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Daily Times Editorials – 19th March 2016

Improving relations

On Thursday, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, during his meeting with Sushma Swaraj, Indian Minister of External Affairs, formally extended an invitation to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the 19th SAARC summit being hosted by Pakistan on November 9-10, 2016. This meeting between the two dignitaries was held in Pokhara, Nepal, on the sidelines of the 37th SAARC ministerial conference. In a joint press conference after the exchange, Swaraj also confirmed the arrival of Pakistani Joint Investigation Team in India on March 27 to investigate the Pathankot attack. Aziz, on his part, also expressed hope for an improvement in the bilateral relations, which would be boosted by a meeting between the two premiers, later this month in US on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

This handshake has served to decrease the discomfort that cropped up between the recently-improved relations between the two countries after the January 2 attack on the Pathankot air base. Nonetheless, no concrete roadmap regarding the security situation or other issues troubling both the neighbours was announced, much to the dismay of South Asian political pundits. The pleasant exchange between the two officials is indeed a good omen for trans-border relations, which may move ahead if Modi and Sharif meet in Washington. No matter to what track these peace talks lead the two sides, it is very interesting to note this swift change in Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan with the change in government. Despite enjoying its reputation as a Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership, under Modi, has made various strides towards a positive change in the inter-country relations. Last year, Modi surprised everyone with a quick stopover in Lahore on his way back from Kabul on Sharif’s birthday, marking himself as the first Indian prime minister visiting Pakistan in over a decade. Earlier, Swaraj had also visited Islamabad on December 9 to attend the Heart of Asia conference. No such advancements could be foreseen in the last decade, when the Indian National Congress was at the helm of the affairs. Nonetheless, it is high time that this progress steered towards peace in the region be accelerated. The encouraging signs put forth by the two governments should now transform into a healthy bilateral relationship. The meeting at the foreign ministerial level should form the foundation behind the revival of the once-cancelled Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. The joint committee formed to probe Pathankot incident can help in the accomplishment of a ‘credible’ action required by both National Security Advisors across borders. This desire to change the status quo between Pakistan and India, desired by many, can also be helped by the current cricket tournament. The business community in both countries has been pressing for improved border relations for a while now, and the sooner it happens, the better outlook it will posit for the struggling economy of both neighbours.

PML-N’s victory

As per the result of the NA-153 elections, Rana Qasim Noon of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has won by a huge margin, securing 112,000 votes against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) candidate Ghulam Abbas Khakhi’s 37,212 votes and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidate Malik Akram Kanhu’s 30,124 votes. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulated Noon on his victory saying the victory has demonstrated that the people of South Punjab appreciate the PML-N government’s policies. With 276 polling stations to facilitate the voters, more than 7,000 police personnel, along with army troops, were deployed outside polling stations to ensure foolproof security. By and large, the election was held smoothly at all polling stations, and no untoward incident was reported. The main factor for the victory of the PML-N was incumbency. Being the ruling party, the PML-N had the advantage of controlling the state machinery by utilising all available resources. The PML-N leadership cashed in on the incumbency factor, promising the people to implement development plans in their areas. The common people could not take the risk of going against the sitting government. On the other hand, the PTI had only the slogan of creating a new Pakistan. However, it has failed to manifest its claims through its policies either in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or in those areas where it has won seats. Imran Khan has relied on repeating the mantra of rigging and corruption that have become meaningless for the people, as they seem to have become tired of the hollow slogans of the PTI. Among the main contenders, the PPP is fast losing its vote bank in Punjab due to its leadership’s failure to reach the masses.

The victory has lessons for the PML-N as well as the PTI. As the by-election has concluded, both the parties need to take stock of their political affairs. The PTI needs to carry out an overall review of its policies and decide its future course of action. Instead of relying on old faces that have done nothing for the welfare of the people, Khan should look for genuine leaders who have the ability to bring reforms in the country. After its victory, the PML-N should not be complacent. There are still many problems that have not been addressed. Most importantly, the energy crisis has crippled the economy. This single-seat win for the PML-N cannot guarantee its victory in the next general elections unless it proves itself deserving of the confidence of the electorate.

No accountability

Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf has left for Dubai on Friday morning to ostensibly seek medical treatment for a “decade-old illness”, after the interior ministry removed his name from the Exit Control List (ECL). Musharraf’s departure all but brings to an end the saga of his treason trial after nearly three years. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court (SC), ordered the removal of Musharraf’s name from the ECL, but this did not preclude the government from reinstating restrictions on the movement of the former president. However, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan addressed a press conference and informed that his ministry would follow through with the court’s order after receiving assurances from Musharraf’s lawyers that he would eventually return to Pakistan after seeking his required treatment to face his charges. Many observers, however, view this assurance with scepticism and the consensus view is that the treason trial has whimpered to a close.

Back in 2013, Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan after a period of self-imposed exile in order to participate and lead his nascent political party in the then-upcoming elections. However, he was disqualified from standing in the elections; moreover, in an unprecedented move in the country’s history, the former dictator found himself facing arrest, after a warrant was issued by the Islamabad High Court in April 2013, over charges of suspending the constitution, dismissing judges and placing them under house arrest, and imposing an emergency. In addition to these charges, he was also charged with the failure to provide adequate security to former Prime Minister (PM) Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007. After winning the May elections, a confident PML-N’s federal government took the extraordinary step of bringing fiver charges of high treason against the former dictator in a special court. Predictions and assertions were made in December 2013 that the trial would be speedily concluded. There was an unquestionable amount of hype around the treason trial, as it was being touted as a historic occurrence that would reshape the contours of democracy, redefine the civil-military relationship, and set a positive precedent that would inhibit any future imposition of martial law.

But putting a former dictator and chief of the country’s most powerful institution on trial for treason was never going to pan out the way the government desired. The investigation and trial of Pervez Musharraf for imposing the 2007 Emergency was always underlined by perceptions that this was a matter of personal vendetta for PM Nawaz Sharif, whose government was overthrown in 1999 by the then Chief Of Army Staff. As a result of this desire of the Sharifs to get back at the man who forced them into exile, the proceedings exclusively targeted Musharraf, while no case was built against any of his alleged co-conspirators. The choice of focusing on the 2007 emergency was also a curious one when the much graver original sin of the 1999 coup d’état made for a more logical case of treason. The 1999 coup, like all previous coups, was ratified by the SC and hence there exists a dire need to rectify this harmful precedent. Principles of justice and democracy demanded that an example be set so that in the future overthrowing an elected government and abrogating the constitution is not hailed as ‘saving the country’ but treated like the treasonous act it is. But to avoid risking drudging up its own past sins, the Nawaz government focused on the 2007 case due to its perceived straightforwardness, thereby compromising the integrity of the proceedings. It soon became clear however that the case was poorly and hastily prepared and that Musharraf still enjoyed the support of his former institution. The trial played out farcically, as the former president easily avoided appearing in court by pleading ill health while the government and prosecutors manifestly lost their will to see the case through when faced with the possibility of drawing the military’s ire.

The entire saga reeks of a missed opportunity. Had the government’s prosecution covered all of its bases, perhaps we could have witnessed a historic trial that would have done the unthinkable: holding someone accountable in this country. The only kinds of accountability drives we witness in Pakistan are politically motivated as they are lopsided and transparently designed to fulfil vendettas against specific individuals and political parties. Whether it is the case against Musharraf or the various campaigns undertaken by the National Accountability Bureau, what is missing from all of the above is a rational, transparent and objective methodology that respects principles of justice.

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