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Archive for May, 2002

The Drums of War

Those of us who will be alive after the war being forced on us by India will lament the sheer helplessness of the lack of cogent reason for India to consign millions of Pakistanis and Indians to their death. Even as war hysteria engulfs India, or at least that part of India where BJP’s Hindu chauvinism is very much manifest, Pakistan remains a sea of calm. With war seemingly imminent people are going about their business unbelieving that death from the skies may rain down on them at any moment. To a great extent this epitomizes the absolute calm within the present Pakistan government, belied even by the headlong fall of the stock market. If there is fury in Pakistan at the Indian obduracy it is displayed in resigned disappointment rather than equivalent belligerent rhetoric. Exhorted to prepare the Pakistani public for war by at least initiating visible civil-defence measures, the President demurred. He was not going to initiate panic, that would be dancing to the Indian tune. While Mr Majid Nizami and a couple of senior media personalities have always maintained a constant principled stand through the years without any fear or favour, some others suddenly found their voices and went over the fail-safe line due to his position and person, mistaking the President’s calm approach as a sign of weakness. Unlike some of his predecessors, khaki-clad and mufti alike, Pervez Musharraf readily accepts objective criticism if it is made without motivation, his patience defines the measure of his persona, calm in the face of danger. Not everyone remains cool under fire.

The briefing by the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) Pakistan Army made the hitherto “possible” war into a real-time issue. Hoping that it would be limited to Indian action across the LOC in Kashmir, the military hierarchy are quite prepared for a worst-case scenario, an all-out attack across the international border. Into his 80s and with one foot visibly in the grave, Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee exhorted the Indian Armed Forces, mostly in their 20s and 30s to “fight a decisive war and win victory” (sic against Pakistan). In any conventional war between India and Pakistan there will certainly be many more civilian casualties than military ones but in case of nuclear exchange, and there is no guarantee that any limited war will not escalate into a general all-out war and than into a nuclear one, there will be hundreds and thousand times more civilian casualties than military ones, innocents caught in the crossfire of unnecessary conflict. The number of dead and wounded in a nuclear exchange in densely populated South Asia may exceed in one day that equivalent to the number of casualties in the entire Second World War.

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Suicide Bombing?

On 8 May a powerful car bomb ripped apart the coaster carrying French technicians working on the Agosta submarine project in Karachi, leaving 11 French and 4 Pakistanis dead, injuring more than 2 dozen others. First reports indicated it was suicide bombing, later it transpired that instead of ramming the coaster the car had moved adjacent to its right side before blowing up. Whether the explosives, attached to the engine block, were detonated by the driver or it was remotely detonated, is still a matter of conjecture. Because of the recent spate of “suicide bombings” in Israel by the Palestinians and the repeated threats of Al-Qaeda about retaliatory attacks against the “war against terrorism” Coalition partners, expert opinion seemed to coincide with general public perception. For all practical purposes, “suicide bombings”, hitherto associated with Tamil Tigers and Palestinian activists of various kind, had come to Pakistan.

Staying in the Pearl Continental across the road from the Sheraton, a number of New Zealand and Pakistani cricketers were jolted, even in their rooms, besides being on the receiving end of flying debris. The New Zealanders were particularly lucky, most players were finishing breakfast, ready to depart for the National Stadium for the Second Cricket test. Their physiotherapist, standing next to their coaster parked behind the Pearl, took cuts and bruises in his right hand. Another few minutes and the car bomber would have had a full load of international cricketers in his bomb-sights. Having earlier cancelled their October 2001 trip because of Sep 11, the New Zealanders were in Pakistan more or less under duress. A bomb in their midst would have been an unmitigated disaster for cricket in particular and sports in general, for Pakistan, the repercussions would have gone far beyond that for the poor French technicians. Botham would never have sent his mother-in-law here, as a sporting venue Pakistan would have become a desert!

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A Lopsided Loya Jirga

The fundamental premise of any agreement is that it should be fair and equitable to all those who may be affected by it. Six months into the induction of the Afghan Interim Government (AIG), a traditional caucus, the LOYA JIRGA (Great National Assembly of Notables) is supposed to assemble to choose the representatives of the Afghan people. Hungry for peace, the Afghans accepted an overwhelmingly Tajik (and Panjsheeri Tajik at that) dominated AIG, putting their faith in Loya Jirga Commission that was mandated to complete the process of choosing the representatives according to a complex formula, but one which was mainly rooted in the democratic concept of apportioning delegates on the basis of percentage of population, provided, of course, that they had individual reputation for integrity and acceptability to those whom they sought to represent. Even a cursory look at the procedural document issued by the Loya Jirga Commission showed that the Northern (Tajik) and Western (Uzbek) Districts have been allotted a much higher number of delegates. The Panjsheeri Tajiks who actually wield power in the AIG (having the all-important Ministries of Defence, Interior and Foreign Affairs) manipulated an artificial majority for Tajiks in the number of delegates while denying the same to the majority Pashtuns. While Pashtun Hamid Karzai has kept the disparate but heavily Tajik-weighted coalition together, the seeds of discontent may reverse all the gains made in removing the Taliban from power. The Eastern and Southern Regions are Pashtun and densely populated, they should have been given greater representation.

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Tidal Wave 2002

A few days before Referendum 2002 a crude poll conducted by Research & Collection Services revealed that, viz (1) the turnout would be less than 30% and (2) 65% of those responding to the queries would support the President. This poll was conducted over 93 cities/towns and adjacent rural constituencies, there was plus/minus 5% margin for error in this poll. By 12:30 pm on Referendum Day the feedback from the staff in the field concluded that the poll was spectacularly wrong on both counts. Except for Quetta, some parts of interior Sindh and a few places in Karachi, the polling throughout the country was brisk, the turnout already crossing the 30% mark. In exit polls, slightly more than 90% were openly favouring the President, only 2-3% demurred. Between 2 pm and 4 pm voting slowed considerably because of the intense mid-afternoon heat, by 5 pm there was a rush to meet the 7 pm deadline. The 60% plus turnout claimed by the government is therefore credible.

Where and why did the pre-Referendum forecast go wrong? First and foremost the voters were well motivated towards the President. Even while complaining that the present governance was far from satisfactory, many did not want Ms Bhutto or Mian Nawaz Sharif misgoverning them again. Third, almost 15 million voters are under the age of 21, voting age being reduced to 18. Owing no allegiance to any political party and brought up on political horror stories, they cast their vote en bloc for the President. His hard stance towards the militancy of the religious parties was another factor. Lastly the increased number of polling stations, 164000 in all, almost 6 times the normal electoral day average, increased the voter turnout manifold as it allowed easy voting throughout the day. As someone remarked, everyone and his mother-in-law went out to vote, many had never voted before. The same refrain remained throughout the country. There were certainly voter irregularities, mainly, viz (1) voters not having their identities properly checked (2) the indelible ink coming off and (3) repeated voting. These did not have official sanction much and were not in such large numbers as to affect the voting turnout, which hovered around 60%. Of the 40% who stayed away, at least half were hard-core supporters of the opposition political parties.

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