Asif Haroon Raja
The ongoing political polarization between Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) has brought back the memory of PPP-PML-N antagonism of the 1990s. This time the social and electronic media have come up as a force multiplier to stir up hatred to new heights. Urban liberals and secularists have teamed up with PTI and are making full use of media to gun down Nawaz Sharif (NS) and his family.
Their concentrated propaganda war had a salutary effect on the judiciary and it hastened to hand out a controversial decision on July 28. Popular leader NS who had restored semblance of order in his 4-year tenure was disqualified from politics for life on a flimsy ground. He was declared dishonest since he had not indicated the salary he had received from Capital FZE Company in UAE owned by his son in his 2013 income tax return. He had not mentioned it as receivable income since he had not received the salary.
Although NS accepted the decision, immediately relinquished his seat and handed over the reins of power to Khaqan Abbasi, but all his party leaders have not agreed with the decision and still consider him as their leader.
Disqualification of NS by the five-member Supreme Court Bench evoked a strong backlash in Punjab where PML-N is strongly based. The judiciary that was being eulogized by the PTI and its fans for giving a historic decision, has come under scathing criticism on account of not meeting the ends of justice fairly. PML-N leaders are slating the decision saying that the PM was tossed out without trial in a matter that involved disputed facts. They are equating the July 28 decision with infamous judicial cases of Maulvi Tamizuddin and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
NS exit has sobered the hyper media and PTI leaders to some extent, although they keep censuring NS as to why he undertook a marathon road move from Islamabad to Lahore, and why he and his party leaders complain that he was unjustly dismissed. What has upset the people is that the most corrupt man Zardari has been acquitted of all mega corruption cases and the much touted across the board accountability has gone into limbo after NS’s exit. PML-N leaders are complaining that the judiciary has set a wrong precedence by awarding punishments to NS and his family with super speed while taking years to dispose-off mega corruption and criminal cases of heinous nature. Air Marshal Asghar Khan case pending in courts for the last 23 years is quoted as a case in point.
The NA-120 seat in Lahore vacated by NS will be contested on September 17, and the main titans are wife of NS Kulsoom Nawaz and Yasmeen Rashid of PTI. This constituency have 327,786 registered voters and 230 polling stations. Maryam Nawaz has done the canvassing on account of her mother’s illness and under treatment in London. Maryam has shown her political credentials by singly leading the campaign aggressively and has surprised many including her rivals. In her addresses, she conveyed to the voters that her father has been wronged by the judiciary.
Dr. Yasmeen is faced with an uphill task. Last time she was pitched against NS in this constituency and had lost by 40,000 votes but had bagged 54000 votes. She will feel relieved if this margin of defeat is narrowed to 20,000 or so. The contest is viewed as critical for both but the dice is heavily loaded in favor of Kulsoom on account of the sympathy wave.
Taking into account several surveys, PML-N is sure to win because NA- 120 has been the traditional stronghold of this party since 1985. Moreover, Maryam has elicited support of 20 religious parties which include Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahle Hadith, Shias and other religious sects.
One more factor which might make the difference is the 50% voters of this constituency who traditionally stay home, whether they would come out on the 17th and cast their vote. Maryam on her last day of campaigning on 15th urged this lot while addressing the women. Imran gathered support of his old ally Tahirul Qadri. Other contestants of some consequence are PPP and JI.
If by any stroke of luck Yasmeen wins, which is least expected, it will catapult the fortunes of PTI and demoralize PML-N leaders and voters. It will prove more harmful for the ruling party than the Panama verdict since it may cause cracks in the party particularly if accountability court indict and convict NS in a corruption case. If so, it will seal NS political future for good and may divide the party. Outcome of NA-120 will set the trend for next general elections. It is however the endeavor of the new PML-N President Yaqoob and PM Khaqan to contest the 2018 elections in the name of NS.
Except for former interior minister Ch Nisar Ali, PML-N is so far united. Reason for Nisar’s estrangement with the party is his tiff with Khawaja Asif. His hasty decision to resign and to refuse to join Khaqan’s cabinet has made him a lone ranger. His future resides in his own party only and nowhere else. Opponents of NS are wishfully seeing fissures in the party.
If the margin of victory on Sept 17th is big, it will indicate that NS’s ouster has been avenged, wrong has been partially righted, and road for PML-N victory in 2018 elections smoothened. It will be a sort of snub to the judiciary and will encourage PML-N leaders to add more spice in their propaganda against the judiciary. They will exploit it by saying that the people’s court has voted in favor of NS and have rejected the judicial decision.
It may mellow down the judiciary which is currently in an aggressive mood. After disqualifying NS, the Bench has sent three references to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for trial of NS, his two sons, his son-in-law Safdar and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. A Supreme Court judge has been tasked to monitor the progress of NAB. The NAB has sent several summons to the accused, but none have so far appeared, nor do they seem to have any intentions to do so. Review petition has been promptly rejected by the 5-member bench.
If the margin of victory of Kulsoom is small, it will give a measure of satisfaction to the opponents and encourage them to allege that few thousand votes’ victory was a result of planned rigging and use of state resources. In this regard, social media is already spreading false news.
While the July 28 controversial decision of the apex court has hardly dented the popularity of NS, conversely the charisma and rising popularity of Imran Khan has begun to wane. Outcome of NA-120 will further minimize the chances of victory of PTI in next elections. Reasons for downturn in his fortunes are many. He wasted all these years by indulging in fruitless politics of agitation that were at the cost of development of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Little progress has been made in KP. In his bid to demonize NS and capture power, he stoked culture of allegations and abuses. He also injected indiscipline among his party workers and the youth by encouraging them to defy law and resort to hooliganism. To glamorize his public meetings, he encouraged music and mixed dance and songs which were disliked by the conservatives. He discredited state institutions by defying their authority and tarnishing their image.
Instead of creating hurdles and wasting time over issues of rigging and corruption, he should have pressed the government to carryout essential reforms without which very little progress can be made. These are electoral, judicial, bureaucratic, police, education and media reforms. His entire focus was on unseating NS by hook or crook to grab power. He delayed the CPEC project by six months due to his prolonged sit-in in Islamabad and also impacted development works due to his politics of agitation and confrontation. He filled up his party with turncoats from other parties with tainted backgrounds and thus polluted his party of cleans.
Chickens have come home to roost. IK is now accused of the same kinds of wrongdoings for which NS was maligned and shown the door. Multiple cases are in the apex court and the rope is tightening around his neck. He has so far been unable to satisfy the courts how he bought his palatial house at Banigala spread over 20 kanals, how he is maintaining high lifestyle without any source of income, and about receipt of foreign funding of PTI. His legal team, unable to furnish the desired documents and proofs is trying to buy time by adopting dillydallying tactics for the last so many months. In view of his continued absence, Election Commission has ordered the police to arrest Imran and produce him on September 25 on the charge of contempt of court and has issued warrants for his arrest. His disqualification is quite likely, otherwise it will reinforce the impression that the judiciary is partial.
The PML-N government under the new PM Khaqan Abbasi is continuing with development agenda of NS and is dealing with multiple challenges maturely. Operation Raddul Fasaad is going on with full steam to get hold of facilitators, handlers and financiers of terrorists. Work on fencing of western border has been speeded up. Merger of FATA into KP is in sight and Baluchistan is being developed on priority to remove its socio-economic grievances. CPEC is progressing well and electricity shortfall will hopefully be overcome by November.
Filling up the post of Foreign Minister that was lying vacant for over four years is proving productive. In the wake of offensive Afghan policy announced by Trump in which Pakistan was singled out as an exporter of terrorism, Khawaja Asif launched a diplomatic offensive by embarking upon a whirlwind tour to China, Iran and Turkey. He has received highly favorable responses from all of them. Earlier on, Khaqan had dashed to Riyadh and succeeded in gathering Saudi support. Russia responded in favor of Pakistan after Trump’s speech.
Equipped with diplomatic support of the five important countries, Pakistan’s Parliament has rejected the US stance and has conveyed to USA that no sanctuary exist this side of the Durand Line and that Haqqani network is based in Eastern Afghanistan and not in FATA. So is the case with ETIM, IMU and TTP. Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad are already declared as proscribed groups since 2003. Daesh has no presence or safe haven in Pakistan.
A loud message has been given that it is the US and not Pakistan which need to do more. Khawaja Asif finds himself in a better position to have a straight talk with the US leaders when he visits Washington at the end of this month and ask them to desist from blaming Pakistan for their failures in Afghanistan. Confident stance taken by Pakistan has slightly softened the US tough posture, but still there are many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Drone attack in Kurram Agency on Sept 15 is disturbing. In the backdrop of Trump policy, it could be a testing round and may recommence drone war at a bigger scale. Pakistan will have to spell out a clear policy and notify USA that drones will be offensively contested next time and similar action will be taken against anti-Pakistan terrorists based in Afghanistan.
Pakistan will have to do away with its counterproductive one-sided policy of appeasement and instead put its best foot forward by making its foreign policy pro-active and strictly governed by national interests. At the same time, undertaking crucial reforms and implementing National Action Plan in letter and spirit will be necessary to put own house in order.
The writer is retired Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. Takes part in TV talk shows and delivers talks. [email protected]