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- Monday, September 17, 2012 - From Print Edition

Taking issue

The writer is Jang Group/Geo advisor on political affairs and host of Aapas Ki Baat on Geo TV

Two interesting issues have cropped up this week. The first is the list of the PML-N’s nominees for the slot of caretaker prime minister to hold the next general elections. The second is the chief election commissioner’s decision to take a close look at the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) and determine whether or not it is violating the rules for a free and fair general election. Some comments are in order on both issues.

The PML-N’s list for the proposed caretaker government is interesting because it proposes the candidature of Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal. Clearly, the PML-N’s aim is to try and bandage the wounds sustained by the Baloch over the last ten years. Certainly, if anyone can bring the estranged Baloch warriors back to the electoral platform from their mountain hideouts, it is Sardar Mengal. The PML-N had a fairly good working relationship with Sardar’s Mengal’s son, Akhtar Mengal, when the latter was chief minister of Balochistan during Nawaz Sharif’s regime in Islamabad.

The best point about this nomination is that, in principle, President Asif Zardari should have no objections to it. He has been trying from day one to cajole the Baloch insurgent leaders, some of whom he knows personally, to return to the mainstream and has lavished much money on the hapless province.

The problem, however, is that the generals of the Pakistan Army consider Sardar Mengal as much of a “traitor” as Nawab Khair Bux Marri, the top Baloch rebel whose sons are actually leading the insurgency. This anti-Sardar-Nawab attitude goes back to the 1970s when the Pakistan Army was dispatched to Balochistan to crush an insurgency inspired by the Sardar-Nawab duo. Unfortunately, the linear military mind doesn’t like to recall the reason why there was a rebellion in the first place. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an autocrat, created the 1970s crisis in the same manner that General Pervez Musharraf, a dictator, did in the 2000s. Bhutto couldn’t stomach the demand for real provincial autonomy that the Sardar-Nawab duo was making after their party – National Awami Party (NAP) – won a majority in the province in the 1970 elections. When he dismissed the NAP government in 1973 on trumped-up charges, a spontaneous revolt followed. Gen. Tikka Khan, the “butcher of Bengal”, Bhutto’s ex-army chief and the then defense minister, sent the army into Balochistan to crush the rebellion. Two decades later, General Musharraf approached Nawab Akbar Bugti in the same high-handed manner and sowed the seeds of the latest insurgency.

It is instructive to recall that Gen Zia-ul-Haq ended the insurgency in 1978 by announcing a genuine general amnesty. He then went out of his way to rehabilitate the estranged Baloch in general and Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal, in particular. Sardar Mengal returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile and later advised his son Akhtar Mengal to take part in parliamentary politics. Indeed, two sons of Nawab Khair Bux Marri also entered politics, against the advice of their father, and went on to become ministers and big-wigs in their own right. But the scions of the Sardar-Nawab duo were ousted from political reckoning in the 2002 elections when General Musharraf sidelined them, along with the PPP and PML-N, in favour of the mullahs led by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and other religious forces in the province. The rest, as they say, is history.

The military now controls the province through the Frontier Corps (FC). It isn’t listening to the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and it is not in any mood to allow the federal government to talk to the “traitors” and rehabilitate them prominently. The problem is additionally compounded by two unprecedented developments. First, the military has created a new line of anti-Sardar-Nawab politicians and non-state actors and lashkars to resist attempts to bring the rebels back to the mainstream. Second, the Baloch insurgents have publicly sought help from India and America, which has hurt their cause in the rest of Pakistan that is anti-India and anti-America. By targeting Punjabi settlers in the province, they have reinforced the mindset of the Punjabi military.

Therefore, Sardar Mengal won’t accept the job even if Nawaz-Zardari jointly offer it to him if he believes he cannot, because so much blood has been shed, sway the Baloch underground movement to abandon its separatist-militant ways. Nawab Khair Bux Marri once had the key to the solution. But he threw it away in frustration and pique and it has remained lost ever since.

The CEC, Justice (r) Fakhruddin G Ibrahim, has taken note of some reports in the press that suggest the BISP isn’t fully transparent and electorally neutral. He intends to reassure himself that the widely acclaimed anti-poverty scheme will not tilt the electoral odds in any objectionable way. Good. Here are some observations that may help him adjudge the matter fairly.

BISP is clearly tilted in favour of the poorest sections of society in the poorest regions of the country. But that is a good thing. There are 25 million poor people (15 percent) in Pakistan and BISP has been reaching out to them. Since 2009, over Rs. 100 billion has been spent on cash handouts and more will be forthcoming in the next six months as budgeted. The World Bank and other donors have lavished high praise on the scheme (part of the Social Safety Net Assistance Project) that is borrowed from Africa and Latin America but is a first for South Asia. It is superior to the Zakat and Baitul Maal schemes for the poor. It has nudged millions of women to get national identity cards (NICs) and register with the election commission (EC). Remarkably, there isn’t a single petition against it in any court alleging significant corruption.

But there is a valid administrative critique. The auditor general has raised objections to the disbursement of about Rs. 1 billion. USAID has stopped a second grant of $75 million pending a review. Some donor guidelines have been ignored. All these points are irrelevant from the CEC’s point of view. The relevant political critique hinges on the fact that the money is going mainly into PPP constituencies and may tilt the voters there.

But the fact is that the PPP voter has historically come from the poorest sections of society as well as from some of the poorest regions. So naturally, there is a significant overlap of PPP strongholds with BISP handouts, especially in Sindh and Southern Punjab. The scheme is also far better and more transparent than the tens of billions of rupees in handouts of “development funds” by prime ministers and chief ministers across the board to MPAs and MNAs in order to win votes, regardless of the income-status of voters or development index of these constituencies. Indeed, the various yellow schemes are not a patch on BISE in terms of efficacy and relevance. Under the circumstances, warts and all, Mr Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim would be advised not to derail the world-acclaimed BISP simply to please a section of the media that has an axe to grind against the PPP.

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