Saturday, October 13, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial October 13, 2018

Another debacle

The PTI government in its relatively short time in office has betrayed an incredible talent for shooting itself in the foot. In the latest of such gaffes, the federal government on October 9, 2018 removed the Punjab Inspector General (IG) of police barely four weeks after he was posted. Two consequences flowed from this decision. One, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) suspended the notification removing IG Mohammad Tahir as violating its ban on transfers and postings of officials till the by-polls on October 14. It also sought an explanation from the Establishment Division Secretary within two days why its instructions in this regard had not been complied with. Two, the police reforms commissioner imported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) for his much acclaimed changes in the province’s police functioning, Nasir Durrani, reportedly resigned. It is inexplicable how the Establishment Division Secretary, an experienced officer, was either oblivious to the ECP’s directives or, which may be even more sinister, failed to inform the government of the fallout of its decision. The PTI has often boasted of the reforms its government in KP from 2013 till this year’s election carried out in the province to depoliticise the police and ensure its autonomy from political interference. This claimed flagship achievement was made possible by the helmsmanship of Nasir Durrani. Now if he has resigned on the issue of the removal of the Punjab IG, it raises a host of questions about the claims regarding KP as well as leaving the government with egg on its face for doing precisely what Nasir Durrani was inducted in Punjab to prevent. And what was the PTI government’s beef with IG Mohammad Tahir? According to federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, the IG was replaced because he was not following the government’s orders. Reportedly, he had been resisting requests by PTI bigwigs to have sundry District Police Officers (DPOs) etc transferred and replaced by their own blue-eyed boys. He had also reportedly resisted pressure from the PTI government to remove those police officers from their posts who were investigated and cleared by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in the Model Town killings case. Prima facie, the IG was doing the right thing. If this is going to earn the ire of the PTI government, is there any hope of the necessary Punjab police reforms, let alone the better functioning of other segments of the bureaucracy? Prime Minister Imran Khan on the same day had exhorted civil servants to improve their performance, being the backbone of the state, as the government’s policy of depoliticisation of institutions, meritocracy and transparency offered them a great opportunity to do this. Whither such appeals in the face of crass self-interest interfering with this policy in the case of the IG Punjab?

It has unfortunately become an entrenched custom that governments pick and choose officials to serve their partisan political interests, whether at the federal, provincial or district levels. The disease is so widespread and of such long standing that it hardly raises an eyebrow by now. It has come to be subliminally internalised by the state and society as the ‘right’ of the incumbent government to have officials of its choice in prize positions. This is precisely what the PTI boasted it had overcome in KP in the case of the province’s police under Nasir Durrani, and what it intended to do in the rest of the country. If so, the PTI government has fallen flat on its face at the first hurdle. Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened in the first 50 days of this government. When the PTI was in the opposition, it castigated the PPP Sindh government for its repeated attempts to remove Sindh IG A D Khawaja. It was only when the Sindh High Court intervened that these efforts subsided. Now it seems the PTI has not heard of the old adage: what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. The case of Punjab IG Mohammad Tahir has shown that far from a principled position on depoliticisation and autonomy for the police, the PTI government is inclined to embrace this principle when convenient, and abandon it when it is not. Good governance?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial October 11, 2018

Opposition alliance?

The PML-N Central Executive Committee (CEC) met in Lahore on October 9, 2018 to discuss the arrest of the president of the party and Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif. The CEC decided to launch a protest movement against what it perceives as political victimisation by the PTI government. Notable about the meeting was the decision of Nawaz Sharif to curtail the period of mourning for his wife and step in in the absence of Shahbaz. Chairing the CEC meeting, Nawaz directed the party’s parliamentary group to establish contact with all opposition parties for launch of a joint struggle. He accused Prime Minister Imran Khan of being the author of the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB’s) step of arresting Shahbaz. The CEC passed several resolutions, including condemnation of the arrest of its leadership days before the October 14 by-elections, huge increase in gas and electricity tariff that has fuelled inflation, the threatening tone of the PTI leadership against its political opponents, and PTI’s intent to review CPEC projects. Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry hit back with a statement vowing that the anti-corruption drive would continue no matter how much hue and cry the opposition raised. This polarisation also found an echo in the barbs exchanged by the opposition and treasury benches in the Senate before the opposition staged a walkout against Fawad Chaudhry being allowed to speak before the opposition members had had their full say regarding Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest and the alleged political victimisation the opposition was being subjected to.

Unfortunately, in a familiar scenario, the issue of accountability has once again become a political football between the government and the opposition. NAB is castigated by the latter as a creation of the Musharraf regime to pillory politicians opposed to him, a role it was continuing allegedly at the behest of the PTI government. The government has been at pains to deny this, claiming NAB is independent and the cases of accountability against the PML-N leaders predate its induction. However, the government should reflect on whether its excessive verbosity on this issue is providing ammunition to the opposition to play the victim card. If, as the government claims, it has nothing to do with NAB’s drive, its interests may be better served by talking less and doing more. Accountability has a sorry history of political partisanship in our country. NAB and its predecessor the Ehtesab Bureau both stand accused of putting the political opponents of the regime they served in the dock. In the case of NAB, its investigation and prosecution record, especially against the Sharifs, leaves a great deal to be desired. If accountability is carried on across the board and without any hint of political agendas or partisanship, no one would be able to object. But unfortunately, since the Panama case, large swathes of public opinion (not just PML-N supporters) see the ongoing drive against the Sharifs (and to some extent PPP’s Zardaris), as politically motivated, flawed in execution on the touchstone of judicial procedures, and intended to clear the field for the PTI by relegating the opposition to the margins. Whether a non-partisan, credible accountability process is possible in the charged and polarised atmosphere dominating politics currently is a not inconsequential question. It is therefore all the more necessary that NAB demonstrates in practice that it has no political agenda or motivation. If it cannot overcome its past reputation and the current charges of political partisanship against it, this will accelerate the momentum for the still divided opposition to come closer together and create a major headache through its protests not only for the incumbent government, but quite possibly for the fragile national economy that can ill afford any disruptions in economic activity and social unrest.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Business Recorder Column October 9, 2018


Rashed Rahman

The sudden arrest on October 5, 2018 by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) of Leader of the Opposition, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and former chief minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif has rocked the polity. As expected, the PML-N and increasingly the opposition have castigated the move as political victimisation. One aspect of this critique is the timing on the eve of the by-polls on October 14, 2018. Perhaps it is the fear that the PML-N’s campaign in these by-polls will be affected by the absence of Shahbaz Sharif that has prompted Nawaz Sharif to curtail the period of mourning for his wife and chair a meeting of the party’s Central Executive Committee in Lahore on October 8, 2018. The opposition has requisitioned a session of the National Assembly to discuss the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif, allegedly without seeking the mandatory permission of the Speaker.
In Punjab’s capital city, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan visited, as usual (it seems) presided over a Punjab cabinet meeting, and later held a press conference. Although federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has been the main point man of the ruling PTI for policy statements, this time PM Imran Khan decided to tackle the task personally. In the event, what he said was not new but a rehash of the PTI’s narrative of many years. The thrust of that narrative boils down to the assertion that it is corruption and the looted wealth secreted abroad by Pakistanis that is the root of all the country’s problems. This implies that if these two issues are tackled by curbing corruption and retrieving the looted wealth deposited abroad, all the economic, social and political problems of the country will be over.
This simplistic notion can be challenged at many levels. First and foremost, the PTI government’s long standing argument that stemming corruption will fix governance can be questioned on two counts. Conceptually, a ‘pure’, corruption-free system may be unattainable at the best of times and certainly not under capitalism, which glorifies the pursuit of material riches. Even the most developed capitalist countries of the world are not free of this malaise except that it is carried out there in more sophisticated ways and by bending the laws to advantage. Scandals of corruption nevertheless are still standard fare in even those societies. At best, the drive against corruption without changing the capitalist foundations of our system can help reduce the incidence of corruption without entirely eliminating it from its entrenched position or, at worst, drive corruption further ‘underground’ (thereby increasing the cost).
As far as the wealth nestling abroad is concerned, the shifting of the PTI government’s goalposts almost every day through differing estimates of the amount waiting to be recovered points not only to the difficulty of obtaining this information but also the lack of firm figures with the government. In his Lahore press conference PM Imran Khan again came out with a fresh figure in this regard of $ nine billion laundered abroad (previous estimates have on occasion been as high as $ 30 billion). Pakistan has been unable to access Swiss banks’ information regarding Pakistani account holders so far. How far the campaign to identify properties owned by Pakistanis in Dubai, UK and elsewhere can take us is still indeterminate.
The government intends, according to PM Imran Khan in his presser in Lahore, to enact whistleblower and witness protection laws, with the former incentivised by a 20 percent reward for all wealth recovered. ‘Recovery’ may also get entangled in the laws of the country in which the wealth lies.
The basic question remains whether all this will be enough (assuming even all the targets are reached) to turn round the ailing economy. The likelihood of another IMF programme looms large to tackle the twin deficits on external and budget accounts. Second, doubts and suspicions surrounding the accountability drive when it seems oriented to targeting opposition figures and the bureaucrats allegedly ‘attached’ to them seem destined (and in fact are) reviving memories of NAB being used in the past to pillory opposition leaders in a marked partisan manner.
NAB is following a familiar script. Its unintended consequence could well be a grand opposition alliance. Circumstances are compelling even the PML-N and PPP to come closer in the face of an all-out assault on the former and a relatively muted but threatening unwelcome concentration on the latter. If the plan is to batter the Sharifs into oblivion and relegate the Zardaris to the margins using the weapon of seemingly partisan accountability, the result may turn out very different from what was intended.
Judging by our past history, such seeming victimisation of the opposition by the ruling party has more often than not eventually translated into a movement of protest against the latter. In our present circumstances, the rumblings of discontent by the masses at the wave of inflation let loose by the government in its short time in office could provide ammunition to a united opposition front that could upset all the well laid plans of the mice and men centred in Banigala.
What would the military establishment’s response be in such a scenario (PTI versus the rest)? Having been accused of lending a helping hand to Imran Khan and company to make it to the seat of power, how would the establishment respond to a broad opposition front’s political challenge? Would the ‘model’ now in operation of a controlled democracy with the military’s preferred party in power (so long as it kowtows to the military’s policies) survive such a stir? We live in interesting times.
Plus Ca Change…

The Supreme Court (SC) on October 5, 2018 ordered the appointment of a judicial commission to investigate the 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar in which 140 people, including 132 children, were massacred. A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar instructed the Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court (PHC) to nominate a senior judge to the commission. The commission is expected to report to the SC after six weeks. The APS case was taken suo motu notice of by the SC in May 2018 after a hearing in Peshawar when the parents of the murdered children, grouped in the APS Martyrs Forum, requested the CJP to order a judicial inquiry into the massacre. Their complaint included the question why the authorities had failed to take any preventive or security action after the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) had issued an ‘alert’ weeks before the APS incident, pointing to the possibility of an attack on a military-run institution. The distraught parents of the victims complained before the SC that they had been demanding justice for the last three years and calling for the appointment of a judicial commission but to no avail. The CJP expressed sympathy for the plight of the victims’ families and regretted that only a verbal order to set up the commission had been issued in May, which could not be implemented so far because a written order could not be issued. At least now that lacuna has been plugged. It may be recalled that the APS massacre galvanized public opinion and forged a consensus amongst the political parties and military to launch counterinsurgency operations against the terrorists in the tribal areas. The consensus included the setting up of military courts to try terrorists, whose sunset clause mandated their closure in two years, but this period now stands extended. It also spawned the National Action Plan to rout terrorism throughout the country, whose results are visible in the decline in terrorist incidents since, but whose efficacy in completely eliminating sleeper terrorist cells throughout the country has often been challenged.

If a nerve-shaking case like the APS massacre cannot find closure even three years after the grisly event, and requires a suo motu notice by the highest court in the land, it only points to the creaky joints of our judicial system. The victims’ parents can now take some comfort from the fact that their repeated pleas over the last three years have finally been heard and acted upon by the SC. As the CJP had occasion to remark during the hearing, those lost in the incident cannot be restored to their families but the balm of closure, both in terms of probing the incident through a judicial commission as well as identifying and punishing those responsible, is necessary if not critical. The APS Martyrs Forum has also pointed out that Ehsanullah Ehsan, once the spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who had gloated over the APS massacre but who surrendered to the authorities in April 2017, has been treated with kid gloves and has yet to be brought to justice. In contrast with the snail’s pace movement on this case, the only alacrity visible in our judicial system groaning under the weight of a mountain of pending cases is when one faction or the other of the political class, having fallen out of favour with the establishment, is put in the dock. Other than that, the judicial system’s notorious delays continue to define its character. Not even as horrendous a tragedy as the APS massacre has so far been able to shake the system out if its traditional lethargy till now. The hope is that with the latest SC directive, the suffering and agony of the APS victims’ families may finally be drawing to a close.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial October 5, 2018

Another U-turn

The PTI government in its relatively short time in office has betrayed a tendency to go off half-cocked on important policy decisions and then be forced, once the implications come back amidst fresh controversies virtually every day, to retreat (popularly castigated as a habit of taking U-turns). The latest example of this style of governance is provided by the federal Minister of Planning and Development Khusro Bakhtiar being forced to deny in a press conference that Saudi Arabia was being made part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework. The federal Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry accompanying Bakhtiar had announced two weeks ago that Saudi Arabia was being included in CPEC to turn it into a trilateral arrangement. Now Khusro Bakhtiar had to step in to do damage control amidst reports that China is perturbed at not being consulted prior to the announcement regarding Saudi Arabia’s entry into CPEC. These reports say Pakistan didn’t consult China before including Saudi Arabia despite China’s assurances to the new PTI government that they were open to changes through mutual consultation. It would be well to remember that soon after its induction into office, the PTI government sent out mixed, if not negative vibes about CPEC, including interviews and statements by federal cabinet ministers and advisers hinting at concerns about the enormous debt burden being incurred by Pakistan because of Chinese investment in infrastructure etc. The fact is that both countries had agreed to keep CPEC a bilateral project until 2020. China agreed to open CPEC to include Afghanistan in 2017. However, Pakistani officials say since the situation in Afghanistan is not improving, so Saudi Arabia has been included.

This manoeuvring by the government to include Saudi Arabia in CPEC without prior consultation with the principal stakeholder and financier of the whole project, i.e. China, smacks of an unprecedentedly unilateral approach. The Chinese may value our long standing friendship enough not to embarrass us publicly on this, but the fact that they have been bypassed hardly constitutes wisdom. The Chinese Ambassador has come on record as pledging to reconsider CPEC or any of its detailed projects through mutual consultation. Pakistan cannot, indeed should not attempt to bypass or ignore our friendly benefactor. Although Khusro Bakhtiar spoke of other countries also joining CPEC, this cannot be dictated to China as a unilateral fiat. After all they are the ones investing $ 50 billion plus in a country that is hardly the destination of choice for global investors. With its rash announcement of the induction of Saudi Arabia without so much as a nod towards China, and now the posthaste retreat, Pakistan has ended up embarrassing if not annoying both allies. This is hardly the way to conduct sensitive and delicate negotiations with actual or potential benefactors. The government’s hope to get enough economic and financial help from China and Saudi Arabia (and possibly the UAE) to be able to avoid the IMF is hardly likely to be helped by this hasty, ham-handed manner of conducting economic diplomacy with strategic implications. The government is angling for deferred payments again for oil from Saudi Arabia and asking Riyadh to deposit funds with us to stave off a foreign currency reserves crunch. China has also been asked for similar deposits. But with this latest gaffe in the conduct of foreign relations, especially with two such critical allies, the government may well end up falling between both stools and be left in the tender embrace of the IMF after all.