Saturday, April 24, 2010

The politics of listening to the elders

It is not possible to decipher correct information through print and electronic media, nor is it possible from hearsay. Getting unbiased information is only possible through experiencing it. Let me put forward my arguments: Looking at the Pakistani soaps, dramas, movies, sitcom and all such mediums claiming to represent Pakistan; an outsider would think that Pakistan is a place where there is love everywhere, Pakistan looks something quite similar to UAE or Thailand, and that girl-guy chasing around is very obvious. But let me assure you that Pakistan is nothing close to such notions.

Similarly, we all hear from people visiting the US that the family structure there has annihilated. We see in the soaps and movies of armed macho men and fighting people, happy marriages, easy college life, happy-go-luckies, freewheeling car chases, burgers and cokes for a penny each and what not. These movies and dramas portray a life where you are free after seventeen or eighteen years of age, to do whatever you want to do. The print and electronic media show us that the Americans are free to make whatever decisions right or wrong even if their parents oppose. My notion was that the Americans are very well-mannered and polite, just like the British gentlemen are supposed to be, I could not imagine them Americans not listening to their elders. In fact I always thought that we the Asians, supposed to revere our parents, are actually not doing so but the Americans do so.

To believe it you have to first see it. What I saw is truly outrageous and annoying. I never thought that kids over there would not listen to their elders and make use of the experience that they transfer. But this is exactly what Mr. Former President Bush did. Whatever his reasons to attack Iraq, let us assume them to be true (which have been proven otherwise) should he have done what he did? His father also attacked Iraq, in fact he led the world’s largest deployment after World War-2 to attack Iraq and liberate Kuwait. But Mr. Bush Senior and his successor, Mr. Clinton knew that if they dislodge Saddam instability will ensue that they will not be able to control. That is why they did not dislodge Saddam and controlled him through ‘other means’. Americans could have attacked Afghanistan during Clinton’s tenure, but sense prevailed to some extent at least, and he settled for only some surgical strikes.

But the smartest President of the American history did the otherwise. True enough he followed in his father’s footsteps by attacking first Afghanistan and then Iraq, but then he tried to outgrow the boots, and now look at him! Not only did the Americans started hating him (a fact represented by elections and his popularity ratings), the war acted as a catalyst to the economic bane induced by the mortgage scandal. Now Americans are losing jobs faster than the speed of light. One of the reasons why Americans had to move towards d├ętente during the early 1970s was that there was stagflation and they were in a crunch because of heavy financial losses in Vietnam. The Soviets, it is alleged, was felled by the little strokes of Afghans, into retreat just like the Americans in Vietnam. It is an anomaly that big powers lose small wars; and I suppose that since the US is the biggest power today it should lose the smallest war (that will be decided by history).

What’s the catch for us? Nothing; we the people of Pakistan have nothing to gain. However, the US aid, on which depends the lifeline of our ruling elite, is not pumping in enough blood to keep us up. Already the state of Pakistan is feeling numb in the feet (Baluchistan and Karachi) and we have a backache in NWFP. There are symptoms that there is stomach upset because the breadbasket is on a diet because of wheat shortage. I do not buy into the Balkanization theories because such things have been in the news since Pakistan was created. Just another passing comment before we move on: Those who talk of our Atom bomb falling in the wrong hands should not forget that to use modern light weapons there has to be at least a month’s training, even if the nuclear arsenal (God forbid) falls into the wrong hands the best use they’ll be able put it to would be to sell it in scrap (talk about proliferation!)

So what does Mr. Obama do to control the damage in Iraq? Simple, wash the dirty hands off the problem and leave the job unfinished. He can’t be blamed, he didn’t do it, and there is no way it can be mended. What does history teach as a lesson to our brand new Mr. Obama? When the US pulled out of Vietnam they did not try to find another place to make a scapegoat. But the only lesson that history teaches is that people don’t learn lessons from history. This is exactly what Mr. Obama is doing; now he wants to shift the theatre from Iraq and slowly from Afghanistan and right into Pakistan. He should have at least asked the former presidents who met him, and Mrs. Clinton should once in a while ask her husband what he suggests doing. I don’t want to warn him because he would not listen. I just want to let the readers know that a rolling stone gathers no moss, only remorse – but then it’ll be too late. The readers can wait and see if I am wrong or right. The motivation factor behind Obama’s change (for better or for worse)is that he carries the name between Barack and Obama is Hussein. This, and the other fact that he being an African American, make him more prone to criticisms that he is not a true American. To counter this argument Obama will go beyond the limits not yet crossed by any other President of the US.

The lesson learnt here is that the Americans really have lost it in the cultural and moral landscape, at least it is true for the American presidents of present times. They don’t listen to their elders and they don’t try to learn from past mistakes, experiences and history. For once I am forced to believe that there is some truth in what the media portrays.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Desperately seeking hope

Let us hope – and I am sincere in this expectation – that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s Washington yatra will make the present government more confident in setting its direction and in lifting, somewhat, the spirits of the nation. We are, at this time, desperately seeking hope in the survival of the present arrangement.

Let us also hope that the incoming prime minister of Pakistan can speak to the outgoing American administration with more confidence and coherence than he had ‘addressed’ the nation. Gilani’s performance will be very much in focus during the next few days because of the media splash that such a visit is bound to make. Traditionally, our leaders have toured abroad to perk up their image in the country. Will Gilani be able to use this opportunity for some kind of damage control?

He has certainly tried to place himself at the centre of the stage with a meeting with editors and senior journalists in Islamabad on Friday. In reports published on Saturday, he has been quoted as saying that he was not a powerless prime minister. He also asserted, with whatever credence, that Asif Ali Zardari was only the leader of the ruling party and was not interfering in the affairs of the government.

Personally, I do regret to have to project my disillusionment with the prevailing state of affairs, week after week. Irrespective of what the top functionaries of the government have to say in their more than frequent encounters with the media, it is hard to disengage yourself with the popular mood. Conscious attempts to be objective and, at the same time, to retain that inherent partisanship with the party that is leading the so-called coalition have not been able to suppress or camouflage an emotional anguish about the national drift.

While we wait to see if Gilani’s visit can cheer us up to some extent, there are apprehensions about what would transpire in the prime minister’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif in London, en route to Washington. Obviously, the issue of the restoration of the judges has cast a deep shadow on the solidarity of the alliance that had initially put us in buoyant mood. It did seem too good to be real – and events, unfortunately, have validated our worst fears. What had Zardari to do about this affair of the government?

We know America’s concerns about the situation in the tribal area but official statements emanating from the White House for public consumption are expected to be supportive of the PPP-led government. Commentaries sent by our media representatives that are based in Washington suggest strong US endorsement for the present democratic setup in Pakistan. There may also be hints that the Bush administration’s long-lasting patronage of Musharraf has weakened.

Still, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while in Australia, repeated on Friday that Pakistan needs to do more to help curb the flow of militants across into Afghanistan. This confirms the thought that the situation in FATA would be on top of the agenda of talks. Incidentally, the present government, during the four months of its tenure, has not been able to contain the surge of the Taliban and there have been some scary reports of how we may lose the Frontier province if the present trends continue.

One explanation is that the integrity of the state is at stake because the establishment has been pursuing America’s war on terror. But our rulers have continually asserted that this is not a proxy war. We are in it for our own sake. In any case, the entire operation appears to be jinxed. And this causes the most severe anxiety about the present drift in the minds of moderate and liberal elements in the country, the same segments of population that have traditionally supported the PPP and also the ANP that leads the NWFP government.

This brings me back to the overall gloom that engulfs us at this time. As I have said, it becomes difficult to be upbeat about the performance of the PPP-led government. Until some weeks ago, I used to be mildly chastised by some friends and ‘fellow travellers’ for being unduly critical of a government that has to steer through a minefield of problems. They would explain to me the dictates of the realpolitik.

I concede that the challenges this government confronts are frightening and that it has assumed charge at a critical hour. It deserves sympathy and support. But a time of crisis demands resolute action and it can, proverbially, be an opportunity. There is no point in recalling how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was able to mobilise the people and give them hope at the darkest hour in our history. The pace at which he moved after December 20, 1971, was astounding. For instance, his federal cabinet was sworn in at two in the morning. His impromptu address to the nation the night he took over had a dramatic impact on the morale of a defeated country.

I can refer to many friendly conversations that I have had on this issue but this space would not allow it. I also receive a number of e-mails on my columns and I am sometimes inclined to respond to a few of them. There was this message from Bilal Qureshi from Washington D.C. whom I do not know. He was responding to my column on the 100 days of this government and suggested that one should not “paint too bleak a picture to destroy public confidence and morale”. He did not ask me to not demand answers but to be patient. “I am requesting caution, not censor”, he wrote.

We had an interesting exchange of e-mails and discovered agreement on a number of issues, though I was saddened by his opinion on the lawyers’ movement. What had worried him was the “drip drip effect”. He added: “In other words, the chorus of failure about the current government is only going to get louder …. and the entire setup might collapse, paving the way, once again, for a saviour. God help us if we have to go through that dark tunnel again”. Very logical, isn’t it?

In any case, after a subsequent column, he wrote: “I can’t help but agree with you, entirely. In fact, I am terribly conflicted because I want this government to succeed, even though it is far from perfect. On the other hand, I can also see things spiralling out of control”.

Finally, this excerpt from Bilal’s comments on Gilani’s address to the nation: “It would be the biggest understatement of the week to suggest that the Prime Minister Gilani’s speech was a disappointment. No, it was actually a disaster, let’s be honest about it”.

Let us pray that Gilani can do better in Washington and our expatriates there, like Bilal, have something to at least smile about.

Under the ISI’s shadow

Whatever else the ISI may be able to do, with its fearful capacity to pull off clandestine projects, it does not seem to have the power to perk up Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s performance as a travelling salesman for Pakistan. In fact, its real or perceived shenanigans in forbidden territories did painfully add to Gilani’s discomfiture during his engagements in Washington DC. And now he is in Colombo, carrying his jet lag and also the lingering shadow of the ISI.

Indeed, Gilani’s arrival in Colombo to attend SARRC summit on Friday was greeted with an Indian statement that its relations with Pakistan had reached their lowest point in four years, with an obvious reference to tensions over a terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and incidents on the Line of Control in Kashmir.

We know that a formal visit to America by a new Pakistani leader is designed as a foreign policy extravaganza. It is very much like a theatrical production in which the stage, the props, the lighting and the background music are carefully orchestrated to glorify the main character. But here was a lead player who did not have very impressive lines to speak. Did the ISI, with its past experience of destabilising governments of its own country, write the script?

Be that as it may, the invisible presence of the ISI was the highlight of the Gilani visit. As for the prime minister’s own tangible presence, its impact was visibly diluted by his less than satisfactory performance. Some embarrassing details of his encounter with the Council of Foreign Relations, with specific respect to his answers to questions, have been published by this newspaper. Yes, he did receive some grace marks for maintaining a pleasant demeanour.

At one point in that question-answer session, he said: “This is my ninth appointment. And I still have one more”. To this, CFR President Richard Hass responded, perhaps with tongue in cheek: “Well, in that case, you need to save your energy, sir, and pace yourself. It’s going to be hard to sustain this rate then for too many more years”. A question that can now be put to the Foreign Office is: why was the prime minister, with his lack of expertise in this domain, burdened with this pace and with such a format?

It is also unfortunate that the prime minister’s visit began and ended with reports that alleged that the ISI had a key role in the suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. On August 1, The New York Times reported that “American intelligence agencies have concluded that members of Pakistan’s powerful spy service helped plan the deadly July 7 bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan”.

Earlier, the same newspaper had reported that a top CIA official had travelled to Pakistan to confront senior Pakistani officials with information about support provided by members of the ISI to militant groups. In Friday’s report the NYT said that “India and Afghanistan share close political, cultural and economic ties, and India maintains an active intelligence network in Afghanistan, all of which has drawn suspicion from Pakistani officials”.

The report also had this para: “When asked Thursday about whether the ISI and Pakistani military remained loyal to the country’s civilian government, Adm Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sidestepped the question. ‘That’s probably something the government of Pakistan ought to speak to,’ Admiral Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon.”

Pakistan, according to an AFP dispatch from Islamabad, has “angrily rejected” this report. However, the news agency said that the NYTimes report comes amid growing signs of a rift between Washington and the ISI that could affect efforts to tackle Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.

Incidentally, Gilani’s US visit was launched under the ominous shadow of the ISI – and this had nothing to do with what the ISI has been doing. There was this sudden and surprising decision to put the ISI under the complete control of the Interior Ministry, headed by Rehman Malik. The timing of this notification was somewhat intriguing. It was issued when Gilani was leaving for London, en route to Washington. So, it took some hours before a reversal or a clarification was issued in the small hours.

This episode, with some hints about how covert operations are conducted, raises a number of questions about the present government’s relationship with the ISI and the military establishment. More confusion emanates, for instance, from the fact that the Cabinet Division has not formally withdrawn its original order of transferring the ISI’s control from the Defence Ministry to the Interior Ministry. A report by Ansar Abbasi in this newspaper on Saturday had this headline: “Is ISI still under Rehman Malik?”

Meanwhile, fighting in the naturally serene Swat Valley between security forces and militants has continued and the death toll had risen to 73 on Friday. This is only one facet of the threat of religious extremism that our country must confront at a time when a new government that represents the vindication of liberal and democratic elements is struggling to find its feet.

To be sure, the delay in the resolution of the judicial crisis has seriously undermined the credibility of the PPP-led government. And it would have helped if the prime minister could deliver a great address to the nation and respond to difficult questions in Washington with intellectual agility and finesse. Still, the problem of dealing with the rising tide of the Taliban is of the highest priority and the ISI should be expected to play a major role in this struggle for the soul of this nation.

This thought becomes relevant with the advent of August. The countdown to August 14 –

‘ulti ginti’, if you can recall that promise to restore judges within a specific time frame – has begun. This is the season to unfurl the national flag and celebrate the gift of freedom. At the same time, the occasion calls for a reflection of what we have made of this freedom.

What we must immediately face up to is the rise of extremism and militancy not just in the tribal areas but across the country. This would also call for a review of the role that the ISI has played in defending our national security. The irony here is that the forces of militancy have gained strength during the same period in which we were supposedly fighting the menace. What was initially defined as America’s war on terror has now become our own war for survival. But there is still great confusion in the minds of our rulers about how to deal with religious extremism, with its breeding ground in the tribal areas. Does this confusion also extend to what the ISI is supposed to be doing?

Games nations play

Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world, in terms of population. It is one of the seven declared nuclear powers. It has one of the world’s largest standing armies, perhaps sixth or seventh. But how many Olympic medals does it win?

This relationship between a country’s economic and social stature and the performance of its athletes was agonisingly present to me as I watched the incredible opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games on television on Friday evening. And as I write these words on Saturday forenoon, I am sleep-deprived because not only did I wait to also see the recorded version on Geo Super but such was the impact of the occasion that I was sleepless for many hours.

Of course, this dazzling manifestation of China’s astounding progress and achievements during the last about three decades overlapped a major crisis in our national affairs. The decision of the ruling coalition on Thursday to impeach President Pervez Musharraf has pushed Pakistan into uncharted waters. Every columnist and commentator would be obliged to focus on this grave issue. I feel compelled to do this in the mirror of the Beijing Olympics and the rise of China as a great power.

Without any doubt, August 8, 2008 will live in the annals of history, like dates on which great wars begin or revolutions mark their culmination or world leaders are assassinated. Why? Because this is the moment when China has confidently claimed its place at the centre of the world’s stage. Let the word go forth from the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing that the twenty first century is an Asian century.

In recent days, the international media has been preoccupied with China and how it has used the Olympic Games to make a statement about what it has achieved. On Friday, in different time zones, the entire globe saw this spectacle, in awe and disbelief, of the glory of a major civilisation. Yes, there will still be some disparagement of China’s political system in the west with reference to its democratic credentials. But the ordinary people everywhere, apparently more than half of the entire population of the globe, must now confirm China’s great stature.

Here, in Pakistan, we are about to ‘celebrate’ the sixty-first anniversary of our freedom. Incidentally, the Communist revolution in China came two years later. If you refer to those times, in a historical context, you may conclude that we had a better chance of moving ahead. But what have we really made of our freedom, considering also the loss of the eastern half of the country?

Another regret that I have is that though we are such close friends with China and also share borders with it, we know very little about the country in an academic sense. Yet China, with about one fourth of the world’s population, has a recorded history of more than four thousand years. No other nation has ever made so much progress in such a short time. Do we have the intellectual capacity to understand all this and decipher the reasons for our backwardness? After China, another neighbour – India – is moving ahead of us in some significant areas. Why?

I have said, at the outset, that medals won in Olympics and in other competitive sports should reflect a country’s economic, social and political status. In doing this, I am not really leaning on that George Orwell quote, that “probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Modern sports are a different ball game and China itself presents a convincing argument in this respect. All you need to do is to look at the medals won by China in successive Olympics. This tally has risen in synchronization with China’s economic progress and now it is aiming to win the most Gold medals and for that it would have to beat the United States.

By the way, a BBC feature this week listed ten apparently insignificant countries from the point of view of achievement in sports “whose athletes have the potential to cause a stir”. Ah, Pakistan in not in the list of these “countries to watch”. The ten countries are: Sudan, Botswana, Panama, Ecuador, Iraq, The Korea, India, Afghanistan, Montenegro and Romania. I am not arguing that this list is any certification of these countries’ economic or social potential because just one Gold-winning athlete can make some difference.

Coming back to the present state of Pakistan, the impeachment process has brought to the surface many of our political and constitutional derelictions. It may even be seen as an attempt to exorcise the ghosts that have haunted our socially dilapidated mansion. At the heart of this predicament are our frequent deviations from the path of constitutional rule and political morality. Can we correct the course now, considering that tragic lapse on the part of the ruling coalition of not attending to this issue immediately after the February elections?

This delay, unfortunately, has generated many ambiguities and uncertainties in the minds of the people. One problem for the coalition is to reinvent itself, after a dismal performance of four months. August is surely an appropriate month in which to finally make a new beginning. It was in March last year, another month that marks a historic event in Pakistan’s history, that the promise of a new freedom was launched with the lawyers’ movement.

In any case, we must now try to pick up the pieces and recreate that hope of early spring. That Musharraf is still not willing to depart is one of those misfortunes that have denied our people not only democracy but also economic and social well-being. We have an example here of how some individuals at some critical moments can seriously damage the cause of a nation.

What really baffles a rational person is that a number of individuals in authority, the ones who are seemingly well-educated and aware of the lessons of history, can wilfully indulge in immoral, corrupt and shamefully expedient practices without any concern for the good of the country. Removal of Musharraf, hopefully without the trauma of the impeachment, has become necessary to undermine the scope for wickedness in our polity.

We regularly have disclosures about how our rulers have cheated the nation in the past. One such report, published in this newspaper on Saturday – yesterday – is based on a new book by Ron Suskind, a US journalist. ‘The Way of the World’ includes the episode of Benazir Bhutto’s negotiations with Musharraf with the involvement of the United States. In one telephonic conversation, recorded by the US intelligence, Musharraf told Benazir: “You should understand something, your security is based on the state of our relationship”.

If such revelations confuse and sadden you too much, the Beijing Olympics can serve as a temporary antidepressant.

Safe passage for Pakistan

We may detect some similarities between commando culture and cowboy culture. After all, there always seemed something personal in the bond between Pervez Musharraf and George W Bush. And this thought may remind us of Hollywood’s classic John Wayne westerns. One similarity could be the tendency to shoot from the hip. In cowboy culture, it would be to shoot first and ask questions later. Well, are you thinking of March 9, 2007?

In any case, we may also recall John Wayne riding into the sunset, when the story has ended. In Musharraf’s case, another reference comes to mind: old soldiers never die; they just fade away. But Musharraf seems to be taking his cue from Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night… rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

Still, there is nothing poetic about this long, painful departure of President Pervez Musharraf. For all this week, headlines have been promising a decision within hours. One morning they announce that the deal is done and the next day that it is undone. Analysts, quoting official sources, keep telling us that the president would have to resign before the agony of impeachment is set into motion — if a safe passage is assured.

The general impression is that the army, though it has evidently distanced itself from politics, would not want its former chief to be humiliated. At the same time, so many ex-servicemen remain hawkish, demanding Musharraf’s trial for treason. Meanwhile, hectic diplomatic activity has gone on behind the curtains. We are told that mediators from the US, Britain and now also from Saudi Arabia are making hectic efforts to find a solution to the flaming political impasse. This newspaper, quoting reliable sources, reported on Saturday that “if the international mediation succeeded, President Musharraf would leave Pakistan forever”.

Incidentally, this high drama is taking place at a time when we find ourselves in deep crisis. This was particularly the week that inspired serious deliberation on the present state of affairs. On Thursday, we celebrated our Independence Day. It was attended by that ritualistic show of patriotic fervour. Those touching, emotionally uplifting national songs did provoke some hope that we can come together and make a new beginning.

At the same time, dire warnings about what could happen to Pakistan remain in circulation. There are indications that the United States is distancing itself from Musharraf. The White House has said that President Bush believes only Pakistanis should decide who they want to lead their country and observers see this as a signal that the US would not rescue Musharraf from an impeachment move. But the real issue is whether the US is also distancing itself from Pakistan.

Perhaps it is Pakistan that needs a safe passage into a future that protects its integrity and its democratic dispensation. We do need to worry about it against the backdrop of dark apprehensions by foreign experts about Pakistan becoming dysfunctional as a federation. One focus is on our struggle against militants and terrorists in the tribal belt, with intimations that the Taliban are gaining influence in settled areas. Combined with rising commotion in the economic sector – the price of dollar being an alarming indicator – the challenge for the present government is truly formidable. But its quality of governance breeds despair.

All this would demand that we get the Musharraf issue out of the way as soon as possible. And it is not just the departure of Musharraf that has to be hastened but also the restoration of the judges. They belong together as an obstruction in the path of our democratic revival. In spite of all this confusion that surrounds us, we must not forget that it was the lawyers’ movement, in close cooperation with the media and civil society, that led to the outcome of the February elections and the predicament in which Musharraf finds himself.

On Friday, the Balochistan Assembly passed a unanimous resolution demanding of Musharraf to seek a vote of confidence or step down. Again, the tally was decisive. The resolution was adopted by 58 legislators in a house of 65 – and there was no one there to oppose the move. Thus, all four provincial assemblies that are a part of the president’s electoral college have overwhelmingly rejected Musharraf. Add to this the defections that have taken place in the King’s party and you can certify that Musharraf must go.

Yet, there is still a great deal of suspense about how he will depart. Also on Friday, the ruling coalition of the PPP and the PML-N finalised its draft of the charge-sheet against Musharraf to be presented to parliament when the impeachment process begins. A joint session of parliament is expected to be summoned in a day or two. But it would not come to that if Musharraf is willing to resign.

I have referred to Pakistan’s birthday and how it came in rather ominous circumstances. Musharraf’s own birthday fell on August 11 and at least this year, it was not a lucky day for him. By the way, General Ziaul Haq’s birthday was August 12, though this proximity does not make much astrological sense because it is hard to imagine two military rulers who were so different in their personal tastes and inclinations. At some level, they have been very similar. Their legacy would be comparable in terms of what the country had to suffer during their rule.

We will have time, though, to assess and analyse Musharraf’s legacy after he has departed. How many more hours or days it would take is uncertain. We continue to hear from his fast diminishing supporters that he would not resign and fight the impeachment charges. Whether the army leadership would like that to happen is also a big question. Indeed, one keeps on wondering what the army leadership is thinking. Much has depended on their wisdom and their actions in our unfortunate history.

And when it comes to learning from history, both our army leaders and our ruling politicians have a lot to ponder. Their wisdom and their prudence, as well as their intellectual abilities, will charter the course our country will take in the immediate future. Musharraf’s departure is foretold but its consequences are very variable. As I have said, we need a safe passage for Pakistan.

On Friday, all major foreign newspapers suggested that Musharraf was ready to resign, that the Musharraf era was over. They also seemed to share the concern expressed by The New York Times: “His departure from office seems likely to unleash new instability in the country as the two main parties in the civilian government jockey for his share of power. It would also remove from the political stage the man who has served as the Bush administration’s main ally here for the last eight years”.

This column is taken from The News.com

Deadened by deadlines

This question has constantly been posed during the past few months: why is Asif Ali Zardari so hesitant to restore the deposed judges, particularly Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry? Yes, the National Reconciliation Ordinance is generally mentioned in conversations that take place on this issue. Speculation, of course, could extend to somewhat trivial matters, though the perception that the Americans do not want Justice Chaudhry to head the Supreme Court has the weight of a veto of some sort.

Be that as it may, Maulana Fazlur Rehman was rather candid on Friday night when he told Kamran Khan of Geo that Zardari had told him about why he needs time to restore the judges. This is because of his dealings with different forces — quwwaton — in the process that saw the departure of Pervez Musharraf. This does seem very credible. And many might condone this ploy for reasons of expediency.

How would one react to this revelation by the redoubtable Maulana, himself quite adept in playing politics? As for the people who are opposed to the restoration of the judges, a small minority at the popular level, any justification for such dalliance would be fine. But there has been considerable evidence, based on properly conducted public opinion polls, that an overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan support the lawyers’ movement. And if this logic is to be negated in a democratic dispensation, what is all this hullabaloo about the demise of dictatorship?

Another question that is very relevant relates to the identity of the forces that may have persuaded Zardari to renege on solemn agreements that he had made in writing and in public, something that flies in the face of his macho image. The obvious explanation is that it could either be the military establishment in the country or the United States or both. This is what realpolitik is all about.

However, this realisation also brings into question the manner in which the impeachment drive against Musharraf was orchestrated. Apparently, some political elements were taken for a ride in this process. Besides, if extra-democratic elements – to be seen as extra-constitutional – have such sway at this stage of our present arrangement, the prospect of Pakistan finding its sense of direction becomes very unsure.

In any case, Nawaz Sharif has agreed to a new deadline for the restoration of the judges and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has assured that there is no scope for a minus-one formula. Thus, Wednesday, August 27, is the new D-day. This development has taken place at a time when Pakistan is slipping deeper into crisis, with economy in a virtual meltdown and the surge of militant and terrorist forces in the northern areas is becoming more and more alarming.

Indeed, the two suicides bomb blasts that took place on the outer gates of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories in Wah Cantonment on Thursday are extremely scary. It is instructive that the Taliban readily claimed responsibility and threatened more such strikes. Every major city in the country is vulnerable. According to one report, shopkeepers of the Rainbow Centre in Karachi, the grand bazaar of entertainment CDs and videos, have been warned to close their business. The writ of the state is being constantly challenged, with impunity.

On the economic front, too, the situation is very grim. Our rupee weakened to a record low on Friday. It fell — or rose? — to 77.15 against the dollar. This could not have been imagined in the recent past. The stock market has also been falling. There are other very striking reminders of growing disorder in the economic realm, one of them being the partial strike of goods transporters at the Karachi port.

Because of these major disruptions, little attention is being paid to the overall law and order situation and the social disarray that this environment has aggravated. One example: two women were killed by the Taliban “moral force” in Peshawar on Wednesday. Expressing shock and alarm over this incident, Asma Jahangir of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted “the extremists’ tactic of taking human lives on whims”. To add to all this, South Africa has pulled out of next month’s ICC Champions Trophy, citing security fears.

Meanwhile, there is also a new focus on the presidential election. You could have forecast the PPP chorus in support of Zardari’s candidature, though as president he would not be able to preside over the affairs of the party and dominate the political exercise of power. As a ‘proclaimed offender’, in terms of my sympathy for the PPP, I am worried about the manner in which the party is making its decisions. There is no indication of any serious and sincere debate being conducted within the higher ranks on very crucial matters.

It was only on Monday that Musharraf had announced his resignation, with a very unconvincing elucidation of how he thought he had served this country. In a sense, this was a great victory of the people’s will as it was expressed in the February elections. It also called for jubilation among political and civil society activists. Yet doubts lingered about how this departure had been arranged and the involvement of foreign mediators was so obvious. One can only imagine what could have happened if he were a politician and not a former chief of the army. And they would still talk about the supremacy of law and of constitution.

Because of this rush of events and the predicament regarding the restoration of judges, a major event that took place only this week has, to some extent, receded into the background. We feel totally engrossed in the judiciary issue and, at another level, in what is happening on the ground with reference to the economy and the war against terrorism. Six months have past since the elections and the pace at which the rulers are moving remains disconcerting.

It would be pointless to remind our rulers that they were swept into power, without any doubt, by the tide that was raised by the lawyers, the media and the civil society activists after that defiance shown by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9, 2007. It is undeniable that without the lawyers’ movement, the outcome that we had on February 18 this year would not be possible.

It would be a great tragedy if this movement is not fully vindicated and the consequences are bound to be dreadful in terms of our survival as a democracy. We still have not come to terms with the loss of East Pakistan. One aching regret is that our politicians did not mobilise public opinion in West Pakistan about what was happening in the eastern wing of the country. This time, though, the people have spoken. But can our present rulers hear this voice?

Wages of a Zardari presidency

A forbidding thought it may have been but the reality of Asif Ali Zardari as the president of Pakistan cannot be wished away. We know that Pakistan has not been lucky in recent months. You only have to look around, from an uncovered ditch in the village of Baba Kot in Balochistan, to the battlefields in the northern areas and to the misery of the ordinary people everywhere to underline that eerie feeling that something very disastrous might happen at any moment. Well, we do have some ominous developments.

In my recent expressions of dismay over how the Pakistan People’s Party is dealing with emerging crises, I have been careful to confess my lifelong sympathy for this great party. It has been the only parking place in the political arena for the liberal opinion. But the drift that we have witnessed after Zardari reneged on his solemn promise to restore the judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf on November 3, 2007 – something that cannot even be justified by the normal standards of political expediency – is truly heartbreaking.

And when I contend with these feelings as a supporter of the PPP, I can imagine how those who have always detested the party would feel. This, then, is the most fundamental objection to the Zardari presidency. He is a contentious figure. He is also the unchallenged and strong leader of the largest party. There should be little dispute with the need for the president to be neutral and non-controversial. Zardari has always been a controversial figure and some recent reports, including the one in the Financial Times regarding his medical certificates, have surely not removed any misgivings about him.

“What’s all the fuss about?”, asks my friend Ayaz Amir in his column in this newspaper on Friday. Yes, he is right in arguing that “anyone has the right to stand as president and be elected, given the right numbers”. But does this mean that we should have no concern for moral principles and the essential spirit of democracy – irrespective of the electoral drill. Haven’t they always been saying that elections alone do not make a democracy?

Even when we invoke the democratic principle, we can be sure that the majority of the people would not approve of this outcome. You have to bear in mind the circumstances in which the electoral campaign was conducted, the coalition was formed and solemn pledges were made, including in writing, to restore the judges. You should also look at the alliances that the PPP has made to get Zardari elected. Remember May 12, 2007?

Again, expediency may be considered a somewhat legitimate instrument of democratic politics. Yet, the values of trust and credibility cannot totally be set aside. This would also appear to defy the fundamentals of the ‘yaron-ka-yar’ syndrome. The only explanation for Zardari to change his mind on the deal that he had struck with the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif would be that ground realities had changed and that new strategies had become indispensable for the resolution of national crises.

If you look carefully, you may conclude that these crises have really been intensified by the refusal of the PPP to abide by the promises it had made. The irony of all this is that the PPP leaders have been very right in insisting that they had valiantly campaigned for the cause of the sacked judiciary. We have the footage to show that they were in the forefront of the lawyers’ movement. There is also that statement made by Benazir Bhutto. And at the same time that they highlight the party’s role in the popular movement, they keep on insisting that the judges would, after all, be restored. Ah, with Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar as their chief justice?

Alas, what we see them doing in this regard is very painful for their supporters in the civil society. There is a lot of ambivalence and a hint of deception in how the party’s newly inducted leaders, the Rehman Maliks and Farooq Naeks, are playing the game. One suspects that the great hope that was born with the formation of the grand coalition after the February elections was a camouflage and all moves were made to pave the way for the Zardari presidency, even though he initially had the airs of a Mr Sonia Gandhi.

Let us try and recap the events that have marked our political journey from March 9, 2007. First, we must admit that it was a day that changed many things. It was a silver lining on a dark horizon. Recall the emotions of the people of Pakistan as they got involved, if only as spectators, in the movement launched by the lawyers and carried forward by the media and the civil society activists. Try to re-live, in your imagination, the excitement of those days. We did have that feeling of Pakistan having been re-invented.

It can be argued that it was this movement that set the stage for the return of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to the country. Benazir’s welcome on October 18, 2007, was another great event to bolster people’s faith in a new beginning, in spite of the suspicions that were prompted by the deal she had made with Musharraf and also that devastating terrorist attack on her procession. Her assassination on December 27, inquiry about which seems to have faded into the background, had shattered the nation. In many ways, we have not yet recovered from that terrible loss and it is certainly the PPP’s responsibility to redeem the hope and the expectations that she had symbolised.

Go back, also, to November 3, 2007, and its consequences. At that dark hour, our history was lit by the defiance of a majority of the judges of our superior courts, who refused to take oath under another PCO. Justice Dogar was the beneficiary of that act of infamy – and he remains the beneficiary of what Zardari has wrought. Remember also the ban on the media, the vicious beatings of the lawyers, journalists and political activists. Should all that be allowed to go in vain?

As I have hinted at the outset, the nation is in a deep crisis. Many aspects of this crisis do not directly relate to what our politicians are doing. Our social, moral and intellectual deprivations get little attention. The young constitute a massive chunk of our population and they are uneducated, ill-educated and utterly frustrated. They verily constitute a time bomb. And we need political stability and social order to be able to deal with such emergencies. Can Zardari’s presidency, essentially divisive, provide us with stability and order?