Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Business Recorder Column May 21, 2019

Dark clouds on the political horizon

Rashed Rahman

Eleven opposition parties met at an Iftar (breaking fast) dinner in Islamabad at Chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s residence on May 19, 2019. If Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman had had his way in persuading the moot to come out in a united long march and sit-in/shutdown of Islamabad (a la Imran Khan’s dharna of 2014) immediately after Eid, we would once again have witnessed the familiar pattern of an incumbent government being challenged by a host of disparate opposition forces with but a one-point agenda: remove the government. However, the Maulana is no Nawabzada Nasrullah, that late lamented master of forging broad based opposition alliances in our history. Therefore Maulana Fazlur Rehman had to be content with what he could carry away from the opposition meeting. This consisted essentially of an agreement to mount individual parties’ protests for the moment and to come together in an All Parties Conference after Eid, to be chaired by the Maulana, to chalk out the future course and joint strategy of the opposition for its anti-government drive.
There may be those, including the Maulana, who were disappointed by this ‘halfway’ conclusion or outcome to the eagerly awaited coming together of a divided opposition, basically divided because of the history of a conflicted relationship between Asif Ali Zardari and the Sharif brothers, despite the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in exile in London in 2016. At the meeting itself, both Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz, stepping out into a leading political role, pointed to the fact that the CoD had facilitated the continuance of democracy in paving the way for the peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other through the ballot box for the first time in the country’s chequered history. The desire was on display to broaden the ranks of the parties adhering to the CoD by including more political parties within its fold.
Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif have not had the easiest or smoothest of relationships. For example, Nawaz appeared in black coat before the Supreme Court in pursuance of the Memogate case, something he later regretted. Shahbaz swore to rip open Asif Zardari's stomach and recover alleged ill-gotten wealth (ironic in hindsight, given that today Shahbaz is under the National Accountability Bureau hammer himself). The older generation therefore carries more than its fair share of baggage from the past. This is not necessarily baggage that has carried to the new generation poised to take over the reins of these two major political parties. The PPP’s only hope of resurrection lies in Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) Maryam Nawaz represents the brightest hope on the horizon for turning around the party’s fortunes. Neither is as tainted by allegations of corruption as their elders. This could serve to deflect if not diffuse the criticism from the government and its supporters that the sole purpose of the opposition getting together is to save those in its leadership who are facing corruption charges.
While there may be a modicum of (unacknowledged by those accused) truth in these charges, they have been overused by the PTI while in opposition and certainly after being ensconced in power. Their efficacy is also wilting in the face of the government’s disastrous performance in office over the last nine months. There is now open speculation amongst the commentariat whether this government can last out its five-year term and, if it does, what that may portend for the people and the country.
Handling the economy has proved the Achilles heel of this government. For them to argue that they had no idea things were so bad (because, they repeat ad nauseam, of the mess inherited from the past 10 or 70 years – take your pick) is unfortunately only half the picture. The PTI did not know accurately how things stood not only because they had conjured up a subjective, politically motivated and partisan picture of the economic landscape (e.g. corruption is the main, if not only problem of Pakistan, by which they meant the corruption of the Zardaris and Sharifs, money laundered abroad in the billions will be recovered, overseas Pakistanis will invest billions in Pakistan after a PTI government is installed, and other similar fanciful slogans that had little or no basis in reality or underestimated the challenge of proving and recovering so-called stolen money as well as persuading Pakistanis abroad and at home to invest so that foreigners would also be persuaded to return with their money bags to our shores). None of this has transpired because, also, the PTI has displayed all the characteristics of a party that is a prisoner of its own rhetoric. It has yet to make the transition (if that is at all possible) from the unabashed, unfettered, even wild rhetoric atop a container to responsible policy, statements and steps in conformity with the ground realities.
The government’s actions over the last nine months have further depleted the confidence and ability to function with relative ease of the business community. The critical need to meet revenue targets, if not increase tax collection, has persuaded the government to further squeeze through raids, tax notices and sundry other coercive measures, the existing tax filers. In the process, businesses already reeling under the impact of the recession in the country have closed. Meanwhile the non-tax filers are laughing all the way to the bank and at the ‘innocent’ filers who may be ruing their adherence to the law and rules. This is the surest way to cook the golden goose. The new FBR chief at least has acknowledged this by halting such measures.
As to the opposition, the PML-N was meeting in Islamabad as these lines are being written to decide its future course of action after briefing its two leaders: Nawaz Sharif in jail and Shahbaz Sharif in London. Whether the two main opposition parties will be able, under the generational change in their dynastic politics, to overcome their past differences and come together to mount a concerted challenge to the government only time will tell. However, there is another factor that may impinge on developments. The people are groaning under the tsunami of inflation, unemployment, lack of employment, rupee free fall that has been unleashed in the first nine months of the government. More seems on the cards now that the country has been all but delivered in hock to the IMF. Whether the opposition comes out in a united movement after Eid or not will determine the character of the response to the people’s serious difficulties. If the movement is led by a combined opposition, there is hope it will remain peaceful. If, however, this does not happen or fails in practice, the possibility of anarchy, violence and even bloodshed cannot be ruled out.
In this scenario, one wonders what the masterminds of the present dispensation are war gaming?


Monday, May 20, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial May 20, 2019

Doctors’ agitation

The dust had not yet settled on the doctors’ strike in public hospitals in Punjab when an unfortunate incident occurred in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that has resulted in a doctors’ strike breaking out in KP too. First, the latter incident. Khyber Teaching Hospital (KTH) Peshawar’s Assistant Professor Dr Ziauddin Afridi had some service issues that he wished to discuss with Professor Dr Nausherwan Burki, who unfortunately did not accommodate his request. Dr Afridi then took the unusual step of procuring some eggs, bursting into the conference room of KTH where Dr Burki was chairing a meeting, and proceeded to ‘crown’ the latter with ‘egg on his face’. Dr Afridi next encountered KP Health Minister Hisham Inamullah Khan in the corridor and, allegedly after an exchange of hot words with the minister, was soundly thrashed by the minister’s guards. The KP doctors have since gone on strike and demanded an FIR be registered against the minister, pending which the strike will continue. The minister has threatened the striking doctors with ‘action’ unless they return to work. As it is, the doctors’ strike in Punjab, spearheaded by the Young Doctors Association (YDA), has been ongoing for about two weeks. While patients (mostly poor, some having travelled to city hospitals from great distances and small towns or rural areas where healthcare is inadequate) are inconvenienced and perhaps the critically ill run risks to life and limb because of such strikes, it must be noted that media coverage by and large focuses on public inconvenience in such situations without bothering to get to the bottom of the matter by reflecting the striking doctors’ viewpoint. Practitioners of the medical profession, young or old, are not likely candidates for being dubbed ‘irresponsible’. Given our public hospitals’ inadequate and crowded facilities, doctors who work long hours and sometimes round the clock are to be appreciated and dealt with differently from the way the KP health minister wishes to, or earlier Punjab Health Minister Yasmin Rashid threatened to. The latter has gone a step or two even beyond her KP colleague and asked the intelligence agencies to prepare lists of young doctors who are responsible for the agitation, while rounding on senior doctors of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the top professional body of the medical sector, for ‘instigating’ the young doctors’ agitation and strike.

And now to get to the bottom of this issue. What is the beef of the Punjab YDA? It is the attempt by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government to impose the Medical Teaching Institutions (MTI) Act 2015 of KP in Punjab too, preparatory to extending it to the rest of the country and reforming the structure, rules and management of the MTIs throughout the country in a uniform manner. The rub is in the detail that the MTI Act offers contractual service only to doctors, a measure seen by the Punjab YDA as a step in the direction of the privatisation of public hospitals, which they believe will make medical care unaffordable by the vast majority of poor people who throng such institutions. Now the Punjab YDA has been joined by the KP striking doctors in their stated opposition to the MTI Act. Reports say Dr Nausherwan Burki, a cousin of Prime Minister Imran Khan, was the architect of the KP MTI Act 2015, which has reportedly not to date been properly implemented even in KP. Two things are inexplicable in this whole fracas. One, why are the PTI provincial governments oblivious (despite having a seasoned professional as health minister in Punjab) to the difficult conditions in which doctors work day and night in the public hospitals? Why are they unwilling to talk to and consult the very doctors who are crucial to the running, let alone reform, of the public hospitals? Do they believe they can railroad what is proving to be unacceptable legislation through over the objections of the doctors and still come out with an improved functioning public health sector? Surely the path to take, sans threats and warnings of dire action, is to sit down with the agitating doctors in Punjab and KP and thrash out their differences in a civilised manner. Any other course, particularly harshness, may not achieve the goals the PTI has set itself and may end up causing a further deterioration, if not collapse, of the public healthcare sector. Surely no one wants that.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial May 16, 2019

Rising US-Iran tensions

Two Saudi Arabian, one Norwegian tanker and an Emirati ship have been damaged in mysterious sabotage attacks in the Gulf amidst rising US-Iran tensions. Fortunately, there were no casualties or oil spills. Condemnation from Saudi Arabia and the UAE was expected, but surprisingly, Iran too has called for investigations, warning of adventurism by foreign players to disrupt maritime security with implications for oil flows. Also there are reports of drone attacks on two oil pumping stations west of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Attention normally has focused on the Straits of Hormuz, the chokepoint in the Gulf through which 15 million barrels per day pass from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Iran. But these attacks appear to have occurred off Fujairah, the only terminal on the Arabian Sea coast and which bypasses the Straits of Hormuz. Iran has repeatedly threatened to block the Straits in the event of hostilities with the US. The latter has of late been accusing Iran of planning attacks on US forces in the area and used that as justification for the buildup of its sea and air armada, including an aircraft carrier group, an amphibious assault ship, Patriot missile batteries and, most ominously of all, B-52 strategic bombers. Details of the attacks on the ships are sketchy, with the only hint being that the Norwegian tanker was hit by an object on the waterline that caused a hole in the hull, pointing to the possibility of it being a mine or some other form of explosive. The Iranian prompt condemnation and hint that the actions may be a provocation by some interested foreign power suggests an attempt to stave off any suggestion that Tehran was involved. As it is, Iran is under crippling sanctions ever since the US unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear restraint agreement despite Iran’s adherence to the accord’s terms. The US has tightened its sanctions regime by doing away with the waivers on Iranian oil for some countries that were part of the accord. Further, against the advice of the Pentagon and intelligence services, US President Donald Trump has gone along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, the first time the US has done so against a part of another government. The European Union, particularly the UK, France and Germany, have cautioned the US against ratcheting up tensions in the area, which may result in an accidental conflagration.

President Trump’s election campaign was run on opposition to the US’s penchant for regime change in countries the US felt were hostile or not kowtowing to Washington’s will. Yet like his predecessor Barack Obama, he too has been sucked into the vortex by the foreign policy-military-intelligence establishment in seeking the overthrow of the Iranian regime. Mind you, Donald Trump’s wayward style of conducting foreign policy has produced no success so far against three targeted regimes, those of North Korea, Venezuela and Iran. However, his fumbling style poses risks of conflagrations breaking out because of provocative actions, sanctions and pressure against such regimes. Regarding Iran, the stakes could not be higher. A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Straits of Hormuz. Any disruption of this flow is likely to hurt Europe and the rest of the world more than the US, whose oil imports are shrinking as fracking and other domestic sources push it closer to self-sufficiency. Iran has withdrawn from some of the conditions of the nuclear accord after the US sanctions bit and the EU, despite promises, has not been able to compensate for Iran’s economy hurting. The Gulf is already an extremely volatile area, with Arab-Iranian rivalry threatening peace and security. Now if Washington is upping the ante, the world should not just hold its breath but exercise its collective will to restrain the US from yet another regime change adventure that could prove even more dangerous and damaging than the catastrophes in Iraq, Libya and (almost) Syria.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial May 15, 2019

Madrassa reform yet again

Madrassas (religious seminaries) are in the news again in recent days. On May 6, 2019, Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood revealed in a press conference that his ministry had completed its initial work to register all 30,000 madrassas in the country and none would be allowed to promote hatred and sectarianism. This came about, the minister went on, as a result of a consensus agreement between the Federal Education Ministry and the heads of religious boards under whose aegis the madrassas are organised. The agreement states that the madrassas will not be subordinate organisations of the ministry, rather they will function as affiliated institutions. For the purpose of registration of all madrassas, 10 regional centres will be set up in various parts of the country. The minister then went on to warn that those madrassas that do not get registered will be closed, as will those that violate the set code of conduct. All registered madrassas will have an account in scheduled banks. They would be allowed to enrol foreign students for a maximum of nine years. The madrassas will be facilitated with their students being able to acquire vocational training so that they can become useful citizens and earn their living. The minister rounded off his press conference by underlining that the government would provide opportunities for the students of the madrassas to get modern education along with religious education. The very next day, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan informed in her press conference that the federal cabinet, having been briefed by Shafqat Mahmood on the agreement struck with the heads of the religious boards, gave its approval for a uniform curriculum for all educational institutions in the country, including the madrassas. The government will monitor the bank transactions and foreign funding of the madrassas.

The government may well be right that it has at long last untangled the Gordian knot of bringing the madrassas under some form of check. But some scepticism may also be justified given the history of the madrassa issue. At Independence, one report says there were no more than 200 madrassas in the whole of Pakistan (West and East). How this number grew to the 30,000 that have proliferated throughout the remaining (West) Pakistan is both an intriguing story as well as a cautionary tale. This proliferation took place starting from the 1980s in connection with the mujahideen struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These madrassas were funded and set up with the help of Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries. They served as training and recruiting platforms for the Afghan struggle. For large, poor families, the temptation on offer of board and lodging for students was too strong to resist. One son at least was enrolled in a madrassa. While the Afghan struggle did not quite work out the way intended, the madrassa product also acquired over time ambitions vis-à-vis a similar struggle inside Pakistan. It is only when the state, particularly the military, finally struck back at these domestic jihadis that Pakistan breathed a sigh of (relative) relief. There have been various attempts before to bring the madrassas under some kind of control, but this has been resisted by the religious boards and the broader religious lobby. The curriculum and teaching in the madrassas has produced by now generations of graduates unable to serve as anything but priests. The government’s thrust is eminently reasonable. A uniform curriculum that is also applied to the madrassas will at the very least prevent religious strife engendered by hate-filled teaching and at the same time equip these students with the knowledge and skills they need to earn their bread. The madrassas Pakistan has experienced are a far cry from the institutions of learning set up in Islam’s heyday, including the world’s first university set up by two well off sisters in Fez, Morocco, in the 9th century. The modern day version has spawned a great deal of extremism and even terrorism. Not all madrassas are guilty in this regard. But by now, in perception at least, they have all been tarred in perception with the brush of hotbeds of extremism. The government’s intent is creditable. Unfortunately, however, there are already some sounds of rumbling from the religious lobby even before the ink has dried on the ‘consensus agreement’. Let us hope this effort does not end up like previous ones. That would let down the expectations of society at large as well as deprive these madrassa students of the chance for a brighter future in which they have the requisite knowledge to stand tall as citizens of the state.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Business Recorder Column May 14, 2019

Gwadar attack

Rashed Rahman

The attack on the Pearl Continental (PC) hotel in Gwadar, Balochistan on May 11, 2019 has opened up a whole can of worms and raised troubling questions about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the continuing low-level nationalist insurgency and the future of the province. First, the facts, some of which are disputed in the garbled reporting on the incident. Three heavily armed gunmen from the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the only five-star hotel in the strategic port city, killed a Navy soldier and four hotel employees, wounded two army captains, two Navy personnel and two hotel employees, and after an almost 12-hour gun battle, were themselves killed. Why did the operation take so long against this meagre number of attackers? Where there or were there not foreign and Pakistani guests/investors in the hotel, including 40 Chinese? How was it possible, despite reportedly having donned security forces uniforms, for the BLA gunmen to gain access to the heavily secured hotel in broad daylight? These and other troubling questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered, the ritual statements of the military and government notwithstanding.
Gwadar port represents the crown jewel of CPEC, a corridor that links China’s western province of Xinjiang with the Gulf. Representing some $ 60 billion Chinese investment in Pakistan, it is clearly of crucial importance to Pakistan. However, the Baloch nationalist movement opposes CPEC as the latest example of Pakistan exploiting the resources of Pakistan’s largest in area but poorest province to the detriment of the local people.
Of late there has been a surge in the number of attacks by the Baloch nationalist insurgent groups, which reportedly is linked to the launch of the second phase of CPEC. In August 2018, a suicide attack by BLA was carried out on a bus carrying employees of the Saindak Copper-Gold Project in Dalbandin, Chaghai. In November 2018, BLA militants attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, killing two policemen and two civilians. On April 18, 2019, around a dozen gunmen singled out and killed 14 bus passengers, including 11 personnel of the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guards near the town of Ormara on the coastal highway. Not only do these attacks signal a surge in the militants’ attacks, they also point to the virtual or actual suicidal nature of the assaults, in which certain death awaited the attackers. This is of course going against the grain of guerrilla warfare principles, in which self-preservation is given such high priority. This development may be a reflection of desperation, since the traditional means of guerrilla warfare are proving difficult in the face of the military’s modern technological and firepower capability, or a deliberate turn towards spectacular, high profile attacks, even if they end in the death of the guerrillas, to provide the oxygen of publicity to a movement otherwise left gasping for coverage.
Speaking of coverage, the Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor thanked the Pakistani media for its ‘responsible’ coverage of the incident. The DG is not famous for saying things he does not mean, but it bears reflection how the incident was in fact ‘covered’ by the Pakistani media. No TV channel carried the news until the next day along with the newspapers, despite the fact that foreign news channels had broken the story soon after the attack was launched around 5:00 pm on May 11. More than likely, the channels were under ‘instructions’ not to provide live coverage, a practice in line with current controls over the media.
Lack of coverage deprived citizens of their right to know, and the next day’s media coverage provided so many contradictory bits of reporting as to raise fresh questions in the mind. First and foremost, it became difficult to decipher whether the hotel had foreign and Pakistani guests/investors staying or not. Denials of the presence of any guests by the hotel spokesman and the authorities were challenged by initial media reports that at least 70 guests were in the hotel, including 40 Chinese. But this bit of information later disappeared, to be swamped by the tide of denials and assertions that only hotel staff was present. How then to explain the statement that kept popping up intermittently during the operation that all guests had been safely evacuated? It may well be that there were foreign and local guests, including some Chinese personnel, but the implications of revealing the threat they had been subjected to proved too hot a potato and was finally quashed.
The most troubling question that arises is how, even in the camouflage of security uniforms, the attackers were able to access one of the most heavily guarded and secured areas of Gwadar, itself one of the heaviest guarded places in Pakistan? The reason we surmise from the reports that the clearing operation took so long has to do with the deployment by the attackers of improvised explosive devices at all entry points to the fourth floor of the hotel where they made their final stand. It may also be that the security forces were concerned first and foremost to evacuate any guests before launching an all-out final assault on the attackers.
CPEC offers tremendous opportunities for both Pakistan’s and Xinjiang’s development. But a large part of its 7,000 kilometres route passes through Balochistan. As the Gwadar incident shows, no amount of security can completely prevent random attacks. If Gwadar, despite its high security, is not completely safe, how can the entire length of the CPEC, particularly in Balochistan, be secured?
Informed analysts have been arguing themselves blue in the face that the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan should be distinguished from the religiously-motivated terrorism that afflicts the country and attempts to find a political solution to what is essentially a political conflict be pursued despite the difficulties. And consoling oneself with the usual ‘foreign hand’ mantra is not going to facilitate matters either. The people of Balochistan have long standing and some recent grievances regarding their political rights, enforced disappearances, provincial autonomy (an unfulfilled aspiration that is pushing the Baloch youth in a separatist direction), control over their natural resources, treatment as a federating unit and as citizens. None of these, separatism aside, are issues that cannot be tackled within the four corners of the law and Constitution. Not even attempting this historic task is tantamount to running the risks of a growth of separatist sentiment amongst the Baloch people, a trend that if it sets in widely, may prove hard to reverse.