I, unlike public figures – be they politicians or in the entertainment media – do not claim to speak for the general public; nonetheless I feel compelled to share my personal views on the ongoing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) impasse that spilled over on the streets of the twin cities this week past. The worst, we are warned by the PTI, is yet to come as the scheduled 2 November lockdown of the federal capital is still on.
The first question I pose to myself is which party is morally in the right? As with most politically motivated defense and attack feints there is truth and untruth in the arguments of both the PML-N and the PTI. The PML-N is right when it claims that locking down the capital is not the prerogative of any political party though few would support it in its foot dragging over investigating Panama papers which has already led to resignations of some prominent world leaders.
The PTI counters this argument by claiming that it has exhausted all other fora – national institutions (Federal Board of Revenue, the Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau, the Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, Election Commission of Pakistan) and parliament and yet more than seven months later the government continues to drag its feet on this issue leaving it with no other option but to come to the streets. Morally therefore the PML-N has no leg to stand with respect to no progress in investigating the Panama papers but neither does PTI in its call for the capital lockdown.
But is any party right from a legal perspective? The Supreme Court, after initially rejecting the petitions relating to Panama papers, has given 1 November, tomorrow, as the date of hearing, a process that depending on the frequency of the hearings may take several months, if not years to conclude. Besides PTI is legally not on the back foot when it maintains that going to court does not preclude street protests.
Be that as it may, the PTI would be well advised to note that Pakistan has had laws allowing residents to purchase foreign exchange bearer certificates as far back as when Dr Mehbubul Haq was the country’s Finance Minister and the economic reforms act of 1992, during the Sharif era, allowed residents to take unlimited amounts held in their foreign accounts out of the country.
Thus it would be next to impossible to prove that the Sharifs took out millions of dollars in foreign exchange out of the country illegally; however Dar’s 42-page affidavit if investigated may provide proof that illegal channels were used. To determine the source of the Sharif wealth, nonpayment of taxes in the past or the inaccurate tax returns filed by members of the First Family may be a challenge to say the least for two reasons: (i) the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) is not allowed to keep data on tax returns for more than six years; and (ii) the relevant institutions have indicated no desire to proactively investigate Panama and the Bahamas leaks to date. The problem, as the International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde stated last week will not go away because the information technology militates against that. So legally the PML-N may not be on as weak a wicket as envisaged by the PTI.
The second question I pose to myself is what is the objective of PML-N and PTI and is it achievable? The PML-N wants to squash dissent forcefully and the methodology is the same as that employed by military dictators and unfortunately some former civilian governments as well. Scenes of brutal police action against unarmed PTI and Sheikh Rashid’s supporters on Thursday and Friday were followed by other punitive measures that included threatening letters to hotels/guest houses not to accommodate PTI members in advance of 2 November, though it is unclear how the management would determine which of its prospective guest belongs to PTI, setting up containers around the city and sending a heavy police contingent outside Imran Khan’s place of residence as well as those of his senior party members including Jehangir Tareen, arresting other prominent PTI card holding members, threatening printing presses and transporters not to accommodate PTI members for the November 2 lockdown, and sending a notice to Sheikh Rashid, a one man show, to vacate Lal Haveli (an indication of his considerable contribution to the 2 November lockdown by effectively roping in the Pakistan Awami Tehrik). To carry these measures required the government to shut down all public schools, to provide accommodation to the police imported from other provinces, and spend millions of tax payers rupees to not only house and feed the police but also to purchase equipment to forestall the lockdown. Would these high handed measures actually deter PTI and PAT loyalists from attending the 2 November call? One has to wait for 2 November for a definitive answer but with tempers running high the crowds may be larger than anticipated.
Imran Khan too wants to show his strength in mobilizing the public in large numbers and thereby compel Nawaz Sharif to either resign or hold himself accountable for the Panama papers. Crowds in Pakistan have toppled governments in the past but only when supported by what is euphemistically referred to as the third force. Without the support of the ubiquitous force Nawaz Sharif would not have been able to leave his Raiwind Palace on the Long March in March 2009 for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftekhar Chaudhry or to compel the Zardari government to give in by the time the march reached Gujranwala. And few believe that without the support of the third force Imran Khan would be able to compel Nawaz Sharif to either step down or agree to a fair and impartial investigation of Panama papers.
But in true Nawaz Sharif style his administration opened a front with the army on 6 October and one subsequent non-event and an event supports my contention. First the non event – there has been no security meeting held at the Prime Minister’s residence since 17 October and reports indicate that the army has evidence implicating three individuals (including a minister and a secretary) in the breach however the government is reluctant to hand them over to be tried under the Official Secret Act.
The question is would Pervez Rashid’s resignation be enough to appease the army? The departure of Khawaja Asif with family for Dubai on Saturday is also generating considerable speculation in the capital. And second the event – the meeting of three PML-N stalwarts including Shahbaz Sharif, Cjhaudhary Nisar Ali Khan and Ishaq Dar with the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on Thursday last at Army House when they were reportedly reminded in no uncertain terms that the breach took place three weeks ago and the army’s patience with foot dragging is wearing thin.
Needless to add the incumbent COAS has frequently indicated that he will not interfere in politics but with the anger over the security breach as well as the volatile situation with respect to November 2 lockdown (which maybe exacerbated if the government okays the use of live bullets, as it did in Model Town) the army high command maybe compelled to revisit its policy of non-interference. And with roads now blocked from KPK to the federal capital and Punjab the final nudge may not be long in coming. The PML-N may need reminding that unlike politicians with short memories that allows for horse trading the army’s thinking is more institutionalized and the change of the man at the helm may not change much.
My final question is whose narrative – PTI’s or PML-N’s is winning supporters? The Prime Minister and his loyalists maintain that the PTI is concerned that development, if allowed to proceed at the current pace, would guarantee an overwhelming PML-N election win in 2018 – both in the centre and in Punjab and Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa.
Unfortunately Nawaz Sharif has consistently ignored warnings by independent economists and analysts while naively accepting the rosy picture presented by his Finance Minister. However one would hope that he heeds the advice of the two heads of multilaterals (IMF and ADB) who visited Pakistan this week past.
The two warned that public debt is too high, development expenditure is too low, remittances are declining (the fallout of the decline in the international oil price which had provided Pakistan with fiscal space during the last three years), exports are declining as is foreign direct investment and our economic performance is less than Bangladesh’s and Sri Lanka’s. With reference to Dar’s constant refrain of home grown policies I would like to mention Lagarde’s quote from our national poet Iqbal: “Be aware of your own worth, use all your power to achieve it. Create an ocean from a dewdrop. Do not beg for light from the moon, obtain it from the spark within you.”
The PTI’s narrative in contrast, is to attack the government on corruption, with a focus on Panama papers, and the medium used is two-fold – television through jalsas and the social media. To state the obvious social media is attracted not by substance but by spicy and pithy comments, emoticons and scandals.
Thus claims that the development agenda of the government is being compromised by dharnas and a lockdown violates the rights of the common man is unlikely to attract any attention on the social media but disturbing images of the police using high handed measures are, as is a Sheikh Rashid smoking a cigar on top of a DSNG or parking himself on a motorbike.
The perception is that in Pakistan those active on the social media are small in numbers compared to the total population yet the percentage is without doubt particularly high in major cities and towns. And needless to add the PML-N would need to win major Punjab cities in elections 2018 to form a government in both the centre as well as in Punjab.
Data reveals that in Pakistan there are 77 mobile phone connections per 100 citizens ranking us as the eighth country in the world with the largest number of users. Around 11 percent of the entire population in this country owns smart phones as per Pew Research Centre. These are big numbers and one can only point out to the PML-N that these numbers are nothing to be scoffed at.
Source: Business Recorder