Saturday, August 30, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 31, 2014

Of coups, soft and hard The furore over who ‘invited’ the military to ‘facilitate’, ‘mediate’, ‘be a guarantor’ (take your pick) in the ongoing impasse attending the government-PTI/PAT confrontation may have grabbed the attention of the media (particularly electronic) and public for at least 24 hours, but it can only be seen as a storm in a teacup against the bigger issues involved. Whether the government (according to the ISPR clarification) or the PTI/PAT (according to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the floor of the National Assembly) requested COAS General Raheel Sharif to intervene in the standoff and use his good offices to find a solution, this latest episode in the war of nerves playing out in D-Chowk, Islamabad and elsewhere points to some obvious and some not so obvious realities. Not many will buy the argument that if the military decides things have gone on too long in the sit-in, it is not in a position to ‘persuade’ either or both sides to call it a day. The controversial ‘request’ has set off a storm of protest in parliament, first and foremost from Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah of the PPP and then others, the former uncharacteristically thundering on the floor of the house that the prime minister must stand firm in defence of the constitution and democracy. He was harshly critical of the invitation to the military, howsoever well intentioned or desperate, to intervene in the crisis. The concern on the part of the 11 parties who have been standing with the government in this situation is understandable in the light of our history. Pakistan has had more than its share of direct and indirect military interventions, coups and manipulation behind the scenes. Perhaps the real change we are witnessing is that Pakistani society today may be less tolerant of any attempt at a ‘hard’ coup (a military takeover), the judiciary may not be complicit in legitimizing it as in the past, the media would probably make life hard for any such adventure, and international opinion and the western powers would look askance. The difficulties of running Pakistan today are also immense. Without legitimacy or popular support, it may be difficult for any dispensation, irrespective of the manner of its ascent to power, to manage the country when it is beset with enormous problems of terrorism and the economy’s slide, amongst others. However, a ‘soft’ coup, which involves the surrender of policy space by the civilian elected government to the military, as is being speculated may be the price Nawaz Sharif has to pay to stay in power, is something the forces that support democracy and constitutionalism may not even become aware of before it is too late to reverse. Two areas of security, defence and foreign policy that seem up for grabs are the stance on Afghanistan as it nears endgame, and relations with India. The former involves reversing this government’s ‘hands off’ stance to allow an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led political process find resolution of that unfortunate country’s future after the western forces leave. The latter conditions improvement in relations with New Delhi and economic cooperation on progress in the Kashmir dispute. In addition, a troubled area in the civil-military relationship is the issue of Musharraf’s trial for treason. On all three, the military is today placed in a position to demand concessions from the government. Nawaz Sharif may decide to concede these areas in order to live to fight another day. But such a denouement would once again immeasurably weaken the hoped for continuation of democracy and serve as a reminder that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same in Pakistan.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 29, 2014

Endgame? The sit-in by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri’s supporters in Islamabad does not show any signs of ending. Off again, on again talks between the protestors’ and the government’s negotiators resemble nothing more than a roller coaster ride. Just when it seems the two sides may be moving closer, either or both leaders come out with a rigid stance that pours cold water over resolution hopes. After protracted negotiations, the government agreed to allow the filing of the FIR in Lahore regarding the shooting of Qadri’s supporters in Model Town on June 17. However, once the FIR was registered and its text was revealed, Qadri rejected it. Earlier, he had not only declared the doors of negotiation closed, he had demanded the hanging of the Sharif brothers, not just their resignations. Imran Khan too seems to open the door to negotiations a crack, only to shut it ‘firmly’ again when the results of the talks come back to him. Is this a case of a pattern of seeming to be ‘reasonable’ for public consumption when outright refusal to talk would damage the protestors’ leaders’ image and then reversing that in the belief that incremental concessions by the government indicate its desperation and weakness? Is it that Imran and Qadri’s ‘hopes’ of a third force intervention, even if they are yet to be fulfilled in the manner they would have liked (the removal of the government and either a direct or indirect establishment-manufactured dispensation), are nevertheless encouragingly playing out against the government and in favour of the protestors? If rumours are to be given any credence, the military’s message to the government is to resolve the deadlock at the earliest in the interests of the country but not to use force against the protestors no matter what happens (even an ‘invasion’ of sensitive government buildings). If there is any truth in these rumours, all the protestors have to do is stay put (which Imran and Qadri are exhorting them to do every day), let the pressure mount on the government and wait for the chips to fall in their favour. This strategy could not have found traction without the factor of the establishment’s support. Rather than delineate a minute-by-minute account of developments in the crisis (which because of the round the clock TV coverage is straining nerves by now), it may be more useful to draw out the implications of the events in Islamabad. If the present agitation succeeds in toppling the government, future elected governments too could be challenged in similar fashion with a few thousand supporters and the behind-the-scenes backing of the establishment. The demands could be reasonable or unreasonable but intransigence regardless could, with the help of the ‘third force’, bring any elected government eventually to its knees and tear up the will of the electorate. Already, the peaceful democratic transition of 2013 (the first in Pakistan’s history) has by now lost its lustre (the incumbent government having contributed to this outcome because of its aloof, indifferent attitude to the people’s woes). Can it be restored in the future for the sake of constructing a ‘system’ and settling the rules of the game of politics? Given the way things have played out now, it seems that the old problem of corruption will have to be tackled through a reform of the existing accountability regime, if possible, or the creation of a new architecture that enjoys the consensus and confidence of the entire political class as well as the people. If democratic transitions are to become the norm, credible, transparent electoral processes that carry acceptance by one and all will have to be put in place. Obviously this will include an audit of the 2013 election controversial seats, sorting out the anomalies revealed by such an audit and the reconstruction of the election commission. Whether agreement can be reached and all this carried out in the present atmosphere seems more and more unlikely. If no agreement on resolving the crisis is forthcoming and the government is hamstrung by the third force’s ‘advice’, the only way forward for the PML-N and the 11 parties in parliament that are standing by democracy and constitutionalism may be to announce a fresh appeal to the sovereign, the electorate, and hold fresh elections. In the present political landscape, the chances of the PML-N again either winning outright or in coalition with all or some of the 11 parties in parliament seems a good bet. Not so good a bet is the fortunes of the PTI and PAT, which may prove to have come out of this confrontation with a pyrrhic victory.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 26, 2014

Imran Khan’s increasing desperation Imran Khan’s desperation seems to be growing as his sit-in in Islamabad continues, seemingly indefinitely. Part of his frustration stems from the fact that he has painted himself into a cul de sac with his demand for the resignation or going on leave for a month of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while a mechanism is created to audit the allegedly rigged seats in the 2013 election under the aegis of a Supreme Court commission. Now he has once again given a 24-hour ultimatum for the prime minister’s departure. By the time these lines appear in print, that deadline will also have passed, like all the others given by the Imran-Qadri duo so far. The government has on the one hand showed exemplary patience with the protestors and its negotiators agreed with their PTI counterparts to address five of their six demands related to the election audit, etc, while firmly rejecting any notion of sending the prime minister home, even for a short period. Imran Khan’s argument is that the prime minister can influence the commission’s investigations if he remains in power. This is a vote of no confidence in the judiciary that has acquired a fair modicum of independence since its restoration in 2009. The desperation of Imran Khan is reflected in his threat on Sunday to widen the PTI protests countrywide to include wheel-jam and shutter down strikes. Partly, the call may also be a response to the march the PML-N has stolen on Imran by staging Istehkam-e-Pakistan (Stability of Pakistan) counter-rallies in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad, etc. Meanwhile the Supreme Court has ordered Constitution Avenue cleared of protestors, which poses a challenge to both the government and the supporters of the Imran-Qadri duo. Because of the convergence of the two, the government seems now to be making efforts to separate the ‘Siamese twins’. This is being attempted by government and other mediators trying to persuade Qadri to stand down if the FIR of the Model Town incident is conceded. Of course the question still remains what pound of flesh Qadri will try to extract. For example, the question of whether Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s name will be included in the FIR or not is still unsettled. And if it is, whether Shahbaz’s chief ministership will be sacrificed for the greater cause of a settlement with Qadri remains moot. The pendulum has swung Shahbaz’s way because of Qadri’s insistence on the registration of the FIR and the ‘human sacrifice’ of former Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah and the chief minister’s secretary Tauqeer Shah having failed to douse the cleric’s verbal fire and brimstone. The PTI on the other hand seems to be backing itself into a corner with each passing day. Imran Khan’s announcement of the resignations of his MPs has not gone down well with some of them, if media reports are to be believed. There is even a report that a disgruntled faction of MPs from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have decided to form a Forward Bloc with its own leader, although this is being denied by the ‘official’ PTI. It is still not clear how many resignations have been submitted to the National Assembly Speaker since he was expected back to review them yesterday. Political parties, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami, have asked the Speaker to make haste slowly, if at all, on these resignations, since they still hope some negotiated settlement can be achieved. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of the media being ‘played’ by vested interests has come to the fore in this crisis, with Afzal Khan, an ex-Election Commission of Pakistan member’s sensational charges of rigging proving a distracting tactic and patently challenged by all the Election Commission’s members, past and present. Journalism in Pakistan has to be careful how it conducts itself if it is not to find itself used for partisan purposes. And speaking of journalism, The New York Times’ analysis underlines Imran Khan’s isolation from all the political parries in the country and the bleak future that awaits him and his party as a result of his over-reach in this long march adventure.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 23, 2014

Crisis: resolution, denouement After a brief flurry of hope on Thursday that the PTI/PAT protestors in Islamabad and the government were engaged in a dialogue to resolve the protracted stand-off, a bucket of cold water was poured over these tidings and with the refusal of the PTI leadership to resume the talks, ostensibly because they charged the government with preparing an assault, the country was back to square one. On Friday, PTI leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi submitted the resignations of the PTI MNAs to the Speaker’s office. The resignations of the PTI Punjab and Sindh MPAs would be submitted within three days, the PTI announced. The PTI has no seats in Balochistan. It has remained quiet over the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where a no-confidence motion has been moved against its government. Meanwhile the National Assembly and Senate have resoundingly supported Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif and vowed not to allow any extra-constitutional step. Eleven of the political parties in parliament have adopted this common stand (with the obvious exception of the twelfth, the PTI). In addition, civil society, and in particular the lawyers community, have also come out in support of the democratic order. The lawyers boycotted the courts throughout the country in protest on Thursday. These developments and trends are enough to underline the political isolation Imran and Qadri have landed themselves in because of their stubborn unreasonableness. Even the UK and the US have come out in support of the constitutional democratic order, the latter’s State Department statement earning the ire of Imran. While the resurrected Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said in a press conference on Friday that the next 48 hours are critical, echoing similar dire pronouncements by Imran, the government’s strategy so far appears to have been to wear down the protestors over time, not to launch a crackdown that would only earn them sympathy (the episode of the IG Islamabad being ostensibly removed for refusing a crackdown not withstanding), and meanwhile keep the doors of negotiations open. The PM has categorically stated that there is no question of his tendering a resignation as Imran insists. The PM pointed to the implications of instability for the country if any such step were taken (not to mention the deleterious effect on the hopes for a continuation of the democratic order). As to the military, Imran and Qadri may have hoped for and even tried to create the conditions for a military intervention, but on the face of it, the military seems in no mood to oblige them. Whatever concessions on the issues of policy vis-à-vis India and Afghanistan and the treason case against Musharraf the military establishment may or may not be able to wring out of a weakened government, no coup seems likely, both for reasons of external and internal factors militating against it. If this analysis is correct, that places Imran and Qadri in a cul de sac from which they may need a face saving exit. What could be the shape of such a resolution? The government should, with the consensus of all political parties (including hopefully the PTI), reorganise the Election Commission to make it credible, address the rigging allegations on as many seats as the PTI points to through an impartial audit, and only contemplate the resignation of the PM if any proof is found that he is responsible for any rigging. In such a scenario, fresh elections could be called, although were such a development to ensue in the current circumstances, the chances are that the PTI would receive an electoral drubbing for its non-performance in KP and its unnecessary and irrational stirring of a crisis over so far unproved rigging allegations. And who knows, the electorate in its wisdom may return the incumbents with an even bigger majority in the hope that having learnt its lessons, the PML-N would be more sympathetic to the plight of the people and make efforts to redress their problems and difficulties. As far as the Model Town, Lahore incident is concerned, since the one-member judicial commission comprising a judge of the Lahore High Court has failed to attract the confidence of Qadri, a new commission be appointed that enjoys the approval of the aggrieved party and its conclusions be used to decide whether Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had any role or responsibility for the deaths of 14 PAT workers as a result of police firing. If so, he must resign and face the consequences. If not, whoever was responsible for the tragedy must be held accountable. This path and these steps seem the only way out of the current impasse. Whatever else happens, Imran Khan and the PTI may end up the biggest losers for overplaying their hand, Qadri’s PAT may not be able to agitate to bring down the whole democratic edifice in future, and a chastened PML-N and converging political class (minus the PTI) may be our best hope for stability in democratic terms, with at least the possibility of fighting for the people’s rights without the fear of dictatorial repression.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 21, 2014

Dual power? Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri seem adamant in their maximalist demands regarding the resignations of Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif before any negotiations can be held, either directly with the government or with either of the two committees set up for the purpose with the assistance of the parliamentary opposition. The government has acted with exemplary restraint in allowing the rallies and sit-ins, going so far as to permit the protestors to enter the Red Zone, reportedly after receiving assurances with the help of ‘intermediaries’ that no important or sensitive building would be attacked or occupied and the rally would remain peaceful. The military’s declared reluctance to be drawn into the middle of a political confrontation (with the possible exception of the deployment of army sharpshooters to guard certain important buildings in the Red Zone the other day) changed on Tuesday after a meeting between the PM and COAS General Raheel Sharif. Command of the security of the Red Zone was handed over to the army and troops deployed to assure the safety of buildings and institutions described by the ISPR DG’s press statement as symbols of state authority and therefore qualifying to be protected from ‘insult’. The PM has (righty) rejected the demand for his resignation (given his clear majority in parliament), scotching any attempt to set an unsavoury precedent that any ‘crowd’ laying siege to the fount of power can trump the expressed will of the electorate through the ballot box and topple an elected government at its whim and wish. Imran Khan and Qadri, through their expressions and challenges to the incumbent government, have been attempting through their rallies and sit-ins to create the illusion of ‘dual power’, i.e. the power of the government/state against the power of the street. Imran Khan has dubbed PM Nawaz Sharif as the Hosni Mubarak of Pakistan as part of his effort to inspire his supporters to create a ‘Tahrir Square’ in D-Chowk. Qadri has announced the holding of a ‘people’s parliament’ in front of the Parliament House. Where, however, these quixotic attempts have failed is in reading the ground realities and tea leaves correctly by transposing them accurately against the circumstances historically that led to the creation of ‘dual power’, Tahrir Square’ and a ‘people’s parliament’ as the alternative and challenge to the elected one. For the benefit of Imran Khan and his companion-in-arms Qadri who describes himself as a ‘Marx and Lenin rolled into one’, consider the historical context of such ideas. The concept of dual power arose during the stormy year 1917 in Russia when the Czarist monarchy was overthrown by a popular revolution in February, to be followed by a hiatus pitting a weak interim government led by the Cadets party against the power of the revolutionary Bolsheviks led by Lenin, the latter having gained majority support in the soviets (committees of workers, peasants and soldiers spontaneously thrown up during the February revolution). That hiatus, described in the literature as a situation of dual power, was finally broken by the October Revolution that year that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Hosni Mubarak was a dictator of 30 years standing, not a genuinely elected PM. Tahrir Square was the outpouring of resentment and opposition to that 30-year dictatorship that the people finally overthrew, albeit what followed leaves much to be desired in terms of the original aims of the struggle and its final outcome: a military dictatorship. Given these bare facts, the situation in Pakistan today is nowhere near Russia in 1917 or Egypt in recent years. Our dilemma is how to manage the real discontents of the people with parliamentary democracy in which governments are unable conceptually or practically to satisfy the aspirations of the people. That democracy is still in its infancy. The hope that peaceful democratic transitions like what transpired in 2013 would become the norm rather than the exception, leading to the consolidation of a democratic dispensation in a country with a sorry record of dictatorship, may be in trouble because of the Imran/Qadri marches and challenges, requiring serious thought on how to improve the electoral system to ensure its credibility and deliver to the people what are their rights. This reform is only possible if parliament is strengthened and made effective. One of the course changes the PM and his government require therefore is to pay proper attention to attending and strengthening parliament as the foundation of a democratic order.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 16, 2014

The courts and politics The Lahore High Court (LHC) issued an order that no “unconstitutional” march or sit-in could be held by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri on the eve of Independence Day. That wording left room for Imran Khan and Qadri to argue that they would proceed with their respective marches while adhering to the constitution and remaining peaceful. The order also seemed to have a salutary effect on the government, persuading it to adopt a ‘softly, softly’ approach to the marchers. Unfortunately, the LHC forgot the well known jurisprudential principle that courts should not issue orders that cannot be implemented. The marches took off on August 14 regardless. Now some people are trying to hold Imran and Qadri in contempt of court, after the horse has bolted. The LHC also held that asking for the resignation of the Prime Minister (PM) was unconstitutional. With due respect, that does not hold water. Asking for resignations is the very stuff of democratic politics. Whether those asked to go comply or not is a separate matter. What is not constitutional however, is holding the country, government and the democratic system hostage through street power to force him to resign when the PM enjoys a clear majority in parliament. This development once again highlights the perils of the courts adjudicating political issues. This is the consequence of seeing the courts as the final arbiters of everything, a trend that set in after the judiciary was restored in 2009 as a result of Nawaz Sharif’s long march for the purpose. It was given further traction by the hyper activism of the Supreme Court under former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Unfortunately, the hangover of that mistaken belief in the power of the courts to fix everything under the sun still persists. In defence of the LHC’s order, what could at best be said was that it acted as a restraining influence on the government and the marchers. The two marches set off peacefully, albeit at a snail’s pace, from Lahore on August 14. The relief that brought did not last. An unfortunate clash between PML-N and PTI workers in Gujranwala queered the pitch again. In the wake of the clash, Imran Khan abandoned his slow moving container and decided to dash ahead to Islamabad in a bulletproof car. Some analysts were inclined to ascribe this change of travelling mode to the alarm in PTI circles that Qadri and his contingent had dashed ahead and would arrive in Islamabad ahead of Imran Khan’s cavalcade. By now it is hardly a secret that the PTI is concerned its agenda may be overtaken or trumped by Qadri’s in Islamabad. What are these respective agendas? Going by their repeated statements, Imran Khan is insisting on the resignation of the PM, the setting up of a non-political interim government, and fresh elections, thereby ostensibly rejecting all the olive branches proffered by Nawaz Sharif in recent days. Qadri, on the other hand, has just issued a radical sounding 10-point agenda that he calls the foundations of his ‘revolution’. Theoretically, Imran Khan can still be seen as having stakes in the parliamentary democratic system despite his scathing criticisms of the present setup. Qadri, on the other hand, cannot be accused of any such consideration. He wants to upset the apple cart and bring in a government leaning towards theocracy and headed by himself, presumably through the back door as he does not have any presence in parliament. It is therefore in the interests of Qadri to escalate the confrontation to a point where the establishment intervenes in the name of saving the country and paves the way for Qadri’s hoped for success. The intriguing question now is what the stance of the establishment is to the current crisis. The military has, according to reports and as expected, conveyed to the government that it will not physically intervene in the confrontation brewing in Islamabad. That understandable hands off approach to a purely political situation notwithstanding, Pakistan’s history of military intervention, overt and covert, has persuaded some conspiracy theorists that behind the scenes the establishment is preparing a new version of the ‘Kakar solution’. This refers to the manner in which General Kakar, the then COAS, intervened in the conflict between then PM Nawaz Sharif and then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993 to send both packing. Were such a scenario to be played out, it would be terribly disappointing to those who saw the 2013 elections as a watershed moment for Pakistan in terms of a peaceful transition from one elected government to the next, thereby raising hope that democracy, fragile and uncertain as it may be, was on its way to consolidation in the country. If any extra-constitutional outcome follows the marches and sit-ins in Islamabad, it would be a grave setback to the forward march of democracy and a case of back to square one: establishment-driven imposed solutions on a country by now weary of such anti-democratic manipulation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 14, 2014

Imran Khan’s agenda Today is an Independence Day with a difference. Everyone in the country is holding his or her breath in trepidation at what might transpire in the long march that Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have visited upon us. On virtually the eve of the march, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif finally made it to the television screens to deliver an address to the country on the crisis that has been brewing for weeks if not months now. In his address, the PM proffered what may be called the ‘final offer’ in the shape of an olive branch to resolve the impasse. He announced that the government would ask the Supreme Court to constitute a three-member commission to examine the charge that there had been rigging in the 2013 elections. This is the charge on which Imran Khan has finally arrived via his earlier, more modest accusations of anomalies in four seats. Khan has relentlessly pursued a strategy of escalating demands, starting from four allegedly contentious seats to 40, and then finally a rejection of the election as a whole. Along the way he has littered the landscape with accusations against virtually all and sundry of being the authors of or complicit in the rigging that he claims robbed him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) of its rightful electoral victory, not sparing even his erstwhile ‘heroes’ Fakhruddin G Ebrahim and former Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. The PM in his address very soberly dealt with Imran’s allegations about rigging, pointing out that there had not been a shred of evidence provided so far to back up these charges. Coming down firmly against any attempt at creating anarchy, violence and bloodshed, the PM argued that with the setting up of such a commission, the whole fracas about the elections and their validity should die down and Imran Khan should sit down to talk to the government on this and the whole gamut of issues that are agitating him. By his rejection of the PM’s announcement of a judicial commission and his refusal to meet the PM before the march today, Imran Khan may have inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. This kind of commission was originally demanded by Imran himself. Therefore its rejection at this point reflects the startling suggestion that it may not be due only to the Khan’s well known streak of stubbornness but the outcome of a more sinister agenda. While Imran is immovable in his intransigence, many other political parties, including the PPP, have welcomed the PM’s move as providing a way out of the impasse. While every sane citizen of the country desires that the day passes peacefully without violence or bloodshed, hardly anyone can subscribe to the notion or be willing to set a precedent that street power trumps an elected parliament, agitation robs the polity of a democratic mandate, and unsubstantiated charges form the basis for the removal of a PM and government that enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament. That way lies anarchy and chaos. If consciously or unconsciously this is what Imran Khan is aiming for, it cannot be considered any service to Pakistan. While the superior judiciary enjoys trust and credibility in far greater measure than ever before in our history, it is a mistake to think that every issue, including political matters, can be adjudicated through the courts. Asking the High Courts to intervene in matters political runs the risk of exposing the courts to getting embroiled in controversies without necessarily being able to do much about the trends and events playing themselves out on the political front. The Lahore High Court on the eve of the march ordered the blocking containers removed immediately, the stoppage of harassment and arrests of PTI workers, and the release of those already detained. The order may prove too late in coming since today’s events have already been set in motion and the court’s orders may well be impossible to implement before developments on the ground overtake them. Interestingly, apart from Qadri and some ‘tonga’ parties, Imran stands more alone than ever. Almost every other party of note has supported the latest offer of the PM as a reasonable way out. But ‘reasonable’ does not apply it seems to the Khan, who is intent on holding not just the country, but the hard won democratic system hostage. Pray for better outcomes, but don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Daily Times Aug 8, 2014

Crisis, impasse, outcome The sense of looming crisis because of Maulana Tahirul Qadri’s August 10 ‘Martyrs Day’ rally in Lahore and Imran Khan’s ‘Million March’ on Islamabad on August 14 seems to be deepening. A flurry of activity and exchanges amongst political leaders of various parties on Wednesday underlined the growing sense of urgency to defuse the confrontation between the government and these challengers before things get out of hand and lead to a destabilisation not only of the sitting government but also the democratic system per se. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf's (PTI’s) coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), has also become active in the mediation efforts. JI leader Sirajul Haq met Imran Khan and Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif and conveyed messages back and forth. The thrust of what Sirajul Haq shared with the media afterwards was that he had tried to find some middle ground between the government and the PTI to head off the threatened confrontation. While agreeing in principle with Imran Khan’s contentions about non-transparency and even rigging in the general elections 2013 (an afterthought shared increasingly by other opposition parties including the PPP), Sirajul Haq said he had advised the PM to address the complaints of the PTI. In answer to a question, the JI leader reiterated his party’s wait-and-see position by saying a decision on whether to join the PTI’s long march on August 14 would be taken after the JI’s Palestine solidarity rally on August 10. Peripherally, August 10 may also determine the JI’s decision based on what happens in Lahore on that day vis-à-vis the Qadri rally. In addition to Sirajul Haq, the PM received visits from Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Ejazul Haq and other leaders. Former president Asif Ali Zardari worked the phones from London for the second day running, calling Imran Khan and Qadri. On the sidelines, Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah met Asfandyar Wali. Whatever else these efforts may or may not have yielded, they failed to persuade Imran Khan for talks or a dialogue with the government and he refused to back down from the August 14 march. In his body language and statements, Imran Khan seems convinced that he is on the brink of a historic opportunity, one that will open the pearly gates to power for him if he stays the course. The government on the other hand (including the younger Sharif sibling’s government in Punjab) seems to be working on a two-track strategy. On the one hand, Shahbaz Sharif and other PML-N leaders have tried to dangle the carrot of talks before Imran Khan, while on the other hand, despite denials, it now seems clear that the Punjab police (bolstered to a strength of 10,000 in Lahore) has orders to arrest leaders and workers of PTI (a list reportedly of 600) and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (400), block routes into Lahore on August 10 or even before with 450 containers forcibly seized from private transporters, and impound hundreds of motorcycles purportedly being used by PTI workers for mobilisation for August 14. Raids for the arrest of those on the lists have been reported from some parts of the country, with mixed success since the PTI has ordered its critical cadres to go underground in anticipation of being detained to prevent them mobilising for August 14. While the government on the one hand braces for the protests and takes time-honoured measures to pre-empt the rallies, it is also reaching out to ‘friendly’ parties to find a via media to defuse the crisis. Many of these otherwise well disposed parties, amongst whom PPP must find pride of mention, have been objecting to the deployment of the army under Article 245 to handle Islamabad’s security. These fears are grounded in Pakistan’s history of military interventions in politics and even coups in the past. There is grave apprehension that the Islamabad deployment may turn out to be a case of the parable of the camel and the Arab. Meanwhile the uncertainty and apprehensions about what might happen on August 10 and 14 has impacted the Karachi stock market to the extent almost of a thousand point drop in recent days. The government has reportedly postponed an electricity tariff hike for fear of fuelling public anger further. Industry and commerce, already under pressure because of the energy crisis, are voicing fears of unrest causing a major dent in the government’s efforts to stabilise and revive the economy. PML-N leaders have categorically ruled out the ‘minus Nawaz’ formula (i.e. that Nawaz Sharif should be replaced by someone else from the PML-N), a response that one can only agree with on the touchstone of the constitution and parliamentary democratic norms. As to the now solidified PTI claim that the entire 2013 election was rigged, that contradicts the PTI’s mandate in KP too. But Imran Khan has never let an honest contradiction stand in the way of his political ambitions.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 4, 2014

PTI’s confusion In the run up to what is being billed as the ‘big show’ on August 14, contradictory voices are being heard from the ranks of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) that is orchestrating the long march to Islamabad. Reports say PTI chief Imran Khan has asked for the resignations of all his party’s members from the Assemblies. However, the party’s information secretary Shireen Mazari says no such decision has been taken yet and the issue would be discussed in a party leadership meeting on August 14. Whether any such decision has been taken or not, the idea makes no sense. If the PTI elected members resign from the National Assembly, that will not bring down the incumbent government since its simple majority in the house will not be dented. By-elections will then follow within 60 days according to the law. If the PTI elected members participate in these by-elections, they will suffer a huge financial burden in fighting two elections within a little over a year. If they abstain (and participation would negate the whole purpose of resigning), this would mean leaving the field clear for other parties, of whom the ruling PML-N might well turn out to be the main beneficiary, another outcome that would negate the whole PTI campaign against the government. And if the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) PTI members of the provincial Assembly were to resign, that would bring down the party’s government, a result that would be a loss to the party only, with no gain against the PML-N governments in the Centre or Punjab. If Imran Khan thinks that his party members’ resignation en masse would create some sort of constitutional crisis that would cause the government to tumble and magically open the door to his ascent to power, cold water has been poured on that by the ECP. The ECP declared on Sunday that there is no provision in the law for mid-term elections in the wake of the resignation of some members of the opposition. It has reiterated that by-elections would be held on such seats within the mandatory period of 60 days. In addition, any move to resign en masse at this point would lose the PTI a certain number of seats in the upcoming Senate elections. Taken as a whole therefore, any notion of en masse resignations makes little if any sense. The question arises therefore whether the PTI chief is serious in demanding the resignation of his party’s elected members (a move sure to prove unpopular with them) or is merely posturing in the mistaken belief that this would put some kind of political pressure on the government. Meanwhile federal Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed is convinced Imran Khan’s demand to revisit the vote in four constituencies is merely a smokescreen for his desire to topple the government. Even if the honourable minister’s view is accepted, he should know that mere agitation and sit-ins are unlikely to unseat the government, short of an insurrection, and the PTI is hardly an insurrectionary party. However, it is interesting to note that many parties are positioning themselves in relation to the looming events of August 14. MQM’s Altaf Hussain advises Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down and appoint another prime minister from his party’s ranks in order to “save Pakistan” from political confrontation and chaos, while his deputy Farooq Sattar has suddenly ‘discovered’ some unspecified “demands” the government must concede through talks/negotiations or run the risk of seeing the MQM coming out on the streets. Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) chief Sirajul Haq, whose party is a coalition ally of the PTI in KP, sees no reason to dissolve the provincial Assembly or the PTI-JI coalition government in KP. The PPP, for reasons of its own no doubt, now wants to make the transition from a “friendly” opposition (of which it stands accused by critics such as the PTI) to a ‘real’ one. Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah, while bemoaning the fact that the government did not find it necessary to convene an in-camera joint session of parliament before invoking Article 245 to deploy the army in Islamabad, now wants the issue discussed nevertheless in a joint session post facto. All these developments point to one irreducible fact: the government has failed to reach out to and carry with it the diverse political forces in the country, an oversight it should still try to correct to avoid unnecessary friction in the polity on real or imagined issues.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 3, 2014

A wholly avoidable ‘crisis’ The sense of anticipation (and dread) regarding the coming August 14 Independence Day sets a new bar in Pakistan’s history of avoidable crises. The dramatis personae on the stage seem increasingly to be converging into two camps. In the left corner, a seemingly panicky and beleaguered government attracts fewer and fewer supporters amongst the political parties, while in the right corner, the challengers from the opposition, led by a recalcitrant Imran Khan and his PTI, seem to be acting as a magnet in greater or lesser measure for all parties that have some grouse against the government or see opportunity in the ‘siege’ it is under. Although Imran Khan’s logically inexplicable aggressive posture must top the list of factors responsible for creating this polarisation, the government’s inept handling comes a close second in the responsibility stakes. As August 14 nears, the PTI has dug its heels in, refusing overtures for dialogue with the government and reiterating firmly its intention to hold the march to Islamabad come what may. In the PTI’s wake, marginalised parties such as the PML-Q and Sheikh Rasheed’s one-man party hope to cash in on the eddies created by the long march. MQM has flirted with the PTI’s ‘ally’ the PAT of Tahirul Qadri, but seems undecided after a meeting with the Maulana in Lahore on Friday. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman has his own axe to grind against PTI in the context of the politics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, hence his critique of Imran’s ‘absurd’ logic of agitation against the whole democratic edifice on the basis of four allegedly rigged seats. The PPP intriguingly has latched onto the use of Article 245 to deploy the army in Islamabad as the main counterpoint in its taking the government to task for mishandling the Imran challenge. The political context of what the country is facing needs to be kept in mind. According to the government’s version, it is embarked on a ‘long march’ to development and prosperity, and no other (political) ‘long march’ is either justified or can halt this momentum. As a diversion, the government has announced a month-long independence celebration in an age-old tactic: if you cannot give the people bread, regale them with circuses. These repeated claims from the PML-N leadership however, increasingly unconvincing as they sound, can be subjected to a critical look, given that the prioritisation of the government’s focus is, to put it mildly, questionable. The two greatest challenges facing the country when the PML-N government came to power last year were terrorism and the energy crisis. On the first, the government wasted a year in pursuit of the will-o’ the-wisp of talks with the terrorists, finally surrendering reluctantly to the logic of the situation that required firm military action in North Waziristan. Reservations about the strategy, conduct and end results of the operation aside, the fact that action has been taken, albeit belatedly and after unnecessarily alerting the militants, cannot but be welcomed as a recognition of reality and necessity. On the energy crisis, the government has been hoist by its own petard of tall claims during the election campaign and after coming to power to solve the crisis in a matter of days, no weeks, no months, no years, (and finally) no solution (the preceding list reflecting the government’s ‘sliding’ statements regarding the timeframe for a solution, ending with supplications to the Almighty). Instead of focusing all its attention first and foremost on the energy crisis, on which a revival of the economy and the welfare of citizens so critically depend, the government has chosen to indulge its penchant for ‘showpiece’ projects such as metro buses and other transport infrastructure. While such expensive projects may win a few brownie points in the short term, they are likely to drag finances and the government’s credibility into the dust in the future. Belated appeals to and contacts with Imran Khan and his ‘friends’ to either call off the August 14 march or arrive at a modus vivendi to avoid a clash have fallen seemingly on the deaf ears of the Khan’s known stubbornness beyond reason. Contradictory statements and reports indicate the government torn between preparations to pre-empt the march by the traditional tactics of arrests of PTI leaders and workers to pressurising transporters not to lend the march logistical capability, and advice to let the march go ahead peacefully to wither on the vine in D-Chowk of its own accord. One step the government would be strictly advised against is dragging the armed forces into the middle of the fray and causing an even more serious political crisis that could derail not only the government but hard won democracy too.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Aug 2, 2014

COAS in NWA COAS General Raheel Sharif made a morale-boosting visit to troops engaged in Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) over Eid. Addressing the officers and men, the COAS ordered speedy and skilful action against all terrorists while praising the efforts and sacrifices of the troops. General Sharif dilated on the ongoing operation by saying that now that their command and communication infrastructure had been disrupted, the terrorists would never be allowed to return to Waziristan. While expressing his complete satisfaction with the achievements and progress of the operation so far, the COAS emphasised that only with the sustained focus of the entire nation could we jointly accomplish our objective of a terror-free Pakistan. However, one jarring note on the occasion was struck by the contrast between what the COAS said about the need to strengthen the border mechanism with Afghanistan to prevent any infiltration from across the border and the news that 70-80 terrorists carried out a cross-border attack in Lower Dir that was repulsed with seven attackers killed and nine injured. This incident highlights the concerns that the operation may have succeeded in ‘clearing’ NWA by and large of the terrorists but that may be due in considerable measure to the fact that the bulk of the terrorists had fled the area before the operation began to other tribal Agencies, safer areas such as Datta Khel and the densely forested Shawal Valley within NWA, or across the border to Afghanistan. Cross-border attacks therefore may well be expected to increase, while there is no guarantee the terrorists still within FATA will not be able to regroup and revive their campaign. A report in the Los Angeles Times quotes US administration officials as conceding that the operation is disrupting militant attacks but expressing concerns that unless the Pakistan army takes on all terrorists without discrimination, especially the Haqqani network, the operation could not be considered a success in terms of stopping terrorist attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This concern about the Haqqani network in particular is of long standing in Washington since it is this group, enjoying an apparent free run in NWA, that has emerged as the deadliest of the Taliban groups battling US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of these forces looming, the concern has grown that the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups should not find safe havens ever again in NWA or any other part of Pakistani soil, especially since by now events have moved on to expose the nexus amongst all the Taliban groups, Afghan and Pakistani. One illustration of this is the safe haven on Afghan soil that Mulla Fazlullah, chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has found with the help of the Haqqani network. While the eventual outcome of the operation in NWA remains to be determined over time, another dimension of the anti-terrorist struggle has been highlighted in a report in The Wall Street Journal that points to the increasing factionalism within the TTP having led over the past 2-3 years to their seeking funding through kidnappings for ransom in the rest of Pakistan, particularly Karachi. This may or may not indicate a reduction in the TTP’s funding from other sources. The modus operandi appears to be to kidnap rich businessmen and others to extract hefty ransoms, either directly by Taliban groups or by ‘outsourcing’ to criminal gangs who share in the loot and receive protection from the TTP. While it has always been a given that military operations of a counter-insurgency type in FATA would have to be accompanied by counter-terrorist operations in the rest of the country, particularly large cities, to avoid expected retaliatory attacks and the kind of criminal fund raising activity mentioned above, this so far appears the weakest link in the anti-terrorist campaign. The weakness lies in the government’s inability so far, despite the much trumpeted National Security Policy announced last year, to put in place the anti-terrorist architecture required to conduct intelligence-driven effective operations against the terrorists in the cities and other areas outside FATA. Apart from protecting wealthy citizens from the predatory activities of the terrorists (and Shahbaz Taseer is still in their custody), this could help squeeze their sources of finance and dry up their operational capabilities. As we have consistently argued in this space, without a holistic strategy and organisational means to combat the terrorists, complete victory may prove elusive, and even the gains made may not be permanent.