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Pakistan’s “Magna Carta”?

Nearly 800 years to the day and only a few miles from the exact spot in an island called Runnymede in the River Thames near London, two of Pakistan’s more potent political leaders signed a somewhat similar “Charter of Democracy” in London on May 14, 2006 as the much amended Magna Carta, to seek restoration of genuine democracy and the 1973 Constitution in Pakistan. The Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and his rebellious barons, in our case the “rebellious barons” have signed it but “King John” in the person of President Pervez Musharraf has shown no inclination to assent to it. According to Ms Benazir Bhutto, they would leave no stone unturned for ensuring better and brighter future of the country, ensuring stability and regional peace, Nawaz Sharif called the signing of the document ‘historic’, maintaining it to be a milestone for the people and the country. An amended version of the original Charter signed on June 15, 1215 was circulated in 1225 and was far more pragmatic. Pakistan’s politicians are far more ambitious steering clear of self-accountability but far less pragmatic seeking an “instant Magna Carta”.

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Master Of The Game?

Thirty six years ago almost to the day a good friend, Capt (later Maj Gen) Amin Ahmad Chaudhry (of Bangladesh), told me about Telemachus, a Christian monk who jumped into the ring at the Roman Coliseum to separate two gladiators fighting to the death with swords. The gladiators turned on him and he was run through by their swords. Shocked into silence at the tragedy, the crowd left the Coliseum. Some historians disagree, they say he was set on by the crowd, furious that he should prevent their entertainment they stoned him to death. Whatever the real version, because of his selfless act Emperor Honorius stopped all further gladiatorial events from Jan 1, 404 A.D. The moral of “Telemachus” is don’t try mediation, you will either be set upon by both the warring parties or by the bystanders. Normally one shoots the messenger bringing bad news, in the super-charged political atmosphere presently in Pakistan, the polarization is so defined and acute you shoot the mediator. As much as we decry President Bush for it, his doctrine is alive and well in Pakistan, “you are either for us or against us!”. Being even-handed and objective is not smart in Pakistan!

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The Road Ahead

As we approach election year 2007 (or will it be early 2008), the Musharraf regime has to decide very soon what political garb it has to cast itself in to fight the elections successfully. While there is no meltdown of the government, if what we read in the media and hear at private gatherings from neutral observers is true than in the run-up to general elections we are headed for political in-fighting within the government coalition, with every partner holding out to get the best possible deal for themselves. That is to be expected, with each constituent utilising this opportunity for crying for more seats than its share, before deciding upon the consensus candidate for each National and Provincial Assembly seat, mostly at the last minute. PML (Q) is a heterogeneous outfit that will be beset from within to an extent, particularly in the Seraiki belt, it will still be the majority party in Punjab, based namely on the strength of individual candidates rather than party affiliation. However both PPP and PML(N) will also do well in their strongholds. In Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan. PML(Q) is almost non-existent without official manipulation We are in for an era of backroom politics, may not be exactly smoke-filled and whisky–laden but there will be a potent power-play nevertheless.

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The Demise of Objectivity

The fag end of the 20th century saw freedom of the Press run on a fail-safe line in many first world countries. One of the major casualties of the 21st Century is objectivity in (and of) the media. Objectivity for the most part remains an endangered species in third world countries run by authoritarian rule, raising its head as an aberration for brief periods. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, while the rumours of its demise (in the free world) are greatly exaggerated, there are increasing signs that the media torch the Viet Nam generation lit in the US in the 60s and early 70s has come a full circle. In the wake of 9/11 the conservatives who tried to muzzle the free media in the US in the 50s using the bogey of communism (McCarthyism) are now increasingly active again. In the late 20th Century, Fox TV would have gone bankrupt with its hard rightist stance, today one of Fox’s leading anchors has become the US President’s Press Secretary.

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Raw Spirit and Body Language

Hospitalized several weeks ago with severe kidney pain in Abu Dhabi while attending a Conference, the doctor’s advice was to come back immediately for a pain-killer injection on recurrence of the pain. When the pain returned in strength at 1 a.m. the following night, the Pathan taxi cab driver who took me to the hospital a few minutes car-ride away would not take the taxi fare. He refused to leave me alone unless either I was admitted or ready to go back to the hotel. When I did come out, he was stubbornly refusing a couple who wanted to hire his taxi (few taxis being available at that time of the night). When the pain came back again the next night, the taxi driver (another Pakistani) insisted on going into the hospital with me and stayed till he dropped me back to the hotel. My Pakistani colleagues had left strict instructions that I should not go alone to the hospital, the “Reception” staff at the Hotel had to be stopped from waking them up. This was symbolic of pure Pakistani spirit, a Pakistani was in some trouble, colleagues or utter strangers, everyone responded unitedly quite selflessly.

One can understand the Pakistan-bonding with each other but why do we as a nation, volunteer to be the champions of all Muslim causes, particularly when some of those affected have no love lost for us? One can understand the religious aspect, Iraq is home to a major number of muslim holy places, fourth in emotional muslim religious issues, after Haram Sharif in Mecca, Masjid-e-Nabvi in Madinah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. With Iraq astride a vast reservoir of oil and Iraq surrounded by half a dozen countries, anyone sitting in Baghdad can call the shots as the geo-politically dominant force in the region. That’s what the suspicion is among the Muslim countries, i.e. apart from the usual Israeli bogey. A million-man protest march in Karachi against a US-led war against Iraq was tall on organization but short in number of participants, less than 150,000, the same as the Rawalpindi million-man march a week later. Nevertheless the public sentiment was impressive, the largest by far in the country for over two decades, matching the return of Ms. Benazir to Lahore from self-exile in 1986 but far less than the non-denominational universal protest witnessed in London and Paris a few weeks ago. The Iraqi people have been oppressed by more than three decades of Saddam Hussain’s tyranny, war would only add to the misery of innocent civilians, Saddam will quite deliberately and callously put them in harm’s way by having his Army fight in urban areas. One has to target Saddam Hussain, not Iraq; that about sums up the world’s message.

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The Fog of Democracy

Meeting less than a fortnight after the completion of the electoral process on Nov 2, the members of the National Assembly (NA), duly sworn in by the outgoing Speaker, Elahi Bakhsh Soomro, will vote to elect the NA Speaker and the Deputy Speaker. These elections will provide the outlines of the democratic government that will emerge from the “fog of democracy” prevailing since Oct 11 in the country. While the military government of three years will cease to exist, the new government will consist mainly of those whom the military regime removed on Oct 12, 1999 but who nevertheless during the election campaign publicly supported the rather benevolent three-year militarily rule. The PML (Q)-led Grand National Alliance (GNA) commands enough of a democratic bloc (sans the two other major parties, PPP-P and MMA) to ensure that the man who emerged as the nation’s leader by default as a result of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s mid-autumn madness, General Pervez Musharraf, will continue as President. Before administering the oath of office to the PM-elect, most probably Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, the President will be administered oath of office by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan. With the swearing-in of the PM, the much-maligned 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, duly abridged, will stand restored.

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Misconceptions about NSC

In his address to the nation last Friday the President touched briefly on Afghanistan before turning to the major event in the future, the general elections on Oct 10, 2002 and the proposals for constitutional amendments thereof for good governance. He was extremely eloquent in elaborating the concept and mechanics the next day at the editors briefing. While the complete subject requires profound analysis and debate, one would like to concentrate on the fundamental misunderstanding of the concept and role of the National Security Council (NSC) as proposed in Pakistan and in vogue in other countries. This misconception badly needs to be corrected, at the moment we are jumping to conclusions because of misnaming of the entities, at least in the Pakistan context.

In the political sense, the NSC, as being proposed by the President, is an 11-member body composed of the President, the PM, the Leader of the Opposition, the four Chiefs Ministers and the four Service chiefs. This NSC would give the Armed Forces an indirect role in governance and act as a escape valve to avoid military intervention in the future. This would also put some restraint on the President in using his arbitrary powers under clause 58(2)b of the Constitution. Given the history of martial laws and dismissal of the PM (twice each Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif), there needs to be a mechanism to serve as a check and balance between the President and the PM. Critics say that the proposal gives too much power to an indirectly-elected President, they conveniently forget that in a parliamentary democracy the PM is also indirectly elected and derives his strength from the same source that gives the President the mandate also. As for giving the Armed Forces a role in governance, the proposal does not give any role in day-to-day governance but in fact mandates a monitoring function expressed as a minority (4 members out of 11) in the NSC.

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Soldiering and Politicking

The October 2002 elections should see the Army, if not it’s Commander, back in the barracks, hardly surprising the rumour machines are working overtime and the “the natives (read “politicians”) are getting restless”. Having spent 30 months out in the cold, they have watched fitfully as the contorted manner of politics in Pakistan they were happy with has sought to be changed by the military regime in an attempt to convert democracy from the farce it was into a realistic exercise. To an extent the Local Bodies elections accomplishes that purpose but indirect elections for Nazims and Naib Nazims made that effort meaningless. Any post in the world, first world or the third, where the vote can be manipulated, does not truly represent the electorate it serves. Citing cost, the country’s present rulers have reverted to the practice of attempting “selections” instead of allowing those representative of elections. With all the apathy among the voters, the fact that even this military regime with all sincerity in their intentions, have not been able to bring about pragmatic and meaningful change, will further dissipate voter interest in the electoral process. Every elected post must be subject to universal adult franchise, or we will reap the consequences of another military coup post-Musharraf, and it will not so far be away in the future. We have been lucky with Pervez Musharraf, there could be a Sani Abacha down the line.

During the past year the President’s modus operandi has been routine. Before officially announcing a decision already made by him earlier but not announced, he first summons “the college of cardinals” ie. the Corps Commanders to plug any loopholes and then goes into a round of very public consultations with groups comprising political parties, intellectuals and academics, media personalities, etc, ostensibly to seek their advice and counsel, actually to lobby for and drum up support. To his credit he has modulated his decisions from time to time to reflect informed criticism, he has used the process quite successfully and effectively to build consensus, particularly since the period leading upto the Agra Summit in July. This time around since the consultative series initiated by the President is politician-heavy, he is finding the going difficult. The problem arises not only because of a whole set of detractors but also those who wish him well. They have built up a crescendo, both for and against a referendum on the President’s continuity post-elections. Aside from the fact that he will get bogged down in a legal minefield in attempting the referendum, the politicians who count have suddenly discovered a rallying point that gives them hope of revival of their dissipating fortunes. And the politicians who do not count are counting on the referendum to display to the President they are “more loyal than the king”, they will wait to gouge out their pound of flesh later. For the first time since Oct 12, 2002, Pervez Musharraf is on ground which is not of his choosing and one hopes that the political morass does not engulf him.

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Solomon’s Justice

A few days ago, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, came up with their version of Solomon’s justice, setting aside the conviction of former PM Ms Benazir and her husband, Asif Zardari, by the Ehtesab Bench of the Lahore High Court (LHC) in what is generally known as the SGS case, ordering a re-trial for them. Without the benefit of a detailed judgement we can only surmise that they accept that the LHC Bench was biased but the evidence may be too compelling enough to make a new trial necessary. By the time Solomon, son of David, died, he had become the greatest King of Israel. According to Encyclopedia Britannica King Solomon was known for establishing Israelite colonies in the mid-10 century BC to handle military, administrative and commercial matters, the subsequent demand for fortresses and garrison cities making him embark on a vast building programme. In fact the First Temple’s construction was completed by him in 957 BC. Only a part of the second Temple, known as the Wailing Wall now survives on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Ground Zero in the strife between Israelis and Palestinians. Known mainly for his sagacity, Solomon was also a poet but history knows him best for what is called “Solomonic justice”.

Maxim had it right in his cartoon in THE NATION last Sunday, he had Ms Benazir saying, “When a court convicts me it is a kangaroo court and if it acquits me it upholds the dignity of the judiciary”. Once the damning audio-tapes of conversations between Justice Qayyum of the Lahore High Court (LHC), then LHC Chief Justice Rashid Aziz, then Federal Law Minister, Mr Khalid Anwar and Saifur Rehman, former Chairman, Ehtesab Bureau were brought on record, it would have been a travesty of justice to convict the wife-husband former ruling duo, howsoever strong the evidence. While Benazir and her supporters may congratulate themselves that she was exonerated, the Court actually let her go on a technicality as it should have. Any time a court is perceived to be guilty of partiality of any kind, the justice meted out will be deemed to be tainted and will never be acceptable.

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Striking Out

The Opposition put on a very public display why they have failed to unite by themselves for over two years; it took the Government of Mian Nawaz Sharif a combination of a series of blunders and mis-governance to bring the Opposition’s act together. Having staged a successful strike on Saturday 4 Sept and a moderately successful one next Saturday on 11 Sept they had nothing to show for it except for a rush of adrenaline in playing hide-and-seek with the police near the Quaid’s Mazar in Karachi. On the shaky foundations of the protest against the GST by traders they decided that they had achieved omnipotence and grandly announced that the succeeding Sunday and Monday would see a continuation of their political protest by strikes. Except for Hyderabad the result was embarrassing, bad enough for us to keep hoping that in the face of a lack of credible alternates with any sense at all if not common sense, Mian Nawaz Sharif will at the very least feel sorry for the country he rules over as a virtual monarch and decide to govern it properly as per his promise and the mandate given to him, all 16% out of a voting populace of 50 million, 6% if one takes the whole population of 130 million.

Incurable optimists like me see silver linings even in the darkest of moments. The fact that MQM had to depend upon PPP and other allied Opposition parties to embark upon a strike call in Karachi is very significant. That it completely failed on subsequent days except in District Central should be of concern to the MQM. This is the same city which lived on the word of one man and his whims. The reality that Karachi as a whole belonged to the MQM has now become the subject of myth. One has no doubt about the MQM stamp on District Central but Malir District and District South are definitely out of the MQM camp, Districts East and West being marginal at best. While Altaf Hussain’s once dominant party continues to command the greatest majority in the city, its days of total control over the city are over. With sought-after (by the law enforcement agencies) MQM stalwarts surfacing in UK at frequent intervals, one expects that the coming Altaf initiative will be meant to be detrimental to the interests of Pakistan, however one believes we should welcome this now as we are far better equipped to deal with separatism rather than the early 90s, moreover Altaf Hussain is now increasingly out of sync with the mood of the vast mass of Mohajirs who remain patriotic mainstream Pakistanis. Leadership by remote control seldom succeeds particularly when the leader lives in luxury in contrast to those whom he professes to lead. Karachi is in for interesting times if any attempt is made to turn this city hostage to the anarchy we witnessed for a decade or so at the hands of MQM militants.

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