Pakistan Reader# 131, 6 September 2020
During this week (31 August- 6 September 2020), there were two significant developments: the first one is relating to a meeting between Shahbaz Sharif and Zardari leading towards a consensus amongst the opposition leaders to hold an All Parties Conference (APC). The second development was related to corruption charges against Lt Gen (retd) Asim Bajwa regarding his family business growing along with his military positions, the muted response from the media in covering the same, and the decision by Imran Khan not to accept the resignation.
The meeting between Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari
On 2 September 2020, Shahbaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N, during his tour to Karachi to observe the recent rains and floods that have brought the city to a standstill, also met with Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto, the President and Chairman of the PPP respectively. The meeting is important; Shahbaz is the President of the PML-N, and also the leader of the Opposition in Parliament. The meeting, as the subsequent developments would highlight, was more than a courtesy visit by Shahbaz Sharif during his Karachi tour. From the PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif, was accompanied by Ahsan Iqbal, former Interior Minister and the General Secretary of the PML-N. According to a statement from the PPP, quoted by Dawn, “top opposition leaders of the country were in consensus that all the constitutional options would be used to get rid of the incumbent ineligible government, as its failures and incompetence have become a torment for the country and the people.” (Dawn, 3 September 2020)
On 3 September, following the meeting between the top leaders of the PPP and PML-N in Karachi, the Rehbar Committee of the Opposition parties met in Islamabad. According to Dawn, the following attended the meeting in Islamabad: Raja Pervez Ashraf, Sherry Rehman, Farhatullah Babar and Nayyar Bokhari of the PPP, Ahsan Iqbal of the PML-N, Usman Kakar of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and Dr Jahanzaib Jamaldini of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M). Akram Durrani of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) leads the Committee from (Dawn, 4 September 2020).
The meeting witnessed representation from 11 parties; they discussed the following: to explore a movement for democracy, as it happened during the Zia era; to expand the “Charter of Democracy” signed between the PPP and PML-N, and moving a reference against Gen Asim Bajwa who has been accused of corruption charges. However, the 3 September meeting, decided to discuss all these issues on 20 September. Since the Islamabad meeting is of the “Rehbar” Committee, the 20 September meeting will have the leaders of all the major opposition parties.
The idea of an All-Parties Conference in Pakistan by the Opposition against the government is not a new one. Since 2019, there have been multiple meetings of the Rehbar Committee and also the talk about an All Parties Conference. Fazlur Rahman of the JUI-F was leading this in 2019, and had to cut a sorry figure. The primary issue until now was the differences between the main opposition political parties – the PPP and the PML-N, and the other smaller parties that include national and provincial parties.
The big question is: Has the Karachi meeting between Shabaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari has broken the narrow focus from individual party perspectives, and combine their strength as the Opposition? The PPP looks at Islamabad through the Sindh prism, and the PML-N looks it through the Punjab prism. For the PML-N, cases against Nawaz Sharif and his return is an additional concern. While for the PPP, the primary concern is to manage its influence over Karachi and survive the economic and political fallouts of the COVID in Sindh and the floods. For JUI-F and other smaller parties, there are no such concerns.
The week that was not
Lt Gen (retd) Asim Bajwa: The corruption charge against him, is likely to fade with the political and media silence and government collusion
The previous week, in a lengthy report, Ahmad Noorani, one of the Pakistani journalists published a detailed account titled “Bajwa family business empire grew in four countries in sync with Asim Bajwa’s rise in military.” The report was published on an online portal called “Fact Focus” that claims to look at “Factual, data-driven investigative stories to empower Pakistani citizens.”
The main thesis of Noorani’s argument is simple: “The growth of the Bajwa family’s business empire in the United States and later in Pakistan directly matches the rise in power of retired general Asim Saleem Bajwa, who is now chairman of the country’s massive China-financed infrastructure project and a special assistant to the prime minister.”
The report relying on multiple documents, through tables and analyses present the above case. The report talks about the family fortunes of Gen Asim Bajwa, during 1984-2001, when he was a second lieutenant in the Army, rises to lieutenant colonel. The report then graphically presents the professional growth of Bajwa and the expansion of the family business during 2002-2008 and since then as the Director-General ISPR and the Commander of Southern Command.
Given the nature of the accusation and the position that Gen Asim Bajwa occupied, this should have created a storm on the political front, and occupied the front-page in the print media. If one has to look at what happened to Nawaz Sharif after the Panama Papers, and to Justice Isa, the report should have created an enormous uproar. It did not. There were no front page stories; no editorials demanding accountability. Imran Khan who insist on accountability and give long interviews about how leaders have to be accountable, (in the case of Nawaz Sharif, he stated: “We will not grant any NRO to Nawaz Sharif and national wealth looted by former rulers will be recovered at any cost.” Dawn, 17 September 2019) refused to accept Gen Bajwa’s resignation. The political parties, including PPP and PML-N, are “planning” to discuss this during their 20 September meeting.
The issue here is not whether Noorani’s report is correct or otherwise. Gen Bajwa gave a lengthy response to the accusation while announcing his resignation as the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister. He has made a series of clarifications, and his lengthy response to the accusations are published in the media.
The issue is the political and media silence of the original story. There was no such silence when the news broke out on Nawaz Sharif and Justice Isa. Both were in power when the media followed the stories closely. The silence on this case is too loud. Until this Sunday.
Instead, Gen Bajwa’s resignation as the SAPM created news. There are have been few reports and analyses supporting Gen Bajwa’s case, and accusing a section within Pakistani media for colliding with RAW and affecting the CPEC. Noorani himself writes on this point: “After questions were raised about Bajwa’s family business empire, a campaign on print and social media was launched to connect those asking questions with India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Questions about properties of the former General’s family in the U.S. were termed as an attack on the CPEC project and a conspiracy by India, allegations with no basis in fact. Asim’s son specifically tweeted blogs and pictures portraying author of this story as working for Indian agency RAW and becoming part of India’s attack on CPEC.”