Friday, April 12, 2024 | 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.
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

IN THE EYE OF A STORM: Salman Khan, left, has spoken out against banning Pakistani artistes, one of whom, heartthrob Fawad Khan has been forced to leave Bollywood.
Spare art and artistes, please!

Even as India and Pakistan spar over the semantics of last week’s attacks on Pakistani soil, the first visible collateral damage is evident in the form of cultural disengagement with the banning of Pakistani artistes in India and a tit-for-tat screen scrapping of Indian films in Pakistan. If only this was some figment of imagination and not bleeding reality, but such is the fate of more than one-fifth of humanity that makes up the nuclearised South Asian neighbourhood that trouble often finds them like a curse. It should never have come to this, but clearly, with the onset of another winter of discontent, it appears that piece of mind is going to replace peace of mind. Consider. Superstar Salman Khan is at the receiving end of an incredibly vicious campaign with even his identity being questioned for merely making the distinction that the banned Pakistani artistes weren’t terrorists! After being pointedly questioned by a female journalist in New Delhi what he felt about Pakistani artistes being ordered to leave India, Khan said: “They are artistes. We have killed the terrorists. Artistes are not terrorists. These are two different subjects. They come to our country after acquiring visa, and it’s our government which allows them the work permit.” Khan, then, threw back the same poser to the journalist, asking her if she thought “artistes were terrorists”, leaving her speechless. But this was enough fodder for the media to unleash a storm, familiarly led by agent provocateur Arnab Goswami on prime time, and ultra-rightwing parties like Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) to fuel it. At a subsequent presser, MNS chief Raj Thackeray launched into the Bollywood icon, thus: “If Salman Khan loves Pakistan so much then he should go and shoot there. He should seek a work permit from Pakistani authorities.” The MNS has since threatened to ban Khan’s films if he continued to back the banned Pakistani artistes. During the tirade, Thackeray also took a pot shot at Khan’s assertion that the Pakistani stars, who came to work in Mumbai, were “artistes, not terrorists”. “They may be informers, if not terrorists. They must be passing on information about India back home,” the MNS chief bristled. Shiv Sena leader Manisha Kayande went a step further, suggesting Khan “needs to be taught a lesson” and that “if he has so much love for Pakistani artistes, he should migrate there.” But Khan is not the only one in a corner, if unbowed; renowned filmmaker Karan Johar is fretting after being pressured to remove Pakistani heartthrob Fawad Khan’s essay from his forthcoming release Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (Oh, Heart, I’m In A Quandary), giving his predicament a literal meaning! Johar also questioned the wisdom of banning artistes as a solution, pleading with ultra nationalist forces to leave the film fraternity that, he said, only “promotes and sells peace and love”, alone. But in a reflection of how stressed he feels, he admitted in an interview to being scared, and has, reportedly, dropped plans to host Fawad Khan as the first guest in the new season of his popular TV show Koffee With Karan. Interestingly, the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMMPA), which passed the ban resolution at their annual general meeting, were not as severe in reaction despite setting the ball rolling. They simply asked the members “henceforth, not to work with any artistes, singers or technicians from Pakistan until the situation of hostilities between Pakistan and India subsides and the government of India declares that all is well with Pakistan and India.” Not everyone buys into the ban, however. Rahul Aggarwal, a member of IMMPA, resigned from the association in a poignant letter that will strike a chord with the art loving people of both India and Pakistan, and it deserves to be quoted, in part, if only to make hawks on either side trying to throw art with the proverbial bathtub heed sense. Taking up the cudgels, Aggarwal wrote: “Art is above politics and as the custodians of this art; it is our responsibility to bring people together rather than divide them.” In a bold departure from the sabre-rattling on either side of the divide, Aggarwal painstakingly, pointed to what united the people of the two countries than pander to the base sentiment: “The people of these two nations are one and alike, thus it is the need of the hour for us to stick together. The Indian and Pakistani people are suffering from the same plague, which is fundamentalist terrorism. It is more important than ever for us not to fall prey to this calamity.” “Banning one another is not the solution, rather bringing everyone together and showing the world that terrorism cannot divide these two great nations can become a beacon for acceptance and hope, two characteristics that are the complete opposites of the fundamentalists that want us to go to war with one another,” Aggarwal drove home. Like its Indian counterpart, Pakistani media, too, has been swayed by hyper-nationalism lately, and as a result of the bedlam, Indian films have been temporarily banned although several Pakistani artistes – like the courageous Salman Khan, Karan Johar and Rahul Aggarwal on the Indian side – have spoken out against treating art and artistes as a “soft target”. One of the saddest parts of this harvest of hate sown by warmongers is how artistes have fallen prey to a war-like situation not of their making. They are being coerced to condemn the other to prove their identity and patriotism and when they choose to stick to their artistic roots, they are called names and asked to leave. Pray, what have they done to deserve this? Whatever happened to art not knowing boundaries? Are they not supposed to be over and above notions of war? Are they not reckoned to be ambassadors of peace, love and goodwill through the most creative tools known to us? It’s a cinch once the dust settles — as geography so dictates, the two countries will have no choice but to bank on this very route to restore goodwill — soft CBMs — eventually. So let’s recognise and respect these borderless assets, not put them through an ordeal! *The writer is Community Editor.

VOICE OF CONSCIENCE: Farhatullah Babar is arguably the most important legislator in Pakistan.
Erudite champion of public interest

It is hard to imagine a more genial politician in Pakistan, who means business, but in the politest form possible. Doing politics as politics should be done, speaking to power, representing people’s aspirations – Farhatullah Babar is arguably, the most important legislator in the country. Politics is hard in Pakistan. Those dedicating their lives to it and who manage to reach the apex as elected leaders often have to pay the direst of price for it. They have been often vilified, hounded, jailed and sometimes exiled. Think Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, etc., to name a few party leaders. They publicly fight Pakistan’s public fights to keep the dream of national, pluralistic participation and self-rule from being snuffed out. These are politicians that keep politics alive in a country where manipulated opinions and perceptions are habitually shaped by non-representative forces. Then, there are the ones that don’t necessarily set the pulses of the public racing but without whom the ancient but noble fight for representational politics would be doomed despite the heroics of the people’s leaders. These are the ones who do the technical grunt work, keeping the machinery of procedural democracy – the committee work and languorous legislative agendas – oiled enough to lend functionality to parliamentary politics. These are generally the publicly unwept, unsung heroes of democracy without whom even public political leaders would flounder. Even within this crucial category of political technocrats, there is a tiny minority that commands respect across the aisles of Pakistan’s fractious and raucous polity. Every party virtually owns them as one of their own. This is the closest that comes to a universal admission of their hero status within the political elite – no mean feat considering every politician by nature wants the near-total annihilation of their rivals. Such is the quietly dignified Farhatullah Babar. He once said of arguably the country’s foremost intellectual and much beloved I.A. Rehman sahib: “He is about the only person in Pakistan who can say the most controversial of things while remaining uncontroversial – for he has always spoken with sincerity and without any greed”. One can imagine Rehman unflinchingly saying the same thing about Babar, for he has been one of the hardest working legislators Pakistan has ever known, an intellectual champion of public interest on the floor of the House, an ardent campaigner of human rights in stuffy committee rooms, a nit-picking advocate of principled legislation. He speaks the softest but is heard the loudest. His measured tone, his diction self-edited to perfection, his political logic rooted in universal principles and his unwavering focus on reformative politics makes him not only one of the most popular legislators amongst his peers but arguably, the most distinguished legislator in parliament. It is easy to be envious of Babar’s political pedigree. His import comes from his proximity to unfolding history. He has served in some of Pakistan’s most turbulent times – mostly forever on the cusp of saving democracy from the jaws of Establishment’s machinations. Whether it was serving with Benazir Bhutto in the Prime Minister’s Office or with Asif Zardari in the President House, Babar has been privy to all the diabolic pressures that come with trade. As spokesman of these leaders, he also had the unenvious – and onerous – responsibility of fighting their fight with gentle but firm public narratives to disavow malicious conjecture and therefore correcting the much distorted public political record in Pakistan. Babar does not come with the usual politician’s thick skin that nature provides to carry on, despite being a politician himself. Or with a journalist’s trademark sneering cynicism despite a past stint as a media practitioner himself. Or even with the citizens’ chronic pessimism who steadily inch closer to the graveyard of their withered hopes. Instead, he goes about his politically-rewardless task with an engineer’s perfection – maybe because he is, by formal qualification, a chemical engineer with enough practice and competency to go on to serve as the president of Pakistan Engineering Council and even a stint with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission before he embraced politics. The causes that Babar has repeatedly espoused on the floor of the House, in newspaper columns, in civil society functions and talkshow debates constitute the very charter of Pakistan’s statehood. Whether it is the issue of reigning in the establishment for greater transparency and accountability, amending the blasphemy and allied laws to divorce them of their pre-determined guilt of the accused, restoring constitutional faith in the minority religions to be vested in equal humanity, urging disbanding of the Council of Islamic Ideology for its outdated place in the polity and instead allocating all its budget and resources to the National Commission on the Status of Women, urging the state to officially recognise its globally adulated citizens like Nobel laureates Dr Abdus Salam and Malala Yousafzai instead of pretending they don’t exist, undertaking the next stage of devolution from the provinces to the districts, a federal right to information law would bring the powers-that-be in the citizen’s reach, greater detailing of the defence budget, an enhanced role for the Senate in policymaking – you name it, he has fearlessly embraced these issues. Babar has not just forcefully championed these causes, he has put his money where his mouth is by bringing in private bills, tabling resolutions or raising these issues on the floor of the House on these subjects. This is more than most hard-nosed politicians in Pakistan have been able to do in their careers put together. And this, essentially, is why Babar is arguably the most important legislator in the country, who works in the real national interest as opposed to one which is self-righteously imposed. Babar is Pakistan’s voice of conscience; one, which people should not just pay heed to, but even protect and strengthen. * The writer is Community Editor.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: A view of the replica of Chaghi mountain u2014 associated with Pakistanu2019s six nuclear explosions in 1998 u2014 at the Faizabad Interchange in the federal capital Islamabad.
Zeroing in on Pak N-programme

Pakistan’s nuclear programme is in the spotlight once more. An international wire story circulating over the weekend originating from Islamabad but quoting Western defence experts was thick on the speculation that the country may be up to stirring the nuke pot again. The report based on commercial satellite imagery analysed by IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review said Pakistan could be building a new uranium enrichment complex in Kahuta some 30km from the federal capital Islamabad to boost its nuclear arsenal — often bandied in the Western media as the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile. The analysis is purported to have been conducted using satellite images taken by Airbus Defence and Space on September 28 last year and April 18 this year. The dates here, one may emphasise, is a kind of a giveaway in this story to which one will return in a moment. “The area of interest is approximately 1.2 hectares and is located within the secure area of the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), in the southwestern part of the complex,” the wire says quoting the statement. Karl Dewey, a proliferation analyst at IHS Jane’s, goes on record to say, “It is sited within an established centrifuge facility, has strong security and shows some of the structural features of a possible new uranium enrichment facility. This makes it a strong candidate for a new centrifuge facility.” The statement adds: “The structure of the site also bears strong resemblance to facilities built by nuclear fuel company Urenco which also operates several nuclear plants in Europe”. What follows is a rather interesting — if premised — mention about how Pakistan is seeking to join the coveted 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group that seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials, equipment and technology that can be used to manufacture atomic weapons. Ian Stewart, head of research group Project Alpha at King’s College London, is then quoted, to give the thumbs down to the whole idea. “It is difficult to see how these actions are consistent with the principles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group of responsible nuclear exporters which Pakistan is seeking to join,” Stewart observes. The only Pakistani source reported is a physicist — A H Nayyar — who goes along with the theory that if the site was indeed a centrifuge, then it’s all about weapons grade even though he throws in a caveat about not setting too much store by “imagery” alone. To return to where this piece began, ramping up choreographed clatter about Pakistan’s nuclear programme by the Western media and its practitioners at opportune times is hardly news. Not for the first time, it has come at a rather interesting juncture. Consider. The report immediately follows the conclusion of a two-day conference in Washington where the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) urged other states to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The report citing satellite imagery about a new uranium enrichment site also fashionably coincides with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the United States for the UN General Assembly session where he is slated to meet a number of world leaders pushing for a desirable treaty (CTBT) that many of them are themselves loathe to either signing or ratifying! The timing of the clamour about a stirring pot in Kahuta in the context of these two developments is also interesting given that the purported sightings courtesy the Airbus Defence and Space noted in the IHS Jane’s were made last year and early this year. There is obviously no bar on coincidences! To be sure, non-proliferation goals are pertinently desirable and cannot be over-emphasised in the interest of securing a conflict-free world for present and future generations, but all of this cannot be achieved if the big fish, having got their own pound of flesh, decide to cut the small fish down to size. That said, Pakistan’s case is not exactly cut and dried in line with the script handed out by the NPT regime. To understand its bona fides, it is imperative to start by taking into consideration the country’s geography. Islamabad did not take a sudden fancy to gatecrash the nuclear club, like say, North Korea. Its nuclear programme evolved over time as a result of — and in direct response to — its security needs. With India conducting its first atomic test in Pokhran in 1974 — which was ironically coined ‘Smiling Buddha’ — Pakistan knew it would have to do more than just smile back to safeguard its territorial integrity. The 1998 round of nuclear explosions — Islamabad responding with six of its own in response to New Delhi’s five — was also not a tennis score in jest. If at all, it reinforced Pakistan’s security paradigm as directly linked to geographical considerations and a history of wars that underline the importance of deterrence. Islamabad may have followed what to the outside world appears to be an ambitious nuclear programme with a zero-sum bent with regard to India, but what is undeniable is that it is all rooted in deterrence. In a conventional war scenario, Pakistan would be hard-pressed to match its neighbour both in terms of resources as well as land mass to cover, but nuclear capability gives it the much needed parity to ward off such threats. A case in point is the reported attainment of a second strike nuclear capability more recently which has done its bit to allay fears at home about being at the losing end in the hypothetical event of a first strike against the country. But to return to the non-proliferation goals, as much as Pakistan remains concerned to upgrade and enhance its deterrence — that being an inalienable right, it is just as committed to achieving an equitable world order. Islamabad’s willingness can be gauged in how it first voted for the CTBT when it was adopted and unilaterally, announced a moratorium on further nuclear testing before offering last month to consider transforming that moratorium into a bilateral agreement with India on banning nuclear testing. *The writer is Community Editor.

GRAND:  The palatial office of the Sheikhul Islam in the suburbs of Bangkok.  Photo by the author
Faith in Thailand

The Muslim connect remains a less explored subject and one that holds  a special interest in the context of growing ‘Islamic tourism’, Thailand’s halal industry expertise and, last but not least, medical tourism. Kamran Rehmat reports from the Land of Smiles The jury is still out on exactly how many muscles it takes to smile, and frown, and which one pips the other. In Thailand, regardless of the muscle tussle, smiles take the miles! No wonder, it’s dubbed the Land of Smiles. It is hard not to wilt with that constant appearance wherever you go — right from the immigration desk out to the market place. While there’s little that has escaped the roving eye of a keen traveller to Bangkok or the more popular tourist resorts in terms of their allure, there is this other — more formal — side to the Thai kaleidoscope that held its attention for me on a recent study tour to the country. It should be of particular interest to travellers from the Middle East, and closer home, the Gulf. The Muslim connect remains a less explored subject and one that holds a special interest in the context of growing “Islamic tourism”, Thailand’s halal industry expertise and last, but not least, medical tourism. Sek Wannamethee, Director-General, Department of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, puts liberty and tranquillity at the heart of Thai societal fabric. “The peaceful essence of Islam coincides with Buddhist teachings. In Thailand today, Islamic teachings and prayers are broadcast on Thai television network. The Azaan can be heard from as far away in the north, through the central plains of (the former capital) Ayutthaya all the way to the south, where Islamic family law is practised,” he says. It says a lot about the high values Thais place on tolerance and religious harmony when you consider that the very term “minority” is abhorred. The idea is to accord the same level of recognition to all religions and ethnicities. Sheikhul Islam “Muslims enjoy full liberties and rights in our country, and it is all constitutionally mandated,” Assistant Professor Dr Abdullah Numsuk, Representative of the Sheikhul Islam, says. Outlining the salient features of state backing, he informs that under constitutional obligation, the monarch has to lend his support to every religion and that is also reflective in his continued patronage of Islamic activities in Thailand. “The king has an important role in supporting Islam and has authorised translation of the Holy Book into several languages at state expense. He is a regular presence in our midst,” he points out. “We have the Islamic Bank of Thailand (a state enterprise with 26 branches across the country), and a dedicated 24-hour cable TV, which should say something about the rights we enjoy in this land,” Sheikhul Islam’s representative emphasises. Explaining the raison d’etre of the office, the representative says it is the highest Islamic authority in the land whose decisions are binding for all Muslims. The appointment is made by the king himself and it follows an intense participatory process with 39 provincial committees across the country involved in the selection. He is also sanguine about the role played by Muslims in the country’s development. “Our fellow brethren continue to contribute meaningfully to nation-building. There is exemplary coexistence amongst various religions and even sects of Islam here. Indeed, we remain very proud of being Thai citizens,” Numsuk says, emphatically. Responding to a question about the number of mosques in Thailand and how and where Muslim children acquire religious education, he puts the number at 3,700 — majority of these in the south — and says they learn at Islamic schools run by Muslims, but also private educational institutions. The Islamic schools are also subsidised by the government. According to a Ministry of Thailand estimate, there are 800 Islamic schools in the country, most of which are concentrated in the southern border provinces. The Foreign (Office) factor Like with other countries, the Thai government is reaching out to expand the relationship with the Islamic world, particularly the Gulf. There is a strong Muslim connect here which has perhaps, not been explored enough for its range and depth. Suvat Chirapant, Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — one of four such high ranking positions in the ministry — is himself a Muslim and informs that Thailand has had a foreign minister, who served as the secretary-general of Asean; parliamentary speaker, who was also the deputy prime minister and interior minister; and even a commander-in-chief of the army from the same faith. He says the country, which has the highest Muslim population of all Asean countries, has much to offer to potential trade partners in the Middle East and Gulf — not in the least trade in its certified halal food industry. With its significant Muslim population (approximately, 5.8 million of the nation’s 67 million), Thailand also sits on the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) with an Observer Status, enjoying observer membership of the Islamic Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO). The Thai Islamic Trade and Industrial Association, too, is a member of the OIC Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Explaining the role of the Foreign Office, Chirapant, who has served in Qatar for three years, says, it works in close co-ordination with Sheikhul Islam, whose role he likens to that of a counsellor to the king in Islamic affairs. The government has a longstanding policy of providing financial support for the construction or renovation of mosques. Thai Muslims are allowed to practice and dress according to their faith in public places, including schools and government offices. The Foreign Office official also hails the role played by Thai Muslims in the development of the country, and says he, along with his colleagues, regularly visit provinces across the country to interact with the Muslim population — 30 per cent of which is concentrated in the south — and inquire after their well-being. Currently, it is engaged in co-ordinating the first batch of Haj pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. Annually, the government facilitates 13,000 Thai Muslims to undertake the pilgrimage with a one-stop service for documentation and medical exams.

DISTINGUISHED:  Dr Erik Fleischman, an American physician who has worked with infectious diseases in over 20 countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Americas and Eastern Europe and is the Assistant Medical Director-International at Bumrungrad, during an interactive session, with an Iraqi co-ordinator by his side. Photo by the author
What makes Thailand tick

In recent years, tourists have flocked in their thousands for reasons other than partaking merely the enthralling Thai night life. In particular, Muslim tourists find an immediate appeal in its growing “Islamic tourism” potential, with halal hotels, food and the opportunity to see the lifestyle of Thai Muslims. The other eyeball grabber is medical tourism, where one hospital particularly offers a fascinating insight. Bumrungrad International Hospital Cliched as it sounds, the name says it all. Pronounced bahm-roon-RAHT — meaning “care for the people” in Thai — Bumrungrad is a virtual one-stop medical facility that attracts you immediately for its calm un-hospital like ambience. In fact, I’m prompted to ask the flawless fact-reeling PR guide, the secret of its lack of hospital smell; she tells me it is a regular drill with helpful chemicals to keep the odour at bay. Hospitals of the world, take note! An engaging session with the director, marketing officials, doctors and nurses leaves one with plentiful adjectives for what makes the Stock Exchange-listed Bumrungrad one of the best in the business. Since medical tourism has taken on a new sheen, it is just as well. To cut to the chase, the 21-storied 580-bed Bumrungrad with 55 specialty centres, 19 operating theatres, internationally certified lab and pharmacy, clinical research centres, advanced imaging facilities and automated labs onsite is the largest private medical facility in Southeast Asia. Also with one of the world’s largest private sector outpatient clinics, Bumrungrad has long enjoyed the coveted US-based Joint Commission International accreditation, the first in Asia, in 2002. Talking of medical tourism, Bumrungrad was also the first to receive Award for Excellence in healthcare tourism category in 2008; the first to grab “Thailand’s Most Innovative Company” award in 2008; and take the top position for “Best Website for International Medical Travel” at the 2008 Consumer Health World Awards, USA among a slew of similar distinctions.   If figures alone tell the whole story, which would not do much justice to be honest, it is pretty imposing. With 1,400 physicians, over 1,000 nurses and an American-led international management team that oversees 4,800 employees, Bumrungrad treats over 1.1 million patients every year, including both outpatient and inpatient. Of these, nearly half are international patients from more than 190 countries. In 2015, it saw the second highest number of patients from the Middle East region (144,772), including more than 15,000 out-patient visits from Qatar, after Southeast Asia. The year-to-date (June 2016) figure is over 7,600 visits. When asked about the specialties Qatari patients seek, Duangrudee Somboonruangsri, Manager, International Marketing, points to five areas, namely; (a)preventive medicine, (b)gastroenterology and hepatology, (c)obstetrics and gynaecology, (d)general surgery and (e)cardiology. Overall, patients coming from the Gulf mostly seek treatment for cancer, spine surgery, robotic joint replacement, cataract surgery as well as paediatrics and neurology. Bumrungrad also made news for successfully treating Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) patients from Oman in the last two years despite their advanced age (both in their 70s). Interestingly, a large number of Americans themselves come here for treatment “because it costs 70-80% cheaper”, according to Sudi Narasimhan, Corporate Director of Marketing and Business Development. Overall, he says, it costs a third of what it would in the rest of the world. He also claims that the large turnover is thanks to Bumrungrad’s success rate of treatment being “twice as good as other US hospitals for JCI-accredited disease specific specialties”. Asked if it is the most expensive option in Thailand given its stature, Narasimhan says, “Actually, there are five hospitals which are costlier in Thailand itself!” It has Referral Offices in several countries, including Qatar (Souq Waqif, Doha). In recent years, the influx is notable and what drives the patients, especially those coming from the Gulf is confidentiality. The patients are called out by codes than name. To facilitate patients who may have language issues, there are 150 interpreters, international/airport concierge service, embassy assistance and visa extension counter. For Muslim patients, there are prayer rooms and halal food on offer. What’s endearing to see are the specially made out paediatric facilities. The PR guide tells me it is configured in a way as to distract the kids from any fear of medical procedure with even the nurses wearing colourful uniforms with cartoon characters. It almost seems like an indoor playground!

From left: Ahmad Hussain, president of Pakistan-Qatar Business Forum; Wajahat Hashmi, first secretary, embassy of Pakistan; and Mehmood Arshad, chairman of Pakistan-Qatar Business Council of FPCCI, at the event.
Pakistan ‘Agro Food Festival’ a huge draw

“If the world’s peace depended on mangoes, you can rest assured, Pakistan would be one of the go-to countries. The king of all fruits — and probably, even ‘queen’ if Sindhri from the country’s Sindh province is taken into account — does not taste as sweet and succulent anywhere in the world than Pakistan,” Ahmad Hussain, President of Pakistan-Qatar Business Forum (PQBF), said in his opening address at the two-day Pakistan ‘Agro Food Festival’ at Ezdan Mall, Gharaffa. Themed ‘Taste of Pakistani Delicacies’, the show was jointly organised by Trade Development Authority of Pakistan and Zaoq Restaurants, Qatar, under the umbrella of PQBF. Held in a festive atmosphere, the event was attended in large numbers and graced by Qatari dignitaries, government officials, Pakistan embassy officials, foreign diplomats, senior officials of catering companies and supermarkets besides importers. Members of PQBF were also present on the occasion. It was aimed at creating awareness amongst the stakeholders and importers by demonstrating and promoting the quality and taste of Pakistani agro-food products. A number of major exporters from Pakistan, who are already established entities in GCC, Europe and the US were present on the occasion and displayed their range of products as well as publicity material. The festival saw dedicated kiosks to enable Business-to-Business (B2B) meetings between prospective customers and exporters from Pakistan. Dominated by mango, rice and meat, the fruit had the easier of other draw, with Hussain explaining to an eager participant why its summer arrival across the globe made headlines: “fertile soil, tropical climate — with plenty of sun — and organic methods of growing”. “There is a reason why ‘mango diplomacy’ even assumed such a halo — Islamabad manages to keep leaders in important world capitals in good humour thanks to its sweet after-taste. Now, if only disputes could be resolved over a Chaunsa basket,” he suggested. It was opened to the general public on Friday, where people of multiple nationalities in vast numbers savoured the delights of the Pakistani fruit. The annual mango production in Pakistan is over 1.8mn tonnes on average with yearly exports reaching 120,000 tonnes. With more than 30 listed varieties, the country remains one of the preferred choices for global export. Mehmood Arshad, chairman, Pakistan-Qatar Business Council, an apex body of Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FPCCI), invited potential investors to profit from Pakistan’s rich growth base, citing the surplus citrus chain as an example. He felt Qatar’s proximity to Pakistan in terms of physical reach with a barely two hour-flight meant the access was a huge advantage. In all the mango hysteria, rice did not lag behind in making an immediate impact — Pakistan is the world’s fourth largest rice exporter, turning 9.1% of the global export last year alone. A few interested consumers after sampling a dish wanted to know how and why Pakistani Basmati rice with a “fine texture, long grain and distinguished taste was so light”. Another enthusiast wished to know how not to lose its taste to spices. The short answer was to be content with the “natural aroma” and not to spice it up, literally! It was explained that the “open secret” lay in the lexicon — “Bas” means fragrance and “mati” queen; in other words, the “queen of rice”! A pitch was also made for increasing the volume of halal meat given its demand in Qatar and the quality associated with Pakistani livestock. Responding to a question, a Pakistani embassy official informed that the annual trade volume with Qatar was approximately $380mn, of which food component of the export from Pakistan alone was around $80mn, with rice constituting 60% of it. In response to a poser, the PQBF president trotted out three salient reasons for why Pakistan would hold the potential investor’s interest in Qatar: “One, the consistency in quality and taste; two, affordability since Pakistan is in an advantageously close reach; and three, availability, which in many cases means surplus produce.”

UNEXPECTED BOOST: The triumph has provided Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a vital breather from the belligerent opposition campaign.
Making sense of PML-N sweep in AJK

If there’s one corollary that can be drawn from the Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) Legislative Assembly elections held last Thursday, it is that Project Democracy is not only alive, but kicking. Some 2.6mn votes were cast in a largely peaceful milieu, auguring well for participatory politics. A total of 423 candidates contested 41 seats on the basis of direct adult franchise, the 10th time such an exercise was undertaken. Out of these, 29 seats were meant for all 10 districts of AJK and 12 for Pakistan-based refugees from Kashmir valley, Jammu and other areas. According to the AJK Election Commission, there were 26,74,586 registered voters in all 29 constituencies of AJK’s 10 districts, including 12,28,930 male and 10,06,772 female voters. The election commission set up 5,429 polling stations with 8,008 booths in the constituencies. The polls were held under tight security with 17,000 personnel from the Pakistan Army and Rangers co-ordinating with the local civilian law enforcement agencies, including the AJK police, the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial police and the Frontier Constabulary. The elections came at a particularly testing time given the prevailing situation in neighbouring Kashmir, leading to much cynicism about how the voters would react. In no small measure, this pessimism was accentuated by the divisive nature of political campaigning. The turnout was reportedly between 40-50% in most constituencies, but still vigorous in form. The two old war horses, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which was also the ruling party going into the vote, and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), ran an acrimonious campaign and they were not left behind by the firebrand opposition Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) taking a first real shot at attracting the popular vote since gaining traction in the 2013 general elections. However, despite the usual white noise, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N not only won, but did it in grand style, stunning pre-poll predictions of a split mandate giving way to a coalition arrangement. The PML-N grabbed 31 of the 41 seats on offer, leaving both the PPP (three seats) and PTI (two seats) licking their wounds; moreso the former, since it had fielded a newer face to make a resonant pitch! The results have thrown up questions aplenty for the old ruling party (PPP) as well as the aspiring new one (PTI), but before that some significant observations are in order. First and foremost, even though the PML-N tore the script spectacularly in winning virtually all before them – including nine of the 12 reserved seats for Pakistan-based Kashmir refugees – their victory follows a now familiar pattern that sees the party in power at the Centre (Islamabad) clinching the honours in AJK as well. In that sense, it is more of the same. The simple explanation for this is that the voters follow the aforementioned trajectory because they feel their best bet in getting their base local level issues resolved effectively lies in electing people from the same ruling party at the Centre since those elected are reckoned to exercise control and have easier access to funds. However, the sweeping curve has made its presence felt because of the situation the PML-N found itself going to the hustings. The prime minister was away from the country for more than one-and-a-half months for health reasons during which time, he had an open-heart surgery in London as well. For more than three months, Sharif has also faced the brunt of a belligerent opposition since three of his children were named in the Panama papers for having off-shore accounts and being the beneficiaries of properties abroad allegedly bought from this wealth. With both the PPP and the PTI – the latter has already announced a public campaign beginning next month to force Sharif to face accountability — taking that ammo to their respective campaigns, doubts began to surface if Sharif would regain his mojo in AJK. The PPP dispensed with the tried and failed methods of the recent past to pitchfork Bilawal Bhutto, the young scion of the grand old party and its chairperson, to infuse a youthful zest to its campaign and electrify the disappointed old party voters. However, in the end, his amateurish rhetoric based on branding Sharif as a “Modi yaar” (pal of the Indian PM), and the failure of the ruling PPP in AJK to deliver combined to put the party out to pasture. The resort to the unflattering analogy appeared to undercut the 27-year-old Bilawal’s own stature, and seemed the kind of populist sloganeering associated with the far right, not secularist PPP. It was rejected quite decisively. The PTI was also cast away in inglorious fashion – making light of its much hyped “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) mantra. In fact, the humiliating defeat its regional chief, Barrister Sultan Mehmood, the supposedly powerful former AJK prime minister (when he was with the PPP), suffered was a sobering enough lesson for PTI chairman Imran Khan to tweet a somewhat surprising message of felicitation to the arch rival PML-N on winning the election. Perhaps, that was the only saving grace which made PTI look less embarrassing than the PPP, which invited ridicule by blaming the results on rigging – that familiar refrain of losing candidates and parties in Pakistan. Since then, Mehmood has also deemed it fit to hide behind the bogey of  rigging to explain his Waterloo, but Bilawal seems to have chastened since famously warning Sharif of a more telling street agitation than the one instigated by Imran Khan in the fall of 2014. But it goes without saying that both the PPP and PTI have their tasks cut out to revive their political fortunes before the 2018 general elections. As for the PML-N, the triumph should reinvigorate the resolve to get down to business and reward the people in AJK for standing by them against all odds. With a sweeping majority, they have the option to even go against the run of play and explore the prospect of a coalition in good faith for the larger Kashmiri cause. *The writer is Community Editor.

Moral of the story: The Misbah-ul-Haq-led team has shown the world needs Pakistan cricket to flourish, not just survive, for its own greater good, not just Pakistanu2019s.
A glorious redemption at Lord’s

For reasons of history, nothing beats giving a good old-fashioned hiding to the old colonial masters. But with the Pakistanis getting their own noses in front at Lord’s on Sunday, it was more than a victory at a game their fans probably love more than themselves! Lording it over at the home of cricket this time transcended the sport itself although the entire global cricket fraternity was watching this contest primarily for the poetic return of Mohammad Amir, the young fast bowler from Pakistan who was banned for half a decade after being found guilty of spot-fixing at the hallowed turf back in 2010. Then, the hottest property in the game with allusions that made him out to be even more talented than the one and only Wasim Akram – indeed the great himself admitted as much – Amir was making a comeback to Test cricket, something that naysayers had, at one stage, given up as an idle dream. To be sure, until last month doubts surfaced if he might even get a British visa. But the transcendence referred to, here, is not limited to Amir finding his feet again. This is much bigger than him. The Lord’s triumph is also about the resilience of a cricket-mad country that has long been reduced to a pariah status – and not just because a terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 put an end to international cricket at home. It is also a rejoinder to the so-called Big Three of the International Cricket Council, who have virtually left Pakistan out in the cold to fend for itself – in that the world needs Pakistan cricket to flourish, not just survive, for its own greater good, not just Pakistan’s. The Lord’s chapter, therefore, symbolises a never-say-die mien that is truly, madly, very Pakistani in its avatar: defiant, flamboyant and fiery. But the surprise package is that this is not founded in some Shahid Afridi edge-of-the-seat thriller. On the contrary, it owes almost entirely to the methodical Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s greatest unsung hero in the game, and perhaps, even beyond. Some 1,252 days after an impressionable Amir was lured into stepping over the line, Misbah has presided over a redemption that has forced the world to sit up and take notice. Handed charge at 36, when he was actually considering retirement from the game after years in the wilderness, thanks in no small part to an insecure Inzamam-ul-Haq, who felt Misbah’s inclusion could upend his own career, the Pakistan Cricket Board’s decision was, then, dismissed as a counterproductive and backward move. Even before Misbah, 42, led with a dream hundred on what was his debut at the home of cricket in the Test arena, becoming in the process the oldest Test centurion in 82 years, most of the English media were already acknowledging him as a leader worthy of his stature. The “redemption” rhapsody is bound to ring louder with the result at Lord’s. Pakistan and England have a history of bad blood involving highhanded administrators, players flying off the handle, umpires getting into the act, fans going berserk and even pitches being blamed for ill-intent. Even when it seemed slightly more kosher this time around, England captain Alastair Cook seemed eager to ratchet up the summer heat on Amir, by almost egging on the spectators at Lord’s to get under his akin! In the end, it seemed of little consequence, because while England focused on Amir, who did not quite set the stage alight – he did get Cook on third attempt after two dropped catches off his bowling in the first innings and fittingly, delivered the knockout punch that ended the hosts’ resistance on the fourth day – leggie Yasir Shah rattled the pickets on an unresponsive track to steal the thunder. But it is a measure of respectability Misbah has brought to his stewardship and how he has restored Pakistan’s pride that for the first time in living memory, the notoriously bad English press has resisted whinging and whining thus far, and sportingly lauded the Pakistan captain’s yeoman services as a leader. The appreciation has not been restricted to just connoisseurs of the game. Even fans have acknowledged the good. Consider the appraisal of these two English fans on the Guardian’s website following Sunday’s outcome: “This match was a redemption story, but not that of one player, as the press has made out, but of Pakistani cricket as a whole. Pakistan slunk away from Lord’s six years ago in disgrace, annihilated on the pitch and derided by the crowd after turning the hallowed ground into a gambling den. Today, they left the field in triumph and to universal acclaim, even affection, after a skilful and engaging performance in a game played in good spirit. It’s a testimony to the work they’ve put in to clean up their act and overcome the other misfortunes that have dogged their cricket, most not of their own making. It’s a cliché to say a certain victory is ‘good for cricket’, but this one certainly is. And good for Pakistan too,” one fan opined. Another one chipped in: “It was also wonderful to see the spirit of unity in the Pakistani team and their evident enjoyment of being a team. They seem well led at all levels and were marvellous ambassadors for sport, not just Pakistani cricket. For many Pakistanis at home and those of Pakistani origin in the UK it must have been a sense of both hope and pride and for many others, a feeling that not everything has become sour.” Apart from providing his compatriots hope in what are decidedly dark times in general, not only for Pakistan but the world at large, Misbah, the cool, calm, collected captain chose to provide a bit of mirth by pioneering a new form of celebration – the military salute and press-ups – in appreciation of a regimented fitness that is likely to become the standard in future. More importantly, by dedicating the victory to Abdul Sattar Edhi – perhaps, the world’s greatest humanitarian – who passed away early this month to much grief in Pakistan, Misbah only raised the bar of his own immortality in the people’s reckoning. *The writer is Community Editor.