Pakistan Taking the Wrong Lessons From American Politics

Syed Yahya HussainyAs a young democracy, Pakistan looks to the United States and other advanced democracies for lessons in how to play politics. Some of these, including the move to open and transparent elections, have been positive. But there are signs that some of the uglier parts of American politics are influencing a polarization in Pakistan’s politics as well.

The National Accountability Bureau is a government agency that deals with corruption. As with any corruption watchdog, the agency has not been without controversy. But the present controversy surrounding the agency has nothing to do with any action taken or not, but with the appointment of retired Justice Deedar Hussain Shah as the new agency chief.

At issue is whether or not Mr Shah can be truly impartial given his past as a parliamentarian with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a concern raised by the leadership of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party.

In response to the appointment, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N) is threatening a “long march” protest against the government. This despite the fact that the PML-N leadership has in the past praised Justice Shah for his professionalism and impartiality in the courtroom. While newspapers are calling this latest threat “absurd,” it does raise important questions about the polarization of politics in a nation that is only just beginning to find its footing on the path of democracy.

While many judges in Pakistan feign political neutrality, loyalties do exist and are fairly easy to identify. That does not mean that judges with a personal inclination towards one political party or another cannot be trusted, but it is interesting to see who is considered controversial and who is not.

Khwaja Sharif, Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, is not seen as problematic despite his open activism for the PML-N. Justice Sharif wrote a book, Nests Built On a Weak Branch, that includes tales of his traveling to London to meet with Shahbaz Sharif where he encouraged the PML-N leader to campaign against the PPP government. According to the Lahore High Court Chief Justice, Shahbaz Sharif treated him to a lavish meal and offered him money, which he declined.

Nor is Khwaja Sharif the only PML-N stalwart to be appointed to a court without controversy. Khalil ur Rehman Ramday — a former Deputy Advocate General of Punjab whose brother is a three-time Member of the National Assembly under the PML-N banner — was appointed to the Supreme Court in February of this year and is considered by many to be an independent arbiter, able to set aside his political preferences when decided matters of law.

Today, however, Shahbaz Sharif is singing a different tune when it comes to the newly appointed head of the National Accountability Bureau, Deedar Hussain Shah. Admitting that he has “no personal grudge” against the retired Justice, Shahbaz Sharif continues to suggest that because Mr Shah has supported the PPP in the past, he cannot be trusted to serve with impartiality.

Shahbaz Sharif may remember the corruption case against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari that was dismissed after the disclosure of taped conversations revealing that the PML-N leadership had pressured then-Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum to issue a conviction for political reasons. Facing trial for professional misconduct, Justice Qayyum resigned from the court. Still, the PPP government has not called for the resignation of either Khwaja Sharif or Khalil ur Rehman Ramday.

So why is this faith in impartiality reserved only for Pakistan Muslim League supporters?

Sadly, a whiff of provincial chauvinism sours the air surrounding this debate. Much as some American politicians refer to Midwesterners as “real Americans,” playing up stereotypes of effete “limousine liberals” in the nations coastal cites, too often there is a sense that politicians and media elites from Lahore and Karachi view those from Sindh and other provinces with a slight disdain, as if they were not serious people meant to run the country.

The PPP, being predominant in Sindh, bears the brunt of this chauvinism, which often surfces in subtle ways such as media reactions to President Asif Zardari’s wearing a Sindhi-style cap, or the way that accusations of corruption seem to follow Zardari despite his never having been convicted of any charges. Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) may own millions of dollars in real estate in London and only pay a few thousand Rupees in income taxes, but it is the Sindhi politician who is assumed to be corrupt.

But such chauvinism becomes much more than merely personally destructive when it threatens to close the doors to participation for anyone simply because of their ethnic or political backgrounds. In order for democracy to flourish and the country to move forward, we must overcome these petty prejudices and recognize that just as Justice Ramday can be trusted to serve on the Supreme Court, so too can Deedar Shah oversee the National Accountability Bureau with impartiality.

Whether Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch or any other ethnicity, we are all Pakistani, and we all have the best interests of the nation at heart. We must learn to trust one another, to judge each other based on our individual actions, not where we were born or what political party we belong to. We have all sacrificed too much, overcome too many hardships to let our own personal prejudices keep us from achieving our dream of a strong, prosperous and united Pakistan.

Sometimes madness is just madness

Syed Yahya HussainySomething is very wrong with the state of US-Pakistani relations at this critical time in the war against extremism and fanaticism. In the midst of this defining moment in the war effort in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the US has turned its guns not on its enemies but on its friends. After the clumsy spectacle of the Untied States publicly insulting and degrading Afghan President Hamid Karzai almost derailed the NATO offensive, it seems the Obama Administration is stumbling into an even greater political blunder in Pakistan. It may be unintended but it is nevertheless unprofessional. The amateurish undermining of Pakistan’s democratically elected civilian government by “unnamed administration officials” who claim they are preparing for a replacement of the current government over the next months, may be antagonistic to a friend and ally at its best, or a tragic self-fulfilling prophesy at its worst.

The United States has run roughshod over the people and politics of Pakistan for large chunks of Pakistani history. The US on-again-off- again commitment to democracy and human rights in Pakistan was turned off like a spigot to prop up a brutal dictator like General Zia ul Haq in the eighties, and then again the Musharraf dictatorship in the first decade of the new century. If the American people ever want to know why only eleven percent of the people of Pakistan view the US as a friend, they don’t have to beyond the US presidential dances with Pakistani dictators while the country’s economic and social infrastructure collapse. The reason the people of Pakistan think the US has exploited and manipulated their country is because it has. And it looks like it is planning to do it once again.

It is said that Pakistan is ruled by the three great “A’s” — Allah, the Army and America. We assume Allah is politically neutral. The army has episodically intervened to take over power whenever they thought they could get away with it. And getting away with it always centered on whether the third “A’ — America, was signaling green light, yellow light or red light. Administration sources telling the NY Times and Washington Post that they expected a change in leadership in Pakistan had to be viewed as a bright green signal to an Islamabad and Rawlpindi that lives off rumor and gossip.

Why would the US turn against its only reliable political ally in Pakistan? Asif Ali Zardari, the President of the country and the leader of PPP the ruling party, may not be Pakistani right wing’s political cup of tea, nor Pakistan’s left wing intellectual cup of tea, but he is the best thing America has going for it in Pakistan, and there’s nothing and no one even close. He has been consistently underestimated over the last twenty years, and he has survived and thrived, defying the pundits and the odds. I expect he’ll defy the latest assaults as well. If Washington is betting against Zardari, who exactly is it betting for? Another military dictatorship? A conservative opposition that is viscerally anti-American and has been historically bonded at the hip to the jihadists? What does the US accomplish in undermining Zardari other than undermining itself?

Zardari declares war on the terrorists and orders the army into Swat and South Waziristan. Zardari publicly defends the United States despite the enormous political price he pays for his friendship. Zardari pushes for educational reform and closing of political madrassas. Zardari asks for “trade not aid.” Zardari commits Pakistan to a green, renewal energy future. Zardari’s government mobilizes the nation and evacuates twenty percent of the country before marauding flood waters can kill millions of Pakistanis. Zardari then orders a millionaires tax on the wealthiest people in Pakistan to pay for flood relief, infuriating the Punjabi urban super-rich business barons of the PML(N) opposition, and the Karachi and Hyderabad anarchistic upper classes of the MQM. These ideologically diametrical right and left poles of Pakistani politics are held together only one common trait: their common elitist nihilism. The filthy rich conveniently and sanctimoniously use alleged corruption of the Pakistani government as an excuse not to pay taxes but also don’t contribute a nickel to Pakistan’s poor underclass and flood refugees.

What more would a progressive White House want from an ally in Pakistan other than strong anti-terrorism and a liberal, secular domestic agenda. Does Obama think he’d get that kind from a new military dictator or a Jihadist supported Nawaz?

Is there method to the White House’s madness? I think not. Sometimes madness is just madness.

This article was originally published at HuffingtonPost.com

Whose Nation Is This?

The post below by Musam Memon was originally published on Express Tribune Blog, and I am republishing it here because he gets it 100% correct. Whatever you think of Musharraf or Nawaz or Zardari or anyone else, it is the right of the people, not the right of an unappointed elite in the media or the military or the courts to select the country’s leaders.

Like Musam, I hear too often people telling me that democracy is good but only if the well-educated people are voting. They tell me that you cannot trust the poor to vote because they do not understand the important issues.

But this is nonsense. Do the spoiled children of Punjabi businessmen understand the hardships that are faced by rural families? Most of the country is still in poverty and poorly educated. Their voices must be heard, too.

Saying that the poor and uneducated are not fit to select their own leaders is the same attitude of feudalism, whether our new elites will admit it publicly or not. We must do away with these attitudes and embrace all of our brothers and hear their perspectives. Then we will know the facts and be able to work together to find solutions to poverty and education, bringing everyone up to a modern level of development.

Democracy: Whose right is it anyway?

I would be surprised if you still have not engaged in a charismatically disingenuous conversation in which a mischievous friend let lose a blasphemous idea, revolving around the topic of whether we, Pakistanis, are ready for, or deserve democracy. Democracy, which can be simply understood as the right of people to choose their leaders.

Now some, without chivalry, argue insistently that our country lacks education, maturity, intellect and economic growth levels – typical indicators of a developed nation. Of course, I do not refute the idea that we are a developing nation with abysmally low levels of education and economic growth. But the fact that the majority of the nation cannot read or write, is involved in subsistence agriculture and lives below the poverty line, is hardly reason enough to strip them off the right to choose their own rulers.

If those who are uneducated, who do not have access to clean water and nutritious food and are scraping together a living toiling on a farm are not allowed who to vote, then who does? The military? And the hedonistic educated elite, who seem to feel that they have an inherent right to play savior to the ‘uninformed’ and uneducated public?

Democracy means the right of choice. It is the right of the people, no matter what social strata they belong to, to choose to make their own mistakes. I say that because it is not democracy that we are not ready for, it is a lack of choice that has continued to paralyse the entire nation for over half a century; most of us vote for the party that we think will do the least damage.

Former president Pervez Musharraf probably understood this; the second time he felt like sitting on the ‘hot seat’, he did not resort to a ‘coup detat’. He has a party now.