Category Archives: governance

A twist in the tale

Raza Rumi is a Pakistani author, policy analyst, and a journalist. He has been affiliated with The Friday Times, Pakistan’s foremost liberal weekly paper as a writer and an editor for a decade. Raza is also a commentator for several Pakistani, regional and international foreign publications. In Pakistan, he worked in the broadcast media as an analyst and hosted talk shows at Capital TV and Express News. In 2014, he moved to the United States after an assassination attempt, ostensibly carried out by Islamic extremists. Currently he is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, New York USA; and visiting Faculty at Gallatin School, NYU. Raza is also a fellow at National Endowment for Democracy (USA), the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs (USA) and Jinnah Institute (Pakistan). In the past he has worked at the Asian Development Bank as a Governance Specialist and later advised several international development agencies such as UK AID, UNDP, UNICEF World Bank, among others. In his early career he was a member of Pakistan Administrative Service and an official at the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Kosovo.

He is the author of Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller and The Fractious Path.
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Interview by Abdullah Khan on behalf of ELJ:

ELJ: Tell us something about your journey from being a civil servant to a journalist and then to a writer of non-fiction books.

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Political Princes: Struggles of Rahul Gandhi and Bilawal Bhutto


Rahul Gandhi is the heir-apparent to the oldest political party of India and the face of a dynasty that ruled the country for over 40 years. (Photo: Reuters)

Two days ago, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, scion of the legendary Bhuttos, celebrated his 27th birthday. His party workers – also known as jiyalas (the impassioned followers) celebrated the day with much fanfare.

Is Bilawal a future player in Pakistan’s politics? Is he relevant to an overwhelming young population of Pakistan? These are questions that have been debated endlessly in Pakistan.

More than 60% of Pakistan’s population can be categorised as youth. At the outset, Bilawal has age on his side; many say he exudes charisma like his mother and can engage with Pakistani youth. Yet, there are sceptics and their numbers have grown in a rapidly urbanising Pakistan.

Bilawal’s Political Journey

Bilawal’s entry into politics was no less dramatic than Benazir Bhutto’s and at a very young age. Benazir wanted to be a diplomat or a journalist but her father’s incarceration in the 1977 coup led the 24-year-old woman to lead the resistance against the military junta headed by Gen Zia-ul-Haq.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks with a photograph of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, in the background. (Photo: Reuters)

Bilawal was anointed as the successor to his mother when she was assassinated in December 2007. According to Benazir’s will, since Bilawal was a student at Oxford University, his father stepped in as the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The widower, since then, has firmly held his grip over the party.

During the past seven years, young Bilawal has completed his studies at Oxford and has made his foray into the politics of Pakistan. In 2012, he made a formal debut by addressing jiyalas on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s death. He was passionate and rhetorical like the Bhuttos, stating that there were two kinds of political groupings in Pakistan: “those on the right path and those on the path of lies”. This also refers to the battle of Kerbala (where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain was killed by the then-Muslim ruler’s army). Kerbala is a mythical sense of vindication for battling against ‘evil’ (read: the entrenched establishment) and not being afraid to make sacrifices.

PPP’s Crashing Defeat and Bilawal’s Hiatus

In the 2013 elections, the PPP was routed in almost all of Pakistan except the province of Sindh. Insiders say that Bilawal was not happy with the election arrangements or the way campaigning was undertaken. He spoke at various places via videotaped messages but the Pakistani voters – not unlike their Indian counterparts – prefer the physical proximity of their leader. In short, Bilawal could not make any impact on the electioneering.

PPP’s crashing defeat came in the wake of public opinion that had swelled against the Zardari administration (2008-2013) and the plain fact that most of its leaders and cadres could not freely campaign due to threats by Islamic extremists.

Other than the Awami National Party (ANP), a successor of Bacha Khan’s movement, the PPP paid a heavy price for its position on extremism. From Benazir Bhutto to Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, its top leadership remained under threat. A cruel metaphor of this climate was the abduction of the son of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani by Islamic militants. He remains in their custody to date.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (R) walks with his father, Asif Ali Zardari, during the fifth anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death at the Bhutto family mausoleum on December 27, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

In 2014, Bilawal started to take charge of the party. In October of that year, he addressed a large rally in Karachi where he declared, “I am Bhutto” and took a strong anti-Taliban line. Alongside, he also criticised the Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM), a popular party of Mohajirs (refugees from India) in urban Sindh. The MQM reacted and reportedly Bilawal’s father chided him for alienating allies of PPP in Sindh where it still leads the provincial government.

Bilawal also shuffled party officials and very soon got into trouble with the pragmatic politics of Zardari who is known to be a power-player rather than a populist politician. He left the country for some time and his former-President father, in a public event, said that he needed more grooming to mature into a politician.

Bilawal is back in active politics as the father has fallen foul of the military establishment and is currently based in Dubai.

The Rise of the Middle Class in Pakistan and India

In the past two decades, Pakistan has undergone, among other upheaval, unprecedented levels of urbanisation. Some estimate that more than half the country lives in ‘urban conditions’ where the orbit of politics comprises services such as education, health and security.

Pakistan’s aspirational middle classes view the old (and dynastic) framework of politics as redundant. What matters primarily is economic development, infrastructure, jobs and services.

This is not all too different from India, where the rise of a middle class ethos has led to an increased premium on ‘governance’ and eliminating corruption from the local tiers of the state.

Rahul Gandhi: The Reluctant Prince

Across the border, Rahul Gandhi is the heir-apparent in the oldest political party of India and the face of a dynasty that ruled the country for over 40 years. Rahul joined politics in 2004 under the guidance of his mother, the head of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.

In January 2013, he was made Vice President of the party and in this role he led Congress into the 2014 national elections. As a leader, he failed to inspire the voters and Congress was badly defeated. Its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a landslide victory invoking the promise of economic prosperity and better governance.


Sonia Gandhi (L) pays tribute at her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s memorial as Rahul Gandhi watches on the 21st anniversary of the former Prime Minister’s death on May 21, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Rahul’s critics call him a ‘reluctant prince’ who shies away from responsibilities. Even in a television interview, he blurted out that he was leading the party because of his birth, not due to ambition.

Reports of differences between Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have emerged in the Indian media. Their different outlook reportedly is related to the plans to revive the party.

Bilawal faces the same dilemma: He is an idealist and fired by the imagination of his mother who, by all accounts, was a relentless fighter. Both, however, have to pander to the old guard, some of which is discredited due to allegations of corruption among other things.

In Indian politics, where leaders make it to the top in their senior years, 43-year-old Rahul has a long innings ahead. But that would mean he reinvents the Congress and makes it relevant to the rapidly changing electorate and its expectations.

Rahul Has Better Chances Than Bilawal

When it comes to political mobilisation, Rahul has a better chance than Bilawal. Rahul does not face the kind of stark threat that Bilawal faces. The Indian state, with all its weaknesses, keeps a strong grip on power. In Pakistan, the state is struggling to regain the powers it had outsourced to militias.

For both widowers – Zardari and Sonia – their children are the ultimate trump card in the game of dynastic politics. But both may lose their clout if the sons take over completely.

Newer political forces in India and Pakistan have attracted a large number of followers. Both, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, play up the corruption of the old school politicians. Also, the cult of a strongman, a messiah resonates in both countries. Modi will change India’s destiny, his supporters argue. This is not too different from the conservative middle class that views a ‘clean’ and ‘God-fearing’ Imran Khan as the best choice.

The appeal of dynastic parties seems to be fading. Nawaz Sharif, the incumbent Prime Minister with a strong economic agenda, would have been Modi’s counterpart but Sharif’s politics has veered to the centre. Compared to Imran Khan, whose party rules the northwestern KP province along with an Islamist party, Sharif and his party appear to be moderate.


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their bilateral meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

The future trajectories of Rahul and Bilawal are unclear.

A recent poll by PEW suggests that Rahul Gandhi may have earned a few plus points over the last year. But the Congress will not be able to fire up the imagination of the electorate unless it comes up with a relevant program.

Bilawal was also praised for his strong statements on extremism but to many young people, he is seen as advancing the cause of a dynasty that was given too many chances – and each time it failed to deliver.

Benazir Bhutto (L) shakes hands with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on November 25, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Benazir Bhutto (L) shakes hands with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on November 25, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Despite the odds, dynastic politics is not going away soon either in India or Pakistan. Both societies, organised around the ‘family’ and its mythical values, are conservative and patrilineal. A full-scale overthrow of the dynastic model requires long term transformations –demographic, economic and social – that India and Pakistan have only recently commenced.

In the short term, both scions need to get rid of some of their uncles, re-craft their party programmes and rebuild the cadres.

Rahul may have a better chance of achieving that.

Charting Pakistan’s Internal Security Policy

SR368-coverFrom September 2014 to March 2015, I was a senior Pakistan expert in residence at the United States Institute of Peace. This opportunity gave me the time to take a break and do some writing. In May 2015, my report was published.

Can be downloaded here

Traditionally ruled by military or quasi-military regimes, Pakistan is struggling to strengthen its democratic governance but the military remains in charge of country’s security policy. This period of incremental democratization corresponds to the unprecedented rise in terrorism and domestic insurgencies that have challenged state capacity and taken a toll on both the morale of the country and the economy. This report reviews Pakistan’s progress in devising and implementing counterterrorism policy frameworks in recent years. In highlighting key related strategic and operational issues, it offers Pakistani policymakers ways forward on how best to ensure internal stability and security, reminding us that a balance in civilian and military institutions is vital for effective policy outcomes.


  • Pakistan’s recently announced National Action Plan focuses on combatting both terrorism and militancy and addresses endemic insecurity and radicalization. The plan follows in the wake of the National Internal Security Policy, which has been in place for more than a year.

  • These two policy frameworks underscore the commitment of the government to implement counterterrorism operations. Implementation of both, however, is affected by the civil-military divide that defines Pakistan’s power landscape and by the altered governance architecture since the onset of devolution reforms of 2010.

  • Pakistan’s historically entrenched civil-military imbalance puts the military in the driver’s seat on all issues related to national security. The current civilian government has enabled the military to take the lead on internal security arrangements as well.

  • Internal security challenges of Pakistan are directly related to its external security policy, especially with respect to India and Afghanistan.

  • Centralized management of internal security policies, however, is fraught with difficulties. It is unclear whether the provincial governments “own” the National Internal Security Policy and how far the central government is enabling reform to achieve results.

  • Progress to date remains mixed. In fact, recent decisions indicate that key counterterrorism goals, such as action against proscribed militant outfits and madrassa regulation, may have been diluted to prevent backlash from religious militias. Counterterrorism efforts cannot succeed without dismantling the militias that have operated with impunity.

  • To effectively counter internal militancy and external terrorism, Pakistan’s policymakers will need to harness both civilian and military institutions. To do so, they need to develop a multifaceted strategy that incorporates a national intelligence directorate, an internal security adviser, enhanced jurisdiction of the National Counter Terrorism Authority, parliamentary participation in counterterrorism, increased financial commitments, education reform, provincial counterterrorism strategies, and altering public narratives. Such measures need to be implemented in letter and spirit with complementary institutional reforms.

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Negligence, the biggest disaster in Pakistan

As if the ongoing political crisis was not enough, we are in the middle of a natural disaster, once again. As before, the state appears to be woefully unprepared. More than 23 districts in Punjab, 10 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and five in Gilgit-Baltistan have been affected by the September rains killing more than 270 and affecting 2.4 million people. The federal government says that nearly 45,000 houses have been damaged and 1,544,653 acres of irrigated lands have been inundated thereby impacting livelihoods.

Taken by surprise, the federal and provincial governments are running around undertaking rescue work with plenty of photo-op sessions. The Pakistan Army remains the most resourceful arm of the government and has rescued thousands of stranded people. Once again, the detractors of democratic governance — many of whom are assembled on the streets of Islamabad — view this calamity as another sign of failed ‘fake democracy’.

If media reports are true then the current government, despite briefings, did not accord disaster risk reduction the priority it needed. If anything, the disturbing scenes of a submerged Lahore made a mockery of the Metro Bus glory that was achieved only a year ago. Without a local government, proper drainage and early warning systems, Lahore’s development meant nothing for all those who suffered in the rains. Continue reading

Pakistan’s perilous democratic transition


Pakistan’s perilous democratic transition has been rocked by the ongoing anti-government protests.

The standoff between the government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition parties continues to accelerate the political uncertainty and damage the fragile economy.

Sharif was elected 14 months ago in an election that witnessed unprecedented voter turnout.

While most opposition parties accepted the results, Imran Khan — the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek I Insaf (PTI) party — claimed there was widespread rigging. There’s not much evidence, however, beyond the usual irregularities of Pakistan’s outmoded electoral system, to back this up.

But a successful campaign, aided by sections of Pakistani media, to de-legitimize last year’s vote has convinced a large number of people that somehow Khan’s mandate was “stolen” in 2013.

Another opposition group, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), led by a Pakistani Canadian cleric, Tahir ul Qadri wants a systemic change and has a list of undeliverable promises to the electorate. His immediate grievance is the brutal police action against his supporters that left 14 dead in June of this year. Continue reading

After the Army’s public statement, the crisis deepens

My storified tweets on the deepening Political crisis in Pakistan.


Watching the watchdog

“Democracy is like an infertile woman that cannot produce anything”, thundered a popular columnist (a real opinion-maker) at the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America (APPNA) convention held in Washington, DC. A few women participants objected, but overall, the trashing of ‘democracy’ back home in Pakistan was applauded by many a successful professionals present in the audience. Later, at another event I heard the view by a speaker that Muslims and democracy are incompatible. These are not isolated sentences. A worldview that Pakistan’s Urdu media has cultivated considers democracy a colonial legacy that the British left. A few go to the extent of arguing that in an Islamic Republic a Caliphate is the only option.

Another columnist recently wrote how our democratic and constitutional system is the “rotten dress which protects certain segments of society” and now the time had come to decide if we could live with an ‘itchy’ body [politic]. Considering that half of Pakistan’s existence has been under the rule of a narrow group of civil-military bureaucracy, it is difficult to argue how can even a most imperfect democracy not be more inclusive? Continue reading