the other hand, if Mr Khan is able to steady the ship of state and fulfil the economic and political requirements of good statecraft, he will be assured a degree of longevity that will compel the PMLN to rue the day the pragmatists seized control in hope of accelerating change in their favour.
Soul of India
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, swept to power last year with the support of about 240 million Indians or 37% of the votes cast. In the past month or so, about an equal number of Indians have erupted in protest across the country, including in pro-Modi states, rejecting his two citizenship bills that discriminate against Muslims. The protestors are predominantly young and comprise students, civil society activists, progressive men and women. This is a spontaneous citizens’ protest without any charismatic leader. In fact, the leading opposition parties are only now beginning to grasp its significance and formulate a strategy to gain advantage. A few states have officially passed resolutions against the new laws. Several civil society organizations and at least one state (Kerala) have petitioned the Supreme Court to strike the laws down as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the ruling BJP is wielding the baton to put down the protestors – over 50 have died so far – and the jails are bursting at the seams. Going forward, it’s important to recognize some other facts.
The Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is a far cry from the same party nearly two decades ago under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishan Advani. The latter were content to explode the “Hindu” bomb in 1998 and join the cosmology of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Atheist “civilizations” as equal global partners while seeking a stable détente with Pakistan. But the former leaders want a radical transformation of Indian state and society which negates the very “idea of India” – secular, pluralist, democratic, unity in diversity – rooted in the Nehruvianism of independence. The new nationalist-civilizational India of Modi and Shah is based on the ideas of V D Savarkar advocated in his 1921 classic “Essentials of Hindutva”. Savarkar’s vision of modern India was pegged to three core planks: first, an end to the caste system; second, aggressive, assertive territorial loyalty of its citizens of “Hindu” religions, that included Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc., but excluded Muslims and Christians whose loyalty was suspect because their religions and civilizational symbols originated outside India in the Middle East; third, the use of revisionist history that glorified Hindu rulers and reviled Muslims and Christian conquerors in order to cement the past with the future. The RSS founders clutched at the second and third dimensions of Savarkar’s nationalist philosophy and ditched the first. Modi and Shah are faithful practitioners of this truncated Savarkar vision of India.
Seen in this light, Modi’s policies fall in place. Muslim Pakistan is the implacable enemy bogey which was used to sweep the elections. Muslim Kashmir is Pakistan’s terrorist outpost that must be locked down, crushed, and absorbed into the mainland. The two Citizenship Acts must be enforced to put the Muslims in their place. The state apparatus, army and police, must be politicised to do Modi’s authoritarian bidding. Should civil resistance build up, a diversionary limited war with Pakistan may be launched to bring the Hindu nation together again.
It would be a mistake, however, to see this explosion of resistance only through the prism of Modi’s two Citizenship Acts. The necessary condition of revolt is the dismal state of the economy. The much-vaunted “Gujerat model” has failed. Economic growth is the lowest in 42 years. There are not enough jobs for the 20 million new entrants – part of the demographic youth bulge – every year in the market. The myth of globalizing “Shining India” is in shreds. The internet has enabled young, especially marginalized sections of civil society, to watch how youthful protestors worldwide are challenging the new world order, and inspired them to follow suit at home. The sufficient condition is the stark realization that the anti-Muslim policies of the Modi regime are a forerunner of a new “idea of India” that is authoritarian, exclusivist, divisive, unequal and violent. Young, educated Indians, regardless of party affiliations, are not ready to abandon their long held notions of what India and its perks and freedoms means to them as well as to the world.
But without an acknowledged leader and specific political goals, this resistance may not have sufficient strength to withstand the force of Modi’s state. Meanwhile, the possibility of conflict with Pakistan should not be ruled out. It is curious that the agent provocateur, DSP Davinder Singh, who trapped Afzal Guru has now been caught in a similar situation with two Muslim “terrorists”. Whether this local “capture” was inadvertent and whether this was another Intel agency plot to contrive a conflictual situation with Pakistan is not yet clear. But Narendra Modi will certainly need to manufacture a big distraction to weather his mounting economic and political woes.
The battle for the soul of India is on. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry of resistance, as in “Hum Dekhaein Gay”, is resonating across India, inspiring hope across borders. But, in the end, India’s destiny may rest on the Supreme Court’s willingness to judge the “nation’s conscience” – as it did in the case of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency or, in the opposite vein, in the case of Afzal Guru – to thwart or uphold Hindutva.
January 24, 2020
Imran Khan’s obsession with “corruption” as the root cause of every ill in state and society has touched new heights. He told the media in Davos that Pakistan’s economic growth and development had plummeted to new depths because of the corruption of the two mainstream opposition parties. He also claimed that the main cause of tension and conflict between the military and various PPP and PMLN regimes in the past was the military’s fierce aversion to their “corrupt” practices. As a corollary, it would appear that since his PTI regime is not corrupt, economic growth should be high; and because there are no tensions with the military, because they are on the same page on every issue, his government is safe and secure and stable. But the record proves him wrong on all counts.
“Corruption” was always the pretext on which political governments and leaders were hung out to dry in order to hide the true reasons for annoying or alienating the Miltablishment. In Imran Khan’s own “corruption-free” case, economic growth has hit rock bottom. There are also increasing signs of tension with the Miltablishment related to poor governance and bad management rather than corruption, leading pundits to wonder whether the end is nigh for the anti-corruption crusaders. A tour of history is also instructive.
Liaqat Ali Khan promulgated PRODA in 1949 to combat corruption in office. In truth, it was aimed at political opponents. The Mamdot government in Punjab was sacked for being “corrupt” and the Sindh CM Pir Elahi Buksh was similarly disqualified. in May 1954, East Pakistan’s CM, AK Fazlul Haq, was accused of corruption and fired. No direct link was ever established between corruption and economic growth. Under Gen Ayub Khan, PODA and EBDO were promulgated, dozens of politicians and over 3000 civil servants, high and low, were charged with corruption and many were disqualified from contesting elections or holding office. But the high economic growth of those years was due to unprecedented levels of economic assistance from the US in exchange for Pakistan’s partnership against “communism”, coupled with better management and planning of resources. Indeed, the Ayub era is often portrayed as the License Raj or golden age of corruption when the civil-military bureaucracy and 22 business families ruled the roost.
Gen Yahya Khan sacked 303 bureaucrats for corruption. But the country nose-dived into economic chaos and dismemberment. In the ZA Bhutto regime, over 1000 officials were sacked for corruption but the economy didn’t pick up. In the 1980s, Gen Zia ul Haq promulgated the PPO 16 and PPO 17 but institutionalized corruption by writing off bank loans of supporters and loyalists and sanctioning “development funds” for loyal MNAs and MPAs. Once again, American funds gushed in to prop up the economy in exchange for launching jihad against the USSR in Afghanistan.
Benazir Bhutto was sacked by the Miltablishment in 1990 on corruption charges. None were ever proved. The real reason was her attempt to challenge the hegemony of the military in foreign and national security policy, especially her quest for a peace settlement with India. Indeed, when Nawaz Sharif was dismissed for challenging the Miltablishment’s writ in 1993, “Mr 10 Per cent” was sworn in as a minister in the interim government and the road paved for the allegedly “corrupt” Bhutto to return to office. In turn, she launched over 100 cases of corruption and irregularities against the Sharif brothers, none of which ever amounted to anything. Indeed, when she was dismissed on corruption charges again in 1996, the “corrupt” Sharifs made up with the Miltablishment and returned to power in 1997. Much the same sort of political opportunism in the name of anti-corruption crusades was evident during General Pervez Mushharaf’s time. NAB was established to wipe out both the PPP and PMLN. Yet in 2007, the same General Musharraf promulgated the NRO to benefit 8,041 tainted politicians and bring the PPP back to power. The economic growth of the Musharraf years had more to do with a revival of large-scale American aid to boost the economy and fight the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 than with any significant decline in the corruption index.
The PPP government from 2008-2013 was hounded from pillar to post by the Miltablishment not because of any corruption issues but because, first, it tried to wrest control of the ISI; second, because it wanted to engage with India over trade; and third, because it aroused suspicions during “Memogate” that it was conspiring with Washington to clip the wings of the Miltablishment. Much the same reaction was provoked by Nawaz Sharif from 2013-2018 when he opted to prosecute Gen (retd) Musharraf for high treason and challenged the Miltablishment’s pro-jihadi stance (DawnLeaks), which led to the launch of Imran Khan’s threatening dharnas. Nawaz Sharif was finally felled by an undisclosed iqama residence permit.
We have now come full circle to low economic growth, political instability, and tensions with the military in the backdrop of vicious “anti-corruption” crusades against opposition politicians. But this period of false consciousness too shall not deliver.
January 31, 2020
Time was when Imran Khan stood atop a container-truck for months and constantly lauded the media and journalists for supporting struggles for a better and fairer Pakistan. Alas. The times, they are a changin’. In Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan, the same media is in the dog house and those very journalists are out of jobs for pursuing the same cause as vigourously as before.
Mr Khan says that the media in general and some journalists in particular are destabilizing his government. He has advised his ministers and supporters to stop watching TV and reacting to stories of corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, double standards, conflicts of interest, U-turns, ham handedness and infighting in the bowels of PTI governments in Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar. Under his watch, PEMRA is geared to threaten, browbeat and gag the mainstream media like never before, no matter that it is supposed to be an “independent” regulator. Apparently, it was kosher for the free media to destabilise a fairly elected PMLN government in 2013-18 but not when an unfairly “selected” PTI government is at the receiving end.
PEMRA’s latest transgression into media freedoms is a proposed law to control budding online web content by various stratagems. Except in a few authoritarian regimes, such content is regulated under the normal laws of the land in a constitutional democracy. Indeed, since much of it is restricted to persons and not institutions, it is a breath of fresh air away from the restrictive practices and politics of corporate media. But the motive here is mala fide. Its aim is to plug the small gap that has appeared in the overwhelming gagging mechanism of the executive. Journalists who were sacked by media houses for stepping on the toes of the government or Miltablishment took refuge in YouTube and Podcasts. Henceforth, if the proposed new law is passed, they will be pushed offline or prosecuted for non-compliance with strict “codes of conduct” in the context of 5GW or fifth generation warfare. The excuse is that the “enemy” out there has to be stopped from using or exploiting the media to undermine the state’s conventional war capacity. In other words, the media has to be “managed” through censorship of news and analysis.
In practical terms, this has translated into a ban on institutions, parties, movements and persons who are inimical to the partisan political interests of the ruling junta regardless of the fact that they may simply be demanding their constitutional rights. Under this rubric, it is kosher to show every minute of Imran Khan’s aggressive dharna for four months but not more than six seconds of Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s peaceful march for fresh elections. It is par for the course for the media to highlight every waking propaganda of Imran Khan and his coterie of ministers but not to show case Mariam Nawaz Sharif’s rousing rallies or hard truths defending the trumped up NAB charges against her. Certainly, it is forbidden for the media to air the anguish of the near and dear ones of “missing” or “disappeared” persons and it is downright traitorous to highlight or defend the peaceful Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and its elected leaders. Matters pertaining to the army chief’s “extension” are strictly “no-go” areas. Any criticism of “friendly” states and monarchs is to be shut down. The latest “enemies” are students agitating for local administrative or political constitutional rights, a development that should warm the cockles of archenemy Narendra Modi’s Hindu heart. Indeed, the atmosphere of “prohibition” has become so stifling that an Urdu translation of celebrated author Mohammad Hanif’s bestselling book for many years – “A case of Exploding Mangoes” – is banned, a book on the “Battle for Pakistan” by Shuja Nawaz – a scholar and scion of the distinguished military family of ex-COAS, General Asif Nawaz Janjua, – that discusses the politics of the last decade cannot be launched and a book authored by former DG ISI Gen Asad Durrani whose patriotism cannot be doubted is unavailable in the country.
The media’s trials are accentuated by the shocks of a failing economy and loss of business confidence. With consumer demand and economic growth falling and consequent advertisement revenue plumbing new depths, media houses are laying off thousands of employees and journalists, compelling the more enterprising among these to scramble for alternative avenues of livelihood on the World Wide Web where Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other such social media outlets provide lucrative avenues for creative energies. In time to come, this activity can rival sources of national income like exports and home remittances from overseas working Pakistanis. But if it is stifled on the pretext of “national security” or “anti-state” activity, then Pakistan will be excluded from the beneficial dimensions of globalization.
Pakistan is neither like the UK, EU or USA where no such regulators and regulations exist nor a closed one like China or Saudi Arabia. But with 200 million people jostling for rights under representative political parties, pluralist groups and a vocal judiciary, there is no path for salvation but one that follows the route of open societies.
Why not Pakistan?
February 7, 2020
Thus tweeted Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, our redoubtable Minister for Science and Technology, “Must congratulate @ARYVideos for showing epic drama serial #MereyPassTumHo. Writer n whole team deserves big applause. I yet again ask @amazon and @Netflix invest in Pak drama n film #Pakistan has far better minds than India our music is far superior, you guys wont regret.” So why aren’t Netflix and Amazon investing in Pakistan in a big way like they have in India?
It’s true that the drama serial in question was a roaring success in Pakistan. While husband-adulterers with good-natured housewives (good woman) are par for the course, the drama’s novelty in conservative Pakistani society stemmed from a wife-adulteress (bad woman) with a good-natured husband. Significantly, the serial underscored the writer’s views on issues of women’s loyalty, morality and betrayal that find a resounding echo in state and society: “Like it or not, I don’t call every woman a woman. To me, the only beautiful trait a woman can possess is her loyalty [to her husband] and her haya/modesty. If a woman isn’t loyal then she is not a woman…A man leaves all his honour, his self-esteem with his wife when he goes out to earn a living. And I curse those women who violate that trust. That was the concept behind Mere Pass Tum Ho and so I’m fighting for the ‘good women’.” As one reviewer noted, this is a “frighteningly common mindset that the burden of guilt in moral lapses lies on the woman’s shoulders, not the man’s.” Another explained: “The pietist turn in Pakistani pulp fiction-turned-drama serials in the last 20 years is quite distinct from their ascetic bent of the 1980s. But the turn is not towards some feminist challenging of the unjust male dominant societal system. Instead, the current trope of these popular women-authored scripts urge that injustices can be overcome through Muslim women’s religious agency, education, pietist practice and eventually, by forgiveness for those who have been unjust to the unwitting woman.”
Here, in a nutshell, are clear reasons why Netflix and Amazon aren’t interested in commissioning Pakistani dramas like #MereyPassTumHo and why Indian serials (like Sacred Games, Made in Heaven, etc.) and films (like Dangal) are such global blockbusters. In Pakistan, the reactionary gender and societal status quo is confirmed while in India it is constantly challenged at the altar of women’s liberation, human rights including gay rights, and secular agency, all buzz words for the modern world. A world in which demographic change is tilted towards the youth, and globalizing “anti-stigma” ideas dominate the discourse on the internet.
In India, the mainstream media, the political class, the higher courts are all agreed on promoting and projecting a “modern”, West-compatible image of their country; filmmakers and content-creators who contribute to a cutting-edge, au courant discourse are embraced. And not just in India: a gritty, no-holds-barred web series like Sacred Games, with its “realistic” display of local cusswords and sexual intimacy, has been avidly watched in territories like Japan and Latin America and earned nods at the American Emmy Awards, adding many feathers to Netflix India’s flagship project. It’s a win-win for all involved. Today Melbet is a bookmaker that provides for the game a wide list of more than 250 events in Live daily and 1000 matches on the line. A lot of bonuses await registered users on the official Melbet website , which you can use at any time, even from your phone.
Can we imagine such a project being given the green light in Pakistan? On the contrary, the prospect of a truly candid depiction of our society, of anything that violates the conformist, “pious-moral” style of Urdu drama serials, immediately conjures up a specter of protesting mullahs, reactionary bureaucrats and sanctimonious trolls. In fact, we need not imagine anything at all; just look at the fate of Sarmad Khoosat’s film Zindagi Tamasha, which has been stalled because of rabid threats from religious extremists.
Much the same sort of problems bedevil the promotion of Pakistan as a tourist destination. Majestic mountains, shimmering seas and sandy beaches without the key elements of leisure and relaxation – physical security, five star luxuries, refreshments to uplift the spirit and a public that doesn’t stand and stare – will not attract foreign tourists. Muslim UAE recognized this fact of life and tourism flourished. Now arch conservative Saudi Arabia is waking up to emulate this global standard. If Pakistan is to get a slice of this $10,000 billion per year industry, its people, artists and service providers must supply the social and cultural environment demanded by the global tourist. But we cannot even hold a Basant kite flying festival in Lahore, our so-called cultural capital.
The potential foreign investor is also put off by other such red lines. Political instability, policy discontinuities, ill-informed court injunctions, worthless sovereign guarantees, arbitrary NAB interventions and banking infirmities are forbidding roadblocks that raise the risk quotient to unacceptable levels (that’s why Paypal and eBay aren’t yet in Pakistan). Foreign power producers suffered on this count in the 1990s and mineral prospectors in the 2000s, and attendant costs to Pakistan for unfulfilled contracts in foreign litigations have risen astronomically.
The fact is that despite self-serving rhetoric, political leaders, intellectuals, artists, and state institutions are not ready to educate Pakistanis in some of the ways of the modern world that bring wealth and prosperity.
February 14, 2020
Prime Minister Imran Khan has invited the Turkish President, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, to address a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament. The opposition intends to honour President Erdogan by attending this session. But in 2016, when the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invited President Erdogan to speak before a joint session of parliament, Imran Khan led his PTI parliamentarians out of the National Assembly. He said he didn’t accept the legitimacy of the Sharif government and parliamentary majority to accord it any respect. The irony is that the current opposition parties have also rejected the legitimacy of the selected prime minister but have not allowed it to sour relations with Turkey. What’s so special about Turkey and President Erdogan that so excites Pakistani prime ministers?
Nawaz Sharif’s motive was unconcealed. He wanted to do business with Turkish companies when Turkey’s economy was booming. That’s when Turkish companies were awarded contracts to clean up garbage in Punjab cities, supply offshore electricity, invest in the education sector, on “attractive” terms. Mr Sharif was also curious to learn some tricks and tips from Mr Erdogan on how to control the military, enhance his powers and prolong rule. But he was careful not to be drawn into a developing power grab in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Turkey after the Arab Spring changed many political equations in the region. Indeed, he stuck close to Saudi Arabia so that Pakistan could continue to avail its financial generosity in times of need.
But Imran Khan has wittingly squandered Saudi Arabia’s goodwill by seeming to favour a developing power bloc in the Islamic world led by Turkey. This is significant because it comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is reeling from the same acute disease of stagflation – meaning it can’t help us financially – and its relations with Saudi Arabia are downright hostile following the Khashoggi affair. Mr Khan has naively expressed the view that the Saudis have “misunderstood” the motive of the budding alliance in Kuala Lumpur in the same way that they “misunderstood” his “sincere” attempt to try and bridge the Saudi-Iran divide some months earlier. His reason for edging closer to Iran and Turkey and Malaysia is that they support the Kashmir cause verbally while Saudi Arabia and its OIC bloc don’t. But state realism demands a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis of such foreign policy moves.
President Erdogan has shifted Turkey’s historical interest in Europe to the Middle East by cultivating economic and political interests in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia. It wants to become a regional power. This is evident in its policies relating to Libya, Sudan, Qatar, Egypt, etc., which are at odds with Saudi interests. The struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia has also spilled into the GCC after the latter’s rift with Qatar. All this doesn’t bode well for the unity of the “Islamic” world. But in Pakistan’s case, annoying Saudi Arabia and America could be suicidal. For all intents and purposes, Islamabad is tied into the US-Saudi axis. It is dependent on Saudi money to prop up its forex reserves, it is dependent on Saudi oil on deferred payment terms, it is dependent on several billion dollars of remittances sent by Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia and it is wooing Saudi investments in Gwadar. Pakistan is also dependent on the US for support in mediating FATF requirements, helping to alleviate military tensions with India and nudging international finance institutions like the IMF and World Bank to assist its ailing economy.
Turkey and Malaysia, on the other hand, do not offer anything by way of a significant quid pro quo for Pakistan. Both countries’ private sectors are eyeing enhanced exports of goods and services to Pakistan and both leaders are posturing as global statesmen manipulating regional dynamics. Both seek to exploit Imran Khan’s naivete by pandering to his ego following his celebrated Kashmir speech at the UN last year.
Bilawal Bhutto is rightly demanding that Pakistan renegotiate terms with the IMF so that the masses are not further impoverished by rising prices, rising taxes and rising unemployment. Under the circumstances, state realism demands closer ties with America and Saudi Arabia so that economic and political concessions can flow from the former on FATF and IMF and from the latter on forex deposits, investment, remittances, oil facilities etc. Indeed, instead of positively resetting strained relations with America and consolidating traditional ties with Saudi Arabia, the Imran Khan regime is floundering dangerously on both fronts.
The US-Pak relationship has become one-dimensional. It is dependent on Pakistan’s ability to deliver American goals in Afghanistan. Under President Donald Trump, this is a precarious situation in an election year. If Pakistan is unable to bend the Taliban to accommodate US concerns, President Trump is quite capable of reverting to his capricious self when he accused Pakistan not so long ago of playing a double game and held out the threat of sanctions. Similarly, the Saudis under their Modern Prince, Muhammad bin Sultan, should not be taken for granted, let alone offended.
Silence speaking volumes?
February 21, 2020
Last month, the chairman of the FBR, Shabbar Zaidi, called it a day. Apparently the pressure of having to deliver unrealistic IMF targets agreed by the government laid him low. Yesterday, the Attorney General, Anwar Mansoor Khan, quit. The pressure of having to endorse indefensible government actions alienated the bar and bench, his constituency, and eroded his credibility. The knives are now out for the Finance Minister, Hafeez Sheikh, and the State Bank Governor, Raza Baqir. An ex-Commerce Minister and reputed IMF/World Bank consultant, Dr Zubair Khan, has petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the duo from drowning Pakistan in a sea of debt by their deeply hurtful economic policies at the behest of foreign agencies. The irony is that the IMF team has returned to Washington without sanctioning the next tranche of financial assistance, implying that it isn’t satisfied with the government’s substance and pace of “reform” as agreed.
If economic management is woefully lacking, the state of political mismanagement also shows. The Miltablishment weathercock, Sheikh Rashid, is alarmed by the stunning silence of the opposition parties, in particular the PMLN. He would much rather have a raucous and threatening opposition, he says, so that one can gauge its intentions and react to it than such a studied meekness that smacks of some sort of a dangerous and ominous conspiracy to unseat the government. He has in mind the undignified haste with which the opposition stamped approval of the army chief’s extension in comparison with the bumbling and stumbling manner in which the government approached the subject. The silence of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz is particularly out of form, suggesting that some sort of “deal” with the Miltablishment is in the works. Such a deal, he fears, would inevitably be at the cost of his dear prime minister.
If truth be told, it is curious that the courts have suddenly become amenable to the pleas of opposition leaders. Asif Zardari and Faryal Talpur are being looked after in hospital, thank you; Rana Sanaullah, Fawad Hasan Fawad and Miftah Ismail are free; Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal will probably be bailed out shortly; Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif are in London, the former’s conviction in a corruption case is suspended while the latter is on bail. For a government that sustains its anti-corruption agenda on hounding the opposition, this must be worrying. More significantly, a government that never tires of reminding everyone that it is on the same page as the Miltablishment on all issues – and hence has nothing to fear from it – must wonder whether its “stability” is more illusion than reality. Whether it is the ubiquitous but invisible hand of the Miltablishment or widespread public disgruntlement with the government’s lack of “performance” that is creating sympathy for the opposition and affording it some relief in the courts, one thing is for sure: the government’s economic and political narrative is bankrupt.
Amidst this developing crisis of confidence and runaway suspicions, Maulana Fazal ur Rahman has put the cat amongst the pigeons. He is threatening another long match next month to unseat the government, setting off alarm bells for Sheikh Rashid and Imran Khan. The good Sheikh has warned the Maulana that he will be bunged into prison if he ventures into Islamabad. The beleaguered prime minister wants Article 6 Treason charges to be brought against him for conspiring against the government last month. Pundits will, therefore, be drawing straws to predict what happens next.
The first signal to look out for is the pending case of Maryam Nawaz for permission to leave the country and be with her father during his illness. The judges have kept it pending, week after week. If she is granted permission, two perceptions will be created: something is definitely in the air; and, if the government challenges it in the Supreme Court, the prime minister intends to resist it, albeit unsuccessfully, confirming Sheikh Rashid’s fears. https://australiacasinoonline.com
The second signal will come if the opposition unites under one banner to march on Islamabad and the government pulls out all the stops to halt it in its tracks. With the public in a state of visible outrage at spiraling prices and joblessness and provincial governments tottering under the burden of disaffection amongst the ranks of the police and bureaucracy, Imran Khan will be hard put to block this surge of popular militancy. The Miltablishment is already smarting for spawning the disastrous PTI government. Certainly, it will have to think twice before it commits itself to overtly defending such an unpopular regime.
The final signal will come when the PTI’s “allies” in Punjab and Islamabad start forming forward blocks and jumping ship. Of course, the signals may be mixed and ambiguous. But, come what may, there is only one potential winner or loser in this scenario. That is Shahbaz Sharif. Either his pro-Miltablishment “narrative” will be dead as a dodo and Nawaz Sharif’s will be revived, or he will be bang in the game like never before.
Bar and Bench
February 28, 2020
Traditionally, the judiciary has been a loyal handmaiden to the executive. This is a hangover of colonial rule when the judiciary was in the service of the British Raj. But it is also a fact that repeated and long doses of civil-military authoritarianism since 1947 have bent the judiciary to the will of the executive. The Movement for the Restoration of the Judiciary (MRJ) in 2008-09 – aptly named – was aimed at achieving a state of autonomy for the superior judiciary. But its success so went to the head of its leading lights that nothing less than “independence” was finally acceptable. Under the circumstances, the judiciary acquired the power to self-appoint and self-regulate itself – unprecedented elsewhere – without even a fig leaf of parliamentary oversight or accountability. However, when the pendulum swung so far, such extraordinary power went to the head of a few judges leading to some highly erratic judicial activisms and interventions which made a mockery of justice.
In particular, former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who ruled the roost for eight years, will long be remembered for some of the most atrocious and damaging decisions to impact the economy – Steel Mills privatization, Reko Dik, Rental Power projects, etc. – no less than the disqualification of a prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, on contempt charges. Another CJP, Saquib Nisar, was veritably “a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more”. He confessed to fancying himself as Baba Rahmata (a fictitious character who abnegated reason and logic) and has left behind a litany of unaccountable, arrogant pronouncements on various subjects that encroached into the policy domain of the executive (like the Dam Fund, taxes on purified bottled water, private school fees, etc.). In particular, he was inclined to favour Imran Khan (regularization of Bani Gala) and his crony Zulfiqar Bukhari (dual nationality) even as he sought to apply the same yardsticks stringently to lesser mortals. A third CJP, Asif Saeed Khosa, betrayed his bias against another prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, when he quoted from the mafia novel, The Godfather, and disqualified him for life from becoming a member of parliament simply because he had not declared an insignificant income (asset?) that had not actually accrued to him!
But times may be changing. Instead of blatantly taking sides between elected political leaders or studiously ignoring the elephant in the room, a couple of judges have stood up to be counted. Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court is bravely contesting Miltablishment attempts to oust him from the SC because he held its functionaries culpable for objectionable political activity during the Faizabad Dharna in 2017 by the Tehreek Labaiq Pakistan. Now he has filed contempt charges against the President, Prime Minister, Law Minister and State Minister of Interior for illegal surveillance of judges. Another judge, Justice Athar Minallah, chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, has bravely ticked off NAB for misusing its powers to harass, intimidate and arrest political opponents of the government. The arbitrary charge of “sedition” on peaceful protestors is also strictly a no-no in his books. A third, Justice Waqar Seth, Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court, has awarded a death sentence to General (retd) Pervez Musharraf for Article 6 Treason, an unbelievable award considering the “sacred and exalted” office of the army chief. And now the new CJP, Gulzar Sheikh, has ordered that all “illegal” structures and encroachments, including those in Defence Housing Authority, should be razed and the pristine glory of the law restored. DHA, it should be noted, is a sacred cow of state elites. Indeed, some of the CJP’s remarks during hearings of the case are memorable for their brutal frankness: “At the rate the DHA is going, soon it will cross the border into India… or expand into the Indian ocean”; “it is not the business of soldiers to build marriage halls in Cantonments”, etc.). Whether the good CJP will be as good as his threat remains to be seen, but at least the elephant in the room has been duly chastised.
Of the four pillars of a democratic state – parliament, government, media and judiciary – three have bitten the dust. The first two are furiously passing laws and rules to curtail cherished constitutional freedoms in the name of “national security”, the catchall word to browbeat and intimidate. The media can only flex its muscle if the judiciary is able and willing to protect these rights. Indeed, by defending and protecting the media, the judiciary is actually strengthening itself as was evident in the role of the free media in supporting the MRJ.
Surely there are other brave judges in the rosters of the High Courts and Supreme Court who are committed to their oath of protecting the Constitution and the democratic order that should flow from it, as are the various associations of the bar that launched the struggle for MRJ. This is Pakistan’s hour of need. The bar and bench should rise to the occasion like never before.
Silence no option
March 6, 2020
Imran Khan is thundering in Islamabad as usual about nothing in particular and everything in general. Bilawal Bhutto has landed in the Punjab and is frenetically wooing every disgruntled group in sight. But the Sharifs are hibernating in London without a word of explanation. Meanwhile, Pakistanis are frustrated, alienated and angry. What’s going on?
We can understand the sullen mood of the people. Great hardship has been heaped upon them by the PTI government’s unprecedented mismanagement of the economy – galloping inflation, rising joblessness, increasing taxes and declining incomes.
We can also appreciate why Bilawal Bhutto thinks there are easy pickings to be had at the moment. Punjab province is logjammed because the Chief Minister doesn’t have a clue whether he’s coming or going, the bureaucracy is sulking and constituency demands aren’t being met because provincial purse strings are tightly held by cash-stricken Islamabad. So Bilawal is tapping into the discontent of women that has generated the Aurat March, he’s dipping into the anguish of Baloch and FATA families of “missing” persons, he’s trying to whip up the working classes by supporting trade union demands and opposing privatization of public assets, he’s empathizing with the media that is facing layoffs, bankruptcies and censorship, and extracting maximum mileage from blasting government U-turns. In short, he’s decided to flog the old “progressive” formula of his grandfather and mother.
Bilawal Bhutto’s job has been facilitated in no small measure by the stunning “silence” of the undisputed leader of PMLN, Nawaz Sharif, whose inaction has given rise to doubts and suspicions in the mind of its supporters and brought back dark fears of 2000 when the Sharifs fled to Saudi Arabia on the back of a “deal” with the Miltablishment instead of facing the music and fighting back.
People can understand that Nawaz Sharif’s failing health precludes any forceful response simply because Imran Khan can bung him into prison on any number of concocted charges and the judiciary is too week to guarantee any quick relief. But then they want to know why Shahbaz Sharif isn’t playing the aggressive role of the Leader of the Opposition and why Maryam Nawaz is a pale shadow of her fiery self today. PMLN supporters were visibly dismayed, and critics naturally overjoyed, when the PMLN meekly submitted to the tenurial extension of the army chief mooted by the PTI government. This was sorry capitulation by a leader committed to challenging the hegemony of the Miltablishment and losing prime ministerial power not once but three times on account of his views. And not a word of explanation, not even why the fig leaf of a parliamentary debate was abjectly surrendered.
To be sure, the Sharifs have been deliberately dealt a very bad hand. Miltablishment conspiracies were mounted against them from their second year in office – Imran’s record-breaking dharna, Dawnleaks, “Modi ka jo Yaar Hai, Ghaddar Hai, Ghaddar hai”, etc. – until the Supreme Court clutched at the opening provided by Panamagate and struck down Nawaz Sharif in the fourth year. Come 2018 and election day, the Election Commission of Pakistan was mysteriously afflicted by the RTS virus that knocked out the PMLN from any reckoning. Then NAB was unleashed to sic the leadership that had managed to scrape through. The cult shooter Bulletstorm 2 will still see the world! This information appeared in the famous international online magazine dedicated to gambling and e-sports. Read the original article here: https://logincasino.org/blog/what-is-the-exact-bulletstorm-2-release-date-and-what-are-the-developers-doing-today61029.html Also on the site, you can find out the exact release date of Bulletstorm 2, study the comments of fans and fans of the cult game. And so the trials and tribulations continue with no relief in sight.
PMLN leaders are now demanding mid-term elections preceded by a new “Charter of the Constitution” signed by core stakeholders – Miltablishment, Judiciary, Parliament and Political Parties. The aim of this is to enshrine Truth and Reconciliation “rules of the game” that enable governments to be elected on the basis of free and fair elections, there are no dharnas, no Dawnleaks, no institutional encroachments into one another’s constitutional domains, no tenurial extensions, etc. But without a viable comeback strategy, it is anybody’s guess how and why such rules of the game will ever be accorded recognition and assent by those who wield de facto, independent or autonomous power, i.e, the self-righteous Miltablishment and Judiciary.
It is, of course, possible that the PMLN’s strategy is based on the “live-to-fight-another-day” assumption that sooner rather than later, the people of Pakistan who are suffering under the yoke of the PTI government will spontaneously rise and revolt against it, thereby opening up avenues and options for regime change. Or that Narendra Modi will initiate a military conflict with Pakistan resulting in a national calamity of unprecedented proportions like the 1971 debacle, leading to the demise of the PTI government and a chance to draw up the proposed “rules of the game” with the Miltablishment. Or even that the Miltablishment will finally wake up and draw the line on shouldering the burden of the PTI government’s continuing catastrophes and signal an end to its failed political experiment.
Whatever fate has in store for Pakistan’s core stakeholders, silence and inaction is not an option for the PMLN. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And the old adage that nothing risked, nothing gained, still rings true, no less than the one that says power only recognizes countervailing power.
March 13, 2020
The UN has declared the infectious coronavirus crisis a pandemic – a disease that is spreading simultaneously in many countries at the same time. It is also spreading exponentially everywhere – almost doubling every ten days or so. At last count, over 150,000 cases had been tested globally, with over 4000 deaths reported at the mortality rate of over 3-8 percent, rising steeply with old age when the immune system is progressively weak. It is learnt that the virus can be contracted not only by physical contact with persons but also though the air and various types of surfaces. At this rate, scientists calculate that millions could be infected globally in a month or so. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine in the market to counter this threat and medics are not holding out any promise of a breakthrough in the near future.
Consequently, several countries have imposed various types of “lockdowns”: travel restrictions, ban on big gatherings, large scale quarantines, etc., to contain the disease. Italy, which is the worst affected after China, has quarantined all big cities in the north. The US has stopped entries from some EU and other countries and called out the National Guard in New York. Various airlines in the Middle East have curtailed flights to and from some destinations. Across the globe, stadium events hosting football, cricket, baseball matches, music extravaganzas, conferences, etc., where chances of infections are the greatest, are being cancelled. Saudi Arabia has stopped the Umrah pilgrimage of millions and there is serious consideration to deal with the Hajj event in July in a similar vein. Elsewhere, national emergencies have been declared or put on the anvil. Hospital and health services are shifting to red alert. Overnight, breathing masks, hand sanitizers, soaps, disinfectants, frozen food, etc., are disappearing off the shelves in supermarkets as citizens scramble to hoard up for impending hard times. Apart from China – the source of the virus and the most adversely affected country – Pakistan’s contiguous neighbours Iran and India are also moving swiftly to take serious large scale preventive measures to deal with the emergency at hand. But what is the PTI government in Pakistan doing to protect our citizens who are most vulnerable for a host of reasons?
It seems to be least bothered. The government claims there are less than a couple of dozen cases and only one or two patients have died so far. It says that borders and entry-exit are being monitored but admits that its facilities are fairly rudimentary and haphazard. Almost all the cases reported are of Pakistani citizens returning to Pakistan who “somehow” managed to escape detection on arrival and are likely to have infected many others in contact with them subsequently. Our lack of concern for our own citizens is evidenced by the fact that the government has allowed all our domestic supply of breathing masks to be exported gratis to China and imported supplies have dried up because of a global shortage in the face of steeply rising panic-demand.
Two big threat-events are continuing apace. The first is the annual moot at Raiwind near Lahore of the Tablighi Jamaat which attracts nearly a million of the Faithful from all over the country, including from virus-vulnerable areas on Pakistan’s borders with China and Iran. For three days these Believers will breathe and live in a collective embrace, thereby exposing themselves freely to the lurking infections in their midst. They will then carry the virus to their homes and boost it exponentially in weeks. The government sat back and did nothing to persuade them to postpone their moot. Much the same sort of cavalier mindset is manifest in the approach to the matches of the PSL5 attended by tens of thousands every week, the four national stadiums becoming veritable hotspots of corona incubation. The government cannot be unaware of the dangers inherent in such big gatherings but seems to lack the will and ability to do anything about it. What would happen if, ironically, star foreign players from core countries were to be recalled by their cricket boards midway through the tournament, leaving PSL5 high and dry?
The situation can be summed up as follows. Willful ignorance, denial, even dereliction of duty and callousness are evident in PTI corridors in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan is more concerned about imposing a “uniform” education system in the country next year – “so that the sort of culturally diverse opinions expressed during the Aurat March are stifled” — while propagating the virtues of passion over education and professionalism. He is expending all his energies in grinding the media and political opposition to the ground instead coming to grips with a health emergency that is staring him in the face. Indeed, this is the very moment that a charismatic leader like him can wake up and rouse the administration and masses to gird their loins to combat the most deadly disease to ever attack the country.
What was Nero doing while Rome was burning?
Whom the gods wish to destroy ….
March 20, 2020
The arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rahman, owner-editor of the Jang/Geo Media Group, by NAB is a shocking development because it confirms our worst suspicions that NAB has become a willing tool in the hands of the government to victimize and punish all those who dare to criticize the PM and government policies. A second comment that we are compelled to make is that the Chairman NAB, Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, is being blackmailed by the government to do its bidding. The evidence for these conclusions is overwhelming.
MSR has been charged with an alleged “crime” he committed in 1986, in cahoots with the then chief minister of Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif. It is extraordinary that NAB has been motivated to dig so far in history to try and nail him. The charge is that CM Sharif illegally allotted 56 kanals of land to MSR at below market price. But MSR has provided evidence that he bought the land – as a business transaction – from an individual who was then its owner as shown in LDA records. In other words, there is no direct exchange-nexus between MSR and MNS.
Equally, the charge that MNS illegally allotted any plots of land to anyone, let alone MSR, is not maintainable because the law at that time allowed the CM wide “discretionary” powers to make such allotments.
MSR’s arrest at a preliminary stage of the inquiry or investigation is also highly “irregular” in NAB’s own book of rules. The recent amendments in NAB rules and laws relating to inquiries against “businessmen” preclude such swift action. What is most significant is the fate of the Accountability Court judge hearing MSR’s case who expressed surprise and reservations about NAB’s conduct and was expected in the next hearing to remand MSR to judicial custody: he has been abruptly shunted. There are echoes in this of a similar fate of various Accountability Court judges trying MNS and other PMLN leaders in assorted cases who weren’t quite ready to blindly tow NAB’s line.
Contrary to NAB assertions that it is an independent institution, various government spokesmen have time and again publicly claimed they have “proof” of corruption against PMLN leaders which they are sending to NAB. Indeed, before NAB swung into action against MSR, the prime minister himself went on record to say how he intended to fix him.
Unfortunately, too, the circumstantial evidence of the government blackmailing the NAB Chairman is irresistible. Shortly after he gave an interview to a journalist outlining his intention to proceed against certain PTI leaders like Pervez Khattak, Zulfiqar Bukhari etc., a video mysteriously appeared on the PM’s “help line” that severely incriminated the NAB Chairman. Soon thereafter, a media channel owner-advisor to the PM hosted the incriminating video that sent the NAB reeling. The video was withdrawn and the case hushed up by leaning on the media. But NAB has now abandoned all pretext of neutrality and is roundly going after the government’s opponents and critics. Wait for it: a petition against the NAB Chairman pending in the Supreme Judicial Council is now likely to see the light of day and bipartisan demands for his resignation are also going to grow louder.
MSR has applied for bail in the Lahore High Court. The mainstream political parties led by the PMLN have petitioned the Islamabad High Court to restrain NAB. The Jang-Geo Group has approached the Islamabad High Court to stop PEMRA from blocking GEO channel in various ways. At home, every media and civil society organ has condemned the government’s repressive and vindictive ways. Abroad, every human rights and media organization of repute has voiced serious concerns. The US State Department has made a telling statement while senior diplomats of other Western countries are expressing their views directly to their Pakistani counterparts in no uncertain manner.
Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the IHC has repeatedly censured NAB for its arbitrary and discriminatory ways. It’s a no-brainer that he will sooner than later order “Enough is Enough”. Therefore it is a foregone conclusion that MSR will be out on bail soon. But it is by no means certain that the vindictive government and NAB won’t drum up another false case to keep him in chains.
This is the most media-repressive regime since 1988 when a hybrid “democracy” was ushered into Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto learnt to live with the “din of democracy”; MNS learnt the error of his ways later; Gen Musharraf was long the darling of the media. But it is Imran Khan who admits that his political success was owed in large measure to a supportive media and it is Imran Khan who is now bent on silencing it.
In opposition, Imran Khan used to say that media crackdowns are a sign of unpopular and tottering regimes. In government, he should recall that when MNS and Gen Musharraf cracked down on the media, it wasn’t long before their rule came to an end. “Whom the gods wish to destroy …”
March 27, 2020
One third of the globe – comprising over 100 countries and 2.6 billion people – is in various stages of “lockdown” against the spreading Corona virus. If justification for “lockdown” – isolating people to protect them from being infected – is needed, one only has to learn from the experience of China and Italy, the two worst hit countries, that have finally managed to flatten and then turn the exponential curve of infection via managed “lockdowns” of areas, cities and people. Even US President Donald Trump and UK Premier Boris Johnson, two reluctant “lockdowners”, have bitten the bullet and embarked on progressive lockdowns.
Yet Pakistan’s PM, Imran Khan, is still, after all the evidence has piled up, resisting any effective lockdown in the country, thereby nourishing the conditions in which the virus acquires exponential proportions and overwhelms the state system. The terrible confusion in the mind of the Leader of Pakistan is compounded by the fact that, in effect, different parts of the provinces and country are “locking” down on their own in a haphazard and uncoordinated manner, which makes their initiatives relatively ineffective. Ominously enough, the Miltablishment is so alarmed at this lack of leadership and clarity of action when it is urgently needed that it has autonomously readied for “aiding civil power”. Conservative estimates suggest that within a couple of weeks, if there is no swift, concerted and coordinated lockdown in the entire country, the infection will hit over 100,000 Pakistanis and many will die.
Imran Khan worries that an effective lockdown will halt economic activity and push millions of factory workers and daily wage earners below the “poverty line” and make their lives a living hell. But he doesn’t want to consider what would happen not just to the working class but to all Pakistanis if the virus disables the working population and locks down the system amidst fear, chaos and anarchy. The PM’s “confusion” is now being attributed to close advisors and confidantes from the business community of “haves” who don’t want to close factories and businesses or pay wages if closures are enforced.
Imran Khan’s lack of serious concern – “this too shall pass” philosophy – is also attributed to the current low scale of the infection in Pakistan compared to other many other countries. But the evidence shows that this slow starting point is because of the low level of physical contact and travel between the origin of the virus in Wuhan, China, and Pakistan – Pakistanis in Wuhan were quarantined immediately and flights suspended soon thereafter. But as the NDMA Chairman has pointed out, 85% of the infections come from infected Pakistanis returning to Pakistan, most notably from Iran via Balochistan, who have escaped into the populace at large without being tested and quarantined, never mind that Mr Khan has heaped praise on the Balochistan CM for effective action! But latest independent projections are that the curve will rise steeply in the next two weeks and keep rising exponentially if the current policy impasse continues.
Forget about national lockdowns. The federal government has even been loath to restrict religious gatherings which are potential dens of infection and incubation. One report claims that many of the Faithful have infected their home countries upon return after attending large religious events in Pakistan. Incredibly enough, most Muslim countries have stopped Muslims from even praying in mosques until the threat lasts but in Pakistan we are still trying to “convince” the worthy ulema to agree to implement the Fatwa from Al Azhar in Cairo against Friday prayers in mosques!
Imran Khan claims his government doesn’t have the economic resources and manpower to stem the infection via a national lockdown. The so-called “relief package” is pathetically lacking for the poor and most vulnerable. Yet international donors have committed several billion dollars to Corona-assistance and put demands for harsh economic adjustments in cold storage. The political leadership of at least one province – Sindh – has marshalled its resources and shown the way forward. And the Pakistan Army has signaled its will and ability to shoulder the burden of lockdown and supply chain logistics for which it is trained.
The quality and caliber of a true leader is tested in times of national crisis. That is when clarity of thought is translated into decisive action. For such action to be effective, it must be underpinned by a national consensus so that the nation rises collectively to the challenge. Yet in five recent media addresses to the nation, Imran Khan has demonstrated a confused and rigid mind that refuses to acknowledge credible, evidential realities. Worse, his attitude to the opposition parties remains petulantly vindictive – he wants to eliminate them all rather than hold a constructive dialogue with them in the national interest.
The conclusion is inescapable. Imran Khan has singularly disqualified himself from being able to make swift, decisive, effective national consensus policy in Pakistan’s perilous hour of need.
April 3, 2020
As the globe reels from the COVID-19 attack, economists and political scientists are already weighing in with projections of adverse socio-economic consequences far and wide. The most common refrain is that “the world will change forever” in so many unimagined ways. The impact of prolonged worldwide lockdowns on rich and poor societies will devastate the global economy by disrupting manufacturing, diminishing trade, travel and tourism, and overwhelm health facilities. Indeed, even if the virus is “controlled” in due course, quite apart from diminished disposable incomes, consumer demand for a variety of goods and services available in shopping malls, stadiums, cinemas, theatres, hotels, restaurants, holiday resorts, airplanes and such like will not pick up for some time because of a lingering fear of catching an infection in crowded places.
In short, the world economy will shrink significantly in the next year or so, with consequent steep rises in unemployment, poverty and inequality in developed and less developed countries alike. In some cases, this could spill over into mass discontent, triggering regime change or revival of narrow nationalisms, racisms or radical reform of political systems veering towards authoritarianism. The new world could be, in the short term at least, more fearful, more circumspect, more distrusting of the “other”.
The outlook for Pakistan is definitely depressing. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis which requires a national will and ability to overcome, the country remains bitterly divided. The Civil-Military Establishment, that includes the judiciary and organs of “accountability” like NAB, Election Commission, etc., have abandoned all pretext of political neutrality; the “selected” prime minister and ruling party are still focused more on hounding the opposition than tackling the challenge of COVID-19; the rich are demanding new perks and privileges to offset their “losses” through lockdowns even as the poor multitudes are scrambling to eke out two bare meals a day. The philosophy of poverty that defines the health of a nation is abysmally lost in the poverty of philosophy of the ruling classes.
Imran Khan admits that 25% of the population, or over 50 million Pakistanis, barely survives below the “poverty line” of Rs 300 per day per person. Yet, in the last budget, he was only willing to allocate a pittance to their welfare – his government’s various poverty alleviation and employment generation schemes didn’t practically amount to more than Rs 200 billion (less than 3% of total projected tax revenues) – while he was happy to fork over as much as 40% for “national security” (which doesn’t include health, education and social welfare), “because we live in a tough neighborhood”, never mind the mass squalor and deprivation across the country that challenge old notions of “national security”.
Now Mr Khan has rustled up a “relief package” to offset the hardships triggered by COVID-19: an additional Rs 250b or so for the lockdown unemployed and an equal amount in refunds, incentives, drawbacks and soft loans to the fat cats of business and industry who have been compelled to shut shop. Indeed, he remains opposed to any significant national lockdown to protect the populace from spreading the infection only because, he says, it will hurt industry and daily wage earners, never mind that a Lockdown Strategy is a globally accepted preventive measure precisely to ensure that people, rich and poor, industrialists and workers, can go back to “business as usual” as early as possible after “containing” the virus!
To be sure, Imran Khan’s misplaced concreteness is all too evident in other policies too. He now expects expatriate Pakistanis to donate hundreds of billions to the COVID-19 Fund, quite ignoring the fact that they too are now so disillusioned with his leadership that they didn’t even cough up more than a few billion to his much vaunted Dam Fund. Worse, he seems to disregard the mounting plight of hundreds of thousands of Pakistani workers in the Middle East – the primary source of over USD20B in annual home remittances – who are facing layoffs and deportations and are in no position to give donations for his causes.
A national leader of substance would have risen to the challenge by formulating a strategy of national sacrifice and survival. He would have abandoned the path of political victimization of opponents and invited them to share a platform for a national consensus on the way forward. He would have sat down with provincial administrations to chalk out a robust and coordinated effort to deal with the situation. Together with these political representatives, he would have invited other stakeholders of the state – religious, judicial and military – to make appropriate “adjustments” in their institutional outlooks, concerns and financial demands in line with the urgent requirements of the situation. Finally, together with all these state organs and stakeholders, he would have leveraged national power to exhort the rich to dig into their pockets for the sake of the poor, not just for now but for the future.
Alas. We can go on wishing but nothing, it seems, will change the fallout from Mr Khan’s ego-driven, rigid and severely limited vision.
The Pied Piper
April 10, 2020
Imran Khan may be prime minister of Pakistan and supreme leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf but he is not in effective control of his various governments or party organs at the center and in the provinces.
Punjab is being administered by two bureaucrats nominated by the Miltablishment after eighteen months of hither and thither by Mr Khan and assorted cronies, point-men or allies, while Chief Minister Usman Buzdar answers interchangebly to Mr or Mrs Khan on matters of personal privilege or power. The latest sugar and wheat crisis is a classic illustration of this point.
The federal cabinet (read the PM) decided to approve the export of wheat and sugar in cloudy circumstances; they also formally decided not to give any subsidy to sugar exporters. But then the Punjab CM received an informal nod from Islamabad to surreptitiously approve a budget of Rs 3b for the same, despite the objections of his own cabinet colleagues. When the details were revealed – after wheat and sugar shortages led to rising prices and consequent media outrage – Mr Khan came under pressure to order an inquiry, which he did, but by the same organization that has been tripping over itself to turn the screws on his opponents and do his bidding. The inquiry was ordered on 20 February. A report was submitted to the cabinet on 9 March, outlining general, preliminary findings and requesting an enlargement of the departmental committee into a formal full-fledged commission to enable it to conduct a forensic analysis by 25 April so that responsibility could be properly apportioned. For two weeks there was no news. Then suddenly all hell broke loose.
Senior PTI stalwarts, including Nadeem Afzal Chan on record, have revealed that an anti-Jehangir Khan Tareen group in the PTI and cabinet leaked the preliminary report to the media to nail JKT just in case the full report later implicated others closer to home and muddied the waters. The PM was then hurriedly advised to make virtue out of necessity by claiming that he ordered the report released in the “public interest”. “It is unprecedented”, shrieked the PM’s spokesman, Shahbaz Gill, “for a sitting PM to reveal misdemeanor in his own ranks!”
The original sin for which the FIA inquiry was ordered – shortages and price hikes in wheat and sugar despite adequate supplies in private and public hands – was lost in the din of targeting JKT who was one of a clutch of sugar barons who majorly benefited from the subsidy on export of sugar. This, notwithstanding the fact that a subsidy on sugar export has always been part and parcel of every government’s policy to date when domestic supply has outstripped demand and JKT has always been a major beneficiary because he is the single largest producer of sugar in the country.
JKT claims that the Principal Secretary to PM, Azam Khan, has been gunning for him since he (JKT) advised Mr Khan to keep a tight political grip on his reformist agenda decisions (through, we may surmise, JKT no less) and not let conservative “rules-oriented” bureaucrats (like Mr Azam Khan, we may presume) call the shots and sabotage the party’s commitment to reform. JKT, it is also known, never hid his contempt for PTI ideologues/aspirants like Asad Umar and Co, who now seem to have ganged up with Azam Khan against him and got the PM’s ear. JKT’s considerable influence on Imran Khan and the PTI’s fortunes – from fund raising, horse-trading and cabinet and government formation —has been steadily on the wane since he was disqualified from being a member of parliament and restrained from sitting in cabinet meetings and formally wielding power.
The PM is expected to focus on the war on COVID-19 but is now seriously distracted by the war within the PTI which promises to wash the party’s mounting heap of dirty linen in public. JKT has already knocked out a central plank of the PTI’s propaganda machine – that the 2013 elections were rigged via “35 punctures” in Punjab – and we can expect more disgusting claims and counter charges to follow that will provide cannon fodder to the media and opposition.
If Islamabad and Punjab are in free fall, the less said the better of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where tens of billions of rupees are being gobbled up by inefficient and corrupt PTI politicians and allies and there is not even a pretense of accountability by NAB and FIA. Quetta is not on anyone’s radar – the mishandling of the Corona crisis is evidence of that — while Peshawar is being run directly from Bani Gala like Lahore. The PM is wont to step into internal squabbles and power struggles and take “exemplary” disciplinary measures, only to reverse them later. And so everyone is making merry and infighting at the same time while COVID-19 exploits the policy U-Turns, confusion and lack of enlightened, firm leadership in Islamabad to spread its deadly tentacles across the land.
Pakistan needs a decisive leader who commands a national consensus. But it is lumped with the Pied Piper of Islamabad.
April 17, 2020
The policy confusion in Islamabad is now exacting another toll. First, it was whether or not Pakistan should go to the IMF, with Asad Umar saying no and then Hafeez Sheikh saying yes. Then it was whether or not we should privatise state enterprises, with Asad Umar saying no, yes, maybe and Hafeez Sheikh putting many units on the block but doing nothing about it. Meanwhile, PM Imran Khan has made a virtue out of U- Turns as the hallmark of great leadership. His COVID-19 “Lockdown” policy beats them all: now we have a lockdown, now we don’t; now Islamabad and the provinces are locked into a consensual policy, now each province is free to make its own policies, now the ulema have agreed to abide by the rules, now they are striking out on their own; and so on, ad infinitum.
Despite global best practices, from Day-One Imran Khan was against a “lockdown” policy for two reasons: his government didn’t have the money or the means to pay millions of households “below the poverty line” whose breadwinners would be out of jobs during the lockdown; and he couldn’t afford to choke the economy when it was already drowning in a sea of debt. So he clutched at straws to justify his view: the “official” Pakistan data showed that COVID-19 wasn’t taking dangerous exponential leaps; the “evidence” (1-2 per cent fatalities) suggested that infected people, especially the young, could easily fight off the virus; the hot summer would take the sting out of it; there was every chance that a vaccine would be developed in the near future to save us all. For two months the virus germinated and spread among the populace. It couldn’t be monitored because a sufficient number of testing kits or protective gear for doctors were unavailable. Mr Khan hemmed and hawed, wringing his hands and feebly trying to fend off a rising chorus of pro-lockdown media and opposition critics.
Last week, Imran Khan finally seemed to give in, juggling the budget to marshal a new “relief package” of a couple of hundred billion rupees for the jobless during a half-hearted, uneven lockdown that mocks the very notion of “lockdown” and makes nonsense of economic-revival policy. Interprovincial travel is banned, intercity isn’t; any business enterprise with “labour” may remain open – which means all manufacturing units and many retail shops – but self-operated small general merchant shops (which most need to stay afloat) may not; the construction industry – supplier of housing – may get special incentives and not disclose the source of its investment (black money) but the buyer of housing (demand for housing) is left out in the cold; tailors and bookshops may open but cloth merchants, schools, printers and publishers who are recipients of their services are locked down; it is all right for most to get back to “business as usual” behind the fig leaf of a “lockdown”. Meanwhile, the moral factor at the heart of his decision remains unspoken: it is ok to keep the economy going even as tens of thousands of Pakistanis could die in the “bargain”!
Worse, at a time when the nation desperately needs a leader who can inspire and unify the people behind one solid policy decision, there is bitter discord between Islamabad and Sindh and between the ruling PTI and the combined opposition parties whose leaders are being relentlessly hounded. The personalized “attack” on the Sindh Chief Minister, Murad Ali Shah, who has earned popular kudos for his heartfelt handling of the crisis in his province, by the usual pack of PTI louts, is particularly jarring. In fact, the PM has now jumped into the fray and tried to hog the limelight in Sindh as the “true” benefactor of the people. Even a national health crisis is not reason enough to stop such petty politicking!
A strong body of expert opinion holds contrary views. It is argued that the true extent of the COVID-19 infection is grossly underreported: people with symptoms are either not reporting them because of cultural factors or because they are not life threatening enough or because they are being denied hospitalization because of lack of testing kits and trained doctors. People who are dying at home because of the infection are being quietly buried and not registered as virus victims. Despite this, the curve is acquiring threatening proportions as the months collapse into weeks and weeks into days, suggesting that we are on the cusp of an explosion.
US President Donald Trump and UK PM Boris Johnson have demonstrated much the same policy inclinations as Imran Khan. Mr Trump thought the virus could be stopped in its tracks by a combination of international travel restrictions and untested vaccines, but he was so wrong that the US is now the most dangerously infected nation on earth. Mr Johnson nearly died in an ICU before abandoning his “herd immunity” policy and following other European nations in locking down the country.
For the sake of Pakistan, we hope Imran Khan’s gambit will succeed, otherwise there will be hell to pay.
COVID game changer
April 24, 2020
Sheikh Rashid, the inveterate chief of his own one-man political party, represents both the Miltablishment and the ruling Pakistan Tereek-e-Insaf (PTI). But when these two are not on the same page – which is increasingly the case these days – he demonstrates a unique ability to speak with a forked tongue to please both masters. Thus we were justified in wondering about the truth behind his recent statement that he would meet Prime Minister Imran Khan and advise him to improve relations with the media and the opposition because “national unity” was the need of the hour in the battle against COVID-19 (Miltablishment’s position) even as he, in the same breath, advised NAB to “drag Shahbaz Sharif to the Accountability Court because he would not voluntarily attend its proceedings” (PM’s position).
In the event, the Sheikh’s noble “mission” has foundered on the rock of Imran Khan’s stubborn vindictiveness against both the opposition and the media. Mr Khan’s hounds are baying for the blood of the Sindh Chief Minister, Murad Ali Shah, because the media has praised Mr Shah’s swift and decisive moves to combat COVID-19 in his province while criticizing the PM’s confusion and double-speak regarding national anti-COVID-19 policy. The PM won’t allow the National Assembly to meet so that the opposition can challenge the wisdom of his policy. Now the opposition has accused the PM of leaning on NAB to take the top opposition leaders into custody and shut their mouths.
More ominously, we gather that the electronic media is up for the big stick from PEMRA. Apparently the stage is set to give the PEMRA Chairman suo motu powers to suspend the license of any TV channel. Such power would violate the letter and spirit of PEMRA rules that stipulate that action against any channel can only be ordered after a complaint has been received and after the respondent has been given a chance to explain and defend his position, and only after the Chairman has formally consulted and received the approval of the other members of PEMRA. Under the proposed amendment, as one insider put it, “the PEMRA Chairman would be able to order the suspension of any channel without consulting anyone, copy orders to SUPARCO that operates PAKSAT to take the channel off air, followed by notices to PTCL and cable operators to follow suit, all in the space of a few hours”. If such an order is passed on a Friday, the offending channel won’t be able to approach any High Court to “stay” the action before the following Monday at the earliest. In any case, even if relief is granted, PAKSAT and Cable Operators are not likely to restore the status quo ante for another couple of weeks, thus plunging the channel into financial loss and bringing it to its knees.
Imran Khan insists the Pakistani media is not just the “freest” in the world, it is anarchic and completely unaccountable. Yet there isn’t a single media watchdog, or independent newspaper or channel, at home or abroad that hasn’t documented the terrible plight of the media on Imran Khan’s watch. At last count, international references to highlight the tight and unprecedented censorship in “democratic” Pakistan had exceeded two dozen respected voices, including from the EU. The detention of Mir Shakil ur Rahman, the owner-editor of Jang-GEO the largest media group in the country, is a pointer in that direction. NAB has dug up a case from 1986 to frame him. Even if he gets bail from the Islamabad High Court in due course, he won’t be allowed to leave the country and resume residence in the UAE where his family resides. If this sort of treatment can be meted out to the mightly Jang-Geo Group, imagine the alarming plight of smaller fry. As things stand, the few independent journalists left in the country have either been gagged or kicked out of their channels and survive only on crumbs from YouTube.
Three months ago, the media was rife with speculation that the clock was ticking for Imran Khan because the Miltablishment had seen the error of its “selection” and was looking to redeem the situation via a national unity government excluding Imran Khan. The sticking point was Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to strike any deal short of a free and fair election immediately and an explicit understanding that the Miltablishment would henceforth pledge to stay out of politics. But the sudden arrival of COVID-19 put paid to all that. With hostile neighbours bristling east and west necessitating a state of military focus, COVID-19 has engulfed state and society in fear and sent the economy into a tailspin, putting the brakes on any halfway-house option.
Pundits say that COVID-19 could tip the scales either way. If Imran Khan’s anti-lockdown strategy works, he will live to fight another day. But if it doesn’t – if hunger, joblessness, strikes, riots and anarchy break out, or the economy sends out an SOS – it will be back to the drawing board for the Miltablishment again.
Help us, Darwin!
May 01, 2020
In an extraordinary statement in front of a youthful, middle-class audience at a state university, Prime Minister Imran Khan has claimed that “the elite locked down the country” bemoaning the plight of tens of millions below the “poverty line”, especially daily wage earners. But the facts tell a contrary story.
Gallup Polls prove that an overwhelming majority of the propertied business classes (the elites) remain opposed to lockdowns and over 85% even continue to pay salaries to their workers during partial lockdowns. In fact, it is the PM himself and the four provincial chief ministers (three of whom answer to the PM) who have taken all decisions in this matter. Is he saying he is not in control of national COVID policy – including the nature, extent and scope of lockdowns? Is he saying he was pressured to set up the National Command and Operations Centre and a three star general to head it was thrust upon him by some “elites”?
The truth is that the PM and his 50 federal ministers, state ministers, advisors and special assistants, aided and abetted by three chief ministers and their similarly bloated armies of ministers, state ministers, advisors and special assistants have collectively botched the war against COVID and plunged Pakistan into unprecedented confusion and hardship. Starting from the crisis at the Taftan border last February that was bungled by the Balochistan government in consultation with the federal government – as testified by a letter from Dr Zafar Mirza, the PM’s major domo, to the provincial authorities laying down the course to follow – to the Tablighi Jamaat Ijtimah in Raiwind authorized by the Punjab government in March and the 20 non-enforceable SOPs for hundreds of thousands of mosques sanctioned by PTI President Arif Alvi, it has been a tale of wanton, continuing disregard of established best practices in such emergencies.
From the outset, the confusion – to lockdown or not — lay in the mind of Prime Minister Imran Khan. He was infected with the same bug as President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. No leader wanted to lock down the country (read economy, stupid) not because they were worried about what would happen to the poor but because they were worried what would happen to their business elites and their profits and what consequent burden would be put on government finances and budgets to look after the poor.
Thus Imran Khan remained immobilized. This compelled the Miltablishment to step in, take charge, announce a lockdown policy, set up NCOC and lean on the PM to sanction a COVID relief package for the needy.
Still, the PM refused to fully get on board. The “relief” for the poor was cunningly packaged by juggling with approved budget allocations for the BISP and Ehsaas Programs and throwing in some peanuts for Utility Stores. To date, only half of the Rs 200B earmarked for this purpose has been doled out. The relief for the elites, however, was more manifest in the form of unprecedented and objectionable incentives for the construction industry and soft loans and deferred debt payments for the rest. Consequently, three months down the line, there is no national lockdown to speak of and there is no palpable relief for the needy.
A decisive and intelligent leader would have enforced a national emergency lockdown at the very outset in February and quickly delivered a relief package for the poor. By end-March he would have flattened the curve at a low level. Or, like Trump and Johnson after making the initial mistake, swiftly U-turned in March when the error was apparent. That would have slowed down the infection and enabled the government to find the time and tools to start the return journey back to normal by end-April, as demonstrated by several countries like China, South Korea, Hongkong, Norway etc. Instead, prevarication and confusion by its leaders have led Pakistan into the worst of all possible worlds in which late and incomplete lockdowns are now being further eased in May precisely when the infection is threatening to break all barriers.
The big lie is in the statistics bandied about by Islamabad and the provinces. Only a fraction of infected people has been properly tested, partly because not every infected person is reporting the infection because of cultural or religious factors and partly because there aren’t enough proper testing kits to cater for every suspicious case. Nor are all COVID deaths being properly notified or recorded. Unfortunately, this false and concocted data is being used by local and international experts to extrapolate Pakistan’s recovery much sooner than may be the case. Meanwhile, the PM is assuring everyone that the demographic youth bulge will protect Pakistanis until the summer heat along with a new vaccine finally put paid to COVID.
Adding insult to injury, Imran Khan has now invited Maulana Tariq Jamil to explain how the dastardly media is to blame for spreading panic while sinful women demanding social freedoms have incurred the wrath of Allah. So help us, Darwin!
May Day! May Day!
May 8, 2020
Last November, pundits were counting the weeks for regime change. Six months later, they fear we are stuck with Imran Khan for a long time. What’s happened to radically change their perspective, especially since the popular motive for wanting to get rid of him – indecision, crisis mismanagement, vindictiveness, policy confusion – has progressively strengthened in the meanwhile?
Everyone knows that regime change in Pakistan cannot happen without the active involvement of the Miltablishment. In November it was a foregone conclusion that the matter of an extension was settled, so there was nothing to stop it from blocking regime change in the following months. That’s why the long march to Islamabad by Maulana Fazal ur Rahman appeared as a dramatic first step in that direction. It was inconceivable, they argued, that the good Maulana would have dared undertake such an enterprise without a wink from the Miltablishment. But then the unthinkable happened: the Supreme Court stepped in and slapped a six month question mark on the extension issue. That meant that the Plan, if there was one, had to be postponed until this matter was finally resolved.
We are nearing the end of that period now. It is anybody’s guess whether or not the SC will open the case this month and seek confirmation from the government that the law has been suitably amended to legitimize the extension. Until then, the Miltablishment can take no chances and must remain unequivocally on the right side of Imran Khan, regardless of any provocations, frustrations, delinquencies, transgressions, offenses, infringements or lapses on the part of the PM and his team.
If this is not an Einsteinian deduction, then we may presume that Imran Khan and his political advisors are also aware of it. So this may explain why they are still pushing their agendas even at the risk of annoying the Miltablishment. An ironic comfort for the government is provided by the unexpected COVID-19 crisis: regime change in the midst of a war – and this COVID-19 is a deadly national opponent – is strictly no-no. Continuing hostilities on the eastern border with India that could precipitate a national crisis at any time, depending on the need of Narendra Modi to distract attention from his domestic woes, has made the Miltablishment even more wary of regime change in such circumstances.
Thus Imran Khan has been making his own counter moves on the chessboard. When there was talk of some sort of “deal” in the offing between the Miltablishment and the Sharifs for regime change, he put a spoke in the wheel by stopping Maryam Nawaz from joining her father abroad, arresting party stalwarts, and launching corruption cases against Shahbaz Sharif and his sons. When the Sindh Chief Minister, Murad Ali Shah, was earning kudos for following the Miltablishment’s lockdown advice, the PM sent in his hounds to sic him and derail his policies. When the Miltablishment nudged the PM to reconcile with and manage the media better in the national interest, he ordered the arrest of Mir Shakil ur Rahman and beefed up PEMRA to do his bidding. Now he has made bold to turn his guns on the Chaudhries of Gujrat even though they hold the balance of the PTI government in the Punjab. Why is that?
Everyone knows the inspiration behind Usman Buzdar’s appointment as CM Punjab. Everyone also knows that the PM has resisted advice from the Miltablishment to change him for the sake of better governance in the core province. Indeed, when the Miltablishment toyed with Aleem Khan for the position, Imran Khan swiftly put him into prison. The Miltablishment changed tack, agreeing instead to key bureaucratic changes to run the province. But when Aleem Khan returned to the Provincial Assembly to stake his claim, Imran Khan sent the Miltablishment’s blue eyed bureaucrats – CS and IGP –packing and installed his own pro-Buzdar “team”. At every stage, the Chaudhries have jockeyed for more power in the Punjab, even flirting with the opposition outside the Assembly and being soft on them inside it. Now the pressure to change CM Buzdar has increased. So Imran Khan has decided to dangle the sword of Damocles on the head of the Chaudhries by digging up a dead case from 2000 so that they should stop conspiring for the coveted position. This is killing two birds with one stone. He is stopping them in their tracks while sending out a message to his loyal followers that he is also holding the corrupt within his ranks accountable rather than only victimizing the opposition. This is gamesmanship.
To be sure, the Miltablishment’s political options for regime change have been severely circumscribed by the refusal of the PMLN to do a “deal” with it that shuts the door irrevocably on Nawaz and Maryam Sharif and allows Shahbaz Sharif to “work” with the Miltablishment “in the national interest”. Equally, though, we may be sure that once the Rubicon has been crossed in May, all the political players in the country will become more alive to the necessity for change one way or another.
Nature of problem
May 15, 2020
The curse of interesting times is upon Pakistan once again. A brief review of history is necessary to understand the nature of the problem.
Independent Pakistan inherited a developed civil-military oligarchy in relation to a weak political class. This oligarchy ruled for two decades until the 1971 debacle which discredited it completely. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party exploited the occasion to push back the military and harness the civil service to do his political bidding. But the military hit back through Gen Zia ul Haq’s martial law regime in the 1980s by seizing the commanding heights of politics, the economy and society. Gen Zia established a nursery for pro-military politicians through the installation of local governments and a nominated Majlis-e-Shura. Then he institutionalized a military service quota in the civil bureaucracy and “Islamised” state and society by amending the Constitution. Meanwhile, the Deep State was empowered and legitimized during the decade-long jihad in Afghanistan. Thus the Miltablishment came into being.
After Zia’s accidental death, Benazir Bhutto tried to regain control of state and society in 1988 but the Miltablishment hit back in 1990 by removing her from office and hoisting a “nursery” politician, Nawaz Sharif, in her place. However, when PM Nawaz sought political autonomy by refusing to take “dictation”, he was also removed from office in 1993. Suitably chastened, Benazir was given a second chance. When she ran afoul, she was sacked again in 1996. Nawaz was also given a second chance. But when he tried to give dictation instead of taking it by sacking Gen Pervez Musharraf, he provoked the Miltablishment to oust, imprison and exile him. In the mid 2000s, when Gen Musharraf tried to “settle” Kashmir with India under American and British pressure, he was persuaded to strengthen his hands by opening up political space for a popular politician like Benazir Bhutto who stood for the same things. But then a maverick judge, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who had been made CJP courtesy the Miltablishment, decided he wouldn’t take “dictation” either. Thus the popular Movement for the Restoration of the Judiciary was born.
This provided Benazir an opportunity to redress the equation. She reneged on her agreement with Musharraf to stay back during the elections and returned home to a tumultuous welcome. Nawaz saw this as a referendum against Musharraf and a reaffirmation of the civilian impulse for civilian rule and democracy. So he too reneged on his exile agreement and returned home. In the sea of uncertainty for the future of the Miltablishment, General Musharraf retired as COAS in November, Gen Ashfaq Kayani became new COAS and Benazir was assassinated in December 2007. The stage was now set for the Miltablishment to ease out Musharraf who had become a losing proposition.
With the help of Nawaz Sharif, Gen Kayani leaned on President Asif Zardari to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry and Co. Despite Miltablishment reservations, however, Zardari passed the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010 to dilute the political economy of a strong center and restrict the federal revenue pool for defense expenditures. Wounded by the fall from popular grace after the US raid to extract and kill Osama bin Laden, the Miltablishment sought distraction by nudging Nawaz and Chaudhry to destabilize and weaken the PPP regime. Memogate followed and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was ousted. Nawaz was given a third chance in 2013 only because the Miltablishment had not secured any political options. Once again, however, he ran afoul by insisting on prosecuting Musharraf for treason because the Miltablishment saw this as both as an affront and as an attempt to institutionalize civilian supremacy. So “Dawnleaks” followed Imran Khan’s allegations of rigged elections in 2013 and dharna in 2014, to oust Nawaz. PanamaLeaks enabled the Miltablishment to call in its earlier support of the judiciary to convict and disqualify Nawaz. The 2018 elections were then “managed” by a mysterious disruption of the RTS system to catapult Imran Khan into office. When the injured PPP and PMNL parties and leaders protested, NAB was let loose against them.
But public sentiment has turned against Imran Khan who has been shown up as an incompetent, blundering partner, exactly when state circumstances require a political leader of substance. The Miltablishment is being blamed for this mess. Ominously, Imran, too, is inclined to spread his wings from time to time. The problem is that it is in the nature of the office of a popularly elected or popularly selected prime minister to demand a degree of autonomy from the powerful Miltablishment which is loath to surrender it.
Imran Khan and the Miltablishment are seemingly on the same page because neither has the option of going it alone or choosing another partner. Also, by virtue of his official powers, the PM controls the personal fate or destiny of the two top men in the Miltablishment. So we may expect the Miltablishment to watch and wait until such issues have been resolved. Or until a popular storm is kicked up exogenously on any big issue and a scapegoat is required “in the national interest”.
Selected “civilian” pressure
May 22, 2020
Sheikh Rashid, the self-confessed Pindi-man, has warned that Tarzan will return after Eid to liquidate man and beast. Since the opposition is already getting the big stick from NAB, is he saying that Chairman NAB is now ready to fulfil his earlier pledge to also catch the ruling party’s big fish?
It is true that NAB’s credibility has plunged to new depths by its one sided “accountability”. So we may expect inquiries against a couple of PTI big fish too. But will these lead to arrests and denial of bail as in the case of the opposition? For example, will NAB seriously approach the Peshawar High Court and Supreme Court to defreeze inquiries in the Malam Jabba and BRT cases that are currently “stayed” because of connivance between the KP government and NAB, and then proceed against the crooks? We are not sanguine. Even sharpshooters can run out of ammo if they are blackmailed for personal indiscretions.
It isn’t just NAB whose record is muddy. The Election Commission of Pakistan has also come in for some stick. A case in point refers to the “malfunctioning” RT system during the 2018 elections that enabled a “selected” PM to come to office. NADRA was given a shut up call when it insisted that there had been no malfunction. The ex-CEC dragged on the inquiry for over a year and eventually, just before retirement, submitted a report to the PTI government that hasn’t seen the light of day, even though the opposition has cried itself hoarse for months for a parliamentary debate on the subject. Much the same sort of inaction has been witnessed in the notorious PTI Foreign Funding Case for five years so that the PTI and Imran Khan cannot be hooked. The ex-CEC flapped about a bit but didn’t risk incurring the wrath of the powers-that-be that have handpicked the PM. The new CEC may make some noises about it but let’s not expect any heroics from retired or even serving judges.
The agencies’ record isn’t laudatory either. The JIT’s great achievement lies in unearthing the UAE “iqama” to knock out Nawaz Sharif. Now the same agencies have been tasked to investigate the sugar and wheat scandals. Is it conceivable that they will find the PM and cabinet culpable at any level for a series of bad decisions that led to exports in times of potential shortages or subsidies to favourites? Instead, the sugar report has concluded that all businessmen in politics are crooks, that the sugar industrialists, including allies and ministers of the government, have taken the farmers, public and government for a ride, and that a proper regulatory framework is needed to stop all this. Asad Umar, Razzak Dawood and Khusrau Bakhtiar will be uncomfortable with some remarks, but not much more. Jehangir Tareen will pick big holes in it. And then what? For the sake of cheap publicity, NAB may summon some mill owners and ask them to fill in long questionaires. But will anyone in the PTI or its allies be arrested and denied bail for months?
Now another Presidential Ordinance points to some hanky-panky underway. The Companies Act of 2017 has been amended whereby Pakistani nationals and dual nationals who own less than 10% stakes in any offshore company will not be required to disclose their assets to the authorities. This means that such a person’s family may jointly own 100% shares of an offshore company but a declaration is not needed if no single member owns 10% or more. We may therefore expect some timely paper partitioning to hide offshore holdings by some vulnerable individuals who have until now not declared their offshore assets but may soon come under pressure to do so. These cannot possibly be Pakistani businessmen whose details have been released in the Panama Papers because they have all taken advantage of two Amnesty schemes to legitimize their ill-gotten gains. Nor can these be MNAs, MPAs and other public servants who, as required by law, have already revealed their wealth. But SAPMs and Advisors who have not been required until now to declare their assets will fall into this category if the cabinet is compelled by public pressure that they too should, in the interest of probity, follow the SOPs applicable to their peers in government. Since that might conceivably embarrass the PM, why not change the law before that happens to let them go scot free?
Then there is the matter of those SAPMs and Advisors who are appointed to high decision-making bodies which are adjudging big cases, as for example in the energy sector or commerce ministry, in which there is certain conflict between their personal business stakes and the public interest. Under the circumstances, the Commission investigating the IPP deals, for example, will have a hard time pointing fingers at the PM’s chosen ones.
Except during direct military rule, we have never seen such blatant and cruel misuse of authority in the name of accountability. The mock-irony is that civil institutions are crumbling under selected “civilian” pressure!
Political Economy of Sugar
May 29, 2020
The Commission of Inquiry Reports into the sugar and energy industries have educated us in the wanton ways of crony capitalism and selected or guided democracy in Pakistan. Therefore this is the right time to ask some hard questions about the way the ruling elites (“ashrafia”) of politicians, bureaucrats, generals and even judges have abused the economy to serve personal or political interests.
The Independent Power Producer (IPP) policies of the 1990s and 2000s were rigged by ruling politicians and crony capitalists to extract substantial profits, kickbacks and commissions that pushed up the rates at which energy was bought by the government. And electric power was subsequently sold to the public at the highest cost in the South Asian region. When some attempts were made to redress the balance, the judiciary stepped in, sometimes to protect the IPPs and sometimes to censure them with disastrous results as in the Karkey case — but never to convict the criminals in private and public life who had pocketed the commissions and defrauded the public. This is one major reason why the circular debt of the power sector has sky rocketed.
The sugar industry better illustrates the powerful nexus between the ruling elites who quickly recognized its potential for state largesse and private profit to secure political advantage. Starting in the late 1950s and continuing until 1990, 28 sugar mills were sanctioned by the civil-military oligarchy to the old landed aristocracy that was always on its right side or to its new urban political allies under Generals Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq. The objective was to harness the various Muslim Leagues (Convention, Qayyum, Pakistan, etc) to do its bidding against the secular NAP and then the PPP opposition/regimes of the times. During this period, the Saifullahs, the Ittefaq Group, the Chaudhries, etc., and similar political allies were thus endowed. From 1990 to 1998, the PML and PPP helped themselves directly to the cake by sanctioning 31 new mills. Subsequently, the Jehangir Tareen “model” was introduced by General Musharraf who went one better and added Khusrau Bakhtiar, etc., to his cartel of cronies, both coming good in recent times to select the Imran Khan regime.
In this model, the government sets the cane price for the farmer, then allows the sugar mills to set the sugar price calculated by the cartel on the basis of jacked-up production costs and politically manipulated export subsidies for the federal and/or provincial government. The model is so rigged that, on average, the total tax paid by the industry (on the basis of fudged accounts and out of book cash transactions) is often only a fraction of the subsidy received from the government. Indeed, this industry is probably the single largest source of money laundering in the country while the sugar barons openly pull political strings and operate ATMs at the behest of their subsidizing political masters.
The truth also is that this is one industry that Pakistan does not need at all. The sugarcane crop guzzles scarce water resources that could be more profitably exploited by cotton and wheat for genuine export forex purposes. The international price of sugar is invariably lower than the Pakistan price too, which means the public and national exchequer is being ripped off on both counts.
It may be instructive to note the salient points of the sugar inquiry report to further understand the economics and politics of the issue. The report highlights the crooked economic manipulations of the cartels and indicts them for forensic audit by regulatory bodies. But it doesn’t squarely pin federal responsibility for sanctioning export at a time of impending scarcity, nor the granting of a hefty subsidy by the Punjab government when exchange rate depreciation had already enabled windfall profits to exporters. At best, the FBR will huff and puff before a battery of high powered lawyers employed by the cartel to thwart the tax collectors and regulators. Meanwhile, the Miltablishment will protect its own Tareens, Khusraus, Chaudhries, etc. for political manipulation in the future, and Imran Khan and his cabinet colleagues who share responsibility for the recent crisis will shrug their shoulders and move on under its umbrella.
Of course, the sugar “crisis” shouldn’t end this way. If Imran Khan were a man of his word – unfortunately, the record on that front isn’t good – he should seize this opportunity of public outrage and set things right. He should immediately move a Bill in parliament or a Presidential Ordinance to indefinitely outlaw federal or provincial subsidies to domestic sugar manufacturers; allow free imports of sugar in the private sector without protectionist duties; and let the market decide which crops are to be cultivated by farmers and which finished goods or raw materials are to be exported by businessmen on the basis of competitive international trade and commerce. This will end cartelization, hoarding, artificial shortages, price hikes and money laundering. It will also lead to a more efficient and productive use of land and water. That is the only way to end the hegemony of sugar barons who have devastated the political economy of Pakistan.
A single spark
June 5, 2020
Writing on January 5, 1930, Mao Tse Tung wrote that “a single spark can light a prairie fire” to motivate his comrades in their revolutionary struggle in the face of depressing political odds. On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street-fruit vendor set himself on fire, sparking the democratic Tunisian Revolution that triggered the Arab Spring against autocratic regimes. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, was wantonly murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, sparking unprecedented, mass protests across America that are cutting across region, class, party, race and ethnic lines, challenging the established capitalist order in a Presidential election year.
In overtly subjective terms, there was no new clear cause for sparking a prairie fire in each incident. Mao’s Chinese Revolution didn’t succeed until 1948; Tunisia was firmly in the 24 year autocratic grip of President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali. Police brutality and race riots were common enough in America since the 1960s. Yet, clearly, the underlying objective conditions were ripe for sweeping change at each juncture. How, then, can we juxtapose subjective and objective conditions to ask whether and when some spark somewhere in Pakistan will light a prairie fire?
The objective conditions are well established. Covid-19 has laid bare the bankruptcy of the ruling civil-military elites that have progressively drowned the economy in debt, impoverished the masses, spawned regional inequalities, exacerbated ethnic tensions and constantly undermined notions of trust, rights and justice. These were embedded in a democratic Constitution reflecting a rare social contract achieved consensually in 1973 after losing half the country. But subjective conditions have been rare and, even when forthcoming, been dissipated at the altar of corruption and political opportunism. For example, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto seized the moment in 1971-72 to proclaim a “New Pakistan” based on principles of democracy and socialism. But his autocratic ways enabled the defenders of the ancien regime to overthrow and murder him. In 2007, a judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, revolted against a military dictator and sparked elements of civil society to wage a prolonged struggle to oust him. However, the same judge was later possessed by megalomania to become larger than the Constitution, sack a prime minister and start playing to the tune of the same vested interests against whom he had led the original revolt. In 2013, a democratically elected, born-again, Nawaz Sharif showed signs of revolting against the old Establishment, only to be ousted by another Messiah judge tilting at the windmills of The Godfather. Finally, a “Naya Pakistan” against the corruption of the rapacious elites and unaccountable Establishment was pledged by Imran Khan in 2018, only to become a willing pawn in their hands and stifle dissent by subverting democratic norms and political freedoms.
The two political parties, the PPP and PMLN, that have offered any semblance of resistance to the Establishment in one form or another at any point of time have done so only on account of the whimsical personalities of their leaders and not organically since the leaders were born from the womb of the Establishment and succumbed to corrupt institutional practices and mismanagement on a big scale. The same is true of the PTI leaders. That would account for the missing subjective conditions to exploit the objective situation today. Much the same can be said of the judiciary that cannot conjure up the integrity or courage to defend the Constitution against the raids of the Establishment.
The subjective conditions are characterised by the political castration of these two parties and leaders by NAB and the judiciary under pressure of the Establishment. Consequently, the political parties are immobilized and prevented from rousing the hearts and minds of the populace. Unfortunately, too, neither party’s aging and ailing leadership is ready to hand over the reins to younger stalwarts, whether dynastic or otherwise, who may be ready to pay the price of incarceration for challenging the established order. Indeed, backroom negotiations aimed at survival have made them impotent.
If everyone is waiting for someone else to ignite the spark somewhere so that the people can spring into action and “save” the situation, we should not make the mistake of condemning the political situation as “unsalvageable”. At every existential moment of overwhelming economic or political crisis, Pakistan’s Establishment has been propped up and “saved” by imperialist foreign powers, most notably the US in pursuit of strategic adventures, with large dollops of money. But that era is coming to an end as Western capitalism faces its greatest challenge since WW2. This challenge is expressed internally by rising voices across established party affiliations for addressing issues of inequality, racism, climate change, health and personal freedoms. It is expressed externally by the breakdown of globalization supply chains, re-imposition of trade and travel barriers and an economy spiraling into acute recession.
If Pakistan is to fend for itself, the Establishment will have to relinquish power and unbounded avarice. It’s only a matter of time before a single spark during the time of Corona and after the hardship budget will light a prairie fire.
For whom the bell tolls
June 12, 2020
“Naya Pakistan” is a constant reminder of two wise sayings.
“He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.”
“In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve”.
Unfortunately, there is no Democracy in Pakistan, only a Selectocracy which the people don’t deserve. The problem is the people cannot shun the fools who preside over this Selectocracy because the people are disempowered, divided and helpless.
But the Miltablishment has stopped repeating the “same page” mantra because it is sounding embarrassingly hollow. Indeed, things are so bad that it has also stepped in to take direct charge of sensitive policy areas. Not just Pakistanis but the international community too has noted that Pakistan’s finance advisor, interior minister, interior secretary, national security advisor, heads of NDMA, NCOC, CPEC, etc., are all Selectocrats. In the latest twist, the Foreign Minister has been excluded from Foreign Policy making: he was conspicuous by his absence when the COAS, DGISI and Special Envoy made a strategic trip to Kabul last week for facilitating talks between the Taliban and Afghan regime aimed at smoothing the American exit from Afghanistan.
Not to be left out, our gallant PM has tweeted his readiness to help the Indian PM in alleviating poverty-related COVID issues with his brilliant cash transfer program. Never mind that the ownership of the program rests squarely with Benazir Bhutto. Never mind also that only half the cash pledged by the PM to the poor and needy at home has actually been transferred in two agonising months and the proposed budgetary outlay of Rs 71 billion for the next twelve months is peanuts for catering to 40 million in need.
It is unprecedented for any government to create or mismanage a sugar, wheat and petrol crisis in the country simultaneously, especially since there are adequate stocks of each commodity at hand. It is unbelievable for a PM to first claim that there is no life threatening COVID19 risk to the people (ghabraana nahin) because it is no more than a common flu and then to turn around and warn the same people to follow impossible SOPs in the face of the most dangerous infection spike in June and July. Worse, when the WHO points out persistent errors in government policy and recommends an urgent course of action, the PTI’s federal and provincial health ministers and advisors are quick to line up and drown out its sane advice.
Not to be left out, the PM proudly proclaims his Islamic credentials by taunting the leaders of the Muslim World that he allowed mosques to remain open when they were shutting them down to stop COVID19 from infecting the masses. It is incredible that the irony was lost on the PM that the opening of the mosques during a general lockdown was one of the main reasons why that lockdown was unsuccessful. In the same vein, the PM has speeded up the repatriation of Pakistanis in foreign lands, despite the fact that over 50% of them are infected when they land and can’t be effectively tested or quarantined, thus spreading the infection far and wide. Best international practices of banning incoming flights during lockdowns were blithely ignored. Unforgivably, the PM has managed to throttle the economy and infected the populace at the same time even as he has constantly portrayed himself as a savior of both. For four months the PM and his cabinet members have beamed before cameras without masks sending out the message of “all is well” when all is definitely not well. Now we are increasingly paying the price for their ignorance, recklessness and callousness.
The situation is fraught with peril because the people are squarely pinning responsibility for the chaos in their lives not just on the government but increasingly on the Miltablishment that has brought it to power. This is leading to two developments: members of the cabinet are blaming one another for the various problems that have erupted and leaking their dissatisfactions to the media; and Miltablishment Big Wigs are silently distancing themselves from the disastrous decisions of the government and scratching their heads for honourable exit strategies.
It is time for them to admit that their latest experiment in governing Pakistan has gone awry. It is taking an unprecedented toll of state and society. Propping it up much longer risks irreparably damaging the permanent institutions of the state like NAB, FIA, Judiciary and Bureaucracy, all of which have been railroaded into doing its illegal biddings. Meanwhile, there is no silver lining on the horizon. The outlook for the economy and COVID19 is so bad that it is only a matter of time before the people erupt to demand an end to this unaccountable disaster of a government. On top of it, if India creates a conflict on Pakistan’s borders that we cannot win, the price of failure will trigger the tolling of the bell for many in Pakistan.
Peasants with pitchforks
June 19, 2020
The decade-long theorizing of the disastrous consequences of rising relative inequality and poverty in the global capitalist system by concerned intellectuals like Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, et al hasn’t been able to drive the point home as much as COVID-19 has done in the span of a few months. The poorest nations, classes and races have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, overwhelming health facilities, social security systems and national budgets, pointing to the fatal flaws of accumulation and distribution in the capitalist system that have brought it to the edge of the worst humanitarian disaster and economic recession in 150 years. The guns vs butter debate pooh pooed by neo-liberal apologists can no longer be shrugged away at the altar of cold or hot wars in the interest of “national security”.
The revival and reconstruction of the post-COVID-19 world order will therefore depend very much on the willingness and ability of the leading capitalist powers to address, as Noam Chomsky, the greatest living public intellectual of our times, puts it, the central issue facing humankind: inequality. A measure of how this message has been soaked up in the public imagination can be ascertained by the riots that have rocked leading capitals of the world, encompassing protests against inequalities of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and incomes in the global capitalist system.
In Pakistan we have been imperiled by a blundering, incompetent and hypocritical government backed by grubby, uncaring organs of the state. This is manifest in the lack of an effective and grounded anti-COVID national strategy that is expressing itself, four agonizing months after the first outbreak last February, in the steeply rising curve of infections, fatalities and unemployment amid shortages of life saving medicines and hospital facilities.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has veered dangerously between full lockdowns, semi-lockdowns, hot spot lockdowns and no lockdowns, between announcing budgetary relief to alleviate the hardships of the worst affected and inability or unwillingness to spread it around quickly and efficiently. By his own admission, no more than PKR 200 B has so far been spent on COVID-19 income relief via the Ehsaas/Benazir Income Support Program and Utility Stores and only a paltry sum of PKR 70B has been allocated for the same in the new budget for 2020-21. Indeed, the federal government has palmed off necessary expenditures on health to the provinces which, true to their equally profound limitations, have scarcely bothered to increase them significantly. On top of it, artificial shortages and resultant price hikes in sugar and flour owing to lack of government planning and regulation have eaten into whatever incomes were afforded to the poor and needy by the miserly “relief packages”.
Meanwhile, the poor and unemployed are daily assaulted by the rising burden of defense expenditures on national security. That is reflected in the singular expenditure item in the national budget that has risen in the midst of a plunging economy, a ballooning fiscal deficit and looming balance of payments crisis. All such items put together, this amounts to nearly PKR 2000B, which is 40% of the total budgeted tax revenue measures of PKR 5000B. After accounting for external and internal debt service payments and handouts to provincial governments under the National Finance Commission award, the federal government is obliged to borrow more debt for administration and development. And thus the vicious cycle continues. The national debt in 2008 stood at PKR 6500B; it rose under the PPP regime to PKR 13,000B in 2013, to PKR 24,000B in 2018 under the PMLN government and is now, two years later, about to peak under the PTI government at over PKR 42,000B. Meanwhile, the burden of subsidizing loss making state enterprises has increased to nearly PKR 2000B and the government is still dragging its feet over whether to privatise and cut losses or retain the white elephants that are sucking the nation dry.
Debt, by itself, isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it is the very engine that spurs economic growth in capitalism. But for that to happen it must be used for productive investment purposes to achieve high GDP growths. In Pakistan, unfortunately, the rising debt has mainly been consumed by unproductive priorities, wasteful projects and corruption. Worse, the prospects ahead for economic growth are negative or zero, which means that we will incur even greater indebtedness, poverty and inequality just to keep our head above water.
The lesson of COVID-19 is ringing loud and clear in Pakistan. The ruling elites of state and society must relinquish their stranglehold over civil society and give it a chance to breathe, grow and replenish the nation. Priorities in borrowing, spending and budget making must radically change. It is criminal for state and government functionaries to blame the people for not following anti-COVID-19 SOPs when they are ill-educated, unemployed, depressed and alienated from their rulers. The alternative is to prepare, as Noam Chomsky reminds us, for the approaching storm of the peasants with pitchforks.
Trust and Confidence
Pakistan’s ruling party, the PTI, is riven with bitter personal and political discord. Its alliance partners are on the verge of jumping ship. The economy is locked into a crash dive, with resultant jumps in poverty and unemployment. The health system is overwhelmed by soaring Covid-19 infections and deaths. The federal system is groaning under the weight of constitutional encroachments by Islamabad. The judiciary is increasingly wary and assertive. The opposition is looking for an opportunity to plunge the knife. India is gearing up to create mischief. Donald Trump’s support is evaporating as the Afghan conflict shows no signs of resolution and his own fortunes take a fateful dip. Predictably, our “national security” establishment is openly being blamed for this state failure because it fathered this dispensation.
Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Minister for Science and Technology, has spilled the beans. He says Imran Khan is a leader without a team, that’s why governance is a big zero. The PTI’s elected MNAs are split between the old ideologues and the new lotas. Both resent the horde of unelected Advisors, Special Assistants and bureaucrats who have the leader’s ear and rule the roost. Personal rivalries and ambitions among the top dogs, each of whom fancies himself as a PM in-waiting, have destroyed the stability and unity of the cabinet. No team, no delivery.
The PTI’s alliance partners are thinning dangerously. It requires 172 MNAs to rule. Prime Minister Imran Khan is now left with 178 after the BNP quit. The PMLQ, MQM, BAP, GDA and JWP are bristling, just waiting for a signal to bolt.
The economy started diving as soon as the PTI seized the reins. Now it is in free fall. For the first time since independence, it is primed for negative growth this year and the next. There is no money and there are no ideas or management to kick start it.
The higher courts are desperately trying to reclaim their lost credibility at the hands of ex-Chief Justices, Saquib Nisar and Asif Khosa, who whimsically triggered the demise of the old democratically elected order and cleared the path for the present selected one. The attempt to disqualify Justice Qazi Faez Isa, because he stood up to the establishment, has backfired. The attempt to browbeat a revision in the National Finance Commission Award has been effectively challenged.
Covid-19 misappraisal and mismanagement is resulting in dire consequences. While the rest of the world is preparing to rise and shine, we are faced with a surge of unimaginable proportions – reliable estimates put potential infections at several million in the next month or two. Those very PTI leaders who said it was a common flu, nothing to worry about, are now blaming the people for their own misery, adding insult to injury.
The border situation is precipitous. Pakistan’s inability to influence the Taliban to accept Donald Trump’s peace and power-sharing plan is not without adverse consequences. Similarly, Narendra Modi’s desperation to distract attention from his own problems (failing economy, covid-19 casualties and China-humiliation) by adventuring across the LOC doesn’t augur well for a politically divided and bankrupt country.
Most significantly, an increasing number of potent voices are now openly criticizing the fathers of the current failed system. This is evident on social, electronic and print media, despite disappearances, censorship and clampdown. This denunciation is echoing in decision-making chambers in powerful foreign countries. And it has spilled over into parliament itself. Hounded and harassed, the opposition is increasingly pointing the finger in the direction of the original sin and finding resonance among lay folks and state institutions. A little bird quotes one founding father as saying that “we bet on the wrong horse, now we don’t know how to get off it”!
That’s only partly true. There are any number of ways to do so. One precondition for course correction, however, requires the Founding Fathers to elevate institutional interest above personal ambition, to allow the political system of parliamentary democracy to filter out its impurities and straighten out its imperfections. A second is to accept the elementary principle of a constitutional democracy that each organ of state and government must commit to remaining within its respective constitutional limits.
The first step in this direction is a “national” or “interim” civilian government for a year or so to restore confidence and trust in its ability to stop the dangerous slide into anarchy and breakdown. The second is to fashion a constitutional consensus on key parameters of state and society for restoration of the freely elected civilian order. The necessary condition for economic revival will depend on sustaining political consensus and stability. The sufficient condition will be subject to the harsh lessons that institutions of the state and government in general and the leaders of political parties in particular should have learnt from their mistakes or misplaced policies and priorities in the past.
A country can survive loss of confidence in government. That is what periodic free elections are all about. But it can’t survive loss of trust and belief in its state institutions because that is the bedrock of the modern nation state.