Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Business Recorder editorial May 24, 2017

Pakistan-India tensions COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa told the 75th conference of Annual Formation Commanders at GHQ on May 23 about the high state of operational readiness and morale of troops during his recent visits to front line field formations along the country’s eastern and western borders, especially displayed in response to recent border and ceasefire violations. He said notwithstanding Pakistan’s desire for an enduring peace with its neighbours, any hostile action anywhere along the country’s frontiers would be responded befittingly. Those words reflected events on the Line of Control (LoC) on the day. DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor issued a statement the same day refuting as baseless and misleading an Indian claim that their forces had destroyed Pakistani military posts in Azad Kashmir. He stated that none of the posts along the LoC in the Nowshera sector had been destroyed in shelling from across the LoC, nor had the Pakistani forces targeted civilians on the other side, both claims made just hours before by a spokesman of the Indian army in New Delhi. ISPR further clarified that it was the Indian army that had resorted to an unprovoked ceasefire violation on May 13, which had caused civilian casualties and infrastructure damage on our side. A stern response caused substantial losses to soldiers and material on the Indian side. So the exchange of ‘pleasantries’ on the LoC continues. Are Pakistan and India condemned to live forever in hostility? Not according to Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit, who said in an interview with an Indian newspaper that Kashmir was the real bone of contention between the two neighbouring countries and there could be no shying away from settling the issue. The necessary condition for such a settlement, he underlined, was that the two countries restart their suspended dialogue. Certainly the logic is impeccable, since both countries are now nuclear armed and all out war is thereby precluded for fear of mutual destruction. However, Abdul Basit also referred in the same interview to the situation on the western border with Afghanistan, which has seen a ratcheting up of tensions and even exchanges of firing of late. The unfortunate fact is that the Pakistan-India rivalry has spilled over onto Afghan soil, where both countries are vying for influence and Pakistan accuses India of utilising Pakistan’s differences with Kabul to stoke conflict on the western border. While the criticality of talks between Pakistan and India is beyond doubt, the present prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, is no Vajpayee, who expended considerable political capital on trying to normalise relations with Pakistan. Mr Modi may be motivated in his aggressive stance towards Pakistan by domestic political considerations. Amongst these can be counted upcoming State elections (in West Bengal in particular) and the unremitting uprising in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK). The latter may have in fact more bearing on the hotting up of the LoC in recent days. The Indian army’s violations of the ceasefire on the LoC may be an attempt to ‘externalise’ the Kashmir problem, but the indigenous nature of the Kashmiri people’s resistance is hard to deny. The Indian army spokesman’s news briefing referred to above argued that the shelling across the LoC on Pakistani military posts was to prevent them harbouring and facilitating infiltrators into IHK. But no one familiar with the situation on the ground inside IHK can possibly ignore the daily fare of Kashmiri youth combating the unrestrained use of maximum force by the India security forces with nothing more deadly than stones being thrown. The Kashmiri people have shown the world that no amount of overwhelming force has managed to quell their desire for freedom from the Indian yoke. It remains for the Indian political class, and particularly the present incumbents in New Delhi, to open their eyes to reality and recognise that there is no military solution for Kashmir’s pain and that what is needed badly is an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue process.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Business Recorder editorial May 23, 2017

Social media crackdown The countrywide crackdown on social media activists allegedly running a sustained campaign against the military and other state institutions appears to be gathering steam, but has raised a plethora of questions in its wake about its modus operandi, targets and purpose. This is the first time the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), rammed through parliament by the ruling PML-N in August 2016 despite opposition from rights activists for being overly broad and curbing free speech, has been used in such a wide crackdown against political opponents. Following the directives of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar about a week ago, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has listed over 150 social media accounts and websites allegedly engaged in a campaign vilifying the armed forces. Of these, 33 persons have affiliations with the PTI and other opposition parties, but surprisingly include some from the PML-N. On May 22, one such PML-N social media activist was summoned from Gujranwala to the FIA’s Islamabad headquarters. The others are reportedly operating their social media accounts from Lahore, Quetta, Waziristan and Australia. A ‘vilification’ campaign against the COAS and the military on social media is said to have started after the DG ISPR’s withdrawal of his tweet on the Dawn Leaks issue on May 10. The FIA has sprung into action after the interior minister’s directive, which seems to go beyond anything the military itself wanted, and is rounding up suspects, questioning them about their tweets and posts. This campaign is being fiercely contested by the opposition parties, particularly the PTI, well known for its activism on social media. Initially, 200 social media accounts were put under the microscope, but according to the FIA, only 18 of these are currently being treated as offenders spreading negative material against the military and other state institutions. The scale of the operation seems far smaller than was initially feared (although it could possibly open the floodgates for more), and the small number of suspects it has yielded suggests that these may be individual irreverent posts rather than a sustained campaign against the military or other institutions. What is it that has persuaded the redoubtable Chaudhry Nisar to tilt against these windmills? The context is the desire for hegemony over and complete domination of the national narrative. Naturally, that points powerful institutions towards the media, seen as the conduit for relaying the said narrative. Having by and large ‘tamed’ the mainstream media, print and electronic, these powerful institutions have now, armed with PECA, turned their unwanted attention to the last redoubt of dissident and critical opinion: the social media. Notoriously difficult as the task is to control the internet and social media (that being their strength in upholding free expression), our powerful institutions have chosen a cruder, albeit direct, method. This involves nothing as sophisticated as attempting to block or build firewalls against the offending websites and social media accounts. It simply involves threatening (and worse) the authors of such postings. It may be recalled that five ‘offending’ bloggers were ‘disappeared’ not long ago and then some blasphemous material mysteriously appeared on their sites while they were still ‘absent’. Of course the mere suggestion of blasphemy attaching itself to one’s name these days means your life is in danger. The bloggers ‘returned’ eventually, but reportedly had to flee abroad. Since then, the powers that be seem to have been emboldened to take on the social media activists considered beyond the pale head on. Presumably these powers feel an ‘admonition’ would normally be sufficient to bring the dissidents in line and in the process send the necessary message to the rest about how far they can or cannot go in exercising their right of free expression. It would appear then that the constitutional provisions about the right of expression have been over-ridden by the provisions of PECA. Therein lies perhaps ammunition for a legal challenge. But the irreducible truth is that the over-reaction, paranoia and downright insecure fragility on display in this crackdown bodes ill for the democratic rights of free expression and critical, dissenting opinion.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Business Recorder editorial May 7, 2017

The courts and politics On the second try, the Supreme Court (SC) bench overseeing the implementation of the Panama Papers case verdict of April 20, 2017 has formed a six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on May 5 to probe the matter of the assets abroad of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his children. At the previous hearing on May 3, the SC special bench had summoned the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) chairman and acting governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) after expressing dissatisfaction over the two institutions’ representatives nominated for the JIT. Justice Azmat Saeed regretted that the nominees on examination did not fit the criteria for the JIT, hence the demand for a new list. This was delivered by both the SECP and SBP in a sealed envelope bearing the names of all officers of grade 18 and above in these two institutions. Attorney General (AG) Ashtar Ausaf pointed out that the rejected officers on the first list submitted had unnecessarily been ‘painted black’ by the media. But the bench responded by saying that they had not revealed the names of the rejected officers, therefore the leak lay in the two institutions themselves, whose heads should be held responsible and accountable. There followed an exchange between the bench and the AG regarding comment on the case on television, popular sentiment, political leaders’ statements on the case, etc. The bench made it clear that they were not swayed by any of these and would walk the tightrope of the law and constitution without worrying about the their popularity. The AG pleaded for restraining discussion of the case on television as people were being maligned. Justice Azmat Saeed clarified that they knew how to control the media, but the bench was exercising extreme restraint in the interests of freedom of expression. Disquiet has been rising amongst the judiciary about the ‘free for all’ manner of comment on the media regarding matters that are sub judice. PEMRA is being asked to implement its rule regarding this matter. The apex court is also annoyed about the partisan and distorted interpretations of the April 20 verdict by politicians of all shades and hues. The crowning argument on this issue is the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Saqib Nisar’s sensible advice to the political class: keep political disputes in the political domain and avoid dragging other institutions (especially the judiciary) into the political fray. The CJP has deplored the consequent waste of the court’s limited time and warned against tarnishing the SC’s public image. Sensible as this advice is, it is a fact that apart from the judiciary, politicians have frequently called upon the military or, in the era of Article 58(2)(b), the president to intervene in political crises against their rivals. This practice is the antithesis of the politicians’ inherent responsibility to strengthen democratic institutions rather than seek extra-parliamentary intervention by powerful state institutions. In recent times, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) that has been in the forefront of a ‘war’ against democratic institutions, including the Election Commission of Pakistan. The PML-N government this time round has systematically defanged the accountability institutions, ironically having used them to institute false cases against their political rivals in their previous term. Since political parties across the spectrum appear to have gone into election mode, it is reasonable to assume that the task of reforming and strengthening democratic institutions now stands postponed until the next parliament is in place. Nevertheless, it is only if political parties stop regarding the courts (and the military) as options for resolving political conflicts that the project for strengthening democratic institutions could have a chance to be taken up and even succeed. The institutions approached for such purposes could also help by, for example, the judiciary declining to adjudicate matters with a political taint and the military concentrating on its sphere without ‘leaning on’, let alone overthrowing elected governments.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Business Recorder editorial May 3, 2017

CCI meeting The Council of Common Interests (CCI) met on May 2 after a gap of four months since its last meeting in December 2016. After the 18th Amendment, the CCI is supposed to meet every three months. Hopefully, all the stakeholders will work towards meeting that constitutional requirement. The meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had all four chief ministers in attendance. Although the chief ministers of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa met the prime minister separately before the CCI session to express their reservations about water, power and gas projects, this issue was not taken up in the CCI, which decided to settle only contentious outstanding agenda items rather than fresh problems. The decisions arrived at by the CCI reflected this choice. First and foremost, some major amendments were agreed in the Generation, Transmission and Distribution of Electric Power Act 1997 (known as the NEPRA Act). NEPRA was stripped of its power to independently determine electricity tariffs. In future, NEPRA will have to follow the government’s directions in determining tariffs. An “independent panel” would be formed that could challenge NEPRA’s decisions. Reportedly, the changes were not shared with NEPRA before the CCI meeting, although a NEPRA team had been invited to present a “State of Industry Report” but that could not be taken up. Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif criticized the regulator for inefficiency, which had hampered private sector investment. He said his government had been recently able to bring down the solar power tariff to less than six cents per unit, a role that should have been played by NEPRA. Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah also criticised NEPRA for creating irritants for renewable energy and pushing the Thar coal projects. To cut NEPRA’s regulatory powers, another amendment has been made to Section 31(4) of the Act, freeing the federal government from being bound to seek review of any determination within 15 days, failing which the determination was deemed to have been notified automatically. A new clause in the Act empowers the federal government to impose a surcharge on any consumer category, to be collected by the power distribution companies. The government can use such surcharge for “discharging public service obligations” (a very broad term). This clause is intended to address challenges arising out of judicial intervention against three surcharges for debt servicing, tariff equalisation, etc, surcharges that constitute virtual taxation without proper authorization or representation. It was agreed in principle that the provinces would have their own power regulatory bodies instead of a national regulator since electricity is a provincial subject under the Federal Legislative List-II. Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah gave up his demand for full federal financing of the Rs 177 billion flood protection plan as advocated by his predecessor Qaim Ali Shah after the three other provinces sided with the Centre for sharing the burden 50-50. The plan had been thrice deferred by the CCI in the past because of such financing disputes. The CCI unanimously decided to punish the corrupt elements responsible for the messed up Kachhi Canal project, heard the prime minister dilate on the sorry track record of delays and inefficiencies in project management, deferred the higher education regime issue till the provinces had discussed it with Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal, discussed LNG import, the ongoing census and the threat to water needs and food security emanating from climate change. Even this brief perusal of the deliberations of the CCI proves the efficacy and importance of the institution. This is even more critical at a time when the 2013 elections have thrown up a fractured mandate, with the PML-N in power at the Centre and in Punjab, in a coalition government in Balochistan, and with the PPP and PTI in power in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa respectively. The CCI is clearly the platform intended for, and able to, mediate differences and conflict amongst the provinces and between the provinces and the Centre. All stakeholders, in recognition of this role, must ensure the CCI meets according to its constitutionally laid down interval of three months. Many of the old, and some new, issues that are on the national agenda lend themselves to positive resolution in the CCI.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Business Recorder editorial May 2, 2017

A strange case In the backdrop of the civil-military tensions over the Dawn leaks affair, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has taken umbrage at the security/intelligence agencies’ inability to secure sensitive installations such as the Pakistan Ordnance Factory (POF) Wah. In an exceedingly strange case, the ‘boss’ has questioned his own security/intelligence setup’s capability. Ordinarily this would have been strange enough, but given the current context, his critical remarks are likely to fuel speculation whether he was also having a dig at the military. Reportedly, and according to Chaudhry Nisar’s remarks while addressing the POF workers on May Day, in the light of intelligence information concerning a possible terrorist attack on the POF rally, Chaudhry Nisar was advised against visiting POF on Monday, May 1. According to the minister, this ‘drama’ had been going on for some days. Reports speak of an exchange of fire early Monday morning with two terrorists holed up in the town, resulting in both being killed. A cache of weapons and suicide jackets was recovered from the house they were holed up in. This incident justified the security agencies’ concern, since the minister could have been a target. However, the minister was critical of the agencies being unable to secure the venue of the rally. Normally, one would expect that the ‘boss’ would take responsibility for his underlings’ acts of omission and commission, without seeming to distance himself from accepting that the buck stops at the top. In a ‘defiant’ statement, Chaudhry Nisar declared in his address that he had ignored the advice to refrain from addressing the rally. This is partly because he says he had committed to attend and announce an incentive package for the POF workers, partly because Wah is the minister’s constituency. But he did have a valid point when he argued that succumbing to the terrorist threat would embolden the fanatics. Normal life continuing as far as possible, he argued, was the best response to the terrorists’ threats. This strange to do is not the first time Chaudhry Nisar has seemed the ‘odd man out’ in the present scheme of things. To take another recent example, Chaudhry Nisar held one of his by now famous press conferences in the wake of the ISPR DG’s tweet rejecting the notification issued by the Prime Minister’s office regarding the Dawn leaks affair. The investigation report on which the notification was based is still to see the light of day. The interior minister tried a novel method of damage control by stating that any notification based on the report should only have been issued by the interior ministry, not the Prime Minister’s office. So we were treated to the spectacle of the military rejecting the notification as being not entirely in conformity with the findings/recommendations of the report, while the government’s own interior minister was ‘rejecting’ it on procedural grounds. Chaudhry Nisar had also criticized the resort to tweets as a method of communication between institutions. Yet his advice fell on deaf ears apparently as far as Maryum Nawaz is concerned. Reacting to media reports that Chaudhry Nisar, Ishaq Dar and Shahbaz Sharif had (once again) been asked to speak to the brass over the Dawn leaks notification, Maryum Nawaz tweeted that no one had been tasked to do anything. Maryum’s refutation of the matter may have been prompted by embarrassment, but this would not be the first time this trio from amongst the PML-N leadership had been asked to pull the government’s chestnuts out of the fire vis-à-vis relations with the military. This perhaps is the area of greatest utility as far as retaining Chaudhry Nisar on such an important ministry is concerned. Otherwise he has failed to discharge his duties as interior minister satisfactorily and in line with the National Action Plan. Given his reputed closeness to military circles, it should not surprise anyone that Chaudhry Nisar is likely to be around as long as a PML-N government is in power, even if, more often than not, he appears to be out of sync with his colleagues, sometimes even the prime minister and the cabinet. In these circumstances, the ‘odd man out’ seems set to prevail.