Saturday, August 19, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Aug 19, 2017

Council of Common Interests reconstitution Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has reconstituted the Council of Common Interests, but the move has raised some questions that need answering. In the first place, contrary to the provisions of Articles 153(1) and 154(3), which lay down that the Council of Common Interests is appointed by the President on the advice of the prime minister, the new reconstituted Council of Common Interests was announced by the prime minister with seemingly no reference to the President. Second, whereas the eight members of the Council of Common Interests include the prime minister, the chief ministers of the four provinces and three other members, the reconstituted Council of Common Interests has replaced two federal ministers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan with two federal ministers from Punjab. Although replacing the federal ministers for overseas Pakistanis and religious affairs with the federal ministers for finance and industries makes sense, this has resulted in the Council of Common Interests now having four members from Punjab and six of its members belonging to the PML-N. This outcome has raised eyebrows since it is being interpreted as the PML-N government being more interested in consolidating its power than addressing inter-provincial or Centre-provinces matters. The logical corollary of this perception is that it reflects the government has an eye to the looming elections (by 2018 at the latest). If this is correct, it betrays a lack of understanding on the part of the government regarding the fundamentally important role of the Council of Common Interests in the affairs of the federation, particularly at a juncture when the pattern of different parties being in power in some provinces and the Centre has become more or less the norm. The Council of Common Interests is constitutionally mandated to formulate and regulate policies on all matters in Part II of the Federal Legislative List, an outcome of the abolition of the concurrent list through the 18th Amendment. These subjects include the census, electricity, minerals, oil, gas, ports, federal regulatory authorities, the supervision and management of public debt, national planning and national economic coordination. Of these, the major issues to be addressed by the Council of Common Interests and which could be the cause of discord in the federation include approval of the census, national water policy, and the supply of gas to domestic consumers. The affairs of the federation have been a sensitive area in our history. Before the 18th Amendment, the Council of Common Interests met irregularly and relatively infrequently. To address this problem, the 18th Amendment provided that the Council of Common Interests has to meet every 90 days. Such meetings may assume a greater importance now in the light of the sensitive and potentially fraught matters outlined above. The Council of Common Interests should not appear, as the reconstituted one does, as heavily loaded in favour of the Centre and Punjab, where the PML-N is in power. Nor should the reconstitution have been carried out in the arbitrary and constitutionally controversial manner it has. The more credibly that process is carried out, the more the Council of Common Interests would enjoy the credibility to mediate intra-provincial and Centre-provinces issues, which after all is its raison d’etre.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Aug 15, 2017

Bargaining chip After his exertions of the long march from Islamabad to Lahore, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif continues to rail against what he describes as the unjust verdict of disqualification by the Supreme Court. In the process, he has been lamenting the derailing of his development agenda, pointing to the accomplishments of his four-year tenure in the fields of infrastructure and energy. Obviously smarting from his dismissal, he bemoans the chaos in Pakistan during the last 70 years, the most pointed reference being to the breakaway of East Pakistan in 1971 to emerge as Bangladesh because of the failure to respect the people’s mandate expressed through the ballot box. He has expressed the fear that a repetition of such a step could lead to a similar disaster again. Nawaz Sharif has been making the case for a constitutional amendment regarding the provisions of the judiciary’s working. By this he obviously has his eye on Articles 62 and 63 and 184(3). It is plain that for any constitutional amendment to pass muster in the present parliament would require the cooperation of the opposition, especially of the PPP, and especially in the Senate. However, his ‘feelers’ in this regard have been met by a firm rebuff by the Chairman PPP, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The young PPP chairman has categorically ruled out any support to the PML-N government’s desire for a constitutional amendment. He argued that given the turmoil in the country, any such move would run the risk of producing a clash between institutions that cannot be afforded at present. Besides, he says, no amendment could benefit Nawaz Sharif’s reinstatement as he has been disqualified by the apex court. He accused the government of striving to transgress all limits after the SC verdict. The PPP, he went on, was practicing the politics of principles and would never come to Nawaz Sharif’s rescue again. Bilawal’s sentiments were echoed by the PPP’s Leader of the Opposition Khurshid Shah, who said it should be left to the next parliament to decide about any amendments to Articles 62 and 63. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah also reminded us of Nawaz Sharif’s opposition to amending Articles 62 and 63 while the 18th Amendment was being discussed. The PPP is angry with Nawaz Sharif for failing to appreciate the PPP’s support during the 2014 Imran Khan-led sit-in in Islamabad. In undertones it accuses his government of putting PPP stalwarts like Dr Asim Hussain in the dock. It is also alienated from Nawaz Sharif because of his studied indifference during his four years in office towards parliament, to the extent of hardly appearing in the house. The PPP had been arguing throughout this period that the democratic forces could only chart the path forward through the strengthening of parliament and situating it centre-stage in the state’s institutional structure, but was disappointed by Nawaz Sharif’s ignoring it. In stage whispers the PPP is expressing the view that Nawaz Sharif got what he deserved for this flagrant lapse. Be that as it may, the PPP may just be taking this hard line position more as a bargaining chip than a final stance. What it would take for Nawaz Sharif to overcome the PPP’s stated hostility is not clear. Of late, Nawaz Sharif has waxed nostalgic about the Charter of Democracy he signed in exile with the late Benazir Bhutto, and which he seemed to forget soon after her assassination in 2007. Whether the provisions of the Charter can be revived and provide the foundations for a reconciliation with the PPP is in the realm of conjecture. Having said that, the chairman PPP may learn at some point that the word ‘never’ is never the final word in politics.

Business Recorder editorial Aug 16, 2017

Afghan Taliban’s open letter The Afghan Taliban have taken opportunistic advantage of the Trump administration’s reported struggling with future policy in Afghanistan by addressing an unprecedented open letter to the US President, warning him that the military situation on the ground is “far worse than you realise”. Sending in more troops, the letter goes on, will only result in more self-destruction of men and material. It castigates the Afghan government as “stooges”, “lying, corrupt leaders”, repulsive sell-outs” who care neither for US interests nor those of their own country and are providing “rosy pictures” of the military position. The Taliban boasted that the only reason they were not seizing cities was for fear of civilian casualties. If this last statement is to be believed, it reflects a rare sensitivity on the Taliban’s part regarding innocent lives, something they are not famous for. US troops currently number 8,400, a steep drop from the 100,000 six years ago. The remaining contingent is mainly in a training and advisory role to the Afghan security forces who are struggling to contain the Taliban advance in many rural areas, let alone defeat them. The senior US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has requested several thousand additional troops. Influential voices, including Republican Senator John McCain, have urged an “enduring” US military presence. But they are up against scepticism in the White House. US President Donald Trump and several top aides have criticised the years of military intervention in Afghanistan and the high cost of aid to that benighted country. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has told reporters the administration is “very, very close” to a decision and all options are on the table. US officials though caution that it will likely take several weeks for a South Asia strategy to be approved. The Taliban have twisted the knife in the administration’s wounds by stating in the open letter that they have noted Trump has “understood the errors of (his) predecessors” and “resolved to thoroughly rethink a new strategy”. It cautioned the US President against a number of warmongering Congressmen and Generals in Afghanistan who were pressing him to keep the war going in order to preserve their military privileges. Foreign occupation, the Taliban went on, is the “main driver of the war” and the private contractors (like Blackwater) option that has been in the news of late is hardly a better choice than the unsuccessful trained and disciplined US and NATO troops. The Taliban may be taking advantage of the US administration’s difficulties in Afghanistan but they are enabled to do so by the disastrous results of the US invasion and occupation of that country in the wake of 9/11. Then US President George Bush used a sledgehammer to swat the al Qaeda fly after it attacked the US mainland in a first, Americans having perhaps been lulled into complacency because of two oceans on either side of the country, which they may have believed would protect them. The shock of 9/11 aroused a revengeful anger in the US, which Bush responded to by an invasion that arguably helped spread fundamentalist terrorism throughout the region and further abroad. His successor Barack Obama, elected on a platform of ending Bush’s two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, blundered in announcing withdrawal deadlines from both Afghanistan and Iraq. All his opponents on these battlefields had to do then was wait him out. It is another matter that the ‘peace’ President Obama triggered two more wars on his watch in Libya and Syria. For the US now, the best option remains leveraging their much reduced presence in Afghanistan for talks and a negotiated political solution with the Taliban. However, learning from past mistakes, this is perhaps only possible if the Taliban are convinced that reduced presence or no, the US is in Afghanistan to stay until an acceptable political solution is hammered out. There is no more need to issue any further withdrawal deadlines or loud announcements of troops’ enhancement. In any case the former option should be contingent on the Afghan security forces’ incremental capability in denying the Taliban insurgents a victory.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Business Recorder Column Aug 14, 2017

70, and counting… Rashed Rahman Watching the usual proliferation of flags, buntings and young people out in cars and on motorbikes to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day, with special importance this year because the country has completed 70 years in its journey, one hesitates to dampen the mood of celebration. However, as a thinking citizen, it is impossible to contemplate this journey without being reminded of the precarious state of affairs facing Pakistan. The question that stubbornly refuses to let one alone is: what exactly are we celebrating, independence from colonial rule or partition leading to a separate state of Pakistan? Or both? Has the Pakistani identity, if we can presume such a creature exists despite our diversity and complexity as a society, evolved as non-India or anti-India? Or can it claim a hue that is all its own, positive, not a negation of the other? The negative identity ignores the critical reality of our diversity that survived partition and its accompanying mass migration and communal massacres in favour of an imagined community that is Muslim alone and exclusively. It goes without saying that the scars of the wounds of partition have only partly healed. The older generation that lived through those seminal times has suffered by now considerable natural attrition. The in-between generation received the story of partition from the lived experience of their elders and was therefore comparatively less bitter against the ‘other’. The present generation is further removed from those tragic events and in many cases, no longer carries the baggage of their elders. So what is the legacy of partition? It is the eventual inevitability of the separation of a state overwhelmingly Muslim (partly because of the exodus of religious minorities to India during partition and to a lesser extent, ever since) when the last hope of a united India with provincial autonomy and 10-year constitutional guarantees for the large Muslim minority faded with the sabotage of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 by Congress Party leaders. But the inevitable was rendered horribly tragic by the British colonial authorities’ rushed, botched partition and handover of power to the two new states. Lack of preparation and the failure to protect religiously diverse communities living peacefully together for hundreds of years (some critics argue this was a British neo-colonial ploy to keep Pakistan and India permanently at loggerheads and therefore dependent on the world powers), resulted in communal riots breaking out and the mass migration of some 10 million people from their homes to the other side, the largest mass migration in history. The immigration routes of hapless people going both ways became virtual slaughterhouses, with rape and egregious butchery thrown in for good measure. The die was then cast for Pakistan-India hostility and the evolving view of each being the ‘permanent’ enemy of the other. Kashmir, the long lingering agenda of partition, became the core issue of conflict, added to in later years by wars and jockeying for advantage over the other side. By now, both states are nuclear-armed but the hostile rhetoric emanating from both sides, far from abating in the light of the threatening nuclear shadow, has grown shriller. The India factor explains a great deal in the country’s trajectory away from Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a secular, democratic, modern state towards one in which national security seemed to trump all other considerations. Adventures with religious extremism to fight proxy wars in the neighbourhood have rebounded with a vengeance to consume our own society in the cauldron of religious fanaticism and terrorism. The national security state arguably lost us more than half (in population) of the country in 1971. The remaining Pakistan is beset with serious problems. The challenges facing the country include international, regional, internal and systemic. Amongst the first named, the drift away from an angry US because of our role in Afghanistan in backing the Taliban against the foreign and indigenous government forces, which some optimists dismiss with the notion that China will replace our former patron, could end up posing incremental serious consequences in the years to come. If Washington has so far acted with restraint despite calls in the US Congress for cut off of aid and sanctions against Pakistan, it is not only because the logistics of their presence in Afghanistan demand keeping the transit route through Pakistan open, it is also because the superpower has its eye on the region and the Pakistani military’s potentially critical role in the playbook unfolding there. Similarly, notwithstanding Washington’s irritation with Pakistan’s partial actions against terrorists while continuing covert support to the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad cannot ignore the benefits of staying on the right side of the US, nor the latter’s clout to harm Pakistan and its interests. Regionally, Pakistan has so far maintained a wise distance and neutrality in the sectarian wars raging and threatened in the Middle East, with their potential for spillover into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The current trend of exacerbated tensions with India because of the uprising in Kashmir and India’s attempts to suppress it by extreme force while blaming Pakistan for the troubles has led to the breakdown of the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC). This has also led to the reversal of intra-Kashmiri interaction across the LoC. Internal security, whether because of terrorism or the Baloch nationalist insurgency (with the latter’s implications for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor project), will remain on top of the country’s agenda for the foreseeable future. But the most crucial issue for Pakistan’s future is the inability to date to provide a consistent system to run the country. Despite all the military coups and authoritarian interventions to remove elected governments in our history, the consensus on the democratic project as the only feasible and viable system to keep the country on track and on the path to a better future remains intact, albeit battered by its critics. Essentially, the project asks how governments are to be chosen, how they are to govern, with what separation of powers and checks and balances, and how they are to be removed. The answers lie in the concept of the sovereign as supreme, i.e. the people. Governance must look to parliament as the supreme authority. Other state institutions must function within their constitutional ambit. No government should be removed except by an appeal to the electorate. Simple? Yes, but what a thorn-strewn path it is in our history. If such a democratic system that allows room for dissidence and delivers to the people their deepest aspirations for a better life can be forged in the still hot cauldron of our political life, Pakistan can look forward to the next 70 years with confidence and hope. If not, the outlook appears dire to some, sappingly stagnant to others. All other options having been tried and found wanting, there appears no escape from the necessity to soldier on in assuring the democratic project continues to march forward and overcomes with good, intelligent political strategy, all the considerable obstacles in its path.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Aug 13, 2017

Institutional dialogue The Senate on August 10, 2017 proposed an intra-institutional dialogue amongst the military, judiciary, parliament and the executive on the way forward after the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the subsequent political fallout of that Supreme Court (SC) decision. During the discussion on the proposal, there seemed to be a convergence of views on either repealing or suitably amending Articles 62 and 63, which provided the basis for the SC’s verdict. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani argued in the house and subsequently on other forums that an institutional clash was not in the interests of anyone, certainly not the country, and to avoid that, an intra-institutional dialogue had become the need of the day. A Senate Committee of the Whole would soon be convened to finalise the steps necessary to bring about such a dialogue. In the house there also seemed to be an emerging view that Article 184(3) should be amended to provide for appeals against the SC’s decisions on questions of fundamental rights. Most speakers, while dilating on these issues, provided the harshest ever criticism of the military and judiciary for the second consecutive day running. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif too came in for a bit of stick, particularly from the opposition PPP. The party’s Senator Farhatullah Babar perhaps best summed up the issues by first criticising Nawaz Sharif’s track record and then posing four fundamental questions to the house. Babar roundly critiqued Nawaz Sharif’s culpability in weakening parliament (by largely ignoring it); rejecting repeal or amendment of Articles 62 and 63 when the 18th Amendment was being discussed; rejecting the setting up of a constitutional court with equal number of judges from all the provinces after agreeing to it in the Charter of Democracy; seeking the disqualification of the PPP’s former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani through the courts, and joining hands with the agencies against three PPP governments (including rigging the 1990 elections). Despite that, Senator Babar continued, he could not support the SC verdict, which reminded him of the Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan case in the 1950s. In that case, a technicality had been relied upon to disband parliament. In the present Panama case, parliament mercifully remained intact but a prime minister was disqualified on a technicality of another kind. This throwback to the past should make parliament wiser, he said. The country has been reeling from crisis to crisis since the infamous Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan case. Parliament should now rise above partisan considerations. Senator Babar then posed four questions to parliament. (1) Will parliament define sadiq and ameen, which remain undefined even under Article 260? Are these terms only to be applicable to members of parliament? Whether judges are sadiq and ameen even after taking oath under a PCO and ‘legalised’ subversion of the constitution? Whether a General epitomised sadaqat and amanat even if he suspended the constitution and when tried on that charge, fled the court and was given protection in a hospital where the police could not enter? (2) Since the Panama papers were about accountability, will parliament take the bull by the horns and make legislation for across the board accountability of all the high and mighty regardless of whether they were elected representatives, judges or Generals? (3) Whether parliament must permit the use of Article 184(3) in which no appeal lies, contravening thereby the provisions of Article 10-A, promising a fair trial? (4) Whether parliament would now proceed to create a constitutional court as envisaged in the Charter of Democracy? The debate in the Senate has squarely put its finger on the fundamental flaw in Pakistan’s constitutional and political structure. While the dialogue proposal and its accompanying critique and arguments are unassailable on the touchstone of logic and cannot therefore be easily dismissed, it tends to ignore the elephant in the room. Putting the genie of an overbearing military establishment back in the bottle merely through a dialogue appears difficult, if not a pipe dream, especially given the state of mutual mistrust and suspicion currently rife amongst the institutions named in the proposal. Only if the politicians deliver to the people and carve out a credible system of democratic governance will it be possible to arrive at civilian supremacy over the armed forces in the long run, and that too not without a concerted and consistent political struggle that places parliament centre-stage in the affairs of the polity and state.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Aug 9, 2017

Electoral Reform Bill 2017 The parliamentary committee on electoral reforms set up in 2014 under the chair of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar has after three years of mulling over the matter, finally tabled a Bill for the purpose. Provided it passes muster in parliament, the Bill attempts to address the anomalies and long standing complaints about our electoral system. Most elections in our history have been accompanied by greater or lesser accusations of cheating, rigging and bad management. The last 2013 election too had its share of such complaints. In fact that election has been dubbed the ‘Returning Officers election’ because of the perception that these officers were either incompetent, motivated in some way or the other, and indifferent to the plethora of complaints by the stakeholders in the process. In this and past elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has often been under fire for not doing its job. Given this background and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) charges of hanky panky in the 2013 elections, parliament decided to take the bull by the horns and set up the committee. The thorny nature of the issues confronting the committee, stretching back over the years, may be one explanation for the extraordinarily long deliberations it went through. The other may be the distraction of the government, including Dar, because of the political challenge thrown up by the PTI. Nevertheless, now that the belated Bill is on the floor, its provisions need assessment. The thrust of these provisions is to enhance the autonomy and increase the independent functioning of the ECP. Thus, for example, the Bill proposes initiatives by the ECP regarding the preparation of voters’ lists (the yet to be announced results of the census may not be available in time for the exercise this time round), delimitation, simplification of nomination papers, installation of surveillance cameras, penalties for violations, women voters’ turnout, the powers of polling day officials, expediting the resolution of election disputes, implementation of a Code of Conduct and a transparent Results Management System to ensure expeditious counting, compiling and dissemination of election results. The ECP is charged with preparing an action plan to implement these proposals at least six months before the elections, a tight schedule if ever there was one. The Bill empowers the ECP with full administrative powers to control and transfer election officials during elections and take disciplinary action against them for misconduct. The Chief Election Commissioner shall have full financial powers, including powers to create posts within approved budgetary allocations. The ECP would be empowered to make rules without the prior approval of the President or the government, such rules being subject to prior publication, seeking suggestions within 15 days. The ECP would be authorised to redress complaints and grievances during various stages of the election process, other than challenges to the election itself under Article 225. ECP decisions in such matters would be appealable before the Supreme Court. A potentially ticklish provision is the scrutiny by the ECP of the wealth statements of parliamentarians, with false declarations inviting unseating. This provision should now be read with reference to the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying Nawaz Sharif. A transparent, efficient, credible electoral system is the starting point of the democratic project. It is critical to overcoming the legacy of controversies after every election, which sometimes have led to big political crises. Such a system puts elections centre-stage as the preferred mode of change of governments. It is a sine qua non for according legitimacy to elected governments, something we should aspire to if the history of election quarrels is to be put to rest. An autonomous, empowered ECP is essential for this goal. However, any system is only as good as the people who man it. The appointment therefore of the Chief Election Commissioner and other members of the ECP must enjoy consensus across the political divide, particularly since they would now be empowered to run elections independently.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Aug 8, 2017

The rules of the game It is heartening to hear COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa emphasise upholding the rule of law and supremacy of the constitution. In an indirect manner, he also indicated that the army was committed to its job of national defence and security, implying, in the minds of some commentators, that the institution he heads is not intervening in politics. These statements come as a direct refutation of the views expressed by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf the other day, in which he counterposed saving the country as more important than adhering to the constitution. Of course, the absconder from justice and former military dictator was attempting a mea culpa for all he wrought during his years in power. The malign effects of Musharraf’s policies, including twice violating the constitution and being responsible for the murders on his watch of Nawab Akbar Bugti and Benazir Bhutto, are still with us in the form of a nationalist insurgency in Balochistan and political instability in the country as a whole. And it is worth mentioning that he managed to escape from the country and the treason and murder cases against him to enjoy life in Dubai and continue to pontificate from there on national affairs. General Bajwa on the other hand, was expressing the sense of the Corps Commanders meeting he had just presided over. The military, as no one knows better than the COAS, has its hands full with the war against terrorism and the security issues on our borders. Unfortunately, given the history of our country, whenever politics takes a turn for the worse, as is the situation after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court, the military willy-nilly gets dragged into the fray even if it does not wish to. It is therefore refreshing to hear the COAS categorically focus on the military’s critical tasks while adhering to the rule of law and the constitution. Nawaz Sharif’s march from Islamabad to Lahore along the GT Road will probably have occurred by the time these lines are printed. However, there are portents of trouble. The security agencies are emphasising that terrorist threats loom and asking Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N marchers to adhere to the security plan they have chalked out. There are also fears of clashes along the way between PML-N and PTI supporters. Nawaz Sharif, while putting on a show of popular support after his ouster, must calibrate his steps carefully so as not to contribute to exacerbating the instability that threatens. Arguably, his interests lie in remaining within the confines of the law and peaceful protest so as to improve the chances of his successor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s government serving out the rest of the tenure of the PML-N government and thereby positioning the ruling party to make an even stronger showing in the coming elections. Instability at this point could tempt non-democratic forces to attempt once again aborting the march of democracy and imposing technocratic solutions that have failed in the past and are likely to fail again. While the political culture of the Muslim League (in all its manifestations over the last 70 years) is not that of a party of protest, if anything the opposite (malleable), the circumstances nevertheless compel a public show of strength by the PML-N to dispel depression in its ranks, keep up morale, close ranks and pave the way for an even greater triumphal return to power in the next elections. This scheme requires stability and normality. If the PML-N in its wisdom has decided on a show of strength, there are voices advising against such a course. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah of the PPP advised Nawaz Sharif on the eve of the march not to indulge in such actions in the month of August and so close to August 14, which Independence Day has acquired a seminal character because of the country’s 70th birthday. Nevertheless, the people of Pakistan deserve to be served by their political leaders in a manner that helps the country to remain stable, deal with the internal security and external defence challenges with the help of both the civilian and military leadership and pave the way for a better future for Pakistan and its citizens.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Business Recorder Column Aug 7, 2017

Politics in the time of 62/63 Rashed Rahman A disturbing exacerbation of the trend towards unsubstantiated accusations, allegations and downright abuse against political opponents has been witnessed since the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. A flawed but still relatively civil political culture that has been the hallmark of the Pakistani polity despite the fraught and tragic history of the country stands threatened with obliteration. The trend started with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) rise since 2011. Not only did Imran Khan and other leaders and spokesmen of the party adopt this new uncivilised and downright rude behaviour, their trolls on the social media have by now raised it to a ‘fine’ art. The PTI’s main rival parties, PML-N and PPP, had hitherto refrained from descending to the same level. That restraint, particularly in the case of the PML-N, appears to be fraying. The ability of the mainstream media to frame issues with context and objectivity has fallen victim to the ratings race (in the case of the electronic media) and to the self-censorship adopted by the media as a whole. The officially certified truth, which independent media looked at askance and critically in the past, appears to rule the roost and arguably serves the purposes of powerful state institutions that are not answerable to the people. The biggest victims of the rudeness and abuse proliferating in society generally and the mainstream and social media in particular are women. Perhaps this does not come as a surprise to informed observers and human and gender rights activists. MNA Ayesha Gulalai, formerly of the PTI, has been roundly abused, threatened, and painted as a tool of the PML-N after she revealed that Imran Khan had sent her inappropriate text messages that constitute sexual harassment. In the storm of abuse and threats to her and her family, the more important revelations about the PTI’s political culture and alleged corruption in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where the party is in power got drowned out. Ayesha Gulalai’s three main criticisms of the PTI’s culture were: (1) ill treatment and under representation of women; (2) Imran Khan’s intra-party favouritism, and (3) rampant corruption by KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and central leader Jahangir Tareen. In a move decried by the PTI as a partisan moral witch-hunt against Imran Khan, newly elected Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi suggested on the floor of the National Assembly that a parliamentary commission should be set up to address Gulalai’s accusations against Imran Khan. That idea was at first rejected by the PTI, but later seems to have been grudgingly accepted so as not to seem disrespectful of parliament (not a new charge against the PTI). The commission has been announced with 20 members, 13 from the treasury benches and seven from the opposition. Imran Khan and PTI spokesmen continue to crib about such a body not being credible as it is stacked with their opponents. Had the parliamentary commission also addressed the other, main accusations of Ayesha Gulalai, it would perhaps have enhanced its status and credibility. The re-emergence of Ms Ayesha Ahad with damaging accusations against Hamza Shahbaz Sharif of marrying her under false pretences and then dumping her and subjecting her to brutal treatment just after Ayesha Gulalai’s j’accuse against Imran Khan and the PTI, raised similar conspiracy theories as ascribed to the previous accuser. If Ayesha Gulalai was castigated by the PTI as a tool of the PML-N, Ayesha Ahad is being trashed as the PTI’s counter-stroke to discredit Hamza Shahbaz. In the process, irrespective of whether both women are truthful or not, a storm of misogyny and dirtying women in general and these two in particular has broken out. This reflects the obvious male chauvinist culture that still dominates our society. But it also hits at women in public life, professions and politics on the basest foundations. In a civilised society and functional justice system, both sets of accusations could have been tackled by libel and defamation laws. In Pakistan, however, such laws are weak and given the dysfunctional crisis of our judicial system, impossible to redress through the courts. Hence the worthies across the political divide who have sprung to the defence of their respective leaders have had recourse to the most vile and contemptuous attitude towards women. A democratic polity requires restraint and politeness even when critiquing or attacking one’s political opponents. Now that the floodgates of abuse of opponents and rivals have been thrown open, there is no telling what the eventual fallout for the democracy project will be. On balance, the PPP has shown the most restraint and maturity of the three main parties. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has pointed to the damaging effect of such language and behaviour towards political rivals in a still weak democracy attempting to find solid foundations. Our older and more experienced politicians could do worse than pay heed to these wise words from a relatively young head. The free-for-all that our political discourse has descended into, with copious helpings of abuse on top, has the potential to dangerously unsettle our political landscape. On the eve of Nawaz Sharif’s triumphal march down the GT Road from Islamabad to Lahore tomorrow, amidst fears of PML-N-PTI workers’ clashes en route, it may be useful to draw some lessons from the experience of an elected PML-N government facing from day one a hostile PTI intent on capturing power (by hook or by crook, it is alleged by its detractors). The biggest mistakes of Nawaz Sharif over his four year incumbency were to ignore his own real strength, i.e. parliament, and ignoring and therefore self-isolating himself from his staunchest erstwhile support, the PPP. Only now, when he has been shown the door by the Supreme Court under Article 62(1)(f) has he voiced ‘nostalgia’ for the Charter of Democracy. The Charter attempted to address, on Benazir Bhutto’s initiative, the problem that had bedeviled democracy in the 1990s. Rival parties turned repeatedly to unelected power centres to topple their rivals. The political class (or at least that section of it that still adheres to democracy as the only way forward to a stable polity), must relearn the lesson that when rivals transcend parliamentary and democratic norms, i.e. attempt to do down their rivals in a no-holds-barred manner, the only beneficiary is the deep state. In what may come increasingly to be defined as ‘politics in the time of Articles 62/63’ (given the incremental falling back by every Tom, Dick and Harry on these hangovers of General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship after the Supreme Court’s verdict), the political class needs to revisit the rules of political contention a la Charter of Democracy to keep the subverters of the democracy project at bay.

Business Recorder editorial Aug 5, 2017

Bloated cabinet Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has started his stint in office with a bloated federal cabinet of 43 members, comprising 27 federal ministers and 16 ministers of state. Given that the expected tenure of the stand-in prime minister will either be 45 days or 10 months, this seems exorbitant, especially if it is recalled that the previous cabinet of Nawaz Sharif that had been inducted for a full term had 36 members. Clearly this excessively bloated cabinet is aimed at closing ranks and keeping the ruling party’s vote bank intact with an eye on the 2018 elections. This perception is further strengthened by the heavy tilt towards inducting MNAs from south Punjab. Although most of the new cabinet faces are familiar from the previous one, only four ministers have retained the same portfolios. Further, the reshuffle amongst the rest of the previous members of the cabinet is accompanied by the restructuring of ministries and the divisions under them. Five new ministries and divisions have been created. So far, the portfolios of 26 federal ministers and 13 ministers of state have been announced. The notable changes are the appointment of former defence minister Khwaja Asif as a full time foreign minister, a demand Nawaz Sharif had resisted for four years. Former Commerce Minister Khurram Dastgir has been given the defence ministry. Ishaq Dar has been retained as Finance Minister despite the reference against him in NAB ordered by the Supreme Court. Chaudhry Nisar’s ‘retirement’ has paved the way for his ‘rival’ Ahsan Iqbal to be appointed Interior Minister. As to the restructuring, a new energy ministry has been created with two constituent divisions: Power and Petroleum. The existing water and power ministry has been dismantled, with the power division going to the energy ministry, while the petroleum and natural resources ministry has been converted into the petroleum division and put under the same new energy ministry. Five new ministries include narcotics, privatisation, statistics, water resources and postal service. Earlier these divisions were under other ministries. This expansion of ministries is inexplicable, even given the justification put forward that these would improve governance and the speedy implementation of economic policies. An official source is quoted as saying the real reason was to accommodate the new cabinet inductees. The large cabinet may have been driven by electoral exigencies, but after the 18th constitutional amendment, the concurrent list of subjects was abolished and all those subjects devolved to the provinces. Logically then, the federal cabinet needs to be leaner. At best the ministries no longer needed at the Centre because of this devolution require only a minimum structure (say a division) for the purpose of Centre-provinces and inter-provincial coordination. On the one hand the Centre complains that with 57.5 percent of the divisible pool going to the provinces under the seventh NFC Award it does not have enough resources to meet federal obligations, amongst which debt servicing and defence top the list, in that order. The former has ballooned during the last four years, increasing the pressures on federal finances, and which are likely to increase exponentially in years to come. On the other, it has been exceedingly ‘generous’ in forming such a large, albeit relatively short-lived cabinet. This creature is being described in some circles as an ‘election’ cabinet. Be that as it may, the appointment of a full time foreign minister at last comes as a relief, given the troubling challenges on this front confronting the country. What remains to be seen is whether its large body will be a boon or bane for the new cabinet. The jury is out on that one.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Aug 2, 2017

The polity’s deepening difficulties The election of a new prime minister should be a solemn and dignified occasion. However, in the charged atmosphere of our polity currently, all the norms and conventions of a parliamentary democracy were thrown to the winds when the house met to conduct Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s election as replacement prime minister for disqualified Nawaz Sharif. To the rowdiness of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) MNAs was added the equally vociferous response of the ruling PML-N’s members, despite the remonstrations by the Speaker. Of course the PTI bears the most blame for introducing a lowering of standards of speech and behaviour into our political culture. But sinking to those same depths in retaliation is not the answer. Prime Minister Abbasi did manage to get elected by an overwhelming majority of 221 votes in a house of 342 despite all this, but the customary graces on such an occasion were if anything conspicuous by their absence. The new prime minister, instead of being listened to respectfully in his maiden speech in the new office, was heckled throughout by the PTI members. PTI’s leaders Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen did not even turn up to support their (surprising) choice of Sheikh Rasheed as their candidate. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the senior most PTI leader present in the house showed extraordinary churlishness in refusing to shake Khaqan Abbasi’s hand proffered to the opposition benches. Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen’s absence not only missed a golden opportunity in the present political context to send a message regarding parliament’s sovereignty, they insulted the house and their own candidate by their no show. Now that the Supreme Court has arguably introduced a new jurisprudence of relying on the infamous Articles 62 and 63 for deciding the fate of elected politicians, Nawaz Sharif may not be its only victim. Imran Khan and Jahangir Tareen now run the risk of being hoist by their own petard, given that they both face cases in the Supreme Court and before the Election Commission of Pakistan on charges of non-disclosure of assets, offshore companies and foreign illegal funding of the PTI. If Articles 62 and 63 come into play again in any of these cases, the precedent set by the Supreme Court in Nawaz Sharif’s case will have come home to stay. The two controversial Articles are the gift to the polity by military dictator Ziaul Haq, and should have been repealed by parliament when the 18th Amendment was being framed. Khwaja Saad Rafique, former Railways Minister, has admitted more than once that the PML-N erred in not acceding to the PPP’s demand to repeal these two Articles. The Supreme Court itself has pronounced in the past that Articles 62 and 63 are too broad, vague, open to interpretation and set virtually impossible standards of honesty. Their wording lends itself to too wide a sweep that could virtually eliminate most elected politicians. The Supreme Court’s reliance therefore on Articles 62 and 63 has opened up a Pandora’s box. If the accusations of former PTI member Ayesha Gulalai of harassment by Imran Khan hold any water, one can see the beginnings of the mischief unleashed by the Supreme Court’s verdict. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry is trying to paint their opponents in the blackest moral terms in the hope of getting them disqualified in the manner of Nawaz Sharif. If the political class does not step back from the brink of elevating Articles 62 and 63 to central status in deciding the fate of our elected representatives, the politicians could end up knocking the available leadership in parliament out of the park, opening up a threatened vacuum of political leadership that will only help the forces of the establishment and their satraps.