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“Let the process continue and rectify itself”

— Interview of Qamar Zaman Kaira

“Let the process continue and rectify itself”

Qamar Zaman Kaira, former federal minister and a stalwart of Pakistan People’s Party, has been appointed the president of PPP central Punjab, with Nadeem Afzal Chan as the general secretary. He replaces Mian Manzoor Wattoo who was never really accepted by die-hard PPP workers as one of their own.

With the party celebrating its 49th Founder’s Day (Yaum-e Tasees) in Lahore with much fanfare under chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s guard, and Kaira and Chan having taken up the most challenging role in a part of Punjab where the party support has nearly gone dry, expectations are obviously raised.

Is the party being seriously reorganised in Punjab and the rest of Pakistan? Has Bilawal Bhutto assumed charge as the de facto leader? If the credible and articulate Kaira is the political face of the party in Punjab, replacing the likes of Wattoo and Raja Riaz, can the party hope to improve its chances in the province in the next election?

Sitting in the lounge of a townhouse near Sherpao Bridge in Lahore, on a mildly cold November morning, Qamar Zaman Kaira seems in no hurry to answer all these questions. He informs that, henceforth, he will be in Lahore most of the time and keep in touch with the print media, something he could not do as the information minister. Excerpts of the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: Before your selection as the president of PPP Central Punjab, it was thought this bifurcation would end and you would come as president for the entire Punjab. Do you think this is a justified division between central and South Punjab?

Qamar Zaman Kaira: As far as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is concerned, we think this is a genuine demand of the people of South Punjab, and that is why during our tenure, we tried our best to come up to their expectations. We initiated legislation to this effect; there was propaganda against us and a heavy political cost but we think this is their legitimate demand.

We accept that principle to this day and that is how the party is organised. Besides, administratively speaking, it is more feasible to have the province split into two parts.

We could also have used the cushion available to the state to make roads and motorways and make a lot of fuss about it. But we spent the money where it is not visible. Salaries and BISP are not visible the way a road is.

TNS: Both you as president and Nadeem Afzal Chan as general secretary do not belong to the traditional PPP elite with its rural agrarian base. For some time now, the PPP is believed to be out of touch with the fast urbanising, middle class Punjab. With you two at the helm, is the party planning to change that impression?

QZK: The PPP has always represented all the vulnerable, poor and weaker classes; the marginalised sections whether they are smaller nationalities, minorities, workers, peasants and women. Even today, it is the only party that gives a voice to all these classes. Nadeem Afzal Chan is purely from a rural background but he too is not from landed aristocracy; I have a semi-urban background, and we are both from lower middle class. We come from traditional PPP families. I have risen from a very small worker to this level. So if there is any traditional PPP hierarchy, we belong to that. My father had joined the party in 1970.

In Pakistan, the demography has changed rather fast. There is a great change in Pakistani society — there is migration towards cities, urbanisation and social and administrative changes. The issues are different now but some issues remain unchanged like unemployment, bad governance and poverty. Today, Lahore looks like a posh, beautiful city. But if you go inside the city, things are different. The rich and poor neighbourhoods are markedly different.

Similarly, within and between provinces, there are more developed, semi-developed and non-developed areas. So the PPP has to tackle this rural-urban divide, the issue of class; it has to deal with the 70 per cent farmers who are burning their crops out of frustration, the urban people, especially the small traders and workers as well as the government servants.

If we club all these issues together, the urban society does not look all that different. Of course, they need different protections from the state. The party is aware of this and is seriously studying all these things. For us, what needs to be done is to take from the Haves, transfer it to the Have-nots and create a balance, not just between classes but between less and more developed areas. Once our policy is out, you will see a clear reflection of how we plan to address the issues of urban areas.

The bigger issue is that we have to develop the rural areas more, because we are seeing a fast pace of urbanisation and a developing state like Pakistan can’t cope with that. The way to go about it is to provide more facilities in small towns and cities. In fact, if you look at it more carefully, this fast pace of urbanisation is an indication of the failure of the executive — to provide facilities in the rural areas.

TNS: Agreed, but it appears there is a disproportionate influence of urban middle classes in hardcore politics. The pro-farmer policies and even Benazir Income Support Programme did not translate into election victory for the party. Now that the party appears mindful of what to do, the question in a PPP’ voter’s mind is whether it is preparing for 2018 or 2023.

QZK: The PPP, or for that matter any party which is there for all times, has to think of the long term future. So the PPP has to think of 2018 and 2023 and then onwards as well.

For the earlier part of your question, yes we could not translate our efforts into election victory. But you have to compare the Pakistan in 2008 and then in 2013. When we assumed office in 2008, a wave of terrorism had swept the country. Swat and Malakand were in their [Taliban] control, there was no Pakistani flag or law applicable there, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, Bajaur and Waziristan were in their control and there was lot of fear in urban metropolises. We fought it, pushed it back and owned the war [against terrorism]. Terrorism was on the decline in 2013.

The second thing is economy. When we assumed power, Pakistan was food-insufficient, compounded by a world recession in 2008 that continued into the next year. The appetite for Pakistani products had shrunk in the world market; which impacted our exports. The law and order situation in Pakistan was so bad that there was no foreign direct investment. We tried to support the rural economy despite the fact that Pakistan experienced the worst floods in those years, which affected the rural infrastructure and agriculture.

We were exporting wheat and sugar again in 2010. We doubled Pakistan’s revenue receipts in five years. The world economy was shrinking and yet we managed to improve exports, give jobs and raise salaries.

Our view is that we cannot solve all problems of the country just by making roads and metro trains; we need to ease people in other ways too. We launched Benazir Income Support Programme which the present government is forced to continue; though, they don’t like to take the name of Benazir Bhutto and call it ‘BISP’. We could also have used the cushion available to the state to make roads and motorways and make a lot of fuss about it. But we spent the money where it is not visible. Salaries and BISP are not visible the way a road is. So we tried to focus on areas where there was a greater need, in structural reforms.

Also, the federation of Pakistan was badly fractured and the trust between the centre and provinces was lacking. For the first time in the country’s history, we took power from the centre and devolved it to the provinces in real terms, even though people say that democratic governments have never opted for decentralisation.

There still is a lot to be done. I won’t say we did everything.

Then we faced international isolation. When the 2008 Mumbai attacks happened, we did not have the support of a single Muslim country. We created a forum named Friends of Pakistan after which the world started interacting with us. We were able to convince them of our narrative — that if Pakistan has extremism and terrorism, it is not indigenous; it was created by the outside world and we were the worst victims of it.

TNS: So why did the PPP lose?

QZK: The reason why we weren’t successful in translating those achievements into election victory was Iftikhar Chaudhry and media’s role in our tenure. If you look at Chaudhry’s role, it was not that of a chief justice. He did not let the executive or any other institution function.

Whatever the chief justice said, certain media houses toed the line and the rest of the media followed suit. That shaped the public perception. When our intellectuals and educated anchors said the PPP did nothing, it destroyed the country, we told them we fixed the constitution, the economy, to which they said, “But we can’t feed people’s mouths with the constitution”. This was the mindset. We were addressing governance and national questions, so that there could be balanced growth in the society.

We did have our share of mistakes, but that was a transitional phase. The judiciary had just become independent, but its freedom ruined us. Similarly the media was in infancy. Both the institutions rushed things to no good, like a toy in a child’s hands who sometimes breaks it in order to explore it.

The political opposition [ the PML-N] also lied to the nation in order to get votes. They knew there was no electricity in the country and yet they protested and staged sit-ins. They did this for three years. They promised electricity in six months, employment and exports. But look around and you find everything is on the decline. The population is on the rise and so is the trust deficit.

TNS: The electricity situation does look good?

QZK: It looks good for now because the weather has changed. If the rental powers were allowed in our time, it would have been better much sooner. The Neelum-Jhelum project is our brainchild. We started the Mangla Dam rehabilitation work. I, as governor of Gilgit Baltistan, began the land acquisition for Bhasha Dam; they still haven’t been able to complete it. Their projects are yet to materialise. What they are doing is a big joke — bringing the most expensive and inefficient coal-based energy which the people will have to repay in the coming times.

They haven’t done added a single new line. They started with Nandipur Project in a hurry that hasn’t started production.

TNS: There is a strong sense that Bilawal Bhutto has to be physically present in Punjab in order for any positive change to happen for the party. Will he do that and how soon?

QZK: Yes, that sense is correct. But there have to be organisational structures first because the organisations will then invite him over. Bilawal Bhutto has no administrative experience, he hasn’t exercised executive authority, but his vision will be reflected in the party structures that are put in place.

There is an impression that we are not the main opposition. We had two options. One was to pick up sticks, start abusing the government and do everything which would have damaged democracy. But then we would have faced failures like Imran Khan. The second option was to reorganise the party which has been pending for a long time. Bilawal Bhutto has disbanded the old structures and the process of reorganisation is on for the last six to eight months. The provincial organisation has been put in place. By this month, we want to complete the district level organisation that began at the Founder’s Day. In January 2017, we want the union council-level organisations to become active.

Once that structure is complete, we shall focus on other things. The chairman had made five-member committees for each province. They went to each province, met the workers, and sought their opinion. Today, my team and all the office-bearers in other provinces are not there by virtue of the leadership’s choice; it involves the opinion of PPP workers from every district.

TNS: There was a sense the PPP would start its journey in the province from South Punjab. Your election has raised hopes in the rest of Punjab, too. Apart from re-organisation, what’s the plan? Is there a dormant PPP vote that you want to address first or those who have switched loyalties?

QZK: In the first phase, we want to organise those who are there and activate the dormant ones. Then we want to fix the organisational structure, from top to bottom, make real policies with the advice of workers, take our policies to the disgruntled workers and voters, and show them what we can do.

In the second phase, we feel the disgruntled people will come back to us because they have only got disappointments wherever they went. Here [in the PPP], there is a tradition in place.

One view was that we should have held a big public meeting, like Imran Khan did in 2011, and then gone down to the people. In politics, it is very important — this show of strength. The other view was to start from the periphery, organise the party and build a pyramid. We thought if we did a traditional big jalsa and then let the power flow down, the trust deficit would not end. This would be a weaker method.

We can’t pick one issue like corruption and forget poverty or unemployment or CPEC or foreign policy or terrorism, which are the real issues. Countries survive with corruption but they do not survive bad governance, extremism and terrorism. So we need to see all these issues together.

TNS: How do you propose to deal with the PML-N because the PPP voter is considered to be vehemently anti-PML-N while the leadership is believed to have not held Nawaz Sharif sufficiently accountable, the way say Imran Khan has. Considering the voter is not too concerned about civil military imbalance or dangers to the system, what will be your strategy in the coming days?

QZK: If I agree with your submission that the voter is not too concerned about the civil military divide and thinks we should go ahead with our traditional fight, which is popular and may earn us votes but will be damaging for the state of Pakistan, as a leader and as a political party, it is my responsibility to put a check on such popular expectations and do what I consider is right. Because if I take my decisions as per people’s wishes and the fears that I and you have materialise, there will be immense damage to the state and society.

TNS: But how will you wrest back Punjab from the PML-N?

QZK: If I have to choose between getting Punjab back and saving Pakistan, I will pick the latter.

We seriously think that if Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had not returned to the country in 2007 and another term had been given to the dictatorial regime, just as in 2008 there was a boycott of election in Balochistan, if our government had not arrested the expanding terrorism, we would not have seen Pakistan in its present shape. Today, even if we are not in government, Pakistan is better off. We are fighting to let it stay better, we have objected to the CPEC, National Action Plan and discussing with the government on how to strengthen the parliament.

If people think Imran Khan is the real opposition, I want to ask: Was he able to lock down the capital? Now he has again gone to the Supreme Court, for the second time, but his closest allies are not with him. Jamaat-e-Islami, the PTI’s ally in the province, is not supporting him. Sherpao, another of his allies, is not with him.

He may have gained popularity but what did he end up with. The dictatorial style of governance of the rulers, their centrist politics, mega corruption in big projects are there but Imran Khan is only dividing the opposition with his singular politics. Is he opposing them or indirectly supporting them. Our view is that whenever you have to put pressure on the government, the opposition must come together.

If every party starts going solo like Imran Khan, the government would be the happiest. I think people are beginning to understand how to conduct themselves as opposition.

TNS: All explanations aside, the PPP did face a credibility crisis owing to allegations of corruption and lack of delivery etc. Is there a consensus now that it is a new PPP under the leadership of Bilawal Bhutto with virtually no role for Asif Ali Zardari?

QZK: The PPP has different categories of people. Those who had worked with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, followed by the generation that had worked with Benazir Bhutto Shaheed, and I am one of them, and then a third generation of Bilawal and Bakhtawar’s age that has only heard about BB. We have to take all three tiers along. Asif Zardari is a PPP leader and Bilawal’s father. Bilawal is the chairman and will take decisions, but will seek guidance from his father who has a lot of experience anyway.

Regarding the perception of the party, as I said earlier, the Muslim League was not the only opposition. If Shahbaz Sharif uttered falsehood against us, it was picked by the newspapers from where the chief justice picked it and in the evening there were programmes narrating stories of Ajab corruption ki ghazab kahanian. There were headlines and editorials again the next morning. The cycle was repeated on a daily basis till the people started believing it.

I am not saying there was no corruption in our government. Corruption is endemic to the entire society and needs to be countered. But consider the mega projects and the allegations of massive corruption. About the rental power plants, the objection was that the electricity cost will be huge because they use oil. If the rental power had been installed, and the oil prices were as low as they are today, we would have got much cheaper electricity and there would be no load shedding.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled cancellation of all rental power projects. All agreements were called off and it was ordered that all rental power companies should deposit their money with interest. All the companies except one Turkish company (which is in court right nows) deposited the advance money with 14 per cent interest. The question is that if all the money that was advanced to them had been returned, where was the corruption. There was no loss to the state. But the people have been forced into thinking the PPP government made billions of dollars in corruption out of the rental powers.

Likewise for LNG. When the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline could not be negotiated in time because India had left and TAPI was linked with peace in Afghanistan, the only short-term solution was what the present government has done — LNG. When we had just started negotiating LNG with a company, there were articles in newspapers about the loot and corruption and how our next generations would be put in debt because of this. There was suo motu action and the negotiations were stayed. The project was not implemented, the company left, and there was still load shedding in the country.

When this government came, they signed a contract with Qatar. The Supreme Court, the parliament and the media asked them to divulge the rate of LNG or the terms and conditions of the negotiations. They said it was a secret. There was no suo motu or stay order. Today, the same expensive LNG sellers have come to the rescue of the prime minister in the form of the Qatari Prince and his letter.

Those were the conditions when we were in power. Half of our executive was made to stand in the courts every day on matters related to postings and transfers. If the PPP was accused of this kind of security leak, which we are hearing about now, we would have been executed, I tell you.

It is indeed our reservation that the PPP is treated differently than the Muslim League. The rulers from Punjab are supported more and I, as a Punjabi, can feel it. This needs to end, and there should be balanced growth in Pakistan.

Political parties have their share of faults. The solution does not lie in making laws but in letting the process continue. It will rectify itself.

Farah Zia

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