Monday, December 11, 2023 | Daily Newspaper published by GPPC Doha, Qatar.
 Kamran Rehmat
Kamran Rehmat
Kamran Rehmat is the Op-ed and Features Editor at Gulf Times. He has edited newspapers and magazines, and writes on a range of subjects from politics and sports to showbiz and culture. Widely read and travelled, he has a rich background in both print and electronic media.
FOR A CAUSE: Marriyum Aurangzeb, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, right, with Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations, at a joint presser to announce steps for the census in Islamabad.
Pakistan finally digs in for a trying headcount

The census will keep the political stakeholders on the edge given how it determines the eventual electoral playing field Pakistan kicked off its biggest ever population census on March 15. Even though the gigantic exercise comes almost two decades after the last headcount, the very fact that it is taking place is a symbolic manifestation of a welcome return to business. Insecurity and political wrangling had stalled previous attempts to follow the constitutionally mandatory call to make the headcount every 10 years. The determination to get a fact sheet in hand this time is unmistakable with the army responding favourably to help get the job done, credibly and satisfactorily. Despite being in the thick of an ongoing military operation ‘Radd-ul-Fasaad’ to eliminate residual/latent threat of terrorism - to consolidate gains of earlier such operations - the military has deployed 200,000 soldiers to assist 119,000 trained civilian workforce across Pakistan for the census. Originally scheduled for March last year, but which was postponed because of the unavailability of military personnel engaged in an intense anti-terror operation, the data-gathering exercise that finally began on March 15 this year will end on May 25. It will be conducted in two phases; from March 15 to April 15, and then, after a 10-day interval from April 26 to May 25. The interval is on account of shifting necessary equipment and transportation of staff from Phase-1 areas to Phase-II areas. Taking into account the hard yards in the lead-up to the census, special security measures have been put in place. The Rs18.5bn ($178mn) project has been conceived in a way that one soldier is deployed with each enumerator, to begin with. The Army Air Defence Command in Rawalpindi - a garrison city that also serves as the military’s headquarters - would be the central command station for the entire process. Historically, the military’s involvement is seen as an insurance against any wrongdoing at the base civilian level - a point to which one will return in a while. For good measure, Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (public relations wing of the army), sitting alongside Marriyum Aurangzeb, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, warned at a joint presser on the eve of the census, that anyone who wilfully lies or makes a false statement to the census team would be liable to a punishment of six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs50,000 ($477). Military personnel accompanying the enumerators will be directly linked with the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) - acknowledged as one of the finest database facilities in the world - and will be able to verify the particulars. A comprehensive awareness campaign had preceded the exercise to educate the masses about the significance and procedures of the census. To this end, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology is being used for demographic profiling. Provisional summary results of the census will be available by July-end. This brings us to the sticking points, and which largely explain why the latest census has been a long time coming, leaving aside the security aspect. The exercise is not only about the basic math of a headcount, but also factors in ethnic and faith groups across the four provinces and other federating units. Once done, the figures will determine shares of federal revenue and subsidies, and more importantly, the seat configuration in the National Assembly - lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature - and civil services quotas. The fact is that there has been a massive population surge since the last count in 1998 that put the numbers at approximately 135mn. The World Bank estimated the count to be 188.9 million in 2015 and present guesstimates reckon it to be breaching the 200mn mark. Whatever the latest tally, it is pregnant with profound changes. For one, we’ll get to put a finger on how young is the population; currently, Pakistan is reckoned to have a youth bulge with more than 60% of its population in the under 30 bracket. However, what the census will do is to keep the political stakeholders awake at night, more than just figuratively speaking! Electoral seats in the parliament, after all, are assigned on the basis of the particular area’s density of population, and with rural migration a constant in the national fabric, the political elite fears the loss of influence and numbers, of course. In the past, accusations about census manipulation have contributed greatly to queering the electoral pitch. Whether grounded in reality or being peddled for political expediency, it has led to continuously stonewalling a national obligation. The broad narrative is that certain regions are over-represented in parliament and others, under-represented. Ironically, when there should be a greater resolve to put that at rest by fervently following a just census, many parties and groups would rather look the other way! But this is not to say, there aren’t any genuine issues that need a redressal. For instance, the decision not to appoint female staff - security concerns notwithstanding - could be a hindrance in the prim and proper count of women in certain areas because of religious and cultural sensitivities. Then, there is cynicism surrounding the headcount for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province being done in Islamabad - for lack of equipment there - leading some ethnic parties to raise the red rag. Another contentious point is the fate of the federally administered tribal areas, where the count may be compromised given the exodus of hundreds of thousands of residents on account of anti-terror operations in recent years. On the flip side, there is concern that Afghan refugees, who have lived for decades in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces would end up in the count unfairly as residents, especially since a critical mass is suspected to have attained fake citizenship documents over time! However, the army which will conduct a parallel count, plans to deal with this onerous task by counting the Afghan refugees separately, to ensure the count is as grounded as possible. *The writer is Community Editor.

Ambassador Shahzad Ahmad and officers of the Pakistan embassy cutting the cake
Pakistanis celebrate National Day with pomp

The pleasant morning weather made the 77th National Day celebrations at the Pakistan embassy an indulgent affair. Colourful as the setting was — with an eye-catching life-sized crescent-and-star flag adorning the building at the gate — it was left to the children attired in mostly green and white Pakistani colours to steal the show with their vocal prowess. In what has become a customary convergence on the premises of the diplomatic mission in Doha every 23rd March, expatriate Pakistanis from all walks of life turned up to partake the pomp and ceremony, only this time in even larger numbers than last year. Ambassador Shahzad Ahmad and the embassy officers and staff wore the traditional sherwani and shalwar kameez whilst the defence officers and their staff were smartly dressed in uniforms. The expats brought to the festive spirit a profusion of green — in their attire, pinned flag replicas and flag buntings. The ceremony began with the recitation of the Holy Qur’an. This was followed by messages of the president and prime minister read out by Sadia Gohar Khanum, Deputy Head of Mission. In his felicitation message to the nation, President Mamnoon Hussain, made a strong pitch on constitutionalism and plurality, recalling the ideals of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Father of The Nation. “The Quaid and our forefathers had envisaged a democratic and pluralistic state where constitutionalism and rule of law would reign supreme and where minorities will enjoy equal rights and opportunities. Let us remind ourselves on this day that Pakistan was created as a result of democratic struggle and its survival and wellbeing also depends on democracy. I am confident that the parliament, the people and all institutions will work in harmony to this end,” the president enthused. Hussain was also sanguine about the economic dividends that Pakistan expects to reap in the future. “Pakistan is poised to become a regional economic power. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has the potential to change the fate of the region in terms of socio-economic development. The mega project, once completed, will usher in prosperity and progress not only in Pakistan but also in the whole region,” the president pointed out. Recalling the significance of 23rd March in terms of Pakistan’s identity and calling, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to “build a society where nobody is discriminated against on the basis of colour, ethnicity, religion, creed or sect”. Noting that “there has been an appreciable acceleration in this process during the last three years,” the PM exhorted the nation to join hands “to make Pakistan a modern and developed state in conformity with the vision and thinking of the Quaid”. Ambassador Shahzad Ahmad congratulated the gathering on the National Day and urged the expatriates to work for the betterment of the country. He also hailed the strong brotherly relations with the State of Qatar. The highlight of the occasion was the presentation of national songs by schoolchildren following the speeches. They began with National Poet Dr Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s evocative verse Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua Ban Ke Tamanna Meri (My Longing Comes to My Lips as Supplication of Mine). This was followed by popular unity-of-purpose renditions in late ‘King of Ghazal’ Mehdi Hasan’s Ye Watan Tumhara Hai (This Land is Yours); classical and ghazal singer Ustad Amanat Ali Khan’s Ae Watan Pyare Watan (O’ Land, My Beloved Land); and that alternative modern anthem from the erstwhile pop band Vital Signs — Dil Dil Pakistan (My Heart is Pakistan). It had melancholy written all over it, in this instance, given the demise of vocalist Junaid Jamshed in a plane crash last December. But the mustachioed Malik Sarfraz, a cheerleader known for his vocal support for all things Pakistani around Doha, was at hand to brighten the mood in the embassy hall with full throated slogans, and an indulgent attempt at raising the pitch for Dil Dil Pakistan! Adding to the festivity this year, was a drawing and painting contest announced by the embassy to coincide with the celebration. The winners were given awards by the ambassador. This was followed by the cake-cutting and a Lahori naashta (breakfast).

FALLEN HERO: Iftikhar Chaudhry wrote a defining chapter in judicial history before succumbing to what is seen by many as inflated ego.
An epoch-making movement, but a sorry Chaudhry legacy

The Lawyers’ Movement aimed at the restorations of an errantly sacked chief justice, not for a chief justice who became errant after restoration This month marks a full decade since one of most momentous chapters were written in Pakistan’s judicial history. It was a bright spring morning in the federal capital Islamabad; March 13, 2007, to be precise. The stage was a commotion on a road in the famous Red Zone involving blue-uniformed, metal-grey painted helmet-wearing posse of policemen surrounding someone nearly invisible to watchers. An accidentally well-placed photojournalist managed to, in the split-second available to him, capture an image that changed the course of contemporary Pakistani history. It showed a black suited moustachioed captive being rudely shoved into a car, a police officer contemptuously clutching his short-cropped hair in disdain. The captive was the-then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had refused to accept his sacking the previous day by the military dictator in power. When intercepted, he was on his way to the Supreme Court on foot as his car was taken away to prevent him from attending office. This was the photo that launched a thousand news reports on the hundreds of protests by the lawyers’ community across Pakistan over the next several months that snowballed first into a movement and then into a political resistance that eventually resulted in the chief justice being reinstated, re-sacked and re-reinstated and the general finally vacating his labyrinth. The photo captured in breathtaking simplicity the eternal quarrel of truth with power – particularly in Pakistan’s context where the stakes are always high. While this photo is considered one of the prime triggers of the Lawyers’ Movement, looking back closely a decade later provides a more nuanced picture of the sentiment of the campaign and its parental spontaneity. And also how widespread it was and what its objectives were even if they were, strictly speaking, not carved out before the Movement began but began crystallising only when it became clear that neither the general nor the judge would budge. It was only a matter of ‘when’ the Lawyers’ Movement would be birthed, rather than ‘if’, after a bench headed by the chief justice halted the-then President General Pervez Musharraf’s advanced plans to privatise the Pakistan Steel Mills. Stung by this, Musharraf sent a reference to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) against Chaudhry and attempted a forced resignation from the latter by intimidating him through a show of uniformed force at the President House. When he refused, Musharraf sacked Chaudhry and put him in detention. The picture-worth-a-thousand-words triggered demonstrations, first by the bar council and association in Islamabad that within days spread to their counterparts in the provincial capitals. An otherwise neutralised political opposition saw their big chance and enthusiastically joined the lawyers in their attacks on the complacent arrogance of Musharraf who had overplayed his hand. The Rubicon was crossed when legal eagle Aitzaz Ahsan joined the sacked chief justice and infused a political strategy to the lawyers’ snowballing movement. Aitzaz was aided in his political strategisation of the Lawyers’ Movement by a real-time visual media. While lawyers and politicians in Pakistan have a rich history of battling military dictators, this was the first instance that reporting of a resistance of this nature was being beamed live into homes across the country. Taking advantage of this, Aitzaz employed his political acumen to create a near-continuous live TV coverage of the resistance by driving the sacked chief justice around in view of the cameras. This triggered a competition among bar associations and councils in various cities to host Chaudhry for whistle-stop speeches that turned into a living nightmare for Musharraf. The beauty of this strategy was that it was no longer possible for lawyers and their bar councils and associations to sit on the fence anymore. For the many months that the Lawyers’ Movement remained active heightening and hardening sentiments of solidarity against Musharraf and the doubled resolve after Chaudhry was, as an outcome of the November 2007 State of Emergency, sacked again, the battle-readiness of the lawyers was down to the democratic nature of its community. The Musharraf misadventure with Chaudhry is the biggest case study of the Pakistani lawyers eventually gelling together to dissolve their ideological divides for a cause that morphed from the primary reflex to get Chaudhry restored to defence of the independence of judiciary. But what remains their biggest success story also paradoxically degenerated into a bitter legacy. Once the Movement ended, ironies proliferated. With Chaudhry back on the bench for a third time in two years, he became the very nightmare the Movement birthed the fight for: trouncing of power in the fight for supremacy of law. He became the most activist of judges who ever had the privilege of sitting on the bench. He had the better of a military dictator but extended his successful trophy hunt to a democratically elected prime minister (Yousuf Raza Gilani) when he refused Chaudhry’s diktat to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against his president (Asif Zardari). It was seen as vengeance for Zardari’s refusal to reinstate Chaudhry as the top adjudicator upon assuming office. The romance of the Lawyers’ Movement soured not too late after Chaudhry was back in the saddle. It is telling that the faces of the Lawyers’ Movement – Aitzaz Ahsan, Asma Jahangir, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Tariq Mehmood and Munir A Malik, all of whom have served as presidents of bar associations – have become bitter critics of Chaudhry. They have been at pains distancing themselves from a judge who struck at democracy with the same gusto that he exhibited defying a dictator – he sent the man who restored him (Gilani) home and wants the man who forced his restoration (Sharif) ousted. The stalwarts of the Lawyers’ Movement have been editing the historical narratives articulating it, explaining that it was a movement for the restoration of an errantly sacked chief justice, not for a chief justice who became errant after restoration. *The writer is Community Editor.

IN THE EYE OF A STORM: Imran Khanu2019s remarks about the PSL and foreign players have created a national commotion.
Political rivalry heats up after Lahore grand show

Imran Khan’s controversial remarks about the PSL were rooted in the fear that the prime minister was using the popular sentiment for personal gain There’s no dearth of colourful banter in Pakistani politics.  Ideally though, a short leash should never compromise dignity and decency - more so when the indulging lot are elected parliamentarians. Unfortunately, that sliver of expectation the constituents have of their representatives was tossed away last week right in front of the parliament - talk about symbolism - when Murad Saeed, the firebrand parliamentarian of the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) attempted to assault Mian Javed Latif, an MP from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) after the latter provoked him by calling Imran Khan, the PTI chairman a “traitor”. Saeed, a Pathan, became the youngest parliamentarian at 27 following the 2013 general elections. Hailing from Swat in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, he is regarded as a promising politician for his grounded politics, deep sense of loyalty, sober conduct and a proclivity to debate with fact and reason. Mian Javed Latif, on the other hand, is a veteran politician from Sheikhupura in the Punjab province. He is also usually polite, and a regular presence on the talk show circuit, defending the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with solid assurance. However, in conduct unbecoming of elected representatives, the two were locked in an abusive physical exchange following the “traitor” insult; ostensibly, Latif had ruffled Saeed over Khan’s remarks about the recently held Pakistan Super League final in Lahore and his dim view of the participating foreign players. But even as this fracas was caught on cameras, what really brought the house down was the ruling party member’s shocking personal slander while addressing the media afterwards. Latif was forced to apologise the next day as a media storm threatened to waylay him. The PML-N veteran admitted that his reference to Saeed’s family was “indecent”. But the PTI is having none of it with Imran Khan announcing that henceforth no member of his party would be in attendance where Latif is an invitee. This episode is not only symptomatic of a general intolerance in polity and male chauvinism, but also reflects the intense rivalry between PML-N and PTI that increasingly appears to cross a line. While the mercury is rising over the eventual fate of the Panama case where PTI, as the main petitioner, is banking on a Supreme Court verdict against Sharif following a five-month hearing into allegations that purport his children to have bought luxury properties abroad from ill-gotten offshore wealth, more recently it also has had to do with circumstances surrounding the PSL final in Lahore. The PTI chairman first appeared to back the idea (of PSL final in Lahore), but then changed tack and dismissed it as “madness” while raising a red rag over security. He even predicted that in the event of an untoward incident, Pakistan could forget about the possibility of international cricket returning home for another decade. With no love lost for Najam Sethi, the mover-and-shaker of PSL that has come to assume a larger-than-life entity for starved fans back home, Khan - whose word on cricket is reverently regarded across Pakistan given his legendary status in the sport as a former World Cup-winning captain - appeared to politicise the issue. In the ensuing war of words, Sethi accused Khan of hurting the interests of Pakistan cricket with his “irresponsible” comments and which, he alleged, had influenced the decision of a number of international stars to abandon the final in Lahore. He named Kevin Pietersen as one, and claimed the stalwart had pointed to Khan’s statement for his decision to pull out when Sethi tried to convince him otherwise. Days later, Pietersen denied in a video release that Khan or his statement had anything to do with the decision! But all hell broke loose last week when the PTI chairman was heard in an off-the-record interaction with some journalists disparaging the quality of foreign cricketers who played in Lahore.  In the leaked video, he called the players “phatichar” (useless) and even suggested some of them may have been brought “from Africa”. The other term he used in the short clip was “railoo kata” - a player, who is deemed not good enough to hold his own, but is selected anyway to play for both sides to fill in the numbers. As was expected, the remarks coming from the “Lion of Lahore” - as Khan was fondly dubbed in his long distinguished cricket career - offended the fans deeply, leaving even his own supporters in a tizzy because PSL is considered by millions of Pakistanis as a “national asset” above party lines. The fans were already dismayed by Khan’s decision to give the show at Gaddafi Stadium where he has the most prestigious stand famously named after him, a skip. Ironically, Peshawar Zalmi, the team from Khan’s province, won the trophy! Ever since, the PTI chief has struggled to explain his remarks though there has been a swift damage-control swing to offset the outrage with the announcement of a PKR20mn ($190,000) reward at a high profile celebration at the Chief Minister’s House in Peshawar. However, at the time of writing this, the Zalmi team had reportedly declined the invite. Having said that, media reports last week said the political colour to the final in Lahore was not without foundation as the PTI chief feared the Sharif government was using the occasion to demonstrate public support by buying the whole lot of the PSL final tickets for its party activists and supporters. Quoting unnamed sources, daily The Express Tribune said Khan felt the move was aimed at pressurising the Supreme Court which is to give its verdict on the Panama papers shortly. However, the problem with this “conspiracy theory” is that large sections of the jam-packed stadium on the day of the Lahore final were actually raising vociferous anti-Sharif slogans! While the PTI chief was hard-pressed to explain this, it sure has contributed to a deepening divide between the two parties with no signs of a thaw in the distance. *The writer is Community Editor

TWIN BOOST: Leaders and representatives of the ECO member states pose for a family portrait with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, centre, in Islamabad; below, Pakistani fans make a statement during the PSL final in Lahore.
A welcome return to hope as resilience wins the day

After a spate of terrorist attacks across Pakistan last month that left more than 100 people dead, and also induced a swift rearguard from the country’s security forces, two epoch-making developments have infused a new hope in what is being seen as a symbolic victory against the forces of darkness. The 10-member Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO) summit in Islamabad brought together heads of state and government, including presidents of Turkey and Iran - the first time such a meeting was being held in five years. The milestone assumes significance given the lead-up to the high profile event with a general air of cynicism surrounding the very viability of the showpiece event. However, save for Afghanistan, which chose not to make a high-level representation amid deteriorating ties with Pakistan, the rest proceeded to breathe a new life into the economic bloc that makes up 16% of the world’s population and is inherent with a rich trade potential. Recently, Pakistan blitzed a number of terrorist camps on the Afghan side and closed the border when Kabul failed to meet its demand to hand over the most wanted terrorists accused of orchestrating the recent attacks in Pakistan. Kabul’s decision to under-represent only served to undermine its own interests since the ECO is a regional forum and Islamabad was only playing a host. Attempts to foist bilateral disputes that work against the larger interests of nations is not new. The scuttled Saarc summit in Islamabad last year is a case in point. Pakistan will therefore, take heart from managing successfully to thwart such a repeat spanner-in-the-works. While much was made of Kabul’s choreographed snub, the fact is that Afghanistan is not the only game in town for potential Pakistani investors. The opening of the Central Asian markets with the evolving China-Pakistan Economic Corridor means Islamabad will have plenty of opportunities and routes to make it good. After working through a preceding Council of Ministers meeting, the ECO produced the Islamabad Declaration and Vision 2025 that calls for doubling intra-trade in the next five years. The Declaration calls for development of transport and communication infrastructure, facilitation of trade and investment, promotion of connectivity with other regions, effective use of energy resources and undertaking measures for making the ECO effective and efficient. Vision 2025 underpins co-operation among member states. Intra-regional trade in the ECO bloc currently stands at 8% of their cumulative external trade. The aim is to increase it to more than 20%. Even as Islamabad basked in the glory of hosting an array of international leaders, thus steadfastly negating attempts to isolate it, there was only one takeaway from the ECO summit: the only road to salvation lies in engagement, dialogue and co-operation. Three days after the landmark summit, Pakistan received a massive confidence boost when it also successfully hosted the final of its celebrated international T20 franchise tournament - Pakistan Super League - with a select few international stars on hand against the run of play. Currently, the talking point of the sporting world’s imagination, the high-octane encounter was a year-in-the-making but its fate almost hit a dead-end when two blasts, including a suicide attack, inside 10 days hit Lahore where it was to be staged. The art and cultural capital of Pakistan was at the centre of how the script went haywire back in 2009 when a security lapse led to an attack on the touring Sri Lankan cricket team, where but for the presence of mind shown by their Pakistani bus driver, who sped them to safety in a hail of bullets, their goose had been cooked. As cricket-mad fans - deprived of seeing both their national heroes and international stars at home - convulsed at the misfortune, the government with the backing of the military defied the odds to take the highly risky decision to go ahead with the final premised in the pledge not to let terrorists dictate the state. The decision followed massive popular sentiment in favour of taking that stand in the face of present and clear danger. Even though most international stars had deserted ship and with just four days to go, a robust plan was put in place with a 5-tier security cover, for, what seems in hindsight, like a do-or-die roll of the dice. One lapse and it could all have gone kaput! As it turned out, Pakistan won and terrorism lost: for once, it didn’t really sound like a cliché. That message was manifest in the electric atmosphere at the jam-packed Gaddafi Stadium, the headquarters of Pakistan cricket, as fans soaked in every moment of national euphoria. And, then some action! The undying resolve, resilience and eventually, celebration were visible by miles as evident in the near-blanket coverage of the event what with the boisterous television circuit going bonkers. As Ivy League entertainers rocked the stage before the real McCoys got down to business in shimmering lights, there was much to draw from the studied attempt to restore the Lahore of yore: everyone went home content, but more importantly, safe and secure. The scorecard? Two events, four days apart, is all it took to make Pakistan one happy, united nation, again. It’s a cinch the chorus for more will grow. Even glow. * The writer is Community Editor.

WAITING GAME: The historic Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore is dying to get back into the frame.
Destination Lahore: Passion must not override security

With a second fatality-ridden explosion inside 10 days in Lahore, will the Pakistan Super League (PSL) final be held in the art and cultural capital next Sunday? This is the super question dogging a cricket-mad republic deprived of international action at home for the last eight years (save for a whistle stop tour in 2015 by Zimbabwe, forced ironically, by its own empty kitty). If there was a semblance of justice in the world, Pakistan would be hosting the sport it loves to death just like other nations do, but after carrying the world’s burden in fronting up to the most hardened terrorist outfits on the planet for more than one-and-a-half decade, it finds itself in isolation, but fantastically refusing to die – the flame of hope flickering; the heart, mind and body waltzing to the famed Lahori spirit. The birth of PSL last year with five franchises named after provincial capitals and the seat of the federation fetching international stars was more than a shot-in-the-arm for Pakistan cricket; it became a rallying point for a nation hooked onto the only game it wears on its sleeve. After the rousing success of the inaugural edition – the entire tournament was played out in the UAE, the adopted home of Pakistan cricket, following an attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 that closed the doors of international cricket on Pakistan – the sense of anticipation reached a fever pitch with a predictable demand to bring some part of the action back home. Hence, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)’s decision to host the final in Lahore. It held on to that stance even after the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association (FICA) took issue with a damning report of its security assessment last month. Warning that the risk level in Pakistan remained “at an extremely elevated state”, it went on to add that “an acceptable level of participant security and safety cannot be expected or guaranteed”. While FICA is not endowed with powers to prevent players from travelling, its report circulated to players, their agents and player associations around the world had enough meat to influence already wary national boards and domestic teams to decline an NOC to their players. The warning was reinforced with a catchy clickbait for the players to “check their insurance cover” – the terse suggestion being that it could be invalidated by travelling to Pakistan! Aware that a robust and wide-ranging security arrangement would be the focus of a more convincing argument in favour of resuming international sporting action in Pakistan, especially after Giles Clarke, chairman of the International Cricket Council Task Force on Pakistan, returned home impressed following a detailed inspection visit, FICA threw a quick dampener on that, too. “Whilst the opportunity for attack on international sporting events and competitors in Pakistan can be mitigated to a certain extent by the implementation of an extremely robust security plan, the current advice is that external security environmental factors keep the risk level in Pakistan at an extremely elevated state, where an acceptable level of participant security and safety cannot be expected or guaranteed, even with an extremely robust security plan,” FICA declared, ending the report with a short shrift: “Players participating in this event do so as individuals and at their own risk.” This drew a swift rebuke from the PCB, which rejected the FICA assertion. “This is a careless and cavalier approach to an issue of great importance. FICA sits thousands of miles away from Pakistan and cannot name even one credible security expert, yet makes a sweeping negative statement about the security situation in Lahore. FICA’s claim that ‘westerners and luxury hotels have been attacked’ is contrary to the facts on the ground that prove that not a single foreigner or hotel has been attacked in Lahore in the last five years,” the Pakistani board bristled. To reinforce its argument, the PCB recalled the successful hosting of both men and women’s international teams in the interim, and the massive security undertaking for the PSL final in Lahore. “PCB has recently hosted Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh (Women), Afghanistan and Malaysian national cricket teams in Lahore and Karachi without any problem. In the case of PSL final in Lahore for one day, the government has guaranteed protection by over 3,000 army and police personnel in Lahore. PCB will provide armoured buses for travel along with VVIP security protocols.” However, while there can be favourable arguments on both sides, it is crucial – perhaps, even critical – that Pakistan take a holistic view of what’s at stake even if it believes it has a strong case and resolve to prove a point to all enemies trying to scuttle the possibility of that much coveted final in Lahore as part of a sustained design to keep the country isolated. After the suicide attack on Lahore’s famous Charing Cross area on Valentine’s Day eve which left 13 people dead, a second incident, which the provincial government of Punjab claims was a cylinder blast at an under-construction café in upmarket DHA area and not an act of terror, but which killed 8 people nevertheless, it is best not to lose sight of the long term future rather than pander to the uncertain present for a statement of intent. Granted it would hurt not to see the lights shimmering down the Gaddafi Stadium as promised next Sunday eve, but the emotional current of fierce determination and resolve should be weighed against the will, ability and deliverance of a security detail that protects not only the players and VVIPs of all hues, but the cricket crazy fans who will rush in their thousands to get into the stadium, cometh the hour. Historically, the enemies of peace have zeroed in on soft target/s when the high and mighty are beyond reach. Security is infinitely more important; cricket will follow. After all, you can’t keep a passionate nation down for long! * The writer is Community Editor.

VIGIL: An activist lighting a candle during a vigil in Karachi in homage to the victims of a suicide attack on the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. u2014 AFP
Pakistan fights back after wave of terrorist attacks

After nearly two years of considerable calm following the successful Zarb-e-Azb military operation to fight terrorism and extremism, Pakistanis wonder if the slew of attacks last week is pushing the country back to Square One. Raheel Sharif, the recently retired army chief, who commanded the operation, gave his compatriots to believe that the end was nigh for terrorists and even set himself a high-octane goal when he claimed 2016 would be the year when the evil is nipped in the bud. However, this past week has shown that Pakistan is some distance in an existential fight from decimating the evil that is taking new forms from across its borders in a highly complex theatre of strategic warfare. Suicide attacks in all of the country’s provinces, one after the other, against a different set of targets, with a different set of claimants suggest there is a certain organisational streak to it at the back-end. The inference is that it would be extremely difficult for militant group/s to take on the might of the state given that Zarb-e-Azb appeared to have rendered them incapable of creating cataclysmic chaos. The run of suicide attacks may have had the desired effect; making the country look like a ‘no-go’ area, and therefore, marked out as a ‘terror fount’ at a time when the global order is undergoing reorientation with the like of Donald Trump becoming the commander-in-chief of the world’s sole superpower. It began with a bomb blast in Chaman (Balochistan province) on February 7 that killed two and continued with one fatality in an IED blast in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata) on February 11; three, in a similar attack in South Waziristan in northwest Pakistan on February 12; two, in a grenade blast in Buner (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province) the same day; also two, in an IED explosion in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, on February 13; another 13 in a suicide attack in Lahore, provincial capital of Punjab province, the same day; one in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in a suicide blast on February 15; and 72 (the toll now is 88) on February 19 in another suicide attack in Sehwan in Sindh province. The attack in Lahore’s famous Charing Cross on the Mall Road was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of Tehrik-e-Taleban based in Afghanistan; the Quetta explosion by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami faction; the Mohmand attack by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar; the Peshawar blast by Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan; the Sehwan attack by ISIL (also known as ISIS); while there is no claimant yet for the South Waziristan killing. The attack on the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan town in Sindh province also plays into the idea of a country riven by religious/sectarian strife. Typically, the foreign narrative appears to project this as some sort of attack by an ultra-conservative sectarian group on the faithful of another, but this isn’t the case. In fact, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz – real name Syed Usman Marwandi – with the title of Qalandar (an honorific denoting a highly gifted spiritual rank) draws devotees in their thousands every Thursday beyond the classification of religion, what to speak of sect. It became a soft target precisely because it can create the kind of impact the enemies deigned. It is a measure of the spiritual connect seen at the shrine of the saint that the regular dhamaal – a form of devotional percussion and ecstatic Sufi dance – resumed as devotees flocked to the rendezvous where 24 hours earlier more than 80 people had lost their lives, including 24 children in the ages 4-8, when a suicide attacker blew up! A place where the rich and the poor, the formal and the informal, the orthodox and the heterodox, the worldly and the spiritual, the young and the old, the women and the children converge without a care for class, creed, colour and gender – a massive emblem in a society deemed conservative – could not have left a more profound impact. Intriguingly, the Sehwan attack was claimed by ISIL. A similar claim was also made when 52 people were killed in another suicide attack on another shrine in Balochistan last November. During the recent attacks in the province, sources in the Pakistani law enforcement agencies intercepted WhatsApp communications that found one local group messaging another for a related Middle East-based group to own up responsibility for one such attack. The idea was to confound the Pakistani authorities, who suspect such claims to be a part of a grand design to build a narrative about the presence of ISIS on Pakistani soil. Meanwhile, eschewing the longstanding policy of restraint, Afghan diplomats were first summoned to the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi by the Army following the Sehwan attack and handed over a list of 76 most wanted terrorists with a demand to take immediate action against them or to hand them over to Pakistan. Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa also called US General John Nicholson, Resolute Support Mission commander in Afghanistan, to seek his assistance in the matter. However, with no response coming forth from Kabul, Pakistan closed the Afghan border and its army blitzed the terror camps of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and four other hideouts in Afghanistan on Friday night, and then again Saturday, carrying forward the pledge – “No more restraint for anyone” – made by General Bajwa following the Sehwan tragedy. * The writer is Community Editor.

SIMILARLY BLUNT: Pakistan opposition leader Imran Khan, left, and US President Donald Trump.
Is Imran ‘Pakistan’s Trump’ or Donald ‘America’s Khan’?

Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that barred the citizens of seven Muslim countries from travelling to the United States for a period of 90 days. He also suspended the refugee programme for war-wrecked Syrians. Even as the move provoked an international outcry with legal wrangling in the US itself and an intense debate surrounding the likely fallout and possible expansion of the travel ban to other countries, including Pakistan, one man, who fancies himself as the country’s future leader, was hoping that it would come to pass! The deal with Imran Khan, the firebrand opposition leader and chairman of his Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party, is to not only expect the expected but also the unexpected. “I want to tell all Pakistanis today, I pray that Trump bans Pakistani visas so that we can focus on fixing our country,” Khan thundered at a public rally in Sahiwal, a city in central Punjab province, two days after Trump sent shock waves around the world. Coming from the PTI chief, the colourful, if sweeping, proposal was the kind of demagoguery that has earned him the sobriquet of “Pakistan’s Trump”. There is also no dearth of political humour – understandably, more in currency among his rivals – that suggests the correct analogy is actually in the reverse: that Trump is more likely “America’s Khan”. While a verdict will probably remain elusive for the jury until such time Imran Khan makes the cut to the chief executive’s hot seat, it is evident the two have much in common – that cavalier streak borne out of impatience for process in favour of quick results, a temperamental mien, and that judgemental disposition. The PTI chairman of course, is never short of an explanation, theory or justification for his clarion calls. In the case of the ban “prayer”, he felt it would be a blessing in disguise. “The day we bring back the merit system back to Pakistan, all our best citizens will return and work for the betterment of this country,” Khan enthused. “We will have to fix Pakistan and stand on our own two feet. And the day that we decide this is our home and we have to fix it, we won’t beg for loans from the US and the International Monetary Fund,” he said, fuelling the popular narrative. Most educated Pakistanis, the PTI chairman noted, wanted to leave the country because they think they can only acquire meaningful employment at home if they have powerful connections. In a potshot at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Khan said “the day there is a government that decides it has to live and die in Pakistan, it will fix this country”. “They may have elected Trump, but we have elected Nawaz Sharif,” he said to an amused crowd. The PTI chief concluded the diatribe by hailing Iran’s tit-for-tat move in response to Trump’s immigration ban; barring US nationals travelling to Iran until the ban was lifted. “Iran is an independent nation and we need to become like them,” Khan drove home in a pointed reference to the Sharif government’s apparent appeasement. The Foreign Office in Islamabad termed the contentious Trump travel ban as Washington’s “sovereign right”. The general – and strong – impression is that Khan is a straight talker, outspoken, and mostly well-meaning when dilating on the country’s future, but while these traits make him one of the most popular Pakistanis on the planet, he is also prone to be reckless, shifty on policy if it backfires or is not producing results quickly enough for his liking, and given to jumping the gun on mere hearsay about his political rivals. While legions of mostly young and urban-based Pakistanis gravitate to his every word – inspired more likely from his legendary exploits as a former cricket captain and fetching public service (evident in the building of world class cancer hospitals, a university for the under-privileged and other philanthropic causes) – he has shown a tendency to swing from one extreme position to another in deep frustration over what he regularly berates is a rotten political order. But while the good he has rendered can hardly be faulted – most of all this materialised even before he entered politics, thus ruling out any calibrated ambition – his penchant for trying to go for broke as fast as he once bowled on the world’s cricket stage makes even his often reluctant political partners wary.   In an ideal world, Khan’s ‘straight talking’ would probably hold him in good stead, but in the rough and tumble of Pakistani political arena, the consequences are slightly more complex. He has, of course, come a long way from that Lahore public rally on a winter eve in 2011 that stunned Pakistan with its numbers and electric atmosphere against the run-of-play, turning him into a force to reckon with. But since turning up short at the subsequent 2013 national elections, where however, his party secured the second highest number of votes and stood third in the overall seat tally in the National Assembly (lower house of the country’s bicameral legislature), Khan has come across as a bitter man, first challenging the fairness of the exercise – again without a favourable verdict – when he mounted a public movement to force the Sharif government to hold a judicial inquiry, and; now, taking the First Family to court over allegations of them having benefited from ill-gotten money to buy properties named in the Panama Papers. Interestingly, in a move that, at once, reinforced his credentials of a nationalist leader, but also moved some distance from wanting the ban expanded to Pakistan, the PTI was the only party that tried to present a resolution in the National Assembly against Trump’s immigration ban - something the ruling party was loathe to and stonewalled. The battle to best pan the ban – as well as understand what Imran Khan really wants – continues. * The writer is Community Editor.

SETBACK: US President Donald Trump has run into serious legal challenges over his executive order to slap travel ban.
Can Trump dare extend thetravel ban to Pakistan?

Chaos and caprice in the Trump White House — still less than three weeks old — has considerably, shaken and stirred the global geopolitical order. While there was no dearth of doomsday painters even beforehand, The Donald has left America and the world breathless with his trigger-happy executive orders — unabashedly, given to a certain ‘my way or the highway’ cow boyish streak. Pakistan, like pretty much others elsewhere, is also trying to figure out a ‘survival guide’ for at least the immediate term. What is clear — like the sceptics had then envisaged — is that the famous December call the-then President-Elect Donald Trump engaged in with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif belongs to the past, already. Pakistan, Trump reportedly told Sharif then, is a “fantastic” country full of “fantastic” people that he “would love” to visit as president. Sharif was described as a “terrific guy”. He was also reported to have told Sharif, “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.” It was panned by critics as one of the earliest indicators of Trump’s inexperience at diplomatic speak (even if it led to indulgent bragging in the media by excited Sharif handlers); back in Washington however, it rebounded scathingly for the former TV reality star. With a single stroke of a pen, Trump imposed a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim states within the first week of his astonishing ascendancy to the world’s most prized office — it has since been suspended following a federal judge’s restraining order but whose fate is still in limbo after Trump administration filed an appeal. Predictably, the ban has raised the spectre of a similar fate awaiting Pakistani travellers (with possibly, stricter restrictions for Pakistani-Americans) after the three-month review of the executive order or down the road — depending on the turn of events. It has led to an intense debate in both the US — where according to an educated estimate, half a million Pakistan-origin residents live/stay — and Pakistan, centred on their immediate fate as well as the whole gamut of a troubled relationship. The issue, of course, cannot be taken lightly even if the Trump administration will be hard pressed to go down the route it has with other Muslim majority states. The reason? Pakistani-Americans make a decent population of high achievers, who have contributed a great deal to America’s growth in multiple ways. According to a Rockefellar Foundation-Aspen Institute Diaspora Program (RAD) June 2015 report, 63 percent of all Pakistani immigrants are US citizens, whose educational attainment levels are noteworthy. “A far greater share of the Pakistani first and second generations earned undergraduate degrees than the US population overall, and individuals in this population are more than twice likely to hold advance degrees. Roughly equal shares of the Pakistani diaspora and the general US population participate in the labour force, and they are likely to work in professional and managerial occupations,” it says. RAD reveals that 23 percent of the Pakistani diaspora members, aged 25 or above, have a master’s degree, an advanced professional degree, or a PhD, compared to only 11 percent of the US population overall. The report goes on to add that households headed by a member of the Pakistani diaspora have a median annual income of $60,000, or 10,000 above the median for all US households, and fully 18 percent of Pakistani diaspora households are in the top 10 percent of the US household income distribution. The report points to how well-positioned the Pakistani diaspora is with “numerous, well-funded and professionally managed organisations throughout the country. These groups take a broad range of forms, including professional and business networks and advocacy organisations.” Can the Trump administration afford to put more than 5,000 well qualified doctors, and a professional workforce made up of Pakistani-Americans in medicine, aerospace, IT, engineering, academia, research and logistics, to name a few fields, in the wringer for the deranged actions of a few off-kilter individuals in the past? There are also no easy or ready answers to the vexing question surrounding expanding the travel ban to Pakistan even though some Trump aides appeared to suggest the possibility of a heavy hand and he himself freewheeled about “extreme vetting”. Initially, White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Preibus implied that the ban could be expanded (to Pakistan), but since then, there has been relative calm with ambivalent denials. In part, it may have to do with the reality check resulting from robust multiple legal challenges from within the US against the first ban and the empirical need for Trump administration to stay in business with Pakistan, like all its predecessors, for geopolitical reasons even if, for argument’s sake, it was to ride roughshod at home. The US embassy in Islamabad has emphasised that the visa policy for Pakistan was not being changed and that the Trump administration had not given any exclusive instructions regarding the country. An embassy spokesperson told Geo, a leading private TV channel, last week that Pakistan was not being considered for a visa ban at the moment and that the visa policy remained the same as it was before Trump assumed office. Interestingly, General (retired) James Mattis, US Defence Secretary, even before assuming charge had already spoken about the need to stay engaged with Pakistan and, in a broad hint at future policy, suggested incentivising co-operation with Pakistan to achieve US goals. Aware of this strategic need, Islamabad appears to have decided on a wait-and-see approach, with the Foreign Office going to the extent of terming the Trump administration’s contentious travel ban as Washington’s “sovereign right”. “It is every country’s sovereign right to decide its immigration policy,” Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria told a weekly media briefing last week. He however, chimed in with politically correct assertions about “humanitarian” considerations resulting from the travel ban. But while the belated official reaction understandably, betrays vested interest, Sharif’s ministers have been slightly more forthcoming about the “unfairness” of the executive order for domestic consumption. * The writer is Community Editor.

TWO GOOD? PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari with his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Pundits befuddled over latest Zardari surprise

Interestingly, Pakistan’s oldest political family – dynasty is probably more like it – is also the nearest thing to celebrated royalty of the kind we have in Britain and from which the country achieved independence in 1947. But it is highly debatable if the current Bhuttos – or to be more precise, the hyphenated variety (Bhutto-Zardari) – can hold a torch to the erstwhile ones: the acclaimed prime minister father-daughter duo of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. But for a polity largely hinged on the Sharifs (Prime Minister Nawaz and his brother, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz) versus Imran Khan for a better part of the last half decade, the news cycle has something to cheer about with the return of Asif Zardari at the end of last year. The former president and Co-Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is widely considered to be the shrewdest politician in a country hooked on trying to forever figure out his moves when he pulls out the chessboard. Forget fervent supporters, there is no dearth of enemies and frenemies who, like or loathe, concede Zardari’s craft in moving the pieces – and them – to utter frustration. Veteran Javed Hashmi, a member of the flock, once famously gave vent to his exasperation by suggesting one had to have a “PhD in politics” to understand Zardari. The more grounded can be forgiven perhaps, for thinking if even that degree would not suffice to configure the Zardari Art of Political Gamesmanship. It is against this backdrop that Zardari manoeuvred to land home just ahead of his late spouse Benazir Bhutto’s 9th death anniversary last month after more than one-and-a-half years of self-imposed exile. In one of his rare cavalier moments back in June 2015, the PPP co-chairman warned the military establishment against “over-reaching” its mandate in Karachi lest “we tear you down brick by brick”. So stunning was the tirade – in which Zardari also pointed to the short and long of tenures: army chief (“three years”) and political parties (“forever”) – that its after-effects prompted him to virtually flee from the country immediately. General Raheel Sharif, the-then army chief, who retired last November, was riding an immense popularity wave at the time for a hard-hitting anti-terror campaign that led, amongst other things, to the arrest of Zardari’s close confidantes over alleged links to terror financing. Fast forward to the PPP leader having reportedly, prevailed upon Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to deny an extension to General Sharif after calls to this effect began to make a round for much of last year. One of the first things Zardari did after General Qamar Javed Bajwa replaced General Sharif was to congratulate the new boss in a notable move to mend fences with the military establishment and three weeks later, he was back home. What preceded Zardari’s return was the rather vocal and consistent anti-Sharif campaign led by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, his 28-year-old son and the party’s chairman. For the uninitiated, the scion was anointed the party’s leader at 19 by Zardari, who also appended his surname to the original moniker Bilawal Bhutto – just three days after his spouse Benazir was assassinated in 2007. It was a studied gambit to encash the sympathy wave on the eve of the 2008 general elections; and of course, the rich political legacy in the long term. In the lead-up to the annual December 27 ritual to mourn the loss of Benazir at Garhi Khuda Bux, the ancestral final resting place of the Bhuttos, there was frenzied expectation of the announcement to kickstart an anti-Sharif campaign premised in the so-called Panama Papers case allegedly involving the children of the prime minister, but in typical Zardari fashion, the form book was upended by a declaration that has left both the connoisseur and the layman flummoxed. Far from even mentioning the four demands his son had been drumming the previous months to tired ears, Zardari announced that he and his son were both set to enter the current parliament! Let alone buttress Bilawal’s shrill campaign to hit the streets if the Sharif government failed to meet the demands by December 27, Zardari made it known who was to make way for them to enter the House, in the bye-elections. Few observers failed to notice a slightly pensive Bilawal as the former president only casually targeted Sharif, and in a first, did not even mention his late spouse’s name even once during the commemoration! He also made it a point to drive home to Sharif that his and the scion’s entry was not aimed at “snatching your seat” but to “strengthen the system” and groom Bilawal. Days later, the commentariat is nowhere near reaching a conclusion as to what Zardari’s new gambit is all about. To be fair to the political pundits, there are obvious and rather stark question marks driving the latest ‘method in madness’. To begin with, Zardari’s return has apparently undercut the much hyped reinvention of the PPP – there’s certainly no denying a crying need for one after its spectacular decline since losing power in 2013. The latest edict has only reinforced Zardari’s stranglehold over the party, smudging the hope that his exile was meant to allow his son to refashion the PPP. Intriguingly, it is uncertain how the father and son’s entry into the parliament will reshape the contours of party leadership. Khurshid Shah, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly (lower house of the bicameral legislature), has said it was “obvious” that Bilawal would assume the mantle from him. The party has denied this. On the other hand, what would a former president do just sitting in the parliament as an ordinary member if he is not to replace Shah or take up the parliamentary party leadership? There is no official word on this either. Aitzaz Ahsan, a party stalwart, only conjectured to say that neither of the father-and-son duo would take up a leadership role. So what’s really cooking? Trust Zardari to keep everyone guessing! * The writer is Community Editor.

Gulf Times
Newsmakers of the year: Conquests, heartbreaks

It’s that time of the year. Stock-taking of this nature, of course, is no mean task and there will always be a difference of opinion depending on how people evaluate who. But here’s a very short A-list Pakistani pack, which, like or loathe, will be hard for anyone to ignore in terms of the sheer impact those who have made it, left in 2016. NAWAZ SHARIF The prime minister can look back smugly at having enhanced his reputation of being the ultimate survivor in the Pakistani power matrix. No matter how hard the opposition - led by the relentless Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chairman Imran Khan - tried, he appears to have weathered the worst in the Panama case. And with the lack of concrete evidence so far to implicate his children in any wrongdoing with regard to their offshore wealth, he can breathe a little easier. But that’s not all. He has rewritten history by outlasting six army chiefs - Sharif is in the middle of a third stint in power - and refusing to give an extension to General Raheel Sharif, who, many had fancied would be impossible to ignore given his larger-than-life presence. By year-end, Sharif will also see the arrival of a new chief justice, which opposition leader Khurshid Shah suggested in the parliament recently - a touch controversially - was a ‘loyalist’. SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani to win a second Oscar when the 38-year-old made herself count at the 88th Academy Awards for her documentary A Girl In The River: The Price of Forgiveness, which zeroes in on the subject of so-called honour killings. Predictably, the feel-good story dissolved into sparring between opposite camps at home - with one staunchly perceiving the award as a Western giveaway to Obaid-Chinoy for supposedly, projecting Pakistan in ‘poor light’. Saving Face, Obaid-Chinoy’s first Oscar winner, had invited similar reaction, but that did not faze the celebrated documentary filmmaker, who was able to persuade Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to legislate against so-called honour killings - bringing home the power of filmmaking at its most poignant. ABDUL SATTAR EDHI For all the inevitability surrounding death, the sense of grief in Pakistan at philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi’s demise was palpable because in a nation often riven by fissures and hopelessness springing from a lack of governance, there has never been anyone like Edhi, the absolute last man standing where humanity, love, selflessness and trust is concerned. Edhi’s life in the phenomenal service of humankind - even if the Nobel Prize Committee never noticed it to the great resentment of millions, but only a shrug from Edhi himself - cannot be possibly encapsulated here. This was a man, who, single-handedly established a network of charitable homes, including an emergency service that provides ambulances and other assistance for the needy. The hotline fields an emergency call, on average, every 8-10 seconds - some 10,000 in a day with 6,000 in Karachi, the world’s second most populous city, alone. Before kidneys failed him in 2013, Edhi would often pick up a call himself and be the first to arrive on the scene in that familiar white coloured, horn blaring ambulance - one of over 1800, the world’s largest such service. The Edhi Foundation also boasts three dozen rescue boats, two fixed-wings planes and a helicopter. According to 2014 figures, there were 17 shelters for women seeking refuge from domestic violence and other abuse, nursing homes, hospitals and blood banks. His centres are abroad, too, in the US, Canada, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Middle East. From reaching out to refugees in Afghanistan to famine victims of Ethiopia and even victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US, the Edhi Foundation has made its presence felt. The Foundation also has the largest morgue in Pakistan which can accommodate 300 bodies at a time. The free kitchen in Karachi affords meals for 30,000 people every evening. A large animal home where abused, sick and abandoned animals are taken care of and fed is just another hallmark of the saintly Edhi’s legacy. MISBAH-UL-HAQ Misbah-ul-Haq only raised the bar of his immortality when he completed the redemption of Pakistan Cricket at Lord’s after it fell from grace at the very same venue in 2010 following the match-fixing saga. Apart from providing his compatriots hope in what were decidedly dark times, Misbah, the 42-year-old cool, calm, collected captain, scored a dream hundred on what was his debut at the home of cricket, becoming in the process the oldest Test centurion in 82 years. Later in the year, he also became the most successful Pakistan Test captain, displacing his much revered distant kin Imran Khan. It is a measure of respectability Misbah brought to Pakistan Cricket that for the first time in living memory, the notoriously bad English press that always greets the visitors, lauded the Pakistani’s yeoman services as a leader after victory at Lord’s and, later, the Test series equaliser on Pakistan’s Independence Day at The Oval. JUNAID JAMSHED Like the dead of winter, his departure left Pakistanis cold - and a little lost for words. Part of the reason why the mourning appeared to tower over say, the demise of the ‘Little Master’ Hanif Mohamed, had to do with a tragedy - a plane crash that left every single body charred beyond recognition. But that the overwhelming reaction zeroed in on the celebrity loss lent credence to the conclusion that love or loathe, Jamshed was more celebrated than it may have otherwise appeared after he renounced music. Undoubtedly, his story will find a prominent place in the Pakistani cultural landscape. No appraisal about the pop star-turned-preacher can be complete without a word about his USP. As the lead vocalist of Vital Signs - often referred to as Pakistan’s Beatles - Jamshed’s patriotic rendition Dil Dil Pakistan went on to assume the halo of a modern day anthem without a parallel in the country’s history for popularity. * The writer is Community Editor.

BACK TO THE HOUSE: Imran Khanu2019s PTI has returned to the parliament, once again.
Panama heat simmers in typical Islamabad cold

In the dead of winter, Islamabad can test your staying power – sometimes to a freezing point. But politics isn’t necessarily driven by weather of the moment; indeed, a fine contrast is evident in the national parliament currently, where three major political forces are boiling the pot. But at least it is in the parliament, not outside of it, which is what had the two of three – namely, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and its predecessor, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – fretting over an intervention that would send them back to Square One. Their fears stemmed from the politics of the third party, the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), which has largely preferred to run its shop in the street after claiming it was done with trying to get a fair hearing from a slew of national institutions that it says failed to pass muster. The jury is still out on how fair the party’s call is, but the general impression in the intelligentsia is that the PTI’s cause would have been better served in calibrating the parliamentary space to augment its case – even if it took to the streets. The PTI’s return to the parliament, once again, is therefore welcome, even though the action has expectedly invited a round of both sarcasm and cynicism surrounding what is being dubbed yet another U-turn on the part of Imran Khan, the party chairman. He is often dubbed ‘U-turn Khan’ by his detractors for flip-flops that rarely escape the roving eye of the prime time commentariat. That of course, is one way to look at it. His party and supporters believe the latest return to the parliament is a logical consequence of having tried all available legal options to hold Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accountable for the properties that his children admitted to acquiring in the so-called Panama Papers, and which the PTI alleges is ill-gotten. A bench of the Supreme Court is currently seized of the matter, but after more than one month of hearing into a case that has hogged the national limelight, the perception that the defendants will sail through is gaining traction, especially after the incumbent chief justice, who is reaching superannuation later this month, decided to adjourn the proceedings till the New Year and even decreed that the case would be heard anew once his successor takes charge. The PTI was banking on the current bench to hand a verdict and outrightly rejected an offer to form a judicial commission to investigate the case – even though the party had itself all along been demanding it – as it now senses it would be a time consuming exercise that would be used by the defendants – the ruling party, by extension — as a ploy to run rings around the investigation in which there really has been no solid evidence presented by either party to establish their respective cases so far. A frustrated Imran Khan while admitting his disappointment at the apex court go-slow also pointedly referred to the speech made by Khurshid Shah, a PPP stalwart and Opposition Leader in the National Assembly, on the floor of the House regarding the ‘loyalty’ of the incoming top adjudicator. Taking a pot shot at the PML-N during a requisitioned parliamentary session, Shah said the ruling party was creating the impression that it would now have “an own chief justice” to preside over the Supreme Court. The PTI chairman added to this the allegation that the PML-N was cultivating the same vibe about the new army chief as well. Talking to the media, Khan contextualised a tweet of Maryam Nawaz, the PM’s daughter, whose motive he questioned for suggesting an “end to every storm” after the Supreme Court decided to adjourn the Panama Papers case to January. While the PTI chairman himself did not return to the National Assembly – and vowed not to until the prime minister made himself available to clarify his stance – the party re-entry was not without fireworks. In fact, what transpired exceeded the anticipation of a colourful spectacle, when its members surrounded the immediate space ahead of the speaker’s chair and tore the agenda of the session when he did not allow them the floor in favour of a point of order given to the ruling party member. Led by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the PTI’s parliamentary party leader, they raised slogans against Ayaz Sadiq, the speaker, alleging that he was biased and his conduct betrayed his affiliation with the ruling party. The speaker tried in vain to persuade them to return to their seats before leaving the House. Calm was restored somewhat the next day, when Qureshi was given the floor and his demand of apology from Saad Rafique, a ruling party parliamentarian, who had called the PTI members “hooligans” the previous day was acceded to. The speaker however, stood by his ruling that since the case was sub judice he would not allow debate on the privilege motion moved by the PTI. In the war of words that ensued between the ruling PML-N and its arch rival PTI both inside the House and out, it provided the struggling PPP with an opportunity to look ‘good’ once again and effortlessly, regain parliamentary mojo. The PPP had until now been making largely empty threats to force the Sharif government to accede to its reform demands that, many pundits suggest, is little more than a ruse for political concessions at the expense of the PTI, which the PML-N government treats as the real McCoy in terms of rivalry. Both the PTI and PPP are once again hinting at rallying forces over the Panama Papers controversy. But more than trying to reach a conclusion in the case on merit, it appears that in the changed scenario where apparently the two important pillars of the state – the military establishment and the judiciary – want to stay aloof, unlike in the past, this is more likely a compromise bid to weaken the Sharif government for a better shot at the next general elections due in 2018. * The writer is Community Editor.

MAN OF MANY PARTS: Junaid Jamshed renounced music in 2004, left, to devote himself to Islam.
Junaid Jamshed and his amazing transformation

There are 20 days to go before 2016 comes to a close, but for Pakistanis it couldn’t be dusted sooner for the heartache it has caused. The country has lost global icons like Abdul Sattar Edhi, a philanthropist with few equals known to history; Hanif Mohamed, the legendary opening batsman; and last but not least, a passenger aboard the ill-fated flight PK-661 last week that has sent his compatriots reeling into a despairing winter. The passenger - one among 48 aboard the ATR-42 aircraft that was supposed to land in Pakistan’s picturesque capital Islamabad flying in from the wondrous Chitral up north, but crashed into a mountainous area shortly after a Mayday call - was Junaid Jamshed: one of the World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, Amman this year. Jamshed himself wanted to be a pilot - but in the Pakistan Air Force, which his father served. Destiny chose otherwise. The handsome pop icon-turned-preacher was a man of many parts, but it is a measure of his unique appeal that despite leaving his legion of fans high and dry after renouncing music in 2004, the reaction to his demise has taken on a spectacular sheen, what with a heavily televised homage and social media tumult. Part of the reason why the public sentiment over his demise appears to tower over Pakistan’s legendary heroes earlier in the year, has to do with the tragic circumstances - a plane crash that rendered every single body charred beyond recognition. Perhaps, it is in human nature to have a greater morsel of empathy in such cases. But that the overwhelming reaction zeroed in on the celebrity loss (itself a subject of debate) - including stinging criticism about Jamshed’s controversial views and choices - lends credence to the conclusion that love or loathe, he is more celebrated than it may have otherwise appeared. And that his story will find a prominent place in the Pakistani cultural zeitgeist. What has also emerged from the debate is his deep imprint on the psyche of Pakistanis of his generation, who, just simply could not contextualise or cope with his decision to turn to religion after giving them their first taste of liberation from General Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian rule as a youth idol, in consort with the band Vital Signs. To categorise it merely as a musical vocation would be to undermine the power of newfound freedom associated with it. This explains why a vast majority of the grieving public - completely aware of Jamshed’s preacher avatar - chose to remember him for his phenomenal impact as a singer instead; someone, who, changed the landscape and became the poster boy of free spiritdom. It has rekindled a massive interest in his golden numbers - social media posts are all the rage at the moment - which carry an unmistakable defining edge about them. The sense of grief is palpable with even the critics - no small in number - venting a spleen about his apparently misogynist views, but mostly expressing disappointment at how he declared his first innings closed. In his religious avatar, many of them also found it difficult to reconcile with the preaching, especially related to women’s place, high-end pilgrim quotas as a business venture - all coming into play with him being a rich fashion entrepreneur as well. Was this a typical fan’s anguish at losing his or her favourite singer? While it would be difficult to generalise the popular sentiment at the heart of all the melancholy, what is undeniable is that the musical memory has defied father time - even Jamshed’s own claim to have buried it! The journey to becoming a born-again Muslim was not without trials and tribulation. Contrary to the general view about Jamshed leaving the music scene at the peak of his career, his solo stint hadn’t been much of a success, and it coincided with an inner turmoil about finding his calling. Once the star had decided to quit showbiz, he went bankrupt and, at one stage, did not even have money to pay the children’s school fee. Still he resisted the temptation to even claw back for the while, rejecting one astounding offer (Rs40mn or over $380,000 at the current equivalent) for just a commercial! In due course, he was to attain remarkable ascendancy as an entrepreneur - as evident in setting up the leading fashion label Junaid Jamshed (pivoted on men’s desi wear), which has a chain of stores across Pakistan and select few abroad. As Jamshed took on the role of a missionary in earnest, crisscrossing the country and the world - his last was on the day he took the ill-fated flight - he became a regular TV evangelist, and it was during one of those shows where his controversial remarks about a wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him) led to the framing of a blasphemy case. Following an outrage, he issued a tearful video apology, but went into exile to let the dust settle. He eventually returned, but was recently roughed up at an airport; however, he forgave the attackers after a police case was registered against them. No obit or appraisal about Jamshed can be complete without a word about what, in the ultimate analysis, made him a star, and one suspects will, long after his demise, remain his USP. As the lead vocalist of Vital Signs - referred to as Pakistan’s Beatles - Jamshed’s patriotic rendition Dil Dil Pakistan went on to assume the halo of a modern day anthem that has no parallel in the country’s history for popularity, both as a paean for the motherland and a definitive emblem of youth. But while it remains the alternative national anthem since its release in 1987, its appeal goes beyond Pakistan. In a tribute flood from all over the world, including India, on, the country’s leading media web portal, this is what Shiva Chaulagai, a Nepalese fan, while offering condolences, had to say: “I’m Nepalese, currently living in Saudi Arabia. I listened to his patriotic song Dil Dil Pakistan over a thousand times long before I even knew who sang it!” * The writer is Community Editor.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa listens to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his first meeting with the chief executive after his appointment.
General who is decidedly apolitical and avid reader

After keeping Pakistan agog for months, Raheel Sharif finally walked away last week, handing the baton to General Qamar Javed Bajwa as the new army chief. Was the transition – the first on schedule in two decades – as smooth behind the scenes as it appeared? If the now-retired General took his own decision to go by the book, does this signal a change within the single most organised entity in the country – the military? If not, is it the prime minister, who has regained a crucial upper hand for under-the-weather civilians by standing his ground and denying an extension to the powerful former khaki chief? All these are critical questions in the context of the civil-military relations as Pakistan moves to augment its eight-year-old democratic transition. Insiders suggest there may have been a gnawing bout from the security establishment to get an extension for the army chief given his significant contribution in Pakistan’s existential war-on-terror, but that a wary Nawaz Sharif was unwilling to go down the beaten path after largely having walked in the former General’s shadows for much of his three-year-term. General Sharif could easily be counted as the most popular army chief in the country’s history for his no-nonsense, action-oriented approach, but it also fuelled unease amongst the political class – predominantly, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), its predecessor, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the Karachi-based ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – all of whom wanted to see the back of him. Save for perhaps, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) of firebrand opposition leader Imran Khan, they felt the heat of Raheel Sharif’s actions in an expanding clean-up operation aimed at breaking the nexus of political corruption and terrorism. While Sharif successfully averted the launching of an operation in his Punjab province, the PPP struggled in Sindh, where Dr Asim Hussain, a confidante of Asif Zardari, the party’s leader and former president, continues to be in custody for alleged corruption and terrorist link. The MQM, on the other hand, lies battered after its once revered leader, Altaf Hussain, launched a stunning verbal assault against the state last August that served as an own goal after the Rangers had been given the green light for a crackdown. Despite the civilian Sharif’s numerous attempts to loosen his khaki namesake’s grip on Karachi to placate the PPP, both had to wait him out eventually. PPP’s Zardari, who fled abroad after a blistering attack on the army once he realised the consequences of his reckless action last year, is now returning home and has already made a courtesy call to the new army chief! But the picture, below,  of Prime Minister Sharif in his strategically positioned chair having a word with Raheel’s successor Bajwa during the latter’s call-on with the PM offers a stunning story per se. A whole generation of Pakistanis have grown accustomed to – some might suggest, resigned to – the army calling the shots with the civilian chief executive not really being able to execute his authority in letter and spirit. Massively symbolic as it is, only time will tell how strong is the apparent “paradigm” shift portrayed in the image released by the PM House. But Prime Minister Sharif can be justifiably credited for outlasting six army chiefs, including two handpicked ones, despite two previous aborted terms – one of which even saw him forced into a long exile! Given the chequered history, the civilian Sharif may have gambled in denying his khaki namesake an extension – regardless of whether the General sought it or not after announcing earlier in the year that he wouldn’t – and then picking a candidate to replace him who, at best, remained only a dark horse in a four-man race! General Bajwa has already shown a bit of nous by persuading the two seniors whom he had superseded to stay on – against tradition where those passed over usually sulk and retire early. The senior most was already elevated to the largely ceremonial slot of Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Bajwa’s selection is rather interesting, not in the least for his known aversion to interference in political matters and a general dislike of the limelight – apparently, just the package that suits Prime Minister Sharif, whose Achilles’ heel as it were has been his uneasy relationship with nearly all the army chiefs he has had to contend with in power, including his own appointed ones. Bajwa, who has commanded 10 Corps, which is responsible for the most sensitive areas of the country, including almost the entire border with India, has even won praise from the former Indian army chief for his professional acumen (both of them worked in Congo under a UN mission). The entire defence installations, including the army, navy and air force headquarters, as well as the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, also fall under the jurisdiction of the Commander of 10 Corps. These are just two of a long list of Bajwa’s stellar career bullet points, but he is also an avid reader and has a keen interest in international relations and current affairs. It would be certainly interesting to see how he approaches the two ongoing but challenging assignments from a security perspective: India and Afghanistan. While consolidating the gains of General Raheel Sharif’s counter-terror efforts must remain the priority of his successor along with the swift rehabilitation of IDPs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas up north following the longest ever anti-terror military operation, the first point of interest at home will hover on the civil-military relationship. While the imbalance has often created an unwanted chasm in the past, the expectation around this time is that Bajwa’s strong professional mien will provide decent space for the political class to strengthen the roots of democracy. Paradoxically, now that he is in the hot seat, it will also fall upon Bajwa’s shoulders to ensure that the country’s often bickering political parties do not have a field day queering the pitch come the 2018 general elections. Historically, the army is called out to keep a steady watch on any prospective hanky-panky. Last but not least, the democratic forces would like to see General Bajwa stick to his known credentials of non-interference and perhaps, even resist the temptation to Twitterise any reaction to developments that often led to needless controversies during his predecessor’s time. In a nutshell, keeping an orderly house – firmly in step with the civilian chief executive’s fiat – should be the favoured national ideal. * The writer is Community Editor.

THE LAST STAND: General Raheel Sharifu2019s decision to retire on time, the first army chief to do so since 1996, has reinforced a desirable tradition.
General keeps his word, bequeaths strong legacy

General Raheel Sharif will have a bracketed affix from tomorrow, the one that signals career-end: retired. In hanging his uniform at the end of his three-year term, he has revived a tradition that ought to have been the standard but was tinkered with by his more power-hungry predecessors. If the outgoing strongman deserves plaudits it is for something else: turning around Pakistan’s existential fight against terrorism and extremism with unrelenting commitment and dare, giving a weary nation credible hope of better tomorrows. But his retirement or otherwise (read coerced or willing extension) remained the focus of the only entity that has an even larger-than-life footprint than the men in khakis - Pakistan’s chatterbox electronic media. That kind of shebang obviously takes its toll on the government and so it remained just as wary despite an early call from the General about stacking to the retirement plan. In most democracies, the appointment and retirement of a military commander is a routine affair, not some national issue of the scale that would keep a fretting stakeholder or two up at night and, as a result, entail the kind of media circus it does in Pakistan. But then, the country has been ruled directly by the military for nearly half its existence and few, if ever, question the sweeping trajectory of its power even when it stays behind the constitutionally elected chief executive. That the khaki chief announced the decision in January this year to retire on time - through the Director General Inter-Services Public Relations on Twitter - itself betrayed the extent of civil-military imbalance. It demonstrated his desire to go out on his terms, a legacy untouched by a civilian chief executive. Ideally, it would be the chief executive’s call signed by the president. Gen. Sharif’s decision to exit the door on schedule has been welcomed by both the government and the opposition. Going by the more recent history, it would have been convenient for him to enjoy an encore on the basis of current form, and few among the critics would probably have even broken a sweat had the army chief been handed what has been a done deal in the country’s peculiar power matrix for the last two decades. In keeping his word, Gen. Sharif breaks path from two of his immediate predecessors, who didn’t quite cover themselves in glory in securing extended terms that, in effect, brought Pakistan to a sorry pass, especially in the global war on terrorism. The incumbent has not only cleared the messy ground he inherited, but is also credited with setting desirable goals in pursuing the fight against terrorism. The measure of success is evident not only in how the khakis blitzed militants and their hideouts in the badlands up north, but restoring peace to Karachi, the country’s economic lifeline, which enjoys the kind of normalcy today it has not seen in the last two-and-a-half decades. It gave birth to that famed Twitter hashtag - #ShukriaRaheelSharif (Thank you Raheel Sharif) - that is used by both his indulgent supporters and sarcastic detractors! While there is still time to analyse his redoubtable contribution, the decision to hang up his boots offers several ponderables, none more compelling than the raison d’etre: Did he do it out of conviction premised in a rich family tradition (his brother laid down his life on the war front and is a recipient of Nishan-e-Haider, the highest gallantry award)? Was it a calculated decision after not getting favourable vibes from the civilian Sharif and growing unease that the extension issue may have compromised his declared mission of eliminating terrorism this year in Pakistan? May be a bit of both? Some giveaways can be contextualised on the basis of performance and perception. The image of the army had eroded a great deal in the last years of General Pervez Musharraf - who was forced to resign under immense political pressure - and subsequently, under General Ashfaq Kayani, whose reluctance to launch a military operation in North Waziristan (the hotbed of militancy) and the shocking US raid that snared Osama bin Laden from near a premier military academy had brought the institution’s morale to an all-time low. Musharraf benefited from two extensions - in all, three successive terms - that he gave himself after ousting the second-time elected government of Nawaz Sharif; and Kayani one - amounting to two full terms. Gen. Sharif, on the other hand, arrived with a sense of direction and purpose. Even though he reportedly took a unilateral decision in pursuing the military operation Zarb-e-Azb - claims of the Sharif government notwithstanding - the rich dividends gave him a certain authority that would otherwise have been lacking. The political downside for the civilian Sharif is that he has been largely walking in the shadows of the khaki Sharif since coming into power a third time in 2013 - something that rankles him no end. It is an open secret that the PM did not fancy giving his namesake the leeway to prolong his own ‘second fiddle’ agony. Perhaps, the General saved the PM his blushes by default in sticking to a ‘principled decision’! Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, a confidante of the PM, had long been giving the media to believe that neither the issue of extension was under consideration nor was any such file on the PM’s table. Knowledgeable circles however, contend it had been more than a passing worry for the government, and Asif, sort of gave the game away in pointedly praising the army chief for “introducing a healthy trend in the country”. Where the timely arrival of a new army chief - a decision the prime minister once again laboured over right until the end - has reinforced a desirable tradition, it has also raised the stakes for General Qamar Javed Bajwa to at least meet the benchmark set by the outgoing commander. Those are indeed big shoes to fill, not in the least, Gen. Sharif’s unfailing ability to strike a chord with popular sentiment thanks to action on the field and optics off it. * The writer is Community Editor.

PICTURESQUE: There isnu2019t a leaner, meaner, greener place to be in the whole of Pakistan than its federal capital Islamabad.
Politically hip Islamabad now shows off stability

The wait to discern who  remains abad (prospers)  in Islamabad may now no longer be shrouded in the  mysteries of a dark night Time was when critics would bemoan the pervasive drudgery of Islamabad – the stiff upper-lipped bureaucrats, the struggling government servants that mostly made up the citizenry, and a generally drab existence around an early-to-bed city, shorn as it was of life’s many splendours. It drew those unflattering descriptions about a place that was sarcastically assumed to be some distance removed from Pakistan – metaphorically speaking – producing one particularly, indicting comparison with Arlington cemetery and that, too, with a grave punch line – only twice as dead. Come democracy – following an air crash in 1988 that took care of General Zia-ul-Haq and his 11-year rule – and Islamabad came alive. Fast forward to today, the federal capital is still the place to reckon with, the place where all the shenanigans of power still play out and power itself resides, albeit with assuring stability. And if political power – which is the intended fulcrum of this piece – could be set aside for a moment, there isn’t a more lean, mean, green place to be in the whole of Pakistan. The jaw-droppingly beautiful capital that is home to the richest diversity of Pakistan (with the highest literacy rate and the youngest population), is a feast for sore eyes.    That it is relatively quiet at the moment with the dead of winter approaching cannot however, detract from two very significant milestones lying in wait for one of the world’s hip political capitals. The two developments are pregnant with one chief corollary: what it portends for the prime minister. The first is the exit of the army chief – reckoned by hard knuckle opinion makers to be the real arbiter of power. But General Raheel Sharif is retiring next week, negating weeks and months of media speculation about either coerced or willing extension at the conclusion of his three-year term. The second relates to the ongoing Supreme Court hearing into the so-called Panama Papers case embroiling the children of the Prime Minister, who, because of his familial link is seen as a party to the case that could potentially, upend his rule in case of an unfavourable verdict. Significantly, the next hearing is after General Sharif has handed the baton to his successor. While the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is relieved to see a smooth transition at the General Headquarters, it is also confident that the Panama case does not have merit and so will be quashed eventually. If Prime Minister Sharif indeed passes muster, he is expected to have smooth sailing into the 2018 polls. Pertinently, Project Democracy has moved, warts and all, into an era where increasingly it is the people’s vote and the judicial process combined that forms the bulwark against misdirected adventure. It wasn’t always thus. Contrast this with the past, for instance, when Sharif was still the chief executive, but had to watch his back thanks to a power troika where he trailed because apart from the army chief, he had to contend with an overbearing civilian president, too, who enjoyed sweeping powers to dismiss the government if he or she felt it was not being run in consonance with the constitution. It was quite a red herring – as Sharif’s predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, the-then prime minister, found out to her chagrin in 1990 – less than two years into her five-year stint. In 1993, Sharif struck an astonishingly defiant note after falling out against the very same president (Ghulam Ishaq Khan), who, had earlier sacked Benazir, famously thundering Mey Dictation Nahi Loonga (I won’t take dictation) – in a nationally televised address as he struggled to fend off the presidential octopus. Sharif is widely recognised as having freed himself from the shackles of the establishment that day. That slippery Article 58-2(b) was already notorious for its abuse by then, but this time, it was being fought over with contrasting jealousy: while Sharif wanted to apply the guillotine on it (by legislating against it), president Ghulam Ishaq Khan wanted to augment it.    The air was thick with speculation about doom for the Sharif-led government – just like it had happened before with the ouster of the first Benazir Bhutto government in 1990. The ’93 episode was a tantalising affair. Amid the rising mercury in Islamabad’s political coliseum, the president struck a second successive time by dismissing the Sharif government, but it was subsequently, restored on appeal following a landmark Supreme Court decision that summer – the first time the highest judicial authority in the land had returned a favourable verdict for a civilian government. However, in a manifestation of how unpredictable power games were in Islamabad – with no small contribution from decision-makers in the garrison city, next door – both Sharif and Ishaq were forced to resign for failing to reconcile.      Islamabad continued to be the hub of frenzied rumours in the following years with all talk in drawing rooms and out in the streets veering around who was doing what in or out of power – for the sake of power. Target-shooting continued to be the “in” political script with both Bhutto and Sharif being dismissed as prime minister one more time until an airborne General Parvez Musharraf, in a plane fast running out of fuel – or so the legend goes – decided to take matters in his hands. The two had fallen out over the Kargil conflict and in the obtaining battle of attrition, Sharif dismissed the General midair so-to-speak – a move that backfired tremendously. Backed by his commanders on the ground, Musharraf grabbed power in a bloodless coup, and later sent Sharif into exile following a foreign power-backed deal after the latter was dubiously convicted for hijacking the plane. The fateful drama on October 12, 1999 that day may have been enacted in Karachi but the fault lines lay in Islamabad. Sharif of course, would like to believe Rawalpindi was the epicentre of his misfortune.   Unpredictability – for long the USB of Pakistani politics – is now returning to firmer, familiar grounds. Regardless of the white noise that the vibrant Pakistani electronic media creates, the wait to discern who remains abad (prospers) in Islamabad may now no longer be shrouded in the mysteries of a dark night. It is just as well that the retiring General Raheel Sharif – inarguably, the most popular army chief the country has ever had – and the Supreme Court have both contributed to solidifying the base of democracy. * The writer is Community Editor.

Centre-stage: The brightly lit Supreme Court of Pakistan building on Islamabadu2019s famed Constitution Avenue.
Pakistan is relieved after Supreme Court ‘intervenes’

Few had thought it possible that the ‘umpire’ Imran Khan, chairman of the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), is ever so fond of invoking every time he takes to the street, would turn out to be from that grand building on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue, not some knight in shining armour from twin city Rawalpindi. But that is exactly what has happened, and all of Pakistan is relieved, for, until the Supreme Court ‘intervened’ just one day ahead of the PTI’s avowed ‘lockdown’ of the federal capital, many pundits had been forecasting doom with the apprehension that the country may even be headed back to Square One with the marching of boots. These apprehensions, one might add, were not entirely without basis even after the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had managed to quell much of the heat with strong-arm tactics, resulting in the severe shelling of a protest march led by Pervez Khattak, chief minister of the PTI-ruled Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, towards the capital; cutting off the road link to – and besieging – Imran Khan’s residence atop the Bani Gala hills in Islamabad; and containment elsewhere. The PML-N, many observers felt, had good reason to take the bull by the horns this time as opposed to the almost lackadaisical approach to the first PTI agitation in 2014 when Khan led a 126-day protest campaign outside the national parliament over allegations that the PML-N had conspired to rig the elections the year before, and which, he charged deprived his party of a fair shot at winning power. With Khan vowing to go bust for his demand to hold Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accountable after the names of his children appeared in the Panama Papers purporting them to be the beneficiaries of unaccounted offshore wealth, and a damning published leak of a security meeting that suggested Sharif had taken umbrage at the military in relation to Islamabad’s alleged isolation, the PML-N was taking no chances with where their nemesis Khan was headed in Circa ’16. The ruling party has also been treading cautiously with the impending retirement of Army Chief General Raheel Sharif later this month with speculation rife about the possibility or otherwise of an extension. With no names being sounded out for succession by either Sharif – the PM or the General – unease was apparent in how the PML-N quickly swung into action in terms of both decibel and deed to stop the PTI in its tracks. Ironically, Khan, for all his brouhaha, failed to muster even the numbers that would have given him some political succour, let alone press home the advantage that he had fervently given Pakistan’s rating-driven electronic media to believe was his for the taking. In the lead-up to the shrill November 2 ‘lockdown’, the PTI chairman had bragged that a million march would force either the PM to resign or turn himself in for accountability. But Khan did not venture out of his Bani Gala residence, even when his party workers were being manhandled or teargassed. The PTI chairman has been defending the inaction, saying staying put at his residence until the appointed day was always the plan because he is not “stupid” to have gotten himself arrested before then. This has not cut ice with the legion of his followers who had anticipated the proverbial long night to win the day. But Khan’s decision to abruptly call off the ‘lockdown’ once the Supreme Court set up pace for a probe into Panamagate wasn’t necessarily prompted by just “getting what the PTI had long wanted” as he has been understandably, driving home since then. The fact is that the PTI chairman was thoroughly disappointed by the thin numbers who hit the road and cognizant of a major embarrassment on ‘action’ day, compelled him to live to fight another day. However, given the breathless pace and in-your-face mien of Pakistan’s vibrant electronic media, it was never going to escape their roving eye. In fact, some of the TV channels which were preparing for the juggernaut to roll gave away their bitter disappointment at being ‘shortchanged’ by turning their ire on Khan for being ‘heartless’ in getting his workers beaten up whilst himself staying cozied in his sprawling residence! That being said, it would probably be unfair not to give the man some credit – where the entire combined opposition failed miserably – for relentlessly pursuing a case which has forced the apex court to now take a frontal position on after it had rejected precisely such a call more than half a year ago when it first surfaced. The Supreme Court had back then eschewed the idea because it felt all the parties concerned should have a consensus on terms of reference (ToRs) for it to be viable. It proved beyond the government and opposition, which were predictably, drawn into a bitter battle of attrition over the framework. The opposition wanted to start the probe with the PM and his family whilst the government contested this, saying the PM himself was not named in the Panama Papers and wanted to expand the scope to question all the others with offshore wealth by even going back in time – an idea the opposition suspected was a deliberate time-consuming ploy to ensure the probe never reached a conclusion. However, the apex court’s decision to now take it upon itself to pave the way for an inquiry is both timely and admirable given how much of a dogfight it had become for the power stakeholders, and which, would have potentially, pushed the country to the edge of precipice. On the first day of the hearing, the court ordered the parties to reach a consensus on the ToRs, failing which it would itself determine it – almost certain to be the case given the daylight chasm between the PML-N and PTI. Today’s hearing will be a decent indicator of how much meat there is in the case as the drama in national life moves ever so delicately to some sort of conclusion down the road, which naysayers until now had been betting would produce zilch. * The writer is Community Editor.

BATTLE OF WITS: Imran Khan, left, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Déjà vu looms with PTI’s capital run

If Harold Wilson was living in Pakistan today, he would have learnt even a week that he presumed was a long time in politics, would be passé. The 20th century British prime minister would have likely struggled to keep up pace in the rough and tumble of politics this side of the Indus. In a growing theatre of the absurd even the enterprising Pakistani electronic media is having a hard time keeping a tab. The other day, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the 28-year-old scion of the Bhutto dynasty and chairman of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP); and Imran Khan, the firebrand leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), turned on each other after a rather short-lived political romance that critics – yours truly included – had predicted wouldn’t last the distance. But before this soap opera flashed on TV screens, a spectacle had already taken place in the national parliament where a joint session choreographed for unity was reduced to a slanging match between the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the opposition PPP after parliamentarians from each party accused and castigated the other on live TV for failing the country. Imran Khan’s PTI had already boycotted the session, terming it a bid by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to divert attention from the charges his children named in the so-called Panama Papers are facing over their unexplained offshore wealth. Frustrated over the lack of any progress with regard to constituting a full inquiry to probe the charges – the PTI has already petitioned the Supreme Court – Khan trooped out of an opposition alliance last month over what he now conjectures was a drama enacted by the PPP in collusion with the ruling PML-N to actually ward off any inquiry under the pretext of forging a consensus on terms of reference. Subsequently, Khan also held a mammoth rally in Raiwind, the prime minister’s political bastion. The show of strength appears to have revived the PTI’s flagging fortunes after a clutch of staid public meetings were seen as an indicator of public’s waning interest in the PTI’s one dimensional approach to national politics. The opposition alliance led by the PPP appeared to use the opportunity presented by circumstance to get its own pound of flesh by forcing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s hand for desperate sops in exchange for containing Khan from taking to the road in the larger interest of “opposition unity” by dragging its feet on the Panama probe. It is a measure of Khan’s naïveté that he fell into the trap and missed what critics suggest was a golden opportunity to nail the issue in parliament back in April when the PM was forced to offer an explanation in relation to the freshly ignited Panama issue. In a scene right out of Machiavelli’s book, PPP veteran Khurshid Shah, Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly – lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature – staged a walkout just when Khan was about to begin his speech. The PTI chairman willy-nilly followed Shah’s trail, assuming perhaps, it would send a strong message of opposition unity. In an embarrassing spectacle, Khan was seen standing behind Shah – someone, who, he had in the 2014 street agitation, derisively dubbed Sharif’s “servant” – as the PPP stalwart seemed to enjoy every minute of his media talk outside the parliament! However, it is all back to Square One now. And it has all happened too quickly for most people to absorb. Just last week, Bilawal had generously praised Imran Khan for “mobilising the country’s youth” and his efforts in taking the fight to the Sharifs with a “big show”, but as soon as Khan boycotted the joint session and lamented the PPP’s ‘villainous’ role in bailing out the PM in the alleged garb of seeking national consensus on Kashmir, all hell broke loose. Perhaps on impulse, Khan even urged the PPP to rid itself of Asif Zardari, the shrewd former president, co-chairman of the PPP and Bilawal’s father, “if it is to survive”. He also cited how Bilawal only days ago had called the PM “a traitor” but was now shaking hands with him “with a large grin.” Soon after, Bilawal launched into Khan, declaring in a U-turn, that he could never even conceive calling an elected prime minister a traitor. Mocking the 64-year-old PTI chairman, his 28-year-old PPP counterpart counterpunched in a pointed reference to the former World Cup-winning captain: “Khan thinks he could hit a six and become prime minister, but this is not cricket.” Bilawal then, swiftly moved to meet Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Khan’s sworn political rival and chief of Jamiat Ulema Islam-F, reverently calling him “uncle” and professing to benefit from the portly cleric’s experience. Only three months ago, during a poll campaign in Kashmir, Bilawal while taking a pot shot at Sharif had also taken a dig at Rehman for supporting him, using the unflattering sobriquet “Diesel”– a description the cleric’s opponents employ for his alleged procurement of permits that fetch rich fuel-driven dividends. Ironically, the permits were reportedly secured during the government of the-then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal’s mother, in return for extending political support! In a repeat of the 2014 street agitation to demand probe of the general elections the previous year that Khan alleged were massively rigged to return the PML-N to power, the PTI is again returning to the federal capital on October 30 to demand an investigation into the Panama Papers that implicates the PM’s children. Once again, almost all the political parties are either openly or discreetly backing the government, fearing an upheaval may lead them to losing power. Only this time, Khan is threatening to lock down the capital, suggesting he would not let the government function unless the PM resigned or offered himself for accountability. The impression PTI is generating is that this is possibly the last roll of the dice before the 2018 general elections – a spectre that is likely to herald sleepless nights for powers-that-be. *The writer is Community Editor