Saturday, March 24, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 24, 2018

CJP’s riposte

March 23, 2018 being Pakistan Day produced the usual spate of messages from leaders. While many of such messages are traditionally conventional, noteworthy ones too were on display this time. Perhaps the most significant amongst these was the riposte of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar to the suggestion by Sheikh Rashid of the one-man Awami Muslim League that the CJP should declare a 90-day judicial martial law in the run-up to the general elections and decide who should head the caretaker government. The CJP, while addressing a Pakistan Day ceremony at his alma mater Cathedral School, Lahore, categorically rejected any notion of judicial martial law, pointing out that there is no such provision in the Constitution. He underlined that the judiciary would not allow any deviation from the Constitution or democracy to be derailed. The CJP’s clear message should help scotch such outlandish suggestions and the rumours to which they have given birth. Meanwhile in another significant move, it seems that after Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has been appointed the president of the PML-N, his brother and ousted prime minister and former head of the party Nawaz Sharif appears to be stepping back from the confrontational posture he has adopted since his disqualification. Shahbaz Sharif is well known to be a pragmatist. No doubt he has been advising Nawaz Sharif and the party to reconsider their aggressive strategy on the eve of the general elections. Nawaz Sharif’s and his daughter Mariam Sharif’s strident campaign against the judiciary that has disqualified him has been read by analysts as bringing him to a confrontation with the army, believed to be backing the judiciary’s proactive approach since the Panama Papers case. This perception has of late been reinforced by that part of the COAS ‘Bajwa doctrine’ that speaks of defending the judiciary against its detractors. Sober reflection on these developments by the PML-N leadership may have persuaded them that the aggressive rhetoric has run its course after providing the PML-N with a ‘cementing’ effect to prevent defections and splintering of the party’s ranks. The PML-N, like all its predecessor Muslim Leagues in our history, is not the sort of party whose parliamentarians would be inclined to stick with it through thick and thin, particularly if their electoral prospects (and related good fortune) are threatened by conflict with the establishment. The new turn or approach seems to be aimed at preventing a repeat of the debacles the PML-N suffered in the downfall of its coalition government in Balochistan and the Senate elections that followed. And speaking of the aftermath of the rout of the PML-N-led government in Quetta, one of the main protagonists of that defeat, Balochistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti has revealed that Balochistan Chief Minister Quddus Bizenjo will soon be announcing a new party that will accommodate the PML-N ‘dissidents’ and some tribal chiefs. How he claims this will be different from any other party escapes the imagination. The new formation will be led by former governor and chief minister Balochistan Zulfiqar Magsi. The Jamalis reportedly will play an important role in the new party. These revelations indicate that this party is intended to give a political identity to all those who deserted the PML-N in Balochistan and rope in the willing tribal chiefs to have a chance in the general elections. The concatenation of forces that this platform aims to gather seems poised to make a good showing in the coming general elections.

While the PML-N may be revising its strategy and turning away from confrontation towards reconciliation with the powers-that-be, what remains to be seen is what the establishment’s response will be. It goes without saying that even if the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases go against them and Nawaz, Mariam and Shahbaz Sharif all land up in jail, the PML-N, with or without the Sharifs, will still have to go into the electoral contest. Based on their standing in Punjab, reflected partially in the massive rallies Nawaz and Mariam Sharif have been addressing of late, the party’s chances in the general elections are still bright. The PML-N therefore is trying to hedge its bets, preserve its stronghold Punjab, prevent any flight of ‘seasonal sparrows’ from its ranks, and march forward to face its electoral rivals with confidence.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 21, 2018

MMA revived

The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) stands revived as a five-party alliance of religious groups on the eve of the general elections. The fact that it chose on March 20, 2018 Maulana Fazlur Rehman as president and Liaquat Baloch as secretary general only underlines the fact that the really significant parties in the alliance are the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) respectively. The other three, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), Tehreek-i-Islami Pakistan (TIP) and Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH) are not players with considerable political clout in electoral contests. A notable but not surprising omission is Maulana Samiul Haq of the infamous Haqqania madrassa that has trained so many religious extremists over the years and enjoys the reputation of the father of the Taliban. Lately, Maulana Samiul Haq has grown closer to the PTI of Imran Khan that has been in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) since 2013 and been generous in grants for the Maulana’s madrassa. Addressing a press conference in Karachi after the selection of the top leaders of the MMA, Maulana Fazlur Rehman focused his message on the mission of the MMA, referring to its glory days under Musharraf when it was ‘elevated’ to the party in power in KP, and its long standing desire to bring in an Islamic system in Pakistan. It is just as well that Maulana Fazlur Rehman made no attempt to define what such a system would consist of, since that could open the Pandora’s box of the differing interpretations of the faith by even the religious parties allied in the MMA. It remains to be seen whether the MMA’s promised manifesto in the first week of April 2018 will enlighten us more on this sticky subject. The MMA’s best bet remains a return to power in KP, but there are some factors that may make this an uphill task. Although the performance of the PTI government led by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak has been described by sympathetic and hostile opinion as ‘mixed’, it may not prove bad enough to allow the MMA to breach its walls in the coming electoral contest. The JI has been a coalition partner in the KP PTI-led government since the 2013 polls. How it will reconcile to the electorate’s satisfaction it now travelling in two boats remains an intriguing question. Also, although it is not known if the deep state is once more behind (and the benefactor?) of MMA 2.0, it is certainly a transformed political landscape from when the MMA enjoyed Musharraf’s unstinted support from 2002 onwards. At the time, because of the shadow of the deep state over its formation and success in KP, the MMA came to be dubbed the ‘Mullah-Military Alliance’. Whether that description still fits only time will tell.

The problem the religious parties and groups have faced in our history is how to translate their street power based on committed cadres (and therefore nuisance value) into electoral success. Whenever they have fought elections individually and separately, the results have been disappointing for them, translating into votes in single figures and seats of a similar quantum. That may well have triggered the ‘plan’ during Musharraf’s tenure to field these otherwise disparate and often feuding religious parties in a unified platform in the 2002 elections. Whether that was the only reason for its only success so far in winning in one province or the ‘benign’ support of the deep state helped is open to conjecture. Having travelled forlorn through the thicket of our politics after the Musharraf regime’s departure, with the exception of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s manoeuvring his party into the corridors of power with the help of the PML-N and the JI having enjoyed a berth as the junior partner of the PTI in KP, better sense and perhaps ‘advice’ seems to have carried the day and lubricated the wheels of the resurrected MMA. Whether this chariot will upset the given political configuration in the country or in KP is something only time and the outcome of the general elections will decide.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 20, 2018

Faizabad dharna revelations

The 20-day dharna (sit-in) by the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) in November 2017 at Faizabad in Islamabad came up for hearing in the Supreme Court (SC) on March 19, 2018. Notable in the proceedings was the ‘comprehensive’ report submitted by the ISI. In sum, it carried a description of the character of three central figures of the TLYRA: Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Dr Mohammad Ashraf Asif Jalali and Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri. The last named escaped any adverse inference, but the first two were called unsavoury in more ways than one. The report went on to delineate the sequence of events during the dharna, the failed operation by the government on November 25, 2017, the role of the Punjab government and civilian intelligence agencies and the police. None of these escaped censure for sins of omission and commission, which the ISI said had been exploited by the TYLRA to spread unrest throughout the country. The ISI, the report states, recommended avoiding the use of force and seeking a peaceful solution through negotiations between the government and the TLYRA leaders. This advice was finally accepted after the botched police operation and the ISI was mandated by the Prime Minister’s Office to act as ‘mediator’ to defuse the situation, which it managed. While the report paints the ISI in positive colours, the federal and Punjab governments, the police and civilian intelligence agencies could not escape criticism. This may have served the ISI well but the SC was having none of it and trashed the report on the grounds that it had failed to enlighten the court about the profession and source of income of Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the other TYLRA leaders. Nor was the court satisfied with the generalised description of these worthies as corrupt without any flesh on the description how such corruption was being carried out and what was its source. So disturbed was the court at the inadequacies of the country’s top intelligence agency’s report that Justice Qazi Faez Isa was moved to say that he feared for the fate of the country if this was the state of affairs where the ISI could not enlighten the court on the TYLRA leaders’ source of funds and was unaware that millions of rupees of damage had been inflicted by the protestors.

While the SC was taking the ISI and other actors to task for their failure to explain adequately what had taken place in Faizabad, an Anti-Terrorist Court, losing patience with the non-appearance of Khadim Hussain Rizvi and other TYLRA leaders despite repeated summons, ordered non-bailable arrest warrants for the accused on the plea of various petitioners, including a father whose child died on the way to hospital because of the dharna blockade. However, the law enforcement agencies so far have been unable to lay their hands on the accused. This simply adds to the woeful lack of monitoring of the TYLRA before the dharna and the continuing neglect of this critical task even after it. Those of a suspicious bent of mind find all this highly dubious and the conspiracy minded find it smacking of collusion between the TYLRA and the deep state. Such allegations were rife at the time of the dharna. The reports submitted in the SC have done nothing to allay such suspicions and conspiracy theories and may even have deepened these perceptions. The people of Pakistan deserve to know the truth behind the curtain of half-truths and obfuscation that has continued to cloak the whole affair in smoke and mirrors. If the highest court in the land cannot get the intelligence agencies and authorities to inform it of the facts, what hope for ordinary citizens befuddled by this latest of a series of events befalling the polity that defy meaningful explanation.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Business Recorder Column March 19, 2018

Putin triumphant

Rashed Rahman

Russian President Vladimir Putin has won a record fourth term in the elections held on March 18, 2018 with 74 percent of the vote. This is the preliminary official exit poll and the final figure could be higher. Predictably, the opposition has alleged incidents of ballot stuffing and fraud, but these have not found traction with the election authorities or the public. Apart from Putin, there were seven other candidates in the running, with his most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny, barred on legal grounds. The Kremlin had hoped for a high turnout to provide greater legitimacy to Putin’s victory as Russia is currently under attack from the west over allegations of responsibility for the poisoning by a nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain. This has coincided with fresh US sanctions over alleged Russian interference in the election of President Donald Trump.
Counting from 1999 when he became prime minister under then president Boris Yeltsin, Putin has been in power for two decades. During this period he has oscillated between the two top positions of prime minister and president, since the Russian Constitution does not allow more than two terms to a president. The current victory therefore will see Putin serve out his fourth term as president, punctuated by a middle stint as prime minister. Presidential terms were increased from four to six years in 2012. While the final outcome of the election was never in doubt given Putin’s 80 percent approval rating, the turnout amongst 107 million voters of 60 percent lends weight and legitimacy to his mandate till 2024. Putin will be 71 by then, and it is not beyond the imagination that thoughts of the transition and a successor is likely to exercise his mind and that of his colleagues to ensure the stability and restored sense of national pride he has presided over after the disastrous Yeltsin years prevails.
The west paints Putin as an autocrat presiding over a corrupt system dominated by his cronies. But the west’s own role in bringing about a brutal, unfettered loot sale of assets and wealth to the old communist party nomenklatura and a new breed of predatory emerging oligarchs under Yeltsin is glossed over, if it is mentioned at all. In fact, over the last two decades, it cannot be a coincidence that Putin’s actions against such oligarchs have aroused their hatred, political opposition, and open seeking of western support against him.
Russia is not a country that has evolved a democratic system a la the history of the west. It would be politic to remind ourselves of Russia’s modern history. The Czarist Empire extended over more contiguous territory than any other contemporary rival or country. Even after the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 into 15 countries, the remaining Russia is still the largest country by area in the world. The huge Czarist Empire expanded from Moscow from the sixteenth century to enfold through conquest not only its European part, but the huge expanse to the east running through Siberia all the way to the Pacific. It also succeeded in subjugating Central Asia and tying it firmly to its apron strings. This gave the Czarist Empire a unique character, not only in physical size but in the diversity of the peoples and nations in its fold. Virtually all religions could be found in its territories. Peoples and nations with diverse histories and stages of development lived there, all the way from pastoral nomads to aspiring capitalists and everything in between.
Capitalism developed late in the Czarist Empire, compared to western Europe and even the US (the latter could be considered an extension of the European system to the New World through settler colonialism). In fact feudalism thrived and lingered under the Czars, so much so that serfdom was not abolished until 1861. The reform effort of the nineteenth century, as often happens in hidebound, ossified systems (cf. the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century), began to feel the strains of the new forces being born in its womb colliding with the antediluvian hangovers of the past. One of the latter was the continuation of Czarist absolutism, supported on the pillars of the court nobility and feudal landowning class. However, within the womb of this medieval system were growing the seeds of the modern world, underpinned, albeit relatively weakly, by the green shoots of capitalism. Many attempts at overthrowing the Czarist system from within by rivals at the court, from without by a panoply of populists, anarchists, peasant revolutionaries and others produced great turmoil during the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. This culminated finally in first the February 1917 Revolution in the midst of WWI that overthrew the monarchy and declared a republic, later the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ushered in communism.
Long after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) proclaimed by the Bolsheviks was established, went through the twists, turns, bloodshed of the civil war (1918-22), the revolution’s architect and leader Lenin’s passing away (1924), the penchant of all revolutions to consume their own children being played out under Stalin (1924-38), the initial defeat turned into triumphant victory over Hitler (1941-45), the devastating losses and privations of WWII rooted the desire for peace above all else in the hearts of the people of the USSR. That this desire gave rise to Khrushchev’s détente policies has to be located in that context, whatever one’s views about that thrust. Khrushchev did not survive the contradiction between détente and the aggressive Cold War anti-communism of the west led by the US. His successors, while clinging to the idea of a socialist world (largely the USSR and the Eastern European communist bloc), and not always consistent support to third world national liberation and revolutionary movements, imploded largely because the adventure in Afghanistan finally took its toll of the by now creaky system, which Gorbachev was trying to reform.
Communist old guard hardliners’ attempted coup against Gorbachev, who much later confessed to have been swayed towards social democracy, proved the last nail in the coffin of the USSR in 1991 and arguably the 20th century edifice of worldwide communist revolution. While the capitalist west exulted in its victory in the Cold War and dismantling of the original home of the communist revolution, they saw in Gorbachev’s successor Yeltsin the perfect buffoon allowing them to penetrate the Russian economy for capitalism’s benefit (as part of the horizontal expansion of capitalism worldwide, later dubbed globalisation). While the dismantling of the old system overnight produced hunger and even starvation, the new breed of oligarchs aligned with the west became Yeltsin’s abiding legacy.
Putin took over from Yeltsin when the west’s machinations and the legacy of the post-Soviet past had reduced Russia to its knees. He was soon to face the betrayal of then US President Ronald Reagan’s assurances to Gorbachev while asking the latter to dismantle the Berlin Wall that the west (NATO) would not expand eastwards into the former (now independent) territories of the USSR or Eastern Europe. Today, NATO’s expansion eastwards is a fact. Threatened in its ‘near abroad’ by a west ruthlessly committed to weakening and keeping Russia on its knees, Putin pushed back. Hence the best laid plans of the west vis-à-vis Georgia and Ukraine were blunted. During the engineered Ukraine crisis, Putin took back Crimea, gifted to Ukraine during Khrushchev’s period, much to the teeth gnashing of the west. Abroad, after the debacles in Iraq and Libya, Russia drew a line in the sand in Syria and helped beat back the western effort to remove one of the last anti-Israel bastions in the region.
Putin’s push back to the US-led west’s desire to consolidate a unipolar world under their hegemony is what has produced the vilification campaign, personal against Putin, general against a recovered Russia. With all the flaws that could be pointed to in Russia’s system today, the people love and have rallied to Putin for recovering for them their just place in the sun and in today’s increasingly complex and conflict-ridden world.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Business Recorder editorial March 17, 2018

Bajwa’s assurance to FATA

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa has told a tribal Jirga in Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that he is very much in favour of the proposed merger of FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. However, he added, nothing would be done without the stakeholders’ consent. No decision in the matter would be imposed from the outside. A meeting of pro-merger and anti-merger elements would be organized in the near future to deliberate on the matter. He went on to dilate on the reasons for FATA’s suffering, chief amongst which over the last four decades was a consequence of the Afghan wars that saw militants, mujahideen and terrorists based there. Not only did this lead to the emergence of a Pakistani Taliban, it added to the historical woes of the tribal areas because of an anachronistic colonial construct in pursuit of the British occupying power’s security considerations on the northwestern frontier of its Indian empire. To achieve this objective, and knowing well the penchant and history of the Pashtun tribes of the area to resist any occupier, the British imposed a draconian system of control. This included collective punishment of tribes under the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), total control of the lives of people in FATA by Political Agents appointed by the Governor-General, the absence of even those minimum rights available to the indigenous inhabitants of the rest of the subcontinent, and the ‘system’ of ‘gold and guns’ to bribe the tribal Malliks (chiefs) to keep their peoples quiescent. If today, some of those Malliks pose a vested interest roadblock to the merger of FATA with KP, while the dialogue suggested by General Bajwa may not be a bad thing, no section that benefited from this antediluvian construct in the past can be allowed to block the emergence of the people of FATA into the light of day in the modern world out of the darkness and backwardness in which they have been deliberately frozen for more than a century. Some political forces, for example Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, have been resisting the notion of the merger of FATA with KP, ostensibly on the ground that the wishes of the people of FATA should first be ascertained. It is not clear whether General Bajwa’s proposed meeting of pro- and anti-merger elements springs from and is a response to such objections, but if handled properly, it could serve to let the air out of this and other vested interest balloons. And while FATA’s fate is being pondered, we should not forget the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), which may be considered the ‘poor cousins’ of the people of FATA. All these areas, FATA and PATA, should now be merged into KP, the colonial legacy done away with, and the rights of the tribal people as full citizens accorded to them.

It is a matter of regret that Pakistan, despite emerging as an independent state 70 years ago, failed to overcome the legacy left behind by British colonialism vis-à-vis the northwest frontier of the new state. They say old habits die hard, and in this case, partly at least because of the irredentist claims of Afghanistan on this area, the colonial legacy was considered the best defence and security bulwark for this frontier. However, this construct was retained at the expense of the people of the tribal regions. Better late than never, it is a step that is long overdue. Unfortunately, while the governments at the Centre (PML-N) and in KP (PTI) as well as parliament have been seized of this matter since long, an effective decision in principle (so far only lip service) and an efficacious implementation plan have been mooted time and again without a leaf stirring on the ground. The merger of FATA and PATA with KP is only the first step in a perhaps lengthy process of bringing the political, legislative, administrative and social conditions at par with the rest of the country. This mainstreaming process of the benighted tribal areas cannot and should not be subject to further delay.