In conversation with Wajid Shamsul Hasan: ‘PPP would remain an anti-establishment Party’

This week Truth Tracker talked exclusively to Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari’s close aide and veteran journalist and Pakistan’s former high commissioner to UK Mr. Wajid Shamsul Hasan.

Truth Tracker: There are rumors that the general elections may be delayed. What is the PPP’s game plan to deal with any unconstitutional eventuality?

WSH: In Pakistan there is never a dull moment, especially when no one knows the direction, whether one is coming or going. It was a credit to former President Asif Ali Zardari, who took control of an unwieldy situation soon after General Pervez Musharraf plotted the assassination of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto when country had gone into flames. Despite manipulations PPP won the 2008 elections and successfully formed the government doing its utmost to sustain the charter of democracy. Not only there was a coalition government at the Centre with major stakeholders, elections to parliamentary positions were held unanimously.

Notwithstanding all that, the Establishment continued with its pressures, kept the elected government on tenterhooks, even PMLN was working in cahoots with the judiciary, powers that be and social and other media—to destabilise the government. Throughout those five years—if one were to recall—doomsayers on TV channels were orchestrating the fall of the government. It did not happen, democracy with all its vicissitudes, survived and the PPP government made history as the first after 1977 to complete its five year tenure, held elections and handed over power throw ballot. Its most outstanding achievement has been the 18th Amendment: empowering the provinces and making them as strong as the other two power centres.  And indeed, it is the 18th amendment that is now the bone of contention—a thorn in the side of the establishment wanting the return to an all-powerful centre with President restored with the powers of 58(2) (B)—arbitrary dismissal of the government.

All through that period there were speculations of midterms elections. Now PMLN government despite it being drowned under the charges of mega corruption by the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and him being disqualified by the Supreme Court is about to complete its mandated tenure. While PMLN leadership tried to destabilise PPP government in support of its mentors in the establishment including the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who used his weapon of judicial activism to bring to halt PPPP government, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif much due to his own habit of digging his own grave, faced divine retribution. Imran Khan’s dharnas were well engineered by two DGs of ISI and it was all set: the ultimate umpire would raise his finger to sack PMLN government but for the steadfast support of PPP and the Parliament to stand as a bulwark against the whole conspiracy to dislodge an elected government.

Notwithstanding all the sordid happenings amidst rumours that a government of technocrats was on the anvil, we successfully moved forward with Senate elections now ready to elect its Chairman. With less than 90 days to Elections 2018, dark clouds continue to shroud the horizon. However, there is no possibility of delay in elections unless there is extra-constitutional intervention or contrived judicial intrusion as is being feared when the chief judicial officer of the state swears like General Ziaul Haq that he has no political agenda! Besides of course, as Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi hinted in an interview with TV anchor Asma Shirazi, of him exercising that provision in the Constitution that allows one-year’s delay due to emergency.

TT: The MQM has leveled some serious accusations that PPP has “bought” Sindh senate seats by buying out MQM senators. These accusations are also supported by political commentators. Do you think that this trend should be encouraged? How do you respond to such criticism?

WSH: Accusations are accusations unless proven otherwise. Whatever little I know, PPP has better credentials. Described as “headless chicken” by my friend of many decades senior journalist M. Ziauddin, unfortunately MQM is a victim of its own politics, internal quibbling, now having too many chiefs and too little following as a consequence of its politics of betrayals of original commitment, some of its own stalwarts and groups, creation of “engineering” by the powers that be have some excuse to justify their role as Quislings and Trojan horses. As regards your mention that “these accusations are also supported by political commentators”—I would not like to be disrespectful to such commentators but their views have always been based on their hostility to PPP and the direction of the political wind. In any case, I am opposed to buying or selling of votes. However, parties such as MQM that are imploding from within due to the new leaders. The option should rest with their voters to decide which party to vote without intimidation as in the reported case of attempted suicide by MQM MP when she voted for PPP candidate in Senate elections.

TT: Pakistan is scheduled for inclusion on the FATF list in June? What are some of the implications of this action? What does it represent regarding Pakistan’s perception in the world community? China and Saudi Arabia both did not support Pakistan as hoped – what does this mean for Pakistan’s long term strategic relations with these two countries? Does this represent a loss of hope in Pakistan by China? What are the implications for CPEC?

WSH: FATF has been a major foreign policy debacle of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government that did not have a foreign minister and now it has one but he does not know how to walk into an area where even angels fear to tread. I know that now facing the inevitability of dire consequences of American demands to do more in our war on terrorists whom we have nurtured and nourished since long in safe havens—we are trying our utmost but in the eyes of Americans as not enough is done to cripple the back bone of the Taliban and Haqqani Networks resistance. Only recently our Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua who was in Washington to repair bridges, told American officials that Pakistan did not have any more the influence or the capacity to deliver in Afghanistan or Taliban. Afghanistan shall have to do it on their own, rely on themselves or their American friends. As a matter of fact she was right in reiterating that stability if Pakistan depends on stability and peace in Afghanistan. However, it is another thing that Trump Administration is not willing to believe us and insists that we are running with the American hare and hutting with the Taliban hounds.

FATF grey list implications:

It is rather difficult for me to respond to the question regarding FAFT grey list implications. It is not my subject nor have I kept eye on the possible economic consequences. Here I would tackle your question with the help of a recent article by Pakistan’s leading pragmatic economist Babar Ayaz. According to him as if domestic political crisis was not enough, Pakistan has been hit by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s decision. The lame duck government which is tottering to complete its last 90 days or so is telling us that they have got a respite of three months before they are put on the black list (FATF). After a lot of confusion they have hesitantly accepted that Pakistan has been put on the grey watch list in the Paris (FATF) moot.

In order to hoodwink the nation we are told that we are once again a victim of US and Indian conspiracy or to put it in the pulpit language—“victim of Yahud-Hainud Conspiracy.” At the same time the government is putting up a brave face, telling the people not to worry about being put on the grey list. We have been through this slippery path before “but what worries the analysts is that this time we have been put on the watch list on the insistence of the US which is following a hostile policy towards Pakistan in collaboration with India.”

Babar explains the “role of FATF as an organisation that develops and promotes policies to protect the global financial system against money laundering, terrorist financing …The FATF Recommendations are recognised as the global anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorist financing (CTF) standard”.

No doubt Pakistan has made rules and regulation to comply with FATF guidelines on piece-meal basis, but as in all the cases its implementation record has not been in black. Some of the actions were taken at the last moment before going to the Paris meeting of the FATF. For instance Pakistan promulgated an ordinance aimed at reigning in the LeT, Al-Qaeda and Taliban, etc. which have been banned by the UN Security Council.

This ordinance, which was passed when the FATF axe was about to fall amended a section of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), enabling the authorities to take action against the UNSC-proscribed individuals and terror outfits, like sealing their offices and freezing their bank accounts. The UN head proscribed Lashkar-e-Taiba (Let) / Jamaat-ud-Dawa much earlier but as these non state actors are darlings of our establishment the action was taken belatedly when threatened by the FATF whip.

Babar Ayaz believes that it is only a matter of time that we may also be put to take similar action against the India specific terrorist groups such as Jaish Mohammad and Hizbul Mujahideen. Apparently the move of the Pakistan establishment to get a fatwa passed by over 1800 ulema of various sects indicates that these non-state jihadi groups are in the process of being curbed or at least this is what we want to tell the world that Pakistan would not be supporting private jihads of terrorist groups in Afghanistan and India.

It is because of such policies of using non-state actors as an instrument of our national security and foreign policy that Pakistan was left to fend for itself in the Paris meeting. When the Nawaz Sharif government had raised this issue of not supporting non-state jihad actors with the establishment and leaked the news to Dawn, all hell broke loose. Instead of addressing this issue the establishment started intriguing against the Nawaz Sharif government. However, Dawn leak was as good as in October 2016 and now we hardly find top civilian and military leadership on the same page.

Babar Ayaz says as follows on the consequences of Pakistan being put on grey list. FATF regional group will soon visit Pakistan to see the level of compliance of their guidelines. Senior central bank officials say that the government has formed a committee now to plug the holes in the compliance guidelines.

Babar warns that the cost of being isolated internationally cannot be wished away by claiming that we have China’s support. Pakistan has been put on the grey list when it is in dire need to raise funds from abroad in view of the unprecedented current account deficit

Senior bankers who have experience of compliance are of the view that costs of transferring foreign currencies to and from Pakistan are likely to increase as the international banks will have to scrutinise the movement of money closely. As Pakistan’s foreign trade and remittances are dollar denominated they have to pass through the New York based clearance houses. Since the action against Pakistan has been taken on the behest of the US and other western countries the banks have already started showing cautiousness in clearing and moving money to and from Pakistan. This would slow down the movement of legitimate transactions. The foreign banks operating outside Pakistan have not only stopped opening the accounts of Pakistanis but are also shunning their business away.

Pakistan has had quite a liberal foreign exchange policy. The first hole in the very strict foreign exchange manual was punched by the late Dr Mahbub ul Haq in the 80s by introducing Foreign Exchange Bearer Certificates (FEBC). In the 90s Nawaz Sharif government allowed Pakistan citizens to open the foreign currency account with the facility that no questions will be asked about the source of remittance. And also if this money were converted to Pak Rupee through the banking channels it would be considered ‘white money’. Even today one third of the foreign exchange reserves are basically these foreign currency deposits with the banks.

The Pakistani banks have become more cautious in opening the foreign currency accounts of the local citizens. And it seems that to meet the FATF guidelines the government will also have to take away the ‘no questions asked’ facility about the source of remittance.

In conclusion, Babar says: “The cost of being isolated internationally cannot be wished away by claiming that we have China’s support. Pakistan has been put on the grey list when it is in dire need to raise funds from abroad in view of the unprecedented current account deficit. The costs of this borrowing internationally, Pakistani bankers believe, may also rise due to the Paris set back.” Well that being Chinese support, whatever it is aside, we must remember that in Paris Pakistan was single-handedly supported to by our friend Turkey when Saudis and others had let us down.

TT: Do you think Farhatullah Babar took PML-N line on judiciary role in his last speech in the Senate?

WSH: I would like to have avoided discussing Senator Farhatullah Babar. However, my association with him has been of nearly of more or less four decades long. We are journalists and we have strong streak of independence. FB as Shaheed Chairperson Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s spokesman/media person and later PPP senator—was straight jacketed by the discipline of the party. Whatever, I can say that I enjoyed space for disagreement and despite disapproval of many in the party Bibi was always kind to consult me and hear me out—not necessarily accept my advice always.

Frankly speaking I could not hold back my tears when I heard Senator make his farewell speech. Not the fact that it encapsulated the condition of a sinking ship, his warnings were truly in the right direction. I can foresee the judiciary coming to its nemesis and I can read the writing on the wall. I can see that the Punjabi Establishment has not been able to digest the 18th Amendment, transfer of concurrent list to the provinces or the burial of the powers of the Article 58 (2)B to dismiss any elected government of the day. And here I as a student of politics and history would agree with Babar that the conspiracy against it would only stop when smaller provinces demand parity with Punjab — a principle that they themselves introduced when overpowering the numerical strength of erstwhile East Pakistan.
Now lastly, your reference to whether FB took PMLN line in criticising judiciary, I don’t subscribe to that view.  He had hit the nail right on the head. I am sure FB would be the last person on earth to defend former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his mega corruption, his third-degree treatment of Pakistan’s only internationally acceptable martyred Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto or for that matter former President Asif Zardari who spent nearly 12 years in torture cells, incarcerated without being convicted for corruption.

TT: PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s persistent efforts to make PPP relevant in Punjab have not worked well. Any change in policy on the cards?

WSH: I think Bilawal Bhutto is doing fine knowing well the challenges faced by him. It is not an easy job to free the people of Punjab from the stranglehold of the powerful Establishment, feudal and religious class that got back with vengeance in 1977 after successfully staging a coup against the popular leadership of Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.  While the Punjabi right and the Bonapartic generals were opposed to Bhutto sahib and his socio-economic and political programme and changes of far reaching consequences; General Ziaul Haq had to let lose a reign of terror: castrate Punjabi people, hang his opponents, totally circumcise political leadership, whipping them in public to instill his ruthless awe in them.

Establishment had realised much too early the cost it had to pay and the moment it got the chance it struck to wrest Punjab away from the hands of PPP. And in that it found assistance available in betrayal of Bhutto by the left, liberals and powerful Establishment that had infiltrated quislings like Farooq Leghari, Ghulam Mustafa Khar etc. into the rank and file of PPP.

Systematically a test-tubed leadership was planted by ISI and General Zia in Punjab that blossomed into Nawaz Sharif to hold on and perpetuate his legacy until now. I remember the day when GPM told martyred Bibi that his institution wouldn’t allow her PPP ever to win elections in Punjab. So you can imagine, such are odds faced by Bilawal but he has got the determination of his grandfather and the courage of his mother to carry forward the mission. The massive response being received by him now shows the winds of change in Punjab. I wish his party becomes a real left of the centre party. Progressive youngsters need to have a party of their own to make it a vehicle of real change for the greatest good of the largest number.

TT: What would be the salient features of PPP’s Election manifesto for upcoming elections?

WSH: As a die-hard Bhuttoiite I would go back to his original manifesto of course with changes here and there to adjust demographic developments in the country. As the popular cliché is—one doesn’t need rocket science to frame textbook manifestos, what is difficult is have a doable document that could address the very fundaments of the society. I have noticed that with two/three months to go to elections—political leaders are bashing their heads against each other but none is talking of specific issues that should focus in a party manifesto. No one mentions the exploding population and under its unbearable crumbling ever increasing weight on water, power, housing, environmental sanitary, transport and education, child abuse, infantile death rate, grooming and training of women to be good mothers, good teachers and good administrators. Last but not the least, in my manifesto there would be no room for religion having a role in politics or the business of the state. Most importantly, in order to rationalise budget on defence, we shall have reorientation in the policy and reintroduction of National Cadet Scheme in schools and colleges as done by ZAB but abandoned by General Ziaul Haq.

TT: There are rumours that there is a paradigm shift in PPP politics and it converted from Anti-establishment party to establishments’ blue-eyed party? Do you buy this argument?

WSH: I don’t think there is a paradigm shift in PPP politics. PPP was born as anti-establishment party and it shall remain an anti-establishment party irrespective of the fact that it has some of its prominent leaders who wrongly chose too many parties in the past and each time had to eat humble pie. I hope they have leant from their previous mistakes and would not repeat them. Indeed, there are some elements who have dubious credentials and who are reported to be trying to follow the footsteps of their turn coat brothers and sisters who by joining IK ‘s PTI have made it appear as ‘C’ team of PPP. I am sure once elections are held frequently such political opportunism too would find its nemesis and PTI’s business, as launderers of political shit will end.

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