governance Category

governance, Pakistan, Politics, Published in Open Magazine

The Fall of Nawaz Sharif

04 August 2017: The Fall of Nawaz Sharif, Open Magazine.

 The story of Nawaz Sharif’s rise and fall is the story of contemporary Pakistan. For him, it matters little if it is the Army or the Court. History has moved in circles for him and yet another uncertain phase of his political career begins

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books, Delhi By Heart, governance, Journalism, Pakistan, Published by Earthen Lamp Journal

A twist in the tale


My Interview conducted by Abdullah Khan for Earthen Lamp Journal:

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

RR: It has been a mad, chaotic yet edifying journey. I have been a civil servant in Pakistan and then with the Asian Development Bank. Learnt a lot for both these careers but I realized that if I had to write, I needed to be free of shackles. However, that dream still eludes as one cannot make a living as a full-time writer. So I have been doing other jobs while attempting to write. I haven’t given up on the idea of becoming a full time writer. [Laughs]

ELJ: What was the inspiration behind your first book, Delhi by Heart?

RR: Delhi by Heart was a result of my discovery of medieval Delhi that even in the twenty-first century captures your attention due to the layers of visual symbols everywhere. I had read the history of India-Pakistan but visualizing it in Delhi was a different experience. As I learnt more about the forgotten chapter of our shared history, I thought there was a book and newspaper articles of essays will not do it justice. The book was also a statement that constructed nationalisms of India and Pakistan were a departure from nine centuries of myriad, contradcitory histories.

ELJ: Pakistan has produced many gifted fiction writers during last two decades. But, on the non-fiction side, there aren’t many popular names. Do you think Pakistani writers prefer the fiction route to tell their stories?

RR: I think there are many who are writing non-fiction as well. But the real acclaim has come through ficiton in an era when global curiosity on Pakistan grew. The novels of Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeeem Aslam provide a window to the world beyond the horrific headlines that are attached to Pakistan and its residents.

ELJ: Your first book Delhi by Heart was a travel memoir, right? What is your latest book, The Fractious Path, all about?

RR: The Fractious Path is actually a collection of commentaries written for a Pakistani newspaper during 2008-13. This was the period when democracy returned to Pakistan after a decade of dictatorship and has continued. The commentaries provide a view on the democratic transition, the issues that Pakistan faced (and continues to face) and how the society is coping with them. Unlike the gloom and doom views, I think my articles capture the struggles of Pakistani civilian actors to reclaim space from civil-military bureaucracy and a shift in our history where the democratic government peacefully handed over power to another civilian government.

ELJ: How do you look at the future of democracy in Pakistan?

RR: The future of democracy in Pakistan is not bleak as pundits used to predict. In fact, there is an inner robustness within the political processes that has enabled the civilian actors. This does not mean that the military has completely retreated into the barracks but the fact that it no longer is in a position (or even interested) to launch a coup is a departure.

At the same time, the politial parties need to instil greater public confidence. Most are dynastic, leader-centric and largely undemocratic structures. But there is immense pressure from the urban electorate especially the young men and women for ‘change’. So the signs are not too bad.

ELJ: From Tahrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan, to the fringe elements in India and Bodu Bela Sena in Sri Lanka, almost all South Asian countries are infested with right wing extremism. How do you see these negative trends?

RR: Pakistan’s case is slightly different from the others. For more than three decades, the Afghanistan connection and wars have led to the growth of elements like TTP. For years, the country has supported militias to attain foreign policy goals. There is some reversal now as the military has been engaged in counterterrorism operations. But in general there is an increase in religious violence in the region. In India, we have seen caste and religion based killings, in Bangladesh secularists are being killed and the government is also clamping down on democratic freedoms. Sri Lanka is reeling under the after effects of a long civil war and the human rights abuses that took place in the wake of it. The reality is that minorities across the region are under threat and this has something to do with the brand of nationalism that most states have espoused. Only a SouthAsian vision can undo this.

ELJ: How important is democracy in Pakistan for continuous peace in South Asia?

RR: Democratic or let’s say representative rule is vital for peace in the region. In Pakistan, the civilian leaders are committed to regional peace as they want the country to progress in economic terms. Similarly, democracy allows for check and balances against executive excesses and inhibits states to indulge in irresponsible tactis.

ELJ: How do you look at the Indian prime minister’s visit to Pakistan? Will the Nawaz-Modi duo solve all pending issues between India and Pakistan?

RR: I think Modi’s Pakistan initiative was fantastic. He surprised and silenced his critics in both countries. But the situation is so complex due to non state actors like Jaish e Mohammad that we need bold political initiatives on both sides. Pakistan must nab and undo the elements that are keen to sabotage peace. I don’t think that the situation would improve soon but all we can do now is to keep the borders peaceful, solve the smaller disputes and encourage people to people contact. The iron curtain built after 1965 war needs to go away.

ELJ: What is going to be your next book?

RR: I am working on a memoir that deals with my recent years of media and public engagement in Pakistan, my decision to leave my country and adjusting to a different soceity even if for a short period of time. More than a book it is a catharsis that I need to undergo. Let’s see if publishers will find it interesting.

ELJ: Do you have any plan to do a fiction book?

RR: Indeed. Now that I am in a small town where many fiction writers live, I am finding the right kind of space and environment to imagine the stories that have been long brewing but could not be penned due to my hectic life in Pakistan. I have realised that phases of solitude and disengagement are necessary for writing. Fiction requires an intense engagement with yourself and I am slowly getting there.

Wish me luck. [Laughs]

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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governance, Pakistan, Politics, Published in the Quint, SouthAsia

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.

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governance, Pakistan, Published by USIP, terrorism

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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development, governance, Pakistan, Published in the Express Tribune, Sindh

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

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governance, Journalism, media, Politics, Published in CNN

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

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