Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 31, 2018

Foreign Office claim

The Foreign Office spokesman, Dr Muhammad Faisal, chose a novel way to make a major revelation when he tweeted that Pakistan had handed over 27 Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network suspects to Kabul in November 2017. In a follow up tweet, he said Pakistan was exerting pressure on the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network to prevent them from using our soil for any terrorist activity in Afghanistan. The disclosure came hours before US President Donald Trump was to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress. Whether the timing was fortuitous or intended to stave off any adverse presidential remarks about Pakistan in the context of the war in Afghanistan is not known. No details were provided by Dr Faisal about who these suspects were and how and under what arrangements they were handed over. It is logical to assume that the transfer took place just before US Defence Secretary James Mattis’s visit to Islamabad on December 4, 2017. It is significant that the so far secret transfer did not have any impact on US perceptions about Pakistan’s role vis-à-vis Afghanistan. It is also not certain whether the novel use of Twitter was inspired by Donald Trump’s habit or whether this is the way important statements are henceforth to be received from the Foreign Office. If so, it is worth noting that if the transfer took place on the eve of the US Defence Secretary’s visit and its revelation on the eve of the US President’s State of the Union address, does this betray a pattern of trying to stave off criticism from Washington at critical moments? If this is presumed to have a grain of truth, has the Foreign Office woken up to the fact that such well timed actions/statements in and by themselves have made little difference? In any case, token transfers of militants are unlikely to dent the wall of suspicion and mistrust that has arisen between Washington and Islamabad over the years about Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict. This is particularly true in the present context since Kabul has suffered three horrible terrorist attacks in one week, two claimed by the Taliban and one by Islamic State. The terrible toll these attacks have exacted has soured even further relations between Islamabad on the one hand and Washington and Kabul on the other.

There has also emerged since Trump assumed office a disjuncture over the end game in Afghanistan. Whereas Islamabad still harps on the theme of an Afghan-led, Afghan owned negotiated end to the war, Trump has decided after the recent horrible attacks to pursue a policy of fighting before talking, i.e. defeating the Taliban on the battlefield before opening the door to talks with them. Despite the announcement by Trump of sending 4,000 more US troops to Afghanistan and the greater use of air power to achieve that elusive goal, the attacks in Kabul and one in Jalalabad show the limitations of this approach. In his rage and frustration at the shadowy nature of the war against the Taliban insurgency, Trump may well put the economic and financial squeeze on Pakistan through the multilateral lending agencies where the US enjoys enormous clout and take the war to Pakistani soil through drone attacks like the one recently in Kurram Agency. What should give us pause for thought is the fact that our government made no visible effort to revisit its Afghanistan policy despite knowing that Donald Trump was likely to prove a different kettle of fish than his predecessors George Bush or Barack Obama. Instead, we are still stuck in the groove of denying the presence of Afghan Taliban or Haqqani Network safe havens on our soil while beating the victim’s drum of our human and material losses in the war on terror and our claimed clearance of the tribal areas of all militant presence. This is a narrative that convinces fewer and fewer in the world, let alone in the US. There is still time to utilise the softer messages received of late from US officials to revisit our strategic depth follies and cooperate in the elimination of Afghan terrorists’ presence on our soil while nevertheless striving for a negotiated settlement of the long running Afghan conflict, in that country’s, ours, the region’s and the world’s best interests.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 30, 2018

Senate elections

With the announcement by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) of the Senate elections schedule, all the rumours, speculations, kite-flying and resultant uncertainty seem set to be put to rest. The election for 52 of the total 104 seats in the upper house would be held on March 3, 2018. The incumbent members on these seats are retiring on March 11, with some of them facing difficulties in returning to the house. The ECP will issue the detailed schedule for the Senate elections on February 2 but has seen fit to provide the media with the approved procedure, perhaps with a view to scotching the whirlwind of speculation surrounding this election. According to the shared schedule, the returning officer will issue a public notice on February 3 inviting nomination papers, which can be filed till February 6. After completion of the scrutiny of the nomination papers by February 9, a list of valid candidates will be issued on February 15. Candidates can withdraw their nominations by February 16. The newly elected Senators will take their oath of office on March 12. The Senate comprises 23 members from each of the four provinces, eight from FATA and four from Islamabad Capital Territory. Of each province’s quota of 23 seats, 14 are general and nine reserved seats. Of the latter, four seats are reserved for women, four for technocrats and one for a non-Muslim. Half of the Senators having a total term of six years retire every three years. The provincial Assemblies vote for their representatives in accordance with the system of proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote. Senators for Islamabad are elected by the National Assembly while FATA Senators are elected by the MNAs from FATA. Notable amongst those retiring on March 11 are Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani, whose stewardship of the upper house has gained greater respect for the Senate, its functioning and views. Apart from Rabbani, the list includes former finance minister Ishaq Dar, PPP’s Leader of the Opposition Aitzaz Ahsan, Taj Haider and Farhatullah Babar, PTI’s Azam Khan Swati and MQM’s Colonel (retd) Tahir Hussain Mashhadi. These heavyweights will be part of the list of retirees that includes all four PML-Q Senators, nine of the PML-N’s 27 members, 18 of the PPP’s 26, five of the ANP’s six, four of the MQM’s eight, two BNP-A, three of the five JUI-F, five of the 10 independents, and one each of the PTI and PML-F.

Now that the die is cast for the Senate elections, it is time to lay all the rumours and conspiracy theories about these elections being sabotaged to deny the PML-N a possible majority in the upper house to rest. It goes without saying that if the PML-N also wins the general elections in August this year, its ability to have legislation go through both houses with relative ease will be enhanced. But even more important, the fact that the schedule indicates a continuity of the democratic electoral process is cause for satisfaction. Our history provides ample proof of the negative consequences of truncating the natural evolution of democracy, an enterprise that takes time and patience. The upcoming election could, according to some reports, throw open the floodgates of horse-trading, a malign phenomenon witnessed in past Senate elections too. Already, the abrupt ousting of the PML-N-led coalition government in Balochistan headed by former chief minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri has engendered much speculation about whether this was an establishment-driven move to abort the Senate elections or owed itself to behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari in retaliation for the real and perceived grievances against Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N. Be that as it may, and despite concerns about a fair and free Senate election according to the conscience of the electoral college, there is much cause for satisfaction in the practical refutation of all the conspiracy theories doing the rounds and the democratic electoral process proceeding on time and according to the constitutionally mandated schedule.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Business Recorder Column Jan 29, 2018

Inequality and rebellion

Rashed Rahman

Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani delivered a stirring message to the working class and the people generally at a seminar in Karachi the other day. The Senate Chairman thereby stood out as one of the few exceptions within the PPP and the political class as a whole as a man of abiding conviction in favour of the oppressed. Rabbani called for a broad alliance of workers, other oppressed groups (amongst whom could be included peasants, students, women, minorities, et al), and individuals to launch a struggle for the restoration of the law, which he considered essential to guarantee the rights of the working class, denied through the contract labour system. He pointed out that the people as a whole have little strength to wrest their rights because their power has been incrementally weakened by past military regimes. He warned that states in which the rights of workers and the middle class were in question and could not be resolved with all its institutions would face existential issues.
Raza Rabbani dilated upon the role of workers, students and the ‘coffee culture’ of our society in fuelling resistance to dictatorship, mass movements and the struggle for citizens’ rights. The countrywide (then including East Pakistan) mass movement in 1968-69 toppled the seemingly immovable Ayub regime. Ziaul Haq therefore reserved his special oppressive measures against the working class, students, and the houses of intellectual ferment that informed dissent and resistance in the shape of tea and coffee restaurants.
The weakening of the people’s resistance has led, Rabbani argued, to the rise in enforced disappearances, a tragic affliction in today’s Pakistan. Governments, whether civilian elected or military dictatorships, are oblivious to the people’s problems until some mayhem is generated. He also pointed to the need for the workers to hold accountable the anti-labour leaderships of ‘pocket unions’, a prerequisite for regaining past strength. Parliamentarians, he concluded (on a somewhat optimistic note), must play their role in support of the people.
The seminar, convened to celebrate the Supreme Court verdict of December 8, 2017 declaring the contract labour system illegal and unconstitutional, saw former Supreme Court Bar Association president Rasheed A Rizvi argue for workers to not confine themselves to court battles but fight for their rights in the streets. He said pre-partition anti-worker provisions, including the contract labour system, were continued after independence. Unfortunately, he concluded, after the 18th Amendment, the provincial Assemblies legalised the contract labour system.
There is a lot of weight in the views quoted above. Pakistan’s history is punctuated by the struggles of workers, peasants, minorities, women, students and youth against an iniquitous system that rewards wealth with even more wealth and leaves the hewers of wood and drawers of water, the wretched of the earth, victims of exploitation, defined in political economy as the extraction of surplus (unpaid) labour as the foundation of profit under capitalism.
An Oxfam report released recently says the richest one percent of the world received 82 percent of the wealth created last year. It says the ‘billionaire boom’ has seen the wealth of billionaires grow six times faster than that of ordinary workers since 2010, with another billionaire minted every two days between March 2016 and March 2017. Oxfam paints a picture of a global economy in which the wealthy few amass ever-greater fortunes while billions of people struggle to survive on poverty pay. Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima says, “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system.”
Historically, capitalism transformed society by concentrating workers from scattered peasant backgrounds in the rural areas into factories, cities and towns. The conditions of work and life in the slums of the poor spontaneously gave birth to trade unionism and workers’ social clubs. Pakistan too experienced a similar trend after independence when successive regimes, civilian and military, embraced the capitalist free market model as the best vehicle for development. Early industrialisation received a tremendous fillip during the Ayub 1958-68 decade, with the state giving away state-created industries and businesses to blue-eyed boys from the elite, and adopting policies that favoured the landed elite and private business, thereby giving rise to the concentration of wealth embodied in the rise of the ’22 families’. This model produced regional and class contradictions, the latter feeding into the 1968-69 movement, the latter ending in the denouement of East Pakistan’s separation and re-emergence as Bangladesh.
Taking account of the role played by (initially) students, workers and peasants in the 1968-69 movement, successor regimes, particularly the Zia dictatorship, weakened the last two by repression and banned the student unions in 1984. With a collapsed peasant movement and immeasurably weakened trade unions, the path was clear for capitalists (not only in Pakistan) to mitigate the effects of the concentration of large numbers of workers under one factory roof by outsourcing, home based employment, and the contract labour system. The results of these anti-labour policies today are that less than one percent of the working class is organised in trade unions, while 73 percent of workers are employed under the contract labour system, a contrivance that ensures they have no rights, not even those enshrined in the law and constitution. The ban on student unions while allowing fascist student organisations like the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba (IJT) to rule the roost has by now morphed into students being organised ‘informally’ on ethnic lines, ensuring an overarching student movement like in the past becomes a remote possibility.
Underlying the lost strength of the people in the past was a strong and relatively effective Left. Its collapse left the people, particularly oppressed sections, without an effective champion or voice of the oppressed. The realisation of the need for recreating that champion has been slow in dawning on the remaining Left parties and groups. One positive was the coming together of 10 such parties in Lahore some weeks ago to explore the ground for cooperation and more. However, they and the broader Left, including the ‘floating Left’ composed of individuals, still have a long way to go before their weight in national affairs becomes hard to ignore.
These parties and groups have tended to concentrate on strengthening their own party ranks, a slow and uncertain enterprise in current times, while largely ignoring the critical need to create mass organisations on the basis of the demands of various categories of the oppressed. Second, and perhaps equally important, they succumbed to the mood of defeat and retreat that became a fact of life for the Left in the 1980s, and exacerbated after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The critical need therefore for updating their knowledge of the changed world (and Pakistan) in the 21st century and the implications of this for theory and strategy remained an unfulfilled duty.
Unbridled capitalism since 1991 has produced a rash of crises and negative phenomena. These range from the crash of 2008-09 to unfettered imperialist wars, racial and religious hatreds and terrorism. The trend is towards a barbaric world, in which might is right is asserted, although not without being resisted. Why has rebellion not broken out against this unjust trend? Rebellion is not something that usually springs blindly from mere deprivation, poverty and oppression. It requires conviction resting on a worldview that promises a future better than the present. The only solution therefore for the present trends towards a more and more barbaric world is to restate (with a critique of the shortcomings and mistakes of the socialist project in the 20th century) the case for a world based on economic, social and political justice and equality, a vision only achievable under socialism.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 27, 2018

Trump at Davos

Perhaps sensing the sense of dread that permeated delegates at the World Economic Form in Davos, Switzerland, US President Donald Trump surprised his critics by reaching out with a sales pitch for the US economy. He clarified that his slogan ‘America first’ did not imply ‘America alone’. He offered the US’s friendship and partnership and invited investors to take advantage of a booming economy once again. Although his remarks were undermined by the latest reports that the US economy slowed in the fourth quarter, Trump’s well known aversion for multilateral trade pacts was softened by the statement that he could revisit the pan-Pacific trade agreement he rejected soon after taking office. Bilateral trade pacts though received Trump’s approval. He reiterated that the US supports free trade but it has to be fair and reciprocal. He condemned predatory behaviours such as theft of intellectual property, industrial subsidies and state-led economic planning. This remark may have been aimed at China, which has benefited hugely from the US market after embracing an export-led capitalist model three decades ago but which is accused of the first two practices in trade and the third is its system of economic management under communist rule. The week before he travelled to Davos to deliver his maiden speech at the Forum, the Trump administration targeted China and South Korea with new tariffs, including 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels. These are seen as the first unilateral trade restrictions as part of a broader protectionist agenda. Trump underlined the resolve of his administration that the US would no longer turn a blind eye to unfair trade practices.

President Trump was unabashedly promoting US interests in Davos, arguing that every state is entitled to do the same. However, the world is still holding its breath regarding the protectionist, if not isolationist rhetoric that has been coming from Trump since his election campaign and after he assumed office. While the world’s biggest economy has no doubt acted as a magnet for the world’s exports, investment too has followed in the footsteps of this phenomenon, creating jobs and enriching the US economy. In fact this has been the experience of most developed and developing economies in the last three decades. Conceded that where cheaper imports have hurt US businesses, there may be a case for tariff adjustments, but this should be restricted as far as possible to such clearly established vulnerable sectors and not become the battering ram of raising tariff walls that effectively cut off the US from the world’s free trade regime. Having said that, it is noteworthy that Trump’s address was met with more than a modicum of relief by the Forum delegates. For one, fears of a similar tongue-lashing to the one Trump delivered at the UN General Assembly last September appeared to be misplaced. There was also relief all round that Trump did not declare a trade war or any other wars. The speech has been described as more consensual than expected, middle-of-the-road, unexciting and rational. That description could be considered a first for Donald Trump! Despite the relief that nothing untoward was to be found in the speech, Trump was listened to in almost complete silence, except when he was roundly booed for once more tilting against his favourite target, the media. On balance, perhaps the alarmist prognoses of what Trump may bring to the Davos table were just that: alarmist. As to what he actually said, it remains to be seen whether his reassuring words on trade convinced the audience. Perhaps it will take more than pretty words for Trump to overcome the grave suspicion and reservations with which his economic policies are viewed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 24, 2018

Serial killer caught at last

After a hectic two-week manhunt, eight-year-old Zainab’s killer has been caught at last. The extraordinary effort was prompted by public outrage at the brutal rape and murder of an innocent child as well as the fact that it was the seventh such case in her home town of Kasur in recent days that had so far gone undetected. Now with the collaboration of all the law enforcing agencies, security outfits and civil and military intelligence, the DNA tests of 1,150 men aged 24 to 45 yielded a match of 24 year old Imran Ali with not only Zainab’s but all the other cases too. The perpetrator therefore emerges as a serial rapist and killer, two victims having survived the ordeal. While the Punjab government and all the agencies involved deserve to be commended for their relatively prompt and efficient cracking of the case, its aftermath has raised some important questions. For one, while the crimes of Ali Imran are truly horrible and deserving of punishment to the full extent of the law, an almost universal hysteria has gripped our political leaders and society at large. Hence the blood curdling calls for public hanging of the accused on the debatable argument that he should be made an example of to deter similar crimes in future. One analysis argues that the public hanging of the killer of a child in 1981 by the Zia dictatorship had deterred such crimes for a decade. But a closer examination of the argument reveals that reporting of such crimes was not evident during that period. That does not necessarily mean such crimes were deterred or disappeared from society. Had that been the case, the plethora of recent reports regarding child sexual abuse and murder would not have exposed the dark underbelly of such crimes countrywide. All our governments and law enforcement authorities are in the habit of responding in ‘emergency’ mode when a particular incident grips the public imagination and then, when the immediate furore has passed and the issue becomes a victim of short public memory, the authorities return to their somnolent inefficient pattern. After all, as the evidence from Kasur, Quetta, Mardan, Lahore and many other places throughout the country indicates, there is a virtual rash of such crimes taking place continuously under our very noses. Knee-jerk responses to public outrage may yield immediate results, as in the case of poor Zainab, but they are no substitute for the steps needed to deal with what appears to be a deep-rooted problem in our society.

A children’s sex abuse ring was uncovered in the very same Kasur in 2015. The case fizzled out, no perpetrators were punished, and the inefficiency of our police and justice system must have encouraged other offenders. In any case, there is no evidence that such disturbed perpetrators are deterred by fear of punishment, whether according to the law or extraordinary (and brutal) methods such as public hanging. The tendency is to go overboard whenever such an incident occurs without thinking through the implications and the real task at hand. Since it now is established that children’s sexual exploitation, abuse and murder are a widespread problem in our society (in which it is not alone), it behoves us to think coolly and clearly how to deal with the instant case and the hidden iceberg of such crimes below the surface. Children need to be educated on the threat to their wellbeing and life from relatives, neighbours and family friends, categories likely to yield the vast majority of abusers/killers. The temptation, as exhibited by the Senate Standing Committee on Interior the other day to not only demand Imran Ali’s public hanging but amendments in the law to prescribe such punishment for all child abusers/killers betrays more emotion and less wisdom than is expected from the upper house. The answer lies not in adopting the vigilantism of the street in our legislatures and laws, but to formulate child education and reform in our policing and judicial institutions to ensure perpetrators are brought to book, but according to the law, seeking justice, not social revenge.