Thinking of October 10

By Anwar Syed


SEVERAL observers have been predicting that October 10 will come and go like any other day, meaning that the elections promised for that day will not be held. This is excessive pessimism: the consequences of skipping the elections will be much more troublesome for the present regime than the results of holding them even if they turn out to be different from the kind desired.

Others assert that a good deal of “pre-poll” rigging has already happened, and more is on the way. I think the odium that undisguised rigging in the recent referendum invited both at home and abroad may work as a deterrent. Apart from domestic pressures for fairness, consider the fact that the western world has never been as interested in our domestic politics as it is now. It seems to believe that a credible return to democracy has some positive bearing on this country’s internal stability and its ability to restrain militants and their terrorism. Blatant rigging of the coming elections is then unlikely.

The regulations already made will exclude a large array of old and established politicians from the electoral arena: some because they lack a college degree, others because they had become loan defaulters, and still others because they have either been convicted of corruption or other types of malfeasance in the past, or because charges of that nature are pending against them in the courts. Let us first take a quick look at the expellees in exile.

The government says that the Sharifs made a deal as a result of which some of its members, convicted or accused of crimes, were let go in return for their undertaking that their entire family, consisting of some twenty-five members, would stay out of the country and its politics for a period of ten years during which they would live in Saudi Arabia. Any other terms that formed part of this deal, and the specifics of the agreement with the Saudi government in this regard, are not known. But it is clear to any reasonable person that the guilty or the accused members of the family had no legal or moral right to commit its other members to a life in exile. Nor did General Musharraf ‘s government have any kind of a right to accept such an arrangement.

In the present government’s view, the issue is personal and/or political, not legal. Acting arbitrarily, Nawaz Sharif tried to dismiss General Musharraf from his post, while he was on his way home from a visit abroad, and sought to interfere with the flight and landing plan of the aircraft carrying him. The general’s disinclination to forget and forgive Mr. Sharif’s unwise manoeuvres is understandable. But extending the penalty to all members of his family may be some kind of medieval, colonial, or tribal justice, it is surely contrary to justice under our law. Note also that in other legal systems, where plea bargaining is allowed, bargains are made with accused individuals without involving their families

PML (N) has elected Mr. Shahbaz Sharif as its new president, but this may be to no avail. A government spokesman said the other day that the younger Sharif would not be allowed to return to the country in view of the “deal” referred to above. His exclusion from the forthcoming election campaign may then be taken for granted. If a legal justification for keeping him out is found to be essential, one can be invented fairly promptly, given the ingenuity of our investigative agencies.

The government is apparently apprehensive that, with Mr. Shahbaz Sharif heading its campaign, PML (N) may emerge as a major force in the next parliament and quite possibly in the Punjab assembly. This apprehension is based on the premise-which most commentators seem to have adopted-that PML (N) is one of the two “mainstream” political parties in the country.

To the best of my knowledge, no analyst has considered the adverse impact that the defection of a great many of the party’s better known leaders may have wrought. Can we assume that the party has a vote bank and a large number of workers whose dedication has remained undisturbed by the defections, and that the defectors have no vote banks and workers of their own that they may have taken along with them to the other side?

The general and his officials have declared repeatedly that Benazir Bhutto will not be allowed to participate in the elections. She and her deputies assert that she will indeed return and lead her party’s campaign, notwithstanding the government’s hostile plans. This is not likely to happen. Her return and subsequent detention will make political sense if we can assume that these events will bring forth a formidable mass movement capable of compelling the government to let her out and leave her free to contest the election.

Something like that happened on her return from exile in 1986, but it is not on the cards this time. Her party may do better, and the sympathy vote it gets may be larger, if she remains away as a vocal victim of the government’s “high-handedness.” Her presence in Pakistan (presumably in a jail) may distract her party from electioneering. It may also reawaken the hostility of her traditional political adversaries.

General Musharraf’s government does not welcome the prospect of the PPP or PML (N) , emerging from the elections as a force to be reckoned with. What is it looking for? It may regard Benazir Bhutto as incorrigibly corrupt and the Sharifs as both corrupt and insatiably lusty of power. But it will not have to deal with any of them in the foreseeable future.

Why then the reluctance to work with one or both of the “mainstream” parties? A common explanation is that the general does not want a prime minister who has substantial support in the National Assembly, and who may therefore begin to have a mind of his own.

The PML folks, regardless of the faction to which they happen to belong, are known for their pragmatism and their eagerness to be the “king’s party.” Assuming that the Sharifs will stay out, the “acting” leaders of the PML (N) will probably be no less amenable to presidential advice than Mian Mohammad Azhar and company. On the other hand, the general should not lose sight of the late Mohammad Khan Junejo’s passage to a degree of autonomy in his working relationship with Ziaul Haq, showing that the office has a transforming impact upon the incumbent. General Musharraf should not assure himself that Mian Azhar, or a middle-ranking politician from another group, can be relied upon to do his will throughout his tenure as president.

Nobody doubts General Musharraf’s patriotism, even if the same cannot always be said of his wisdom. We must all hope and pray that he does not want the elections to produce an assembly so segmented and chaotic that it cannot get organized to do its work. That would generate disastrous political instability, paralysis of will, loss of direction, and incompetence in the legislature.

Assuming that the elections do not result in legislative disarray, October 10 will bring about a political discontinuity of unprecedented proportions. For failure to meet the graduation requirement and other disabilities, mentioned earlier, rows and rows of well-established and experienced politicians will be forced into retirement. One reaction to their exclusion may be to say: “good riddance,” for they were corrupt and incompetent, wicked and even vicious. That would be a hasty response, for surely not all of them would have answered this description.

Some of the old hands that have, for one reason or another, escaped the NAB’s adverse attention, will find their way into the assemblies. Even if they were the second-ranking among our political notables, they will probably graduate to a higher status before long. In any case, we are likely to see an unusually large number of new faces in our politics and in the assemblies. How will this work out?

There are no precedents to guide us here; such a large-scale change of political personnel in one sweep has not taken place in any democracy that I can recall. Wholesale expulsions of political notables did follow the revolutions in Russia, China, and a few other countries. But the new teams that came in were the votaries of radically different values. They proceeded to establish and operate entirely new systems of governance and socio-economic organization.

In our case the system in its various dimensions remains virtually the same as before, which may be the reason why our “cleansing” operations in the past have not been productive. Moreover, our experience in this area is much too limited to yield reliable generalizations. Ayub Khan’s EBDO did force a substantial number of politicians at the time into retirement. Those elected under the 1962 constitution had little power and little to do. The “retirees” returned to the political scene, mostly unreformed, a few years later.

The new politicians anointed on October 10 will not be any kind of revolutionaries-veterans of a “long march” (China) or an extended civil war (Vietnam). They will be essentially the same sort of persons as those whom they have replaced, except that they will have college degrees and they will be relatively inexperienced in the craft of politics. It is hard to say if this relative lack of experience might work as a blessing in disguise; bring about a political culture more firmly committed to public interest than anything we have seen before. Much will depend on where and how the “new kids on the bloc” learn the “tricks of the trade” or, hopefully, “the rules of the game.”

E-mail:anwar_syed@cox.net

Wider net for disqualification

By Kunwar Idris


THE names of the political parties adjudged not eligible to take part in October elections have been made public, but not yet of the individuals who might suffer the same fate. The criteria announced for their disqualification admit of discretion which could be used to help some and damn others.

On the eve of Independence Day the president has once again affirmed that the elections will be held as scheduled and extended his personal guarantee that they would be fair and free and, for further emphasis, also transparent.

It is to be hoped that Rana Ijaz, a Punjab minister, does not carry out his threat of expelling the European Union’s observers to cast doubt on Musharraf’s guarantee before it is put to the test. It is a continuing problem of the general that his foot soldiers in civil life, in the absence of power or responsibility, try to pre-empt his wish and speak out of turn when they shouldn’t be speaking at all. That’s what destroyed the prospects of concord at Agra and then the credence of his referendum. The comments on the EU mission’s presumed conduct are already doing that to the elections before they are held.

The controversy whether the mission would ‘observe’ or ‘monitor’ the polls, to which the election commission has also become a party, is wholly unnecessary. To monitor means nothing more than to “observe a process or activity to check that it is carried out fairly or correctly”. It is a dictionary meaning. Now if the EU observers are not to do that what a legion of them are here for? And why are we at all worried if the elections are going to be “transparent”. Not just the EU but every citizen should be free and able to monitor the process.

The president’s guarantee should not be restricted to the coercion or bribing of the voters or tampering with the ballot papers. More assuredly it should stymie the governors, ministers and, above all, the spooks of all varieties from giving their blessings or public money to any of the contesting candidates. At present, the rumours and apprehensions (borne out by some official communications) are to the contrary and widespread.

It is a credit to the administration and the election commission that the delimitation of the constituencies attracted but few and mild objections. The next test of fairness will arise in the application of the disqualification criteria to individual candidates. It should be much less selective than was accountability. Those who have escaped accountability because of their own devices, official indulgence or just shortage of time should not now escape disqualification as well.

Secondly, in the disqualification criteria as they are set out, there is room for a fry to be caught and shark to get away. Loan default is one example. A borrower may not have been able to pay back his loan if the project or business in which it was invested failed. After all, no investment is free of entrepreneurial risk. An ingenuous borrower can thus be declared a defaulter. But another, craftier and resourceful but far less plausible reasons could persuade or bribe the lending institution to waive, reschedule the loan or convert it into bonds or equity. The helpful banks and friends in government thus can save some from default and accountability, leaving others to suffer the punishment and disqualification, both.

A similar argument can be made out against disqualification for not paying the electric and other utility bills when the wrong billing is a common malpractice. Again, as in loans, the defaulter of a small amount may be disqualified but those who steal or are encouraged to steal by the conniving staff (in Karachi alone it is said to result in the theft of one-fourth of the electricity produced) may find their way into the assemblies.

The plea being made here is not to spare altogether the loan or bill defaulters but to go by the enormity and not by the technicality of the crime. It should not be difficult to maintain this distinction if the view taken is objective and not partisan.

A greater justification for denying entry into the parliament should be the past abuse of public office and betrayal of public trust and not the private wrongs of new contestants, especially when no standards are set nor uniform procedures laid down for determining the magnitude of the wrong and the circumstances in which it occurred.

It is in the light of this basic and fair rule that the eligibility for elections of all those persons who had received the ISI or Mehran Bank money during the nineties should be judged. Relying on intrepid Naseerullah Babar’s disclosure in the parliament in 1994 and indefatigable Asghar Khan’s 1996 petition in the Supreme Court, Ardeshir Cowasjee has published the names of them all in his columns in this paper on July 21 and August 4 and 11.

Asghar Khan’s petition, supported by Babar’s affidavit, has lain, as Ardeshir put it, in the morgue of the Supreme Court for the last six years. The court hasn’t taken it up and it suited no past government, and possibly it doesn’t this one either, to press for its hearing. The governments and courts alike remain oblivious to the fact that it was the money of the poor masses that found its way into the pockets of their rich leaders through dishonest public servants and bankers in whose care it was kept. In the process Mehran Bank went bankrupt and the national treasury nearly so.

Hardly anyone out of those named by Babar and Asghar (later confessed by former ISI chief Asad Durrani) have denied receiving the money for whatever purpose. The sole recent denial has come from Altaf Husain’s MQM but is not followed by a notice for libel or calumny. The list makes sordid reading. It contains the names of the people who have been presidents and prime ministers of the republic, of governors and chief ministers and of pirs and clerics who are all poised to enter the assemblies once again.

One feels compelled to point out the names of a few in the long list only for the reason that they should not have been at all there: Abida Husain is said to have received a million. Meraj Khalid two hundred thousand. The sum is too little for rich Abida, it is too much for poor Meraj Khalid. Both could have done without it. She has enough of her own; he would not know what to do with it.

Jamaat-i-Islami as a party received five million and its secretary Liaquat Baloch another million and a half. A party which is for ever assailing the citadels of corruption and infidelity couldn’t have used the money to exterminate them. All those named, persons and parties, need to explain to the people how they spent the money if they received it before they expect the latter to vote for them.

Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhri, the first service chief who resigned for he could not put up with political interference in his command, in a recent interview with an Urdu magazine recalls his encounter with Ziaul Haq, when the latter was Lt.Gen and corps commander of Multan in the early seventies. On his impending retirement, Zia was worried where would he go as he had no house of his own nor money to build one.

Zafar assured Zia that owning a plot in Lahore cantonment (which he did) he could build a modest house with the amount of his commuted pension supplemented by a bank loan, as he (Zafar) had done, within two hundred thousand rupees. That proposition blew away Zia’s gloom. As we all know, he never retired but left a fortune for his children amassed in the last lap of his “public service” — the public itself though was less fortunate in its inheritance.

Then, Aftab Sherpao who, like Ejazul Haq, has founded a new party has to explain his money transactions with Hamid Kidwai of Mehran Bank (our high commissioner in Kenya for the last four years). The tape-recorded, self-incriminating conversation between the two was widely broadcast when Sherpao was the Frontier chief minister and Kidwai was in the bank. Now, for understandable reasons, both are on the right side of the government.

The intention in recalling these two episodes and the names of the reported recipients of the ISI and Mehran Bank largesse is to suggest to the concerned authority to cast its disqualification net wider and not be content with a few caught by the National Accountability Bureau. They could not be all disqualified, for the Supreme Court has yet to determine their guilt or innocence. A practical approach to this dilemma suggested by a constitutional lawyer is that they may contest the elections but not enter the assemblies till this determination is made.

For the hearing of the six-year old petition in the Supreme Court, the government should join hands with Asghar Khan. The revelations made in the court and its judgment could help cleanse the Augean stables of Pakistan’s politics which Musharraf’s NAB, NRB and a variety of tribunals have not been able to do.

A diary from Herat

HERAT: What comes first during breakfast at the Jihad House in Herat? The chicken or the egg?

The chicken. If you can get chicken, why eat the egg?

The breakfast was laid out in the hall of a home on the hill. The view cascaded past a swimming pool, and slipped down to a commanding cantonment: wrecked tanks and planes were piled to the left, while new armoured cars and tanks gleamed on the right. This was the power centre of the powerful.

The blue mosque of Herat shimmered in the distance. A little askance, on the horizon, five towers of a lost madressa rose like crooked fingers without a palm. The view swept out of the oldest town of the region, its age estimated at over three thousand years, and to the great desert that moved remorselessly towards Mashhad, a hundred kilometres away, and into Iran.

The guest of honour at this breakfast was Yashwant Sinha. His host was short, with a dapper shalwar-kameez and twinkling eyes that spoke of a kindly uncle rather than a name that had become a legend in a legendary city through two wars. His subjects, for that is what they are, call Ismail Khan the Emir.

Kabul calls him governor of the province. The world calls him a warlord, but takes care to do so out of hearing.

Can you have a warlord without a war? Yes. Because there will be a war if he is not made the lord.

When the Taliban were driven out of Herat in October last year after six noxious years, Ismail Khan did not wait for anyone’s permission before he moved into the governor’s house and office. Stories erupted that the “warlords” who had split Afghanistan with their civil wars after driving the Russians out and made the Taliban victories possible, were back. Journalists, encouraged by the West, sniffed bad news. Ismail Khan allowed his twinkle to do the talking and dared anyone to remove him. He had fought two wars, the first against the Russians and the second against the Taliban. He had spent three years in a Kandahar jail, betrayed to the Taliban, and kept chained to a post until, in an episode that nourished the legend, he escaped.

The people of Herat acknowledged him as their leader. Ismail Khan did not need any permission from anyone in Kabul. He was in the tradition of the Emirs who had ruled this region for thousands of years, in Bukhara and Balkh and Samarkand. He was in power by right of conquest and primogeniture of an Emir. He was sure of his place on the Afghan chessboard. Others might aspire to be kings in Kabul.

Yet others might race and pounce with the rapacity and pace of a queen, the diagonal dignity of a bishop or the prance of a horse. Ismail Khan was a castle in his stable corner. No game could begin without him, and no game could end until he moved. Ismail Khan did not switch sides. Kabul switched sides to join him. That is why there was a third flag at the Herat airport when Ismail Khan gave Yashwant Sinha a welcome that Kabul could not have dared to script.

The protocol was head of state style. Not to a head of state as much as from a head of state.

Ismail Khan’s ministers stood at the head of a receiving line that began near the foot of the United Nations aircraft that flew us over a near unending mountainscape from Kabul to Herat.

Next was the guard of honour, two lines of soldiers offering arms and a sergeant straight out of a David Niven movie. Three flags fluttered. India’s, Afghanistan’s, and Ismail Khan’s. His colours had equal status. On his standard was inscribed that famous line from the Holy Quran: Nasrum min Allah-e-fatehun qareeb. Allah brings victory towards you.

Schoolgirls welcomed us with a song of freedom, and threw flowers at their guest (the petals might have reached Yashwant Sinha’s head had he been just a bit shorter). Our cavalcade set out for Jihad House, built by Ismail Khan to commemorate his victory over the Russians, then seized by the Taliban before it was retaken by the Emir.

The road was lined on both sides by a cheering populace. Schoolgirls were clapping on orders, but were clearly excited at being part of an important event. At first this seemed normal enough. This was the kind of welcome that Jawaharlal Nehru used to organize for Bulganin and Khrushchev in the Fifties, and there was a Fifties air to this morning.

Bulganin Sinha did not seem too harsh on the tongue either. Then a penny dropped. It occurred to me that girls were back in schools, wearing uniforms, carrying satchels, wreathed with smiles, after the hateful gender segregation in the Taliban years. The meaning of freedom was already visible.

The ceremony was the point and the substantive fact. The protocol offered to India’s foreign minister on his first visit to Herat was far above that given to any other VIP.

The message was simple. Ismail Khan was a friend of India. It is easy to declare undying love within the closed walls of a single room. Doing it publicly was telling the world that you would honour a friendship that had stood the test of adversity.

The sentiment has echoed in every dialogue that Yashwant Sinha has had. When no one supported the Ismail Khans and the Ahmad Shah Masoods, when even the United States, working independently or through its ally Pakistan, was working towards a compromise with the Taliban, it was India alone that remained committed to a cause that seemed so marginal that it looked doomed.

Yashwant Sinha told his host that India, which never had a presence here, would soon open a consulate in Herat, a further instance of the city’s new importance, and by extension also evidence of Ismail Khan’s importance.

Pakistan, which always had a presence, has been refused permission by Ismail Khan to reopen its consulate.

The Taliban are hated in cities like Herat because they are seen as a stooge government. The jihad against crypto Communists in Kabul was valid because they had sold their country to the Russians. The Taliban were treated with similar contempt because they had sold their country to Pakistan. The Pakistan army was the backbone of the Taliban’s strength.

The Afghan will never accept foreign rule, neither from a neighbour to the north nor a neighbour to the east.

A car has the aura of a time machine in the bazaar that rings the wondrous blue mosque at the centre of Herat, the greatest of the oasis-cities that nourished the great Silk Route. Nothing has changed in a thousand years in this bazaar. The mosque’s tiles, colours (blue is not a single colour), designs and majesty seem as fresh as if they had first glittered yesterday. The shops and wooden huts could have been constructed a thousand years ago.

The faces are ageless. They belong to the Turks, Mongols, Iranians, Afghans and hundreds of tribes and sects that teem between the walls of China and the open spaces of Turkey. Eyes slant, and eyes glow like deep embers. Noses become hawks, and noses turn into sparrows. Cheekbones rise and cheekbones melt into flesh.

The buzz of the marketplace still echoes the oasis that once fed and rested caravans to give them the strength for another thousand miles, while in return it was told tales of wonders and battles taking place in distant lands. History was the breath of Herat. Alexander and Changez Khan, Omar Khayyam and Marco Polo passed this way: conquerors, traders, travellers, poets and persecutors, and lovers fulfilled or betrayed.

The mosque and the market were hives of different kinds but related by the romance of a town that knew the heartbeat of a world it nurtured, patronized, perhaps sneered at but in all cases encouraged it to go its way. While all through the day and night a sharp wind brought the dust of the surrounding desert to the oasis, leaving a fine film on face and cloth, so that a laugh or a smile or a tear had to cross two layers, one of skin and the other of dust. How many worlds live in Afghanistan, across how many centuries?

After two days in Afghanistan, I have one question. Would Michael Schumacher be able to outpace a taxi driver in Kabul between five and seven in the evening? I think not. We all know Schumacher can drive, but can he spurt? We know he can accelerate, but can he brake with a thud that connect wheel to teeth? Schumacher might roar and the Corolla might rattle, but in a ten-yard dash between two immovable objects on the high street where would your money fetch better odds? My money is on the Afghan.

Schumacher can do a beautiful U-turn, but can he negotiate an O-turn that manages to bring the car back to its original position after the driver has discussed various options with the traffic policeman?

We all know that Schumacher thrills the world with his courage, but can he turn a single-file cavalcade into a war zone, swinging the car sideways while weaving it forward? Can Schumacher do what Aunt Agatha used to do to Bertie Wooster - make his heart leap up till it crashed against the teeth and returned slowly to base, gurgling helplessly on its way back. The Afghan can. The only thing that Schumacher has in common with the Afghan driver is that both believe that the only cars on the road are those that are behind them. If they see a car in front they treat it as a personal insult. An Afghan can always drive at Le Mans. Can Schumacher do high street in Kabul?

The writer is editor-in-chief of Asian Age, New Delhi.

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