DAWN - Editorial; 27 August, 2004

August 27, 2004

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And now for Mr Aziz

With his tenure of office already fixed in advance, Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain finally resigned on Wednesday. Sworn in on June 30 while he was chief of the PML, Chaudhry Shujaat's was a stop-gap arrangement.

By resigning he said he was "returning the trust reposed in him by the nation". He will continue in office, on the president's request, till Mr Shaukat Aziz is elected as leader of the house tomorrow and later sworn in.

The comings and goings of three prime ministers - starting from Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali's resignation on June 26 - may all have been, technically speaking, within the constitutional framework.

But this does not hide the fact that these changes are the result of manipulations by the generals. Nevertheless, in a country where prime ministers have been dismissed, arrested, humiliated, assassinated and even hanged, this peaceful transfer of power is something to be grateful for. One hopes this bring an end to the prime ministerial merry-g-round going on since the 2002 elections.

Not known for his political brilliance, Chaudhry Shujaat had modest assets which he brought to bear on his duties as prime minister. Good at alliance-forming and political manoeuvring, he operated in low key.

On Balochistan, he had the good sense to suggest the establishment of a senatorial committee including members from the opposition benches. But the most controversial of his government's decisions was been a piece of reactionary legislation.

The amended defamation bill, passed by the National Assembly last week, is meant to restrict press freedom and arms the bureaucracy with a draconian law that can be used to harass the media and the political opposition.

Mr Shaukat Aziz assumes office at a time when the country expects much from him. While the economy's macro-management has received praise in foreign capitals, its effects have not seeped down to the masses.

To take the benefits of the economic recovery in the wake of 9/11 to the people, he will have to change his priorities and focus on projects that generate employment and make a dent in poverty.

The agricultural sector continues to be static, while foreign and domestic investment in industry is meagre. The lack of investment has a lot to do with disturbed conditions in the country and the acts of terrorism every now and then.

While his government will have to pursue the war on terror, Mr Aziz must do so with the co-operation of the opposition, especially the PPP and PML-N. His political skills will also be tested by how he handles the situation in Balochistan and seeks a national consensus on the Kalabagh/Bhasha dam.

Let us hope Mr Aziz settles for a small cabinet. A dedicated and well-knit small team can do a better job than a large, unwieldy one that is the result of political compromises.

The prime minister in waiting did the right thing when he publicly disclosed his financial assets. This example must be followed by all ministers and advisers when they are sworn in so that it is possible for the nation to judge their probity while in office.

Time to be discreet

The fresh outburst of charges and counter charges between India and Pakistan on Kashmir has clouded the atmosphere in South Asia. This is regrettable because it comes at a time when the composite dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi has just made a start and could be derailed if the two sides revert to the old pattern of rhetorics.

A report by the Indian government and a Congress Party resolution have spoken of on-going cross-border infiltration in Kashmir and have held Pakistan responsible for not checking it.

Pakistan's strong reaction to this charge has struck a jarring note in the atmosphere of bonhomie that has marked India-Pakistan diplomatic encounters since January. This is a sensitive phase in the on-going dialogue.

The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan are to meet in early September while President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be holding talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. This is a time when the two sides can ill-afford to mar the peace process by raising controversial issues prematurely that cannot be addressed immediately.

The fact is that many of these problematic questions, such as the unrest in Kashmir and the support it receives from the militants, can be meaningfully taken up when the Kashmir issue is discussed.

But it is strange that the two sides have abandoned the policy of not playing out their differences in the glare of the electronic media which only has an adverse impact on the dialogue.

It had been suggested and even tacitly agreed at one time that they would avoid the limelight and negotiate their differences discreetly. It is time the two sides reminded themselves of this understanding which is important if the peace process is not to run into troubled waters.

It is also important that Islamabad and New Delhi refrain from using the Kashmir issue as well as other questions for their domestic political purposes. That only complicates matters and does not allow any flexibility in their stance.

Death in police custody

The death by burning in police custody of a robbery suspect is another grim reminder that those charged with law enforcement are perhaps its worst offenders. Two men were picked up by the Karachi several days ago, and both were then admitted to hospital with severe burn injuries.

One of them died on Wednesday while the other is fighting for his life. The police personnel under whose custody all this happened claim that the men tried to commit suicide, an assertion that makes little sense.

The inspector-general of the Sindh police initially suspended all the staff of the police station where the incident took place, as well as a couple of senior officials. However, later reports made it plain, as in many such cases, that the police force was more concerned about protecting its own men than with the truth.

First, a case of attempted suicide was registered against the suspects. Then, contrary to earlier indications, cases were filed against only four police officials, and that too on the relatively lighter charge of criminal negligence.

If the police force wants to come clean in the sordid affair, it will have to ensure that the case is not manipulated or hushed up and that all those officials behind acts of brutality and torture are duly prosecuted.

There have been reports that the suspects wanted to reveal the names of their patrons and that these included politicians and some senior police officials. If true, the motive for the jail tragedy becomes clear and also confirms the widely-held belief that a close nexus exists between criminals and influential elements.

The IGP of Sindh has said that he would like to purge the force of black sheep. This particular case should be a test case for him to convince a sceptical public that he means what he says.

Unfortunately, the track record of the police in such matters is full of instances of brutality and torture which are invariably swept under the carpet of 'departmental inquiries'. The matter needs to be investigated by a team of officers whose integrity and honesty is above reproach.