Dawn Editorials 4th June 2023

The Buzdar mystery

THE departure of former Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar from politics is not really surprising as the PTI is plagued by a defection pandemic. In fact, that Mr Buzdar was the chief executive of the country’s most populous province in the first place remains a thing of wonder. Why the PTI chairman selected Mr Buzdar to be Punjab’s chief minister is a mystery. Throughout his years in office, Mr Khan, who labelled Mr Buzdar his ‘Wasim Akram-plus’, came under heavy criticism for his poor choice. Although he always maintained that Mr Buzdar was chosen because of his loyalty, simplicity and honesty, alternative theories have abounded. Some speculated that Mr Khan had appointed the unknown politician to maintain a firm grip on the province, and that appointing a political heavyweight to the position would have meant living with the paranoia that other forces could control the province. There was also speculation that Mr Buzdar was trusted by Mr Khan’s spouse, who is said to have warned him that without Mr Buzdar, his fate would be sealed. Whatever the reason, Mr Khan was forced to come to his chief minister’s defence on numerous occasions. Both inside the PTI and externally, there was serious criticism that Mr Buzdar was not performing well and was unable to take decisions. And yet, Mr Khan dug in his heels and did not budge on this appointment. In an interview to this paper after his ouster, Mr Khan said that Mr Buzdar’s appointment was one of the key points of contention between him and the then security establishment.

One could laud Mr Khan for standing his ground on the Buzdar issue in the face of establishment pressure, but given the various other areas of governance that he had quietly relinquished to the establishment, this obstinacy stands out as bizarre. Today, as Mr Buzdar leaves politics and the party, many are left thinking why he was ever here at all.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2023

Transport crisis

LIKE many other public-sector projects, governments past and present have promised numerous times to ‘revive’ the Karachi Circular Railway. The latest effort in this regard emerged after the Sindh chief minister recently chaired a meeting that discussed ways to bring the urban train project back to life. After serving the commuters of Karachi for several decades, the last KCR train stopped chugging in 1999 due to sustained official neglect. The Sindh authorities have asked the centre to approach the Chinese government in the hopes that Beijing’s help may bring the KCR back on track. As part of an established tradition in Pakistan, the former PTI federal government was blamed for derailing the scheme’s revival, while after the PDM took the reins last year, it was announced that the KCR would be included in CPEC. Previously, JICA, Japan’s development agency, had also prepared a plan for the urban railway’s restoration. Meanwhile, another public transport-related crisis is brewing in Peshawar, where the multibillion-rupee BRT faces closure due to financing bottlenecks. As reported, a number of private firms, which provide services for the scheme, are owed Rs1bn. Officials familiar with the matter told this paper that payments were being delayed for no logical reason, while some observed that an artificial crisis was being created to cancel the current contract and award it to another firm.

Concerning the KCR, help from the Chinese, Japanese or any other foreign nation will come to naught unless there is political will and a workable plan by the authorities to build a sustainable, public-friendly urban train system. Governments have been periodically prodded by the courts to revive the KCR, which has resulted in evictions of families living along its tracks. Yet despite the highfalutin official pronouncements, we are no closer to an actual revival. In fact, at many locations the tracks of the KCR have disappeared, or have been built over. Karachi desperately needs an urban train system to address its chronic transportation woes, but this project can only come about through careful study and expert input, not by making announcements alone. As for the Peshawar BRT, if funds are available they need to be released to the vendors to avoid disruptions in the system and prevent the scheme’s closure. And any attempts to sabotage the BRT through cronyism and subterfuge need to be addressed firmly.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2023

Surveillance state

In the midst of the madness, finally some sanity. Questions critical to the right to privacy of citizens bombarded of late by audio leaks involving all and sundry, have been articulated by the Islamabad High Court.

On Wednesday, Justice Babar Sattar suspended the summons issued by a parliamentary committee to Najam Saqib, son of retired Supreme Court chief justice Saqib Nisar, in a case involving an audio leak of a purported phone conversation between the former and a PTI ticket aspirant.

In the clip, Mr Saqib can allegedly be heard demanding a reward from a man in return for Mr Nisar’s successful efforts in securing a ticket for this individual to contest the Punjab elections. Filing a petition in the IHC, Mr Saqib challenged the “legality and validity” of the National Assembly Speaker’s decision to constitute a committee to investigate a phone call between two private individuals. Justice Sattar in his seven-page order has raised a number of pertinent questions for the government to answer.

In a nutshell, the court’s queries centre around whether the Constitution allows the executive to surveil or record phone calls or telecommunication between private citizens. If so, what law authorises such recording? And if not, then which “public authority or agency” is to be held liable for taking these measures?

The government knows well the answers to these questions. But in the vulgar brand of ‘gotcha’ politics that passes for statesmanship today, it has served up private citizens’ personal conversations — and of late, even intimate videos — to the public at large in order to embarrass, pressure and blackmail political opponents.

That also explains the narrow mandate given to the three-member judicial commission — since suspended — which was set up to probe solely the veracity, not the source, of the audio leaks pertaining to serving and former judges. The government notification issued in connection said that the audio leaks had “eroded public trust” in the superior judiciary. What about the erosion of public trust in the state to uphold people’s fundamental rights to liberty and privacy? The ability to surveil and record individuals bestows a level of power that must be used strictly within the bounds of the law; unchecked, it can tear apart societies.

It was to regulate this power and apply it lawfully that the Fair Trial Act, 2012, was enacted. This authorised the state to intercept private communications in order to track suspected terrorists and present incriminating conversations as evidence in court. Other individuals do not qualify for surveillance, however questionable their personal conduct may be.

The outcome of the IHC’s proceedings could be one of those momentous events that shape a nation’s history. Have we the capacity to evolve as a society where people’s civil liberties are considered sacrosanct, or will we continue our descent towards an existence where almost nothing is sacred?

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2023

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