Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Being Musharraf

On Friday, President Musharraf effectively terminated the services of the serving Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary by placing him under 'house arrest' and referring his case to the Supreme Judicial Council on charges that have thus far not been revealed. Of course, giving credit where it is due, this extreme step was taken only after the President had 'asked' the CJP to resign - presumably for the same charges that will be now form the basis of his hearing on March 13 by the Supreme Judicial Council. Thus while the CJP of Pakistan languishes alone in his residence without any visitors and completely isolated from the outside world, Islamabad appointed an acting CJ in the form of Justice Javed Iqbal who superceded Justice Bhagwan Das to the post (incidentally Bhagwan Das, a Hindu, was out of the country during this dramatic turn of events).

These recent events have made Pakistan a very compelling case study even for a casual observer of Islamabad's political upheavals. While a number of reasons have been ascribed to this sudden turn of events, a wonderful summary of which can be read here, I have my own reasons and summations for the same.

There are a number of theories floating around regarding the dismissal of the Chief Justice and in my personal opinion these theories cannot, singularly or collectively, explain the actions taken for the simple reason that no one knows what prompted the General himself to take action. The perceived 'independence' of the Chief Justice in rendering judgements on issues as diverse as the missing persons case, asking for clarifications from intelligence agencies, cancelling the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills, adjudicating on the educational qualifications of the MMA leaders, so on and so forth actually represented feathers in President Musharraf's cap as it was possibly the only institution which appeared to be democratic and an effective platform for redressal of grievances in an otherwise lawless Pakistan. This independence of the CJP might have been alarmed the President but certainly not compelled him to take action. I say this because when power is absolute, reasons such as the above, cannot be causal factors per se.

I do believe that there is more to what meets the eye in this case. A study of the recent political events highlight growing concerns over the efficacy of President Musharraf as the ruler of Pakistan by both domestic and foreign concerns. No longer the 'to go' guy of the US and unable to ensure his continued presence at the helm of Pakistani affairs (the deal with the PPPP is yet to be finalised) could have prompted President Musharraf to underline his absolute authority in this drastic fashion. After all who else could he have targeted to achieve this goal - the main opposition leaders are in exile abroad and the CJP was the only remaining constitutional authority relevat enough to challenge the writ of Musharraf. With this understanding the dismissal of the CJP was merely the means to an end and not an end in itself.

Then again, and as any ardent observer of President Musharraf's would attest, his style of functioning relies on the element of surprise more than anything else. Nothing and no one could have anticipated the way in which the Chief Justice of Pakistan was swiftly dismissed. Catching his detractors offguard with the sheer audacity of his act allows Musharraf to work around his critics and re-establish his authority. This he achieves whilst his detractors are left second guessing the fallacy of their assessment of the General's sway on Pakistani polity and military.

While the events do portend a bleak future for Pakistan they also show that politics in Pakistan begin and end with Musharraf. The Chief Justice unfortunately happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. What happens now in Pakistan will reflect the polity one can expect for the coming decade.

Other interesting articles on Musharraf and the dismissal saga can be read here and here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


A number of events have taken place since I last updated the blog not least of which include - the trouncing of the Congress in 2 of the 3 states in which elections were held, Quattrocchi's arrest by Argentinean police and the failure of New Delhi in disclosing the same, bombing of the Samjhauta express by Muslims/Hindus/religious/communal/secular/Indians/Pakistanis, growing instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan with bombings taking place with increasing frequency, sustained confusion in the state of Dhaka's politics so on and so forth. These are events with a distinct S Asia focus. I am not even considering the escalating violence in Iraq and Syria, interesting verbal spats between Obama and Clinton, Iran's steadfast refusal to halt uranium enrichment, renewed violence between the Israeli and Palestinians over the construction of a rampart near the Al Aqsa mosque - I mean really - the list can get pretty lengthy!

A few thoughts however on the aforementioned events as time and days passed me by

- While I am personally gleeful at BJP victories in the states of Punjab and Uttaranchal, I do highly doubt if these would have an impact on the electoral fortunes of the NDA at a national level. There are a few reasons for this - the core party structure is still unsteady in its Hindutva ways having shunted out Modi and other RSS stalwarts who posed a threat to the power of party President Rajnath Singh; the party is still grappling to replace the power centres of the Vajpayee-Advani combine; the top down imposition by the RSS that 'the party is bigger than the person' is not so ironically, fuelling ego clashes and power struggles within the party are just some of the institutional issues that the BJP is facing. Fortunately for the BJP and unfortunately for the state of Indian politics the Congress is faring no better when it comes to putting its house in order.

- I am not quite sure how New Delhi and indeed Sanjaya Baru - the PMO's press advisor can utilise the government's propaganda machinery to spin news about the Gandhi family's close associate and key accused in the Bofors case, Quattrocchi’s arrest almost a month by Argentinean police at the Iguazu airport in response to an Interpol Red Corner notice issued against him in 1997. I don't think that explanations regarding the delayed disclosure of this vital news can be sought in any of the humbug reasons the Government has so far put forth -verification of the man arrested, difficulties in translating the Spanish text (Quoi??!!!) etc etc. So if spin is not the answer in this situation, the Govt has sought the next best thing - to keep the hum about Quattrocchi to a bare minimum in national dailies. Strange as it may be, the losses faced by the Congress in state elections allowed for public and indeed media attention to shift from Quattrocchi to Punjab/Uttaranchal; from the state of the Government to the state of the party. Even the BJP dropped the issue and reverted to crowing about its victories. Currently the annual Budget occupies the remarkably short span of collective political memory in India. A good overview of the Q saga can however be found here.

- The bomb blasts on the Samjhauta express were indeed disconcerting but what probably worried more were news reports on the 'terrorists' responsible for it. The usual suspects were spelt out with no conclusive evidence to back claims by either Pakistan or India; the doves of the Kashmir peace process were convinced that this was an effort to sabotage the peace process while the hawks were convinced that the bombings were another proof of Pakistan's complicity in sponsored terrorism in Kashmir. Both camps thus reached their near sighted conclusions and favour of and against peace talks. Unfortunately it did not end here. Ridiculous news reports claiming that since Muslims were targeted meant that some right wing Hindu outfit was involved whilst others were convinced that the blasts were part of Pakistan's dirty game plan to foil communal harmony in secular India. The fact that no one has as yet claimed responsibility does not matter. Conspiracy theories are aplenty. My question is - why does the religion of the victims matter when a terrorist act is carried out? Aren't victims faceless? Isn't the grief of a Muslim equal to that of a Hindu? Terrorism is terrorism - period. Why typify it on the basis of a man made construct - religion?!

- I have given up tracking the bomb blasts, suicide attacks, rocket attacks, IEDs and other sundry devices that have recently been deployed against the military and state installations in an increasingly volatile Pakistan. Unfortunately however, the victims are mostly innocent civilians. With daily reports referring to a growing presence of Taliban and that of a regrouped Al Qaeda in the lawless FATA and North western province of Pakistan, one wonders if this is indeed another case of a self fulfilling prophecy for Musharraf which would have allowed him to re-establish the Taliban in Afghanistan. Fortunately the US has at least started seeing the fallacy of believing everything that the General promises. It remains to be seen of course what Musharraf can do in the face of this increasing pressure or the alternatives that the US can employ in such a situation.

- Politics in Dhaka of late has begun to remind me of those extreme acrobatics that can only be witnessed in the Cirque du Soleil and therefore it has sparked renewed interest! The BNP and AL - two parties consistently at loggerheads with each other, have suddenly joined hands to demand early elections from the caretaker Govt. Of course the rationale for this sudden desire to impart good governance can be sought in the anti corruption drive that was recently launched by the caretaker government and the announcement of the formation of a political party by Nobel Peace prize winner Mohammed Yunus. Realising that their political space was being targeted - both by the Government and by the new entrant - the two parties decided to bury their differences and survive together to fight another day. Their ploy may however not be working as latest reports suggest that the caretaker government of Dr Fakruddin Ahmed has decided to postpone elections indefinitely! Oh well - I give the BNP and AL full marks for trying at least. Interestingly, Dr Yunus had recently stated that were elections to be held soon he would not be able to form an effective party structure or for that matter affect a change in the political stage of Bangladesh! Food for thought?!

My whirlwind recollection of recent political events with a S Asia/India focus concludes here. More regular posts to follow soon.

PS: Oh and Kim Jong Il, the venerable leader of North Korea, celebrated his 65th birthday amidst much fanfare in February. Joy!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bad hair day

A new crisis has emerged in the district of Bajaur in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA) after the recent bombing of its madressa by American forces. It seems that militants (read Taliban/Taliban sympathisers) have decreed that no male, young or adult, shall go in for a haircut or get their beards trimmed as it is deemed un-Islamic. While moderates are silently outraged and indignant at this latest umbrage, the barbers of the district have now resorted to contemplating a whole new profession as their loyal rank of followers is obviously dwindling.

This simple and cynical example is but an instance of two significant developments taking place in Pakistan's lawless northwest: one, the lack of Islamabad's authority and the increasing stranglehold of Taliban in the region and two, the extent to which the Taliban are utilising these areas to regroup and spread their good word.

One wonders when President Musharraf would realise the growing threat that Taliban poses not only to Pakistan but also to the greater region itself. I would hazard that this realisation might come when the barbers in Islamabad start looking for alternative assignments.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Musharraf's growing popularity

While President Musharraf's name figuring in the world's 'worst dictators' list comes as no surprise, what is somewhat hilarious is the fact that he has moved up two notches to now occupy the 15th rank in this infamous list.

While this has no foreign policy consequence in the long or short run, it is lists and rankings like this that make me sit back and muse at the absolute inanity of politics in the world today. I mean would the rankings ever absolve President Musharraf of human rights abuses in Balochistan, lead the United States to refuse to acknolwledge him as an ally in the war on terrorism or cause India to refuse to negotiate with him on Kashmir? Since the answer to all of my questions is a resounding 'No' I fail to see the purpose of such lengthy tabulations and rankings.

Still worth a look and a smirk.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Nobel Military

Political turmoil of the last few months in Bangladesh appears to have now subsided under the oddest of circumstances. With tacit support of the Army, the caretaker government under chief advisor Fakruddin Ahmed has launched a massive drive against corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and terrorist masterminds in the country. In all more than 400 senior, mid level and grass root politicians, from both the BNP and the AL are being targeted with the majority already having been apprehended by joint forces. This kind of a top down effort at exorcising corrupt politicians and leaders of terrorist groups who receive and provide political patronage, from the system is indeed to be lauded by one and all, but it also raises several uncomfortable questions that remain to be answered.

For one, with the arrests of top BNP and especially AL leaders, New Delhi might definitely find the political base of its main ally in Dhaka - the Sheikh Hasina led Awami League party, shrunk. Two, while the Army chief, Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed has gone on record and said that

"The army has no intention to take over. We are not even running the government. But we like to see this government successful as we want to put the country on the right track through concerted efforts of all"

it does not dispel doubts whether the Army and the caretaker government together would have ever felt empowered enough to carry out such a cleansing operation in Dhaka's murky politics. Thus rumours of a 'foreign power' being involved in the current developments cannot be dismissed with a foregone conclusion. The third and most relevant development till date has been the foray of Nobel Peace prize winner, Dr Mohammed Yunus into Bangladeshi politics. Announcing his decision to launch a political party, were he to be accepted by the Bangladeshi electorate is nothing more than a precursor to a more formal announcement. It begs to be questioned whether the good doctor is being supported by the same foreign power whose influence is being suspected in the current political drama, and, how effectively would Dr Yunus' party exploit the space being created on Bangladesh's political stage. Lastly and most importantly, with these developments taking place in Bangladesh, a change in New Delhi's policy towards Dhaka is hopefully anticipated to be one that takes into account the changed ground realities of the neighbouring country.

Previous posts on Bangladesh's recent political developments can be read here and here.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Down the opium path

Reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan indicate that the Taliban has run over the town of Musa Qala in the southern province of Helmand in Afghanistan. Besides highlighting the strength of a resurgent Taliban this development may just serve as an indicator of another chapter in the political fortunes of an already volatile nation besides posing some serious questions for India's presence and strategic relevance in the country.

Independent, Pashtun dominated and fierce tribal loyalty are not just norms but lessons of Afghanistan's volatile polity. Even today, despite having an elected government led by Hamid Karzai, it is a known fact that the writ of the government is not recognised beyond Kabul. Faced with a resurgent Taliban and increasing pressure from Nato forces and US administration, the Karzai government had recently begun to endorse alternative means that would accomodate rival centres of power whilst ensuring that the rule of law and order prevails in different parts of the country.

One such experiment was conducted in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan. Under constant attack by regrouped Taliban forces, the British struck a deal, brokered by the village and tribal elders and endorsed by then provincial Governor - Mohammed Daud, to bring about peace in the district. This deal was meant to meet the goals of each of the concerned parties: peace for the people of Musa Qala, withdrawal from an unnecessary conflict for the British, tacit acknowledgment of Taliban prominence in the region and, were peace to prevail in the region, a prototype that could be applied for all of Afghanistan. Most importantly the deal also underscored how the Taliban, Pashtun pride, ethnic divisions and tribal loyalty, all constituents in the Afghan polity, be incorporated without either of them having to appear as if they compromised. Under the clauses of the deal it was deemed that with the withdrawal of the British forces, law and order was to be maintained by a police force formed by the district itself and supervised by the tribal elders.

This deal unfortunately did not meet the approval of the Americans who neither supported the truce or the terms it was reached within. They vowed to disregard the terms of the deal and re-launch operations in the district but one of the first things they did was to get Governor Daud replaced as it was at his insistence that the deal was brokered. Recent reports that Musa Qala has been run over by the Taliban comes barely 3 months after the deal and seems to confirm the worst fears of the Americans for Afghanistan. It is a poppy growing region, a Taliban stronghold and dominated by Ghilzai Pashtuns who resent the favor being shown by Karzai to higher ranked Pashtuns such as himself (Durranis). It is pertinent to note here that the Ghilzai Pashtuns are being actively recruited by the Taliban to fill their ranks.

This development can lead to a single conclusion which would need to be urgently addressed by New Delhi. If Musa Qala is a precursor of the events to come in Afghanistan, what policy options would India have in the region? The intricacies of the country and its people would need to be understood fully before any policy is adopted and implemented by New Delhi. In the meantime the developments suit the strategic aims of Pakistan whilst ensuring that the return of the 'moderate' Taliban is all but an eventual certainty.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Presidential Mission

Senator Hillary Clinton (D - NY) recently announced what many have suspected and expected for a while - her bid to return to the White House in 2009, albeit as President elect of the United States of America and not as the First Lady. While her announcement may not have been surprising, it does throw open a set of delicious questions for the forthcoming US Presidential elections.

The most relevant question of course focuses on Senator Clinton's running mate, should she win the party's nomination that is. Could it be the very popular Senator Obama (D - Ill) or the charming John Edwards, both of whom are incidentally expected to be front runners for the nomination themselves. In the event that its a Clinton-Obama ticket, the question that would then seek to be addressed is whether America was liberal enough to elect its first female President and African American Vice President. I have my reservations on this count but polls in the coming months should give a clearer indication of this assessment.

Interestingly, even though Senator Clinton has only announced her decision to set up an exploratory committee to gauge her viability as the party's candidate, the manner of her announcement (made online and not at a press briefing as is traditionally done) and her words 'I'm in and I'm in to win' pretty much underline her intention. Her words can also be interpreted as an open challenge to Senator Barack Obama, who many see as her main competition for the party nomination. Similarly the urgency of her announcement can be attributed to the need to corner prominent fundraisers and contributors before they endorse other candidates. (Senator Obama had announced the setting up of a similar exploratory committee only last week and had immediately received the endorsement of billionaire George Soros)

Needless to say, Elections 2008 and the battle for the White House promises to be a political rollercoaster and one which New Delhi should closely follow given the possibilities of another Clinton administration.