The Politics of Shipping Containers

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

A government is supposed to protect the interest of its public. But what to do if it becomes the biggest hurdle in their way?

Now for the uninitiated, the politics of shipping containers probably sounds like manipulating the trade at the port, not that that was never a problem, but these shipping containers are contributing to the economy around a thousand miles from the shore. In the federal capital and in a very different way too.

We had all suffered the consequences of the blockade during the 2014 sit-in protest by PTI and PAT.  Now it is time to brace ourselves again to dread getting out on the roads and to find our way out of the gridlock. The question is, who has the time and money? No matter which side you are on, you would be forced to either stay home or join the political tamasha.

Can you blame the entire problem on the PTI and Sheikh Rasheed protests? Probably you can, because the containers were not there a couple of days ago. But here they are now. Still, they are not put into place by them. The fact of the matter is that the government can possibly handle this situation in another way. Imposing Section 144 is not the solution to every problem.

So I wonder if it is the fault of the protesters or the Federal Interior Ministry itself that people like me cannot go to work when they should be able to on a regular weekday. Of course, we are not fully aware of the reasons why shipping containers are used to block roads, perhaps to block suicide bombing trucks, who knows? But ever since these blockades have started appearing on our roads, the lives of the people of the twin cities have never been the same.

While the party in power uses shipping containers to block access from roads, the one in the opposition would use it as a stage to prolong, if not perpetuate, the misery. PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s recent call to shut down the capital is just one such example, which has already sent the stock market crashing even when the actual sit-in protest has not taken place yet. To add insult to injury, he has decided to challenge the orders from the Islamabad High Court forbidding the shutdown.

The fact of the matter is that the people want to get on with their lives and are sick and tired of the storms of made-up revolutions that our political leaders like to stir in a teacup. Clearly, most of the people reject the politics of shipping containers, something which could even be a threat to our fragile democracy. But like always, this silent majority remains without a voice.

What is even worse is that the government that warns protesters of refraining from interrupting public life is doing all it can to make things miserable for them. This is what the politics in Pakistan have come down to, only to strengthen the ignorant belief that democracy is not fit for a “country like Pakistan.” Whatever that means.

Perhaps we cannot get past the days of tear gas because we have not evolved from rioting and destroying to the peaceful protest that is often met with ridicule in our society. Perhaps we would really attain the ideals that we speak so fondly of when we really start supporting peaceful, liberal democratic values on the ground and learn to respect the democratic process.

Out of all the rights of the people that the government is responsible to uphold, perhaps the most underestimated in Pakistan is the freedom to access. People are simply too willing to give too much for too little. This reflects the way our government thinks and it also offers an insight into our minds as well. This probably means that our days of living in an authoritarian state are not over and neither is the will to resist it. Or if things have improved indeed, we have still not been able to shake off the hangover from our past of dictatorships.

I hope some day our protesters would learn to make their point without blocking roads and that our governments could restore order without taking any lives.

Is it too much to ask?

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.
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Bringing down the Sharifs

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

The Panama Leaks are the sort of story that was needed to shake the firm grasp of the Sharif family on the politics of Punjab.

Unlike the uproar in the media and warnings of a protest movement from PTI chairman Imran Khan, I am not convinced that the people of Pakistan are particularly bothered by the revelations in the Panama leaks. To some people, avoiding tax payment is a terrible sin, but let’s admit it, most people in Pakistan hardly believe in paying taxes or trusting the government with their money. Others consider smuggling fair trade. These views may outrage many liberals, but people are free to see the world that way.

Naturally, most businessmen and investors, particularly those who fear their assets would be frozen by a certain state for political reasons, would be attracted to offshore tax havens. Or perhaps they have a genuine desire of paying low taxes. In the past, the Swiss accounts of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari have been a matter of major controversy, and now the offshore assets of the Sharif family have surfaced.

To many people, the crime of the PML-N leaders lying about their offshore assets is far worse than the act of possible tax evasion. They would have to produce clean taxation and remittances records to eliminate the suspicion of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, such behavior seems more suited to businessmen than the leading political family in a developing nation.

However, what makes the leaders of the PML-N the hypocrites of the highest order is that they have gone to all lengths to demonize the PPP leadership for what they have been obviously doing themselves. 1999 actually taught them a lesson that heads of state not only need a haven for their financial assets but one for political asylum as well.

Instead of freaking out by Panama Leaks, it does not hurt to be optimistic about their aftermath. Personally, I would not like to see the Prime Minister go as long as he ends up clarifying his position, as did Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain. However, if he fails to present a strong case and succumbs to the pressure of the opposition, good riddance.

Some people are also seeing the military intervening as the ultimate solution for accountability as always, but nothing would be more disastrous for the progress of democracy. At least, for the development of the economy and services to the people of Pakistan.

In any event, you cannot ignore the fact that the Sharif brothers have become a bit too comfortable in their almost absolute political power in Punjab. The landslide in the last election stunned the rest of the parties, but their continual abuse of power hardly goes unnoticed as well.

A strong opposition, and ideally alternate terms for different parties, is good for democracy. Historically, Punjab does vote to balance the power between two leading parties, but due to the popular emergence of PTI, the opposition vote has been divided between PTI and PPP.

The PML-N infrastructure projects particularly require continuation of terms, but regardless of whether the party is good for the country, or at least Punjab, they need to be challenged. The PTI and the PPP will probably not find a better opportunity to strike a dent in the formidable wall of the political support of the PML-N in Punjab. In terms of producing electoral results, both the political parties would have to set aside differences and form an alliance in Punjab.

While the metro bus projects have been much the needed mass transit in the urban areas in Punjab, at least the twin cities, they reflect on how executive power is exercised in Pakistan by political governments. PTI and other liberal critics also make sense when they make a case for the lack of government funds in the health sector while such mega projects are being developed.

Opposition parties sense instinctively that something is wrong with this spending pattern, but are not able to make an effective case for some reason.

Unfortunately, the idea of limiting the executive power is not popular in Pakistani politics. As a matter of fact, these very opposition parties, with the possible exception of PPP, would favor more executive power, so that they are able to exercise it when they are in power. After all, elections are about getting things done.

So while we need to address the problem of corruption and tax evasion, the procedures on government spending and the permitted abuse of executive power need to be taken into account as well.

 

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Making Bad Laws Worse

Source: salon.com

Source: salon.com

I have often observed what a terrible idea making laws for a living is.

However, that is apparently what makes the world go round. But often in their bid to play their much needed part in changing the society for the better, lawmakers often tend to worsen the already terrible laws that are in force.

One of the recent examples of this has been the proposed amendments to the Pakistan Protection Ordinance 2013 by the current Federal Government.

Arguably a bad law, perhaps the PPO 2013 was not so terrible (probably because I always thought the likes of Taliban should be treated as POWs), though it is just about Pakistan’s version of the NDAA 2012. But the PPO 2014 certainly goes a step ahead in ensuring violations of personal liberty.

We are already familiar with the terrible dictatorial orders that our former Prime Ministers have issued in the not so distant past to ban YouTube. But the Federal Government is now considering a Power Conversation Bill that could ban the import of electronic appliances that consume more than a certain limit of power.

There is really no need to elaborate on the terrible lifestyle laws in Punjab imposed by CM Shehbaz Sharif, which include prohibiting flying kites and serving more than one dish in weddings. Not to mention arresting caterers for not observing wedding ceremony timings. But then again, we are entering the realm of elected dictators now.

As far as the PPO is concerned, for a change if only out of political animosity, the parties on the opposition benches put aside all their differences and opposed it with a united voice.

It is hard to disagree with them. As a matter of fact, at this point in time, I have to say that I am proud of the opposition parties. The new ordinance not only overrides many existing legal and constitutional conditions and encourages detention on government orders, but even introduces the term “internment camps”.

I am not sure if the internment camp reference was ever introduced before in the Pakistani law or no. However, this ordinance certainly is a step forward to legalize otherwise illegal detentions and even internment of certain citizens. It only sounds like a new low for the liberty of Pakistani citizens, despite the security situation.

Despite fierce resistance, the treasury benches passed the ordinance on a party line vote in the House, not that the individual members have much of a choice. But since PPP controls the Senate, it could possibly defeat the bill there, since the party so passionately opposes it.

But the citizens of Pakistan are not always so lucky. For the sake of convenience, let us not discuss the multitude of discriminatory laws passed by the parliament anyway.

It is not just about Pakistan actually. Legislators obsessed with constantly changing the society for the better anywhere are arguably a continuous threat to individual liberty of the citizens. And we see this idea in action everyday.

Making bad laws worse.

Let’s conclude this post with an age old liberty cliché that is as true now as it was in the eighteenth century and the eons before. It was encouraging to see a few liberals endorsing the same quote in Pakistan recently.

Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.

                                                                                                                                         – Benjamin Franklin