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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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National Consensus

Within hours of the polls closing on Oct 10, a very wrong perception of the early returns, which was indicating that the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal was sweeping the polls in NWFP and Balochistan, sent alarm bells ringing all over. Analysts took it to mean an overwhelming majority in Punjab and Sindh as well. Within minutes almost every news channel in the world was predicting a “Talibaan” government in the country, attributing this to the “wave” of anti-American feeling “rampaging” through Pakistan. As later results clarified, the “wave” was confined mostly to the western border in areas adjoining Afghanistan. Available statistics and educated analysis thereof reveals a different picture. The vote MMA garnered hardly exceeds what the alliance partners individually obtained in the 1997 Elections. There is certainly anti-American feeling, but that had very little to do with the vote, the core concerns affecting the individual voters were more earthy, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, education, transportation, access to potable water, electricity, gas, etc. An additional worry was the lack of employment, followed by corruption and law and order. Moreover the other major parties were very badly split.

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Children of a Richer Being

Talking on the beach in the morning nowadays one can see dozens of ships in the Outer Anchorage waiting for a berth at Karachi Port, a few months ago there was no waiting time. This may be a crude measure but a sure indicator of good economic times ahead, Pakistan’s stock market not being a good barometer. Three years ago, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s regime had brought us to the verge of economic apocalypse, in his turn he had inherited a horrendous situation from his “democratically” elected predecessor, Ms Benazir Bhutto. In a period of world recession, an enormous amount of luck has combined with doggedness and hard work rather than any imagination or innovation to bring Pakistan close to economic recovery. September 11 may have brought gloom and doom to the western world, not so Pakistan. Despite a number of immediate crisis, both internal and external, we have been a net beneficiary of the atrocious event for the long term. The pace of our economic recovery before Sep 11 was painfully slow, for a short time thereafter it became very scary economically as exports dried up with thousands and thousands of confirmed orders cancelled. Slowly but surely (thanks to Uncle Musharraf’s blend of pragmatism with realpolitik about Afghanistan bringing in millions of dollars in liquid assistance and massive debt re-scheduling), we are well into a full scale recovery in the foreseeable future. Because of the threat of “money-laundering” forcing money through normal banking channels rather than “Hundi”, home remittances by Pakistani expatriates, less than a billion US dollars in 2001, may go upto US $ 3 billion in financial year 2002.

Oct 12, 1999 cast the leaders of the two “major” political parties in absolute disarray, PML (N) disintegrating politically. This military regime did not even bother declaring martial law or putting troops in the streets as a “show of force”, there being so much apathy among the masses about politicians and politics in general. Three years later the military regime have contrived the revival of the “down and out” politicians, their other “major” achievement, lies in managing something the politically astute Gen Zia contrived to avoid assiduously in a decade-plus “divide and rule” policy, possible collaboration between the two major political parties. The combined “political” genius of civilian bureaucrat Tariq Aziz and army bureaucrat Maj Gen Ihtesham Zamir (alongwith other geniuses of the unknown kind) may manage another “first”, the major political parties of Pakistan uniting against the Armed Forces, and that too when they are facing an implacable enemy deployed in full strength on our borders. That will leave the “Kings Party” with only “Kings” in the Party, a possible PPP-PML (N) Coalition government may then try to reverse in the face of the National Security Council (NSC) all the reforms that have taken place, a substantial percentage of which have been excellent Musharraf initiatives. On the other hand, crying manipulation and rigging, the major political parties may even decide to boycott the elections. For the first time in its long history of chequered military rule, the Pakistan Armed Forces will seemingly be allied with a sorry bunch having unsavoury reputation. How Fakhr Imam, Abida Hussain, Khurshid Kasuri, etc joined them is beyond imagination! We will then be in worse condition than at any time of our history since 1971, up the creek and without the credibility of the Armed Forces as the proverbial paddle to bail us out of the growing political crisis we have managed to entangle ourselves in. One had the same feeling of impending doom about the Referendum, the people voted for Musharraf in droves yet a hostile media forced a perception otherwise.

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Hares and Hounds

Gen Pervez Musharraf is not known as a man who will vacillate in taking a decision. Unfortunately this time he does not have the luxury of a choice, the stakes are too high for this country. While the President has condemned terrorism in very strong language, the US wants him to put his money where Pakistan’s mouth is, i.e. translate rhetoric into concrete measures in line with a US wish-list which, though not disclosed publicly, seeks to isolate the ruling Afghan government logistically (no fuel, no war material) while providing concrete military support in form of intelligence, logistics and troops. The world’s media seems to be taking its cue from the various statements of top US leaders in Administration and from the US Congress in labelling Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect. Almost gleefully, Indian PM Vajpayee has not wasted any time linking Pakistan to terrorism, that India supported the Soviets against the US during the Afghan War is forgotten. While it does look bad for Afghanistan, all the hijackers were of Arab origin, even a tenuous link with Afghanistan is yet to be established. Western intelligence agencies are desperately looking for “a smoking gun” linking Osama to the heinous crime in the US. If that should happen, Pakistan would have no choice but to be in the forefront of those forces that will act against this terrorist and his Taliban protectors. One cannot run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.

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Soldier and gentleman

Last week the Musharraf regime lost one of the prime reasons for its being considered by public perception to be the most decent government in recent memory in Pakistan. While the graveyard is full of indispensible people, for this government “GA”, as the late Lt Gen Ghulam Ahmed was known, may yet prove to be so. A man of mild and pleasant demeanour, he symbolized all that is fair and good in this military regime’s governance mode. A professional soldier to the very core, he was required to be the focal point for inter-action between the military and the civilian establishments, given the mutual suspicion not an easy fit even in normal circumstances. As the Chief of Staff (COS) in the Chief Executive’s (CE’s) Secretariat, a seamless liaison with Islamabad’s hard-nosed bureaucracy as well as effective coordination with the various Provincial Governments, he personified the nouveau image of Martial Law fostered by Musharraf and his colleagues, benign governance depending upon logic and reason to motivate performance rather than the use of brute force. To its credit this military regime has convinced the superior judiciary to willingly devise a mode of swift justice that Army normally abrogates to itself through military courts. This unusual partnership has helped maintain the perception of the rule of law. An honest man not afraid to voice his opinion, GA was respected by his mentor, his colleagues and subordinates alike. In a very real sense he had managed to curb (and if not curb then camouflage) the aberrations that all authoritarian regimes are afflicted with, something his immediate predecessor had been displaying with real-time arrogance till the selector-in-chief sent him off to greener pastures, the loss of absolute power compensated by the US$ 10000 plus in UN pay and allowances per month. Civilian establishments are normally averse to the uniform, giving only lip-service and perfunctory loyalty while actually hating the Army’s guts, but they gave GA grudging respect as a fair and tough interlocutor. Pervez Musharraf will be hard put to maintain the credibility of the working environment his COS had fostered. In the President’s own words at GA’s Qul in Punjab House, Islamabad viz (1) he had no ego problem (2) spoke on everything with very strong conviction (3) had a great desire for justice being imparted and (4) he was the Chief’s confidante, a colleague and friend.

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Budget Dynamics

When all the hyperbole and semantics of stabilization and growth are done, Pakistan’s many problems can be traced back to one basic issue, poor revenue collection. What would happen if all of a sudden Pakistanis decided to pay even 30% of what they are supposed to pay in taxes? To start with there would be no Budget deficit, what to talk about meeting the gap by begging for loans. Then, we would be able to pay back some of the hefty debt (and commensurate interest thereof) we have managed to acquire in a dozen or so “democratic” years, successive Finance Ministers running from pillar to post to acquire even more debt to pay for the servicing alone what to talk of returning the principal amounts due. We would then be able to allocate a substantial sum for upgrading/modernizing the socio-economic infrastructure which is falling apart fairly rapidly. Next, more money would be allocated for development expenditure, giving priority to those areas which are still living in the dark ages even in the new millennium. In a country where the main business of government is business instead of governance and the biggest employer at all levels is government, the increased cash flow into the economy will force-multiply the economic opportunities — that in turn, along with a myriad more pluses, would allow the government to decrease taxes and thus increase the revenue collection. This is the stuff dreams are made of, being an incurable optimist and with a genial nature that does not accept reverse as a permanent feature, Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s Finance Minister for the past two budgets, must be dreaming this recurring dream. And what would happen if the revenues doubled to 60%? Fantasy?

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The Godfather

Long Island and New York are a long way from Raiwind and Lahore but a recent interview with Mian Mohammad Sharif, the father of former PM Mian Nawaz Sharif, “Abbaji” as he is widely known, shows that Godfathers are alive and well, in any country and in any age they remain the same. Mario Puzo’s fictionalized saga of a prominent mafia family had “olive oil” as the core family business, for the Sharifs it is “steel”. The script of “The Godfather” is eerily familiar, the similarities are uncanny. Vito Corleone and the eldest Sharif, both dominant personalities displaced from their roots, rise from humble origins in the new country to control large, powerful “families” comprising blood relations and close associates. One does not see “Abbaji” going around brandishing a pistol knocking off people in his young age as did the elder Corleone but a notorious faction of Kashmiri origin of Lahore, generally believed to be the muscle of the Sharif family, specialized in physically taking over property, helpless widows being a special target of the “Qabza” group. It may be no mean coincidence that their “Capo” is presently residing in New York, what better safe distance from where to fulminate and conspire than the home of the original Godfather?

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