Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 28, 2018

Pragmatism prevails

Although the unexpected is never far from the surface in Pakistan, the surprise call of Prime Minister (PM) Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar came as a bolt from the blue, leaving many gasping at the turn of events. It was surprising not only because such meetings are not normal but also given the backdrop of the heightened tensions between the PML-N government and the judiciary since the Panama case disqualification of former PM Nawaz Sharif. Reports speak of the possibility of defusing such tensions and lowering the political temperature in the run up to the general elections. Needless to say, the PML-N has enormous stakes riding on the outcome of the polls. Although scantily reported, the two-hour meeting yielded what appeared to be a meeting of minds on issues of concern to either side. The PM delivered the unequivocal message to the CJP that the government did not want a confrontation between state institutions while also communicating the government’s difficulties because of the proactive role of the judiciary in regards to governance. The PM promised a visible improvement in areas in which the judiciary in general, and the CJP in particular, have been actively intervening of late. These include improvements in the education, health and clean drinking water spheres in particular but also in the public interest litigation taken up by the judiciary of late. PM Abbasi pointed out to the CJP the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) and the tax department’s woes regarding litigation stuck in the entrails of the judicial system. The PM also offered the CJP support for the judicial reforms the latter is desirous of to provide affordable and easy access to justice and wading through the mountain of pending cases in the lower and higher courts. The CJP in his response reportedly reiterated that the judiciary would continue to function independently, in a nonpartisan manner according to the law and Constitution. He promised to speed up litigation affecting the FBR and tax authorities.

On the face of it, the meeting could be considered a thaw when juxtaposed against the extended diatribe Nawaz Sharif and daughter Mariam have been directing at the judiciary since his disqualification. Although that aggressive response may have served to keep the PML-N ranks united, it appears the pragmatists have now won the argument on what approach best serves the party’s interests in the obtaining circumstances. Reports speak of the role of Shahbaz Sharif, the newly anointed PML-N chief, in persuading an initially reluctant Nawaz Sharif to agree to allow PM Abbasi to meet the CJP. As often happens in sudden turns by political parties in the midst of troubles, some in the PML-N ranks were not only caught off-guard by the development, they voiced their fears that this opening to the judiciary would wash away the gains of the aggressive approach so far. Others feared the PML-N was conceding more to the judiciary than it received in return. But from all accounts the Shahbaz Sharif pragmatists’ camp in the PML-N rejoiced at this ‘breakthrough’. The wisdom seems to have slowly sunk in that the PML-N could not afford to go into the impending general elections while in confrontation with the judiciary, widely believed to have the backing of the military. That conclusion does not mean the apprehensions regarding the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) corruption cases against the Sharifs have dissipated. The calculation appears to be that irrespective of the outcome of those cases, whether, as is being speculated, before or after the polls, the political future and intrinsic interests of the PML-N are best served by defusing the confrontation and fighting the good election fight without (hopefully) the shadow of the judiciary’s sword hanging over its head. Logical and pragmatic as the argument appears to be, the ball now seems to have landed in the judiciary’s court, and it remains to be seen how it responds to this ‘peace overture’.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 27, 2018

A new Cold War?

The row over the poisoning through a nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain seems to be escalating. At Britain’s urging, 18 countries, including the US and Canada and 16 European Union members, have expelled Russian diplomats numbering at least 113. This follows the earlier expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats by Britain. That move was reciprocated by Russia by also expelling 23 British diplomats and closing down the British Council in Saint Petersburg. The biggest new expulsion is by the US, numbering 60 diplomats in all, 12 of whom were serving in the Russian UN mission in New York. In what appears to be a post facto justification, Washington claims all those expelled were intelligence officials spying on the US under cover of their diplomatic status and represented a threat to the security of the US. One may be forgiven for asking an obvious but logical question: has Washington ‘suddenly’ discovered the ‘unacceptable’ activities of the expelled 60 diplomats in the wake of the spy poisoning affair? Is it not the case that some if not all those expelled have been serving in their respective embassy and UN mission for some time? If so, the ‘justification’ now trotted out appears tissue thin and highly convenient. The whole affair raises some serious questions in fact. Britain rushed to judgement even before the ink was dry on the startling news that a military-type nerve agent had been used on the victims who are still in hospital in critical condition. That nerve agent, it was asserted, could only have come from Russia, the inheritor of the Soviet Union’s development of that particular nerve agent. Russia replies that it has destroyed its stores of that and all other chemical weapons. Moscow asked London when the row broke out after British Prime Minister Theresa May went public with her accusation against Russia to follow the protocol in such matters by making a formal request for investigation/cooperation in the matter, failing which Moscow was not obliged to respond to what it has labelled a ‘provocation’. Also, Moscow wanted evidence to prove that the nerve agent in question came from Russia. Neither requirement was fulfilled by Britain. Instead, the British government seems to have gone on a spree to persuade its western allies to show solidarity, condemn Moscow and take the kind of diplomats’ expulsion steps that have now followed. The European Union (EU) claims evidence shared by Britain “more than likely” points the finger of accusation at Russia. ‘More than likely’ may satisfy the EU but it is hardly conclusive on the touchstone of international law or perhaps even global public opinion. After all, why has London been so reluctant to make public what it has gathered about the affair? In all fairness, no one, including Russia, should be condemned as ‘guilty until proven innocent’ in the absence of credible proof. Things can only get worse as and when Russia exercises its right of reciprocal expulsions of diplomats from the countries involved.

The affair itself may have led to the present development of attempts to isolate Russia, especially now when it no longer can depend on the support of the erstwhile Eastern European communist states grouped in the Warsaw Pact. But informed objective observers will wonder whether there is more to it than meets the eye. Is Russia being punished for pushing back against ‘NATO creep’ in its near abroad (in violation of then US President Ronald Reagan’s assurances to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev) and its drawing a line in the sand over Syria after it realized its mistake in backing the so-called ‘Right to Protect’ UN Security Council resolution on Libya, a sleight of hand that allowed the western alliance led by the US to ‘take out’ Gaddafi? Is it also being taken to task for resisting Georgia’s attempt to join the west or Ukraine’s through ‘engineered’ uprisings? And of course Russia stands condemned in the west for taking back Crimea from Ukraine, which was originally Russian territory ‘gifted’ to Ukraine by Khrushchev. Sceptical and critical minds will find it hard to miss this sequence of events that boil down in essence to aggressive doing down of post-Soviet Russia in case it once again attains its lost superpower status. Western post-Cold War hegemonic ambitions may end up fuelling a new Cold War. Can the world today afford being dragged back to a period of confrontation and conflict between Russia and the west yet again?

Monday, March 26, 2018

Business Recorder Column March 26, 2018

Revival of the Left

Rashed Rahman

The task of reviving the Left to once again become an effective player in the polity has been exercising minds in the surviving Left parties and groups for long but the achievement of this goal has proved difficult. It is therefore heartening to note the follow-up of the meeting of 10 Left parties and groups in Lahore on December 29, 2017 by the formation of a 17-parties/groups’ platform dubbed Lahore Left Front (LLF).
Even a cursory perusal of the minimum programmatic pronouncements of these two meetings plus the composition of these brotherly platforms will be enough to prove that the LLF is inspired at least partially by the December 2017 moot. That 10-parties/groups platform agreed on what it considered the main or crucial tasks before it. These included the recovery of missing persons and their being charged through due process if there is any evidence of wrongdoing against them; deportation to their countries of origin of illegal immigrants; halting forced conversions and marriages of minority girls (particularly Hindu); regulation of the sugar mafia; restoration of tenancy rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s protected forest lands; withdrawal of unjust and false criminal cases against the Hashtnagar and Okara Military Farms’ peasants, and the restoration of banned students unions. The 10-party/groups’ meeting characterised the current narrative dominating politics of corruption as the main if not only problem afflicting society as a phenomenon integral to the bourgeois (capitalist) system, the only solution/alternative to which is provided by socialism. The meeting also dilated on the persistence of feudalism and the need for land reforms. The participants vowed to wage a concerted struggle against fundamentalism, extremism, intolerance and fanaticism. In their struggle against feudalism they committed themselves to support the workers, farmers and tenants; work for the supremacy of parliament over the national security state; establish Pakistan as a multi-cultural country where every nationality would have full control over its resources; struggle for gender equality, the separation of the state and religion and the creation of a socialist economy in which there would be no class distinction in education and opportunity; implementation of the constitutional guarantees of shelter, employment, education, healthcare, and adherence to a non-aligned foreign policy while promoting friendly relations with all Pakistan’s neighbours on the principle of non-interference.
The follow-up meeting of 17 parties/groups in Lahore on March 24, 2018 adopted a declaration focusing on four main issues to be tackled by the newly formed LLF: fight the growing tide of fundamentalism and terrorism; help develop class-based organisations of the working class; preserve democratic norms, and tackle the missing persons conundrum. While the 10-parties/groups session on December 29, 2017 set up an eight-member committee to take the process of a dialogue and coming together of the Left forward, the LLF has set up a 17-member organising committee to implement its programme. These two streams, national and local, will hopefully merge as the process plays itself out. The LLF has kept its doors open to non-Left forces desirous of being part of the endeavour to counter religious radicalism. It also critiqued the current dominant national narrative about corruption as certainly an issue but which fails to challenge the existing system based on exploitation, inequality and injustice.
While the undeniable dearth in numbers on the Left means it has its work cut out for it, the apathy of the intelligentsia, including the progressive intelligentsia, underlines the deep psychological effects of the collapse of the Pakistani Left around 1980-81 and the decade later collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the latter event and the consequent end of the Cold War, the world (and in its wake Pakistan) has changed almost beyond recognition. In this brave new world of the internalisation of the inevitability of unfettered capitalism and so-called liberal (bourgeois) democracy, the Left worldwide struggles to re-establish a coherent and credible narrative based on a penetrating in depth analysis and critique of the workings of the system, how this has changed in the last three decades, and what are the effects on state and society of these developments.
In the case of Pakistan, such a narrative cannot escape our early or recent history, which by now has mired us in international isolation (read ‘conflict’ with the west), at odds with all our neighbours, and internally veering towards a new form of fascism allegedly backed by the ubiquitous establishment and representing a new chapter in the control and manipulation of the polity.
Perhaps the only reason (explicitly stated or implicitly internalised) for the Left to support the struggle for a genuine (bourgeois) democracy over the last 70 years, a struggle still in progress, is because they believed this provided the space for articulation of and struggle for their aims and objectives, central amongst them, and to which all other issues were linked but subordinate, being the establishment of a socialist state. How far in practice that hope has transpired is there for students of our history to peruse. Currently, such is the crisis of state and society and the consequent insecurity of the establishment despite no serious challenge to its hegemony that it now seeks (and to a considerable extent has silenced) the smothering through all possible means of the voices of dissent and criticism, whether in the mainstream or social media or in society at large.
The hoped for ‘advantage’ therefore of democratic liberties, including freedom of expression, remains an elusive will o’ the wisp. That merely serves to underline the formidable challenges for the Left, ranging from evolving and being allowed to disseminate its message/narrative to confronting the risks to life and limb emanating from such activism. And of course this does not even compare to the greater risks to safety that is the inevitable outcome of practical organisation and struggle of the masses.
Is history on the side of socialism in the 21st century, as its advocates still are convinced of, or is the dream of a just world passé, as capitalist and pre-capitalist advocates would have us believe? Only time will tell, but it would not be out of place to insert a word of caution about premature triumphalism regarding capitalism’s ‘victory’ and the lack of any alternative. History has a habit of surprising us when least expected.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 24, 2018

CJP’s riposte

March 23, 2018 being Pakistan Day produced the usual spate of messages from leaders. While many of such messages are traditionally conventional, noteworthy ones too were on display this time. Perhaps the most significant amongst these was the riposte of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar to the suggestion by Sheikh Rashid of the one-man Awami Muslim League that the CJP should declare a 90-day judicial martial law in the run-up to the general elections and decide who should head the caretaker government. The CJP, while addressing a Pakistan Day ceremony at his alma mater Cathedral School, Lahore, categorically rejected any notion of judicial martial law, pointing out that there is no such provision in the Constitution. He underlined that the judiciary would not allow any deviation from the Constitution or democracy to be derailed. The CJP’s clear message should help scotch such outlandish suggestions and the rumours to which they have given birth. Meanwhile in another significant move, it seems that after Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has been appointed the president of the PML-N, his brother and ousted prime minister and former head of the party Nawaz Sharif appears to be stepping back from the confrontational posture he has adopted since his disqualification. Shahbaz Sharif is well known to be a pragmatist. No doubt he has been advising Nawaz Sharif and the party to reconsider their aggressive strategy on the eve of the general elections. Nawaz Sharif’s and his daughter Mariam Sharif’s strident campaign against the judiciary that has disqualified him has been read by analysts as bringing him to a confrontation with the army, believed to be backing the judiciary’s proactive approach since the Panama Papers case. This perception has of late been reinforced by that part of the COAS ‘Bajwa doctrine’ that speaks of defending the judiciary against its detractors. Sober reflection on these developments by the PML-N leadership may have persuaded them that the aggressive rhetoric has run its course after providing the PML-N with a ‘cementing’ effect to prevent defections and splintering of the party’s ranks. The PML-N, like all its predecessor Muslim Leagues in our history, is not the sort of party whose parliamentarians would be inclined to stick with it through thick and thin, particularly if their electoral prospects (and related good fortune) are threatened by conflict with the establishment. The new turn or approach seems to be aimed at preventing a repeat of the debacles the PML-N suffered in the downfall of its coalition government in Balochistan and the Senate elections that followed. And speaking of the aftermath of the rout of the PML-N-led government in Quetta, one of the main protagonists of that defeat, Balochistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti has revealed that Balochistan Chief Minister Quddus Bizenjo will soon be announcing a new party that will accommodate the PML-N ‘dissidents’ and some tribal chiefs. How he claims this will be different from any other party escapes the imagination. The new formation will be led by former governor and chief minister Balochistan Zulfiqar Magsi. The Jamalis reportedly will play an important role in the new party. These revelations indicate that this party is intended to give a political identity to all those who deserted the PML-N in Balochistan and rope in the willing tribal chiefs to have a chance in the general elections. The concatenation of forces that this platform aims to gather seems poised to make a good showing in the coming general elections.

While the PML-N may be revising its strategy and turning away from confrontation towards reconciliation with the powers-that-be, what remains to be seen is what the establishment’s response will be. It goes without saying that even if the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases go against them and Nawaz, Mariam and Shahbaz Sharif all land up in jail, the PML-N, with or without the Sharifs, will still have to go into the electoral contest. Based on their standing in Punjab, reflected partially in the massive rallies Nawaz and Mariam Sharif have been addressing of late, the party’s chances in the general elections are still bright. The PML-N therefore is trying to hedge its bets, preserve its stronghold Punjab, prevent any flight of ‘seasonal sparrows’ from its ranks, and march forward to face its electoral rivals with confidence.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial March 21, 2018

MMA revived

The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) stands revived as a five-party alliance of religious groups on the eve of the general elections. The fact that it chose on March 20, 2018 Maulana Fazlur Rehman as president and Liaquat Baloch as secretary general only underlines the fact that the really significant parties in the alliance are the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) respectively. The other three, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), Tehreek-i-Islami Pakistan (TIP) and Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH) are not players with considerable political clout in electoral contests. A notable but not surprising omission is Maulana Samiul Haq of the infamous Haqqania madrassa that has trained so many religious extremists over the years and enjoys the reputation of the father of the Taliban. Lately, Maulana Samiul Haq has grown closer to the PTI of Imran Khan that has been in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) since 2013 and been generous in grants for the Maulana’s madrassa. Addressing a press conference in Karachi after the selection of the top leaders of the MMA, Maulana Fazlur Rehman focused his message on the mission of the MMA, referring to its glory days under Musharraf when it was ‘elevated’ to the party in power in KP, and its long standing desire to bring in an Islamic system in Pakistan. It is just as well that Maulana Fazlur Rehman made no attempt to define what such a system would consist of, since that could open the Pandora’s box of the differing interpretations of the faith by even the religious parties allied in the MMA. It remains to be seen whether the MMA’s promised manifesto in the first week of April 2018 will enlighten us more on this sticky subject. The MMA’s best bet remains a return to power in KP, but there are some factors that may make this an uphill task. Although the performance of the PTI government led by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak has been described by sympathetic and hostile opinion as ‘mixed’, it may not prove bad enough to allow the MMA to breach its walls in the coming electoral contest. The JI has been a coalition partner in the KP PTI-led government since the 2013 polls. How it will reconcile to the electorate’s satisfaction it now travelling in two boats remains an intriguing question. Also, although it is not known if the deep state is once more behind (and the benefactor?) of MMA 2.0, it is certainly a transformed political landscape from when the MMA enjoyed Musharraf’s unstinted support from 2002 onwards. At the time, because of the shadow of the deep state over its formation and success in KP, the MMA came to be dubbed the ‘Mullah-Military Alliance’. Whether that description still fits only time will tell.

The problem the religious parties and groups have faced in our history is how to translate their street power based on committed cadres (and therefore nuisance value) into electoral success. Whenever they have fought elections individually and separately, the results have been disappointing for them, translating into votes in single figures and seats of a similar quantum. That may well have triggered the ‘plan’ during Musharraf’s tenure to field these otherwise disparate and often feuding religious parties in a unified platform in the 2002 elections. Whether that was the only reason for its only success so far in winning in one province or the ‘benign’ support of the deep state helped is open to conjecture. Having travelled forlorn through the thicket of our politics after the Musharraf regime’s departure, with the exception of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s manoeuvring his party into the corridors of power with the help of the PML-N and the JI having enjoyed a berth as the junior partner of the PTI in KP, better sense and perhaps ‘advice’ seems to have carried the day and lubricated the wheels of the resurrected MMA. Whether this chariot will upset the given political configuration in the country or in KP is something only time and the outcome of the general elections will decide.