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Editorials | Article | Middle | Oped

EDITORIALS

Third alternative?
There are too many ifs and buts

T
he
so-called third front so far is a nebulous commodity about which there can be varied opinions, depending on which side of the fence you are. Even if you are an insider, you are bound to have two sets of assessments, one for the public consumption and one for your own. In public, all its leading lights have a right to pretend as if they have already arrived. In private, they know very well that the journey has not even begun in right earnest.

Bengal’s Didi
Spreading her wings far and wide

S
he
has often been described as Lalu Yadav of West Bengal. Feisty, street-smart, earthy and witty. Responding to appeals for withdrawing a farmers’ agitation against Ratan Tata’s dream car project at Singur, she had asked West Bengal to choose between Tata and Atta. And without waiting for a reply, she had, of course, concluded that West Bengal needed Atta more than Tata. 



EARLIER STORIES

Prosecute Varun Gandhi
March 24, 2009
Iran as the US master-key
March 23, 2009
Buy the best for armed forces
March 22, 2009
Jail for Telgi
March 21, 2009
Threat to security
March 20, 2009
Punish Varun
March 19, 2009
Marxist manifesto
March 18, 2009
Restoration of Chief Justice
March 17, 2009
Deepening crisis in Pakistan
March 16, 2009
Manifesto of an unborn party
March 15, 2009
Third Front
March 14, 2009
Pakistan on the brink
March 13, 2009


RTI overload
Why select only retired bureaucrats?

T
here
are justifiable concerns about the information commissions at the Centre and in the states, set up under the Right to Information Act, going the judicial courts way. The Central Information Commission (CIC) and those in the states have no full complement of staff. Neither the Centre nor the states seem to be bothered about filling up of the posts of commissioners. 

ARTICLE

Signals from Washington
Pressure on Pak Army to change mindset
by K. Subrahmanyam
In
the wake of the recent visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary to the US, there have been confusing signals from Washington in regard to their expectations from India on the basis of a review of the strategy the US and NATO expect to implement. There were reports quoting high-level sources that the US has suggested that India should take the initiative to reduce its troops on the Indo-Pak border.This report has been vehemently denied from Washington.


MIDDLE

Seeing a film with kids
by Zahur H. Zaidi

W
hen
I was a child I rarely went to watch a film. Like all good boys I preferred to study instead. And, of course, there was no TV then. As a result, I could never really get to enjoy movies. Later I did begin to watch an odd good film.


OPED

Obama’s gamble
A bold and risky plan to end credit crunch
by Stephen Foley

T
he
long-awaited $1 trillion plan to restore the toxic US banking system to health triggered a bout of frenzied buying on stock markets around the world, as investors bet that the Obama administration is now sketching a road map out of the credit crisis.

The cuckoo will sing no more
by Michael McCarthy

I
n
two or three weeks’ time, you should be hearing it if you get out into the countryside – the unmistakable two-note call, perhaps the most distinctive sound in all of the natural world, that tells you spring is well and truly under way. Even people who have never heard the real thing know the call of the cuckoo.

Inside Pakistan
Questionable past of Justice Chaudhry
by Syed Nooruzzaman

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry’s triumphant return to the Supreme Court of Pakistan is being described as a “revolutionary” achievement in a country that has never experienced judicial independence. Lawyers and members of civil society joined him in his fight for justice. This is something unique that has happened in Pakistan.

 


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Third alternative?
There are too many ifs and buts

The so-called third front so far is a nebulous commodity about which there can be varied opinions, depending on which side of the fence you are. Even if you are an insider, you are bound to have two sets of assessments, one for the public consumption and one for your own. In public, all its leading lights have a right to pretend as if they have already arrived. In private, they know very well that the journey has not even begun in right earnest. They have far too many treacherous bridges to cross before they are anywhere near the political jackpot. Till now, there was even a danger that the Left Front, the prime mover of the third front, might itself gravitate towards the Congress again after the elections in the name of keeping out “communal forces” as in the past. But at least that possibility has become less prominent after CPM general secretary Prakash Karat’s categorical statement that his party would not support a Congress-led coalition at the Centre.

The turn of phrase is more important than the message. The words “what happened in 2004 is not going to be repeated” will hurt the Congress to the quick and it may become that much more difficult to bring about a rapprochement even if pressing need arises. In any case, the Congress will be wary of supping with the Left at least till its betrayal on nuclear deal rankles.

But even the Karat statement may not firm up the third front much. Right now, it is no more than a ragtag band of buccaneers each of whom is driven by his or own personal interests. Many prominent parties had even given a miss to the last meeting. That only indicates the shape of things to come. One thing it has in abundance is Prime Ministerial hopefuls. But their ambitions are hardly the glue which can hide the mile-deep differences. As long as the third front is willing to lend a ladder to Race Course Road, these potential partners in the Left’s reckoning — Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Deve Gowda, et al — may be willing to play ball. Take away the spoils of office and the party may be over. To that extent, the third front may be a misnomer till the election results are out. Prakash Karat may have to do his sums again after the elections. 

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Bengal’s Didi
Spreading her wings far and wide

She has often been described as Lalu Yadav of West Bengal. Feisty, street-smart, earthy and witty. Responding to appeals for withdrawing a farmers’ agitation against Ratan Tata’s dream car project at Singur, she had asked West Bengal to choose between Tata and Atta. And without waiting for a reply, she had, of course, concluded that West Bengal needed Atta more than Tata. In the same vein she brushed aside this week a question whether she regretted driving out the Nano plant from West Bengal. Her acerbic reply was that she was bothered about neither the Nano nor the ‘No-No’ . The ruling Marxists in West Bengal continue to blame her for losing out the plant to Gujarat and are busy using it against her in the campaign. But if Ms Mamata Banerjee herself appears completely unfazed, it is largely because the Marxists themselves are to be blamed for the mess they created at Singur. They glossed over land records, promised to acquire only land producing a single crop but acquired multi-crop land and went on to acquire land without obtaining the farmers’ consent.

Ms Banerjee does seem to have emerged as the rallying point against the Marxists and trying to capture the voice of the long-suffering rural Bengal. She has apparently cobbled a coalition of dissidents, rebels, professionals, ideologues and even naxalites and other radical groups, the CPM’s constituencies. They have been joined by a sprinkling of former bureaucrats, folk idols, singers, actors and academics of Kolkata. Above all, she has gone all out to woo the Muslims, who constitute one-fourth of the state’s population and who are alienated by the Left Front’s shabby treatment to them over the past 30 years. A burqa-clad Mamata Banerjee offering prayers last year to signal the end of fasting for Ramazan was naturally designed to expand her constituency.

This time, however, she has surpassed herself. Her manifesto has hijacked the CPM’s agenda on globalisation, divestment and similar national issues while she herself is reportedly going around promising voters that her party would transform Kolkata into London, North Bengal into Switzerland and Bengal’s coastal areas into Goa—leaving the voters to wonder whether they should take these promises of a windbag seriously.

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RTI overload
Why select only retired bureaucrats?

There are justifiable concerns about the information commissions at the Centre and in the states, set up under the Right to Information Act, going the judicial courts way. The Central Information Commission (CIC) and those in the states have no full complement of staff. Neither the Centre nor the states seem to be bothered about filling up of the posts of commissioners. As a result, there is a huge backlog of cases. While the CIC receives 1,000 appeals every month on an average, as many as 9,500 appeals are pending. If commissioners are not appointed promptly, more cases are bound to pile up. Moreover, as the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct is in force now, it is doubtful whether steps could be initiated to fill in the vacancies now.

The situation is no better in the states. The Punjab Information Commission has been without a chief for past seven months. Consequently, none of the cases earlier being heard either by the division bench or the full bench are now being heard while many have been converted into single bench. The RTI Act provides for up to 10 commissioners in the states, but there are hardly two to three incumbents in most states. This is creating problems and the commissions are ill-equipped to handle the mounting workload.

A more serious problem with the RTI is the tendency on the part of the Centre and the states to appoint retired bureaucrats as information commissioners. The RTI will lose its significance and utility for the common citizens if these commissions are converted into lucrative post-retirement assignments for civil servants. There are complaints that these officers tend to take a lot of time to hear the appeals and, unwittingly or otherwise, subvert the very concept of RTI under the influence of their former colleagues. The Act enables the Centre and the states to select commissioners from a wide range of fields including law, social service and journalism. Then, why select only retired bureaucrats? Admittedly, the Government of India’s Department of Personnel and Training should not have been made the supervising body of both the RTI Act and the cadre controlling authority of IAS and other all-India services. An independent and broad-based council for selecting information commissioners in a free and fair manner may help.

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Thought for the Day

We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. — Edmund Burke

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Signals from Washington
Pressure on Pak Army to change mindset
by K. Subrahmanyam

In the wake of the recent visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary to the US, there have been confusing signals from Washington in regard to their expectations from India on the basis of a review of the strategy the US and NATO expect to implement. There were reports quoting high-level sources that the US has suggested that India should take the initiative to reduce its troops on the Indo-Pak border.This report has been vehemently denied from Washington.

According to Indian sources, the Indian Foreign Secretary had pointed out that it was Pakistan which had transferred forces from its western to eastern border in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and, therefore, any initiative in this regard should emanate from Islamabad.

At about the same time, very rapid political developments have taken place in Pakistan involving reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and reconciliation between the leaderships of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League(Nawaz).There are expectations that the PML(N) government will be restored in Punjab and through their joint efforts Prime Minister Gilani and Mr Nawaz Sharif will get the 17th Amendment cancelled, stripping the President of his powers to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the Prime Minister. During these developments, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to President Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif exhorting them to cooperate and avoid confrontation.It is also widely believed in Pakistan that Army Chief General Kiyani, after he was briefed in Washington during his trip a couple of weeks ago, played a very effective role as a broker among Mr Zardari, Mr Gilani and Mr Nawaz Sharif.

CIA Director Leon Panetta visiting Pakistan in the last few days has made it clear that the Predator drone missile strikes will continue and there will be no change in that strategy irrespective of Pakistani opposition.By the end of the month the US will present its reviewed strategy to NATO at Brussels and there are expectations that the US will embark on consultations with Russia and Iran as well on its AF-PAK strategy. It is reasonable to expect a vigorous US-NATO military action with the onset of spring.

What has passed unnoticed in Pakistan, India and the rest of the world is the systematic attempt by Pakistan to repudiate all policies and versions of history of the Musharraf years.The Pakistan government is going in for a review petition moving the Supreme Court to quash the disqualification of Mr Nawaz Sharif from standing for elections.This would mean setting aside his conviction for terrorism and attempted hijacking of the aircraft in which General Musharraf was travelling on October 12,1999. If that were to happen, then the version so far projected by General Musharraf and his fellow Generals would be called into question and the developments of October 12, 1999, will become an act of usurpation.

By restoring Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to his office, now doubts are being cast on the constitutionality of the Emergency proclaimed by General Musharraf in November 2007. One wonders whether the National Reconciliation Order issued under the Emergency which withdrew all corruption cases against Benazir and Mr Zardari will be questioned before Chief Justice Chaudhry. Lastly, the Islamabad High Court has declared that the case against Dr A.Q.Khan for his alleged nuclear proliferation activities had not been substantiated and, therefore, he was a free man subject only to the conditionalities of the secret agreement between him and the government.This blows sky-high the version of General Musharraf that Dr Khan was the sole proliferator.

Till General Musharraf resigned, the US Administration considered the General as their man and was almost indispensable for their AF-PAK strategy. Originally, they formulated the plan of getting Benazir as the civilian face of an elected government,General Musharraf as a civilian President and General Kiyani as the Army Chief. General Kiyani was fully in the picture on this plan. Benazir’s assassination and rising unpopularity of General Musharraf called for changes in the American plan. Mr Zardari replaced General Musharraf, but it was obvious that he was not equal to the task. Meanwhile, the Obama administration reached the conclusion that General Musharraf had taken the US for a ride for the last seven years and Pakistan was permissive of Al-Qaeda, and the Afghan Taliban and rapidly expanding the Pakistani Taliban.

There were risks of Pakistan being overwhelmed by the Taliban. The problem cannot be solved till the Pakistani Generals accept that India is not the threat but extremism is.The new American Review team evidently has been attempting to persuade General Kiyani and his colleagues to change their mindset and bring in the Pakistan Army to curb and rollback the advance of the Taliban.The argument has presumably not yet settled.Therefore, one gets mixed signals both from Washington and Islamabad.

Pakistan cannot do without the large-scale US economic aid promised to the extent of $ 1.5 billion a year. Its attempts to get aid from Saudi Arabia and China have failed. Therefore, the Pakistan Army has very little option but to join the war against extremists on US terms.The Pakistan Army officer corps, mainstream political parties and civil society all understand that they can no longer hope to have Afghanistan as their strategic depth and also to hope to keep the jihadis under the control of the Inter-Services Intelligence wing.

If the Pakistan Army is to join the war against the jihadis, then the mainstream political parties should not be at each other’s throats. Hence the US’ interest in promoting cooperation between Mr Sharif and Mr Gilani. The Saudi influence on Mr Sharif is likely to have been invoked by the US to promote the Gilani- Sharif entente. Most significant signals on a possible change in the Pakistani strategy are repudiation of the Musharraf policies, the Sharif-Gilani entente and the impending passage of the Kerry-Lugar bill on economic aid to Pakistan to be calibrated with the Pakistan Army’s performance.

There are skeptics in India who justifiably question whether the Pakistan Army will accept such a U-turn. In 1948,1965,1971 and 1999 the Army started with very bold and aggressive plans against India. However, at the end of it in each case, when they found they had no alternative but to accept the realities on the ground, they did so unhesitatingly. They tried to project their setbacks, including Kargil, as victories. But they were realistic and pragmatic and reconciled themselves to the inescapable reality.Now they are facing gravest of all such situations.

While they will try their best to get the maximum of the bargain, they will accept their limitations. It is in this spirit that they are trying to put pressure on the Americans to get some concessions from India on Kashmir and troop withdrawals.While the Americans may pass on the Pakistani demands casually, they are aware that there is no case to press India and they cannot hope to get any Indian concessions at this stage. In India, there is an imperative need to have a realistic assessment of the situation in respect of US-Pak relations.This is different from an assessment on the threat of terrorism from Pakistani soil as it happens to be the epicentre of jihadi terrorism.

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Seeing a film with kids
by Zahur H. Zaidi

When I was a child I rarely went to watch a film. Like all good boys I preferred to study instead. And, of course, there was no TV then. As a result, I could never really get to enjoy movies. Later I did begin to watch an odd good film.

So when it comes to movies, I am most ill-informed. Until very recently I thought that “Driving Miss Daisy” was an animated film about Donald Duck’s girlfriend. And certainly I didn’t know “My Left Foot” from my right one.

But now I am ruled by my children. And these are different times!

The big change is that now I never get to see a film made for grown-ups. But when it comes to kids’ flicks, well, move over Mr. Rajiv Masand, and make way for the real experts!

At least once a month my wife and I take our two little children to the mall cinema. There, after buying enough popcorn and nachos to feed a battalion of the armed police, we take our seats and enjoy outstanding motion pictures such as “Ratatouille” or “My Friend Ganesha”.

We have enjoyed some very tender family moments together as we munched on buttered popcorn. We cried together when the cub Simba lost his father and his happy kingdom in “The Lion King”. We laughed together when an eight-month-old baby thrashed the living daylights out of three hardened criminals in “Baby’s Day Out”.

We cheered together as we watched those immortal tortoises, “Teenage Ninja Turtles” fight for truth, justice and pizzas. Their films give us all hope that even in the 21st century some good may emerge from household pets who grow up to be giant crime fighters.

We also sat through films that were so bad that even my two brats gave them the thumbs down. For example, we were recently subjected to a film which amounted to nothing but cruel and rigorous punishment in a dark cold place. Thankfully, the ordeal was over in less than three hours. To save myself and this newspaper from libel I will not name the torturous motion picture. But after watching this film I have decided to take up arms if the producer makes a sequel.

I must admit that my wife and I get a little weary of watching movies that feature mice or singing crickets in the leading roles. But kids’ movies have a lot of advantages over the films for grown-ups. With the exception of “Tom & Jerry”, kids’ films are never violent. And you will never hear anyone say something like, “Go ahead. Make my day!”

And most important of all, these kids’ films always have a happy ending. The good mice always win!

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Obama’s gamble
A bold and risky plan to end credit crunch
by Stephen Foley

The long-awaited $1 trillion plan to restore the toxic US banking system to health triggered a bout of frenzied buying on stock markets around the world, as investors bet that the Obama administration is now sketching a road map out of the credit crisis.

Tentative signs of stability in the US housing market, at the heart of the financial crisis, added to a rare sense of optimism that the long economic chill might be thawing. While plenty of sceptical voices were trying to be heard, buoyant investors said the rescue plan puts in place an essential building block for a recovery.

At the kernel of the credit crisis are hundreds of billions of dollars of unsuitable mortgages handed out to subprime borrowers in 2005, 2006 and 2007. These loans, parcelled up into mortgage-backed securities and derivatives called collateralised debt obligations, are already going sour in large numbers, as borrowers default and their foreclosed homes are dumped on the market at low prices.

Investors have shunned these securities and derivatives for more than 18 months now, fearful that the US housing market will keep getting worse. When these assets do sell, it is at depressed prices, far below face value. Banks, believing that the housing market will eventually stabilise and most borrowers will not default, do not want to sell in these circumstances.

A similar stalemate has been reached in the market for commercial mortgages and other types of credit derivatives, such as parcels of credit card loans. In all, perhaps $2 trillion of impaired assets is sitting on bank balance sheets. The government hopes that offering taxpayer money to buy them will kickstart the frozen markets and restore confidence more widely.

The Obama administration is proposing to create scores of “public-private investment funds” (PPIFs) with private investors such as hedge funds and pension fund managers. These vehicles, which will be funded on a 50-50 basis by the taxpayer and the private investor, will buy some of the loans and credit derivatives currently held by banks or trading occasionally in the secondary market at depressed prices.

In order to magnify any profits – and make it worth the private sector’s while – the funds will also borrow money, perhaps up to six times the original pot. That debt will be guaranteed by the US government. In total, adding together the private sector’s investment, the government’s stake and all the debt, $1trn could be available to buy toxic assets.

The Treasury first hatched a plan to use taxpayer money to buy toxic assets last September, at the height of the financial panic, but the last Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, dropped it in favour of injecting capital directly into the banks. That was faster, and the Obama administration is promising still more capital injections if needed. The toxic asset purchase plan is back as one part of a much wider set of measures to aid the banking system.

The detail is devilish. Last year’s plan would have not involved any private sector participation at all, but that was rejected because there seemed no way for the government to set an accurate price for the assets it was buying. Now, by involving the private sector in auctions, a market price of sorts will be set. However, it has taken a long time to balance the interests of private investors, the selling banks and the taxpayer.

Not only does this have to be a fair deal for the taxpayer, but it has to be seen to be a fair deal. There is too much public anger at Wall Street for the Obama administration to risk something that looks like another no-strings handout to the finance industry. At first glance it looks to pass that test.

There are no restrictions on executive pay or bonuses for participants, but the government will be paid for making the loan guarantees. Most importantly, by matching private investor equity dollar for dollar, the current plan means that the taxpayer, too, will make the same profit or loss as the private investor – at least unless there is another, unexpected lurch downward by the economy.

In those circumstances, if the underlying mortgages and other loans perform much worse than expected, the value of the assets can be expected to collapse, too. Once the decline is so large that the equity in the PPIF is wiped out, the government debt guarantee will kick in, and the taxpayer will have to eat any additional losses.

Bill Gross, the chief investment manager at Pimco, the biggest bond fund manager in the US, calls it a “win/win/win” scheme and says he will participate. BlackRock, another big fund management group, has also expressed interest. Both think they can even launch “toxic asset mutual funds” the public can invest in.

Especially because PPIFs can leverage returns using cheap government-backed debt, the upside could be substantial if the recession is short and the assets surge in value. Their downside is capped at the level of their equity investment.

But the public furore over bonuses paid to AIG executives, and Congressional plans to confiscate them through a retrospective tax, has made the private sector even more nervous about dealing with the government.

Banks have not been willing sellers of any of these assets for more than 18 months. They do not like the prices the private sector is offering, and many might be forced to recognise big losses if the auction process sets a value below where the assets have been valued on the banks’ books. Financial firms have already recognised more than $500bn in losses on these assets, and some might be pushed into insolvency if they have to recognise more. In contrast to the fund managers, there was no public comment from any of the nation’s big banks yesterday.

The Obama administration is neutral. If the prices the auctions generate are high, that could prove to be a windfall for the nation’s battered banks. If they are low, at least it creates some certainty about how bad things are, which in turn might tempt private investors to recapitalise the salvageable banks. As for the rest, then nationalisation will be back on the agenda in a few months.

By arrangement with The Independent

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The cuckoo will sing no more
by Michael McCarthy

In two or three weeks’ time, you should be hearing it if you get out into the countryside – the unmistakable two-note call, perhaps the most distinctive sound in all of the natural world, that tells you spring is well and truly under way. Even people who have never heard the real thing know the call of the cuckoo.

The cuckoo is a shy, secretive bird. You don’t often glimpse it, you simply hear it, so you can’t see where the call is coming from; but it also has a sort of ventriloquial quality, so you can’t hear where it’s coming from, either.

Put them together – perfect musicality and a mysterious, floating resonance – and you have something unique: there is nothing else like the wandering voice in nature. And when, down the years, it was paired, as an aural signal, with the eagerly awaited change of the turning year, the coming of spring, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in Europe it became one of the most significant, evocative sounds in human life.

It produced a stream of folklore in every country, sayings and stories, proverbs and legends; it inspired composer after composer, from Handel in his The Cuckoo and the Nightingale to Beethoven in his Pastoral Symphony, to Saint-Saëns in his Carnival of the Animals, to Delius with On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.

There is no conventional response to the situation of not hearing a cuckoo in spring where one has always been heard; it is new, and may seem trivial, but the people experiencing it sense profoundly that it is not trivial, even if they are unable to say why.

Yet the cuckoo is not alone. It is just the most prominent of a group of well-loved birds that are vanishing even more rapidly, not only in Britain, but Europe too. These are the birds that migrate to us from deep in Africa, where they spend the winter months, to nest and breed here in the summer; they bring us the spring in doing so.

These summer visitors – the spring-bringers, we might call them – include, besides the cuckoo, the most notable wild creatures in Western culture, such as the swallow, the nightingale, and the turtle dove, whose arrivals and performances have been celebrated for millennia.

The purr of newly arrived turtle doves is famously heard in the Bible: “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” That was the poet who wrote The Song of Solomon, the Old Testament’s most unusual but certainly its loveliest book, celebrating the light but penetrating purring sound filtering out of an olive grove or a vineyard, on an April day, in about 900BC, perhaps, after the bird’s return to Israel from its winter quarters in somewhere like Ethiopia or the Sudan.

Nightingales produce an even more celebrated sound, for the short six weeks after they arrive back from somewhere like Nigeria or Ghana, which for 3,000 years has been held up as the quintessence of birdsong by all of civilised Europe; the bird has formed the basis of Greek and Roman myths and fables, similes by Chaucer, metaphors by Shakespeare and a wonderful ode by John Keats.

Swallows, too, go back to the Bible; they flit through Greek and Latin literature as streamlined spring and summer emblems, swoop through Shakespeare and dip in and out of most of our other literature and folklore, to end up firmly perched on a proverb: one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

The spring-bringers have such a resonance in European literature, legend and folklore that they have transcended national boundaries to become part of Europe’s very essence, to become part of the continent’s distinctive cultural furniture, as much as cathedrals, olive oil or wine

All add immensely to the beauty and excitement of our natural world – and they are slipping away. In recent years, most of these birds have declined in a quite remarkable manner. Between 1994 and 2007, the last year for which there is data, 37 per cent of our cuckoos vanished. So did 41 per cent of our swifts, 47 per cent of our yellow wagtails, 54 per cent of our pied flycatchers, 59 per cent of our spotted flycatchers, 60 per cent of our nightingales, 66 per cent of our turtle doves, and 67 per cent of our wood warblers. All gone in just 13 years.

By arrangement with The Independent

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Inside Pakistan
Questionable past of Justice Chaudhry
by Syed Nooruzzaman

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry’s triumphant return to the Supreme Court of Pakistan is being described as a “revolutionary” achievement in a country that has never experienced judicial independence. Lawyers and members of civil society joined him in his fight for justice. This is something unique that has happened in Pakistan.

The News says, “Those who stand by the CJ, and for justice, must, however, keep in mind that the road they have boldly marched down does not end here. The real purpose of the struggle was, after all, the independence of the judiciary.” Mr Justice Chaudhry stressed the point after he took over as Chief Justice that “the real judiciary has been restored after a long time and now the dignity of the court and the institution will have to be restored….”

President Asif Zardari, who has suffered much loss of face, is unlikely to do anything to undermine the position of the judiciary. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who did not give the judiciary the respect it deserved during his two stints as Prime Minister, too, may not take any step that may go against the independent functioning of this vital institution.

But what about Justice Chaudhry? He may be more conscious about his functioning because of the atmosphere prevailing today though his past is not as clean as it ought to have been.

According to an article by Kaiser Bengali, carried in Dawn (March 23), “in January 2000, he took oath as a Supreme Court judge under the Provisional Constitutional Order promulgated in October 1999. Less than five months later, in May 2000, he was one of the 12 Supreme Court judges who validated General Musharraf’s military coup. Much later in April 2005, he was one of the five judges who dismissed all the petitions challenging General Musharraf’s constitutional amendments and ruled that the Legal Framework Order was right.”

Doubts about NRO

Despite his climb-down on the question of reinstatement of the deposed judges, President Zardari continues to have all the powers that the former military ruler had. He can play an unchallengeable role in the appointment of judges. He has the power to dismiss the elected governments in Islamabad as well as in the provinces. He can sack all the national and provincial assemblies. Whether he will allow amendments to the Pakistan Constitution to deprive him of these powers remains to be seen.

The questions that are being discussed in the Pakistan media also relate to the waiving of the minimum qualification of graduation for contesting elections by the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Dogar, now retired. This was done to help Mr Zardari. Will the National Reconciliation Order (NRO), the legislation introduced during the Musharraf regime for the withdrawal of the corruption cases against Mr Zardari, remain intact despite Mr Justice Chaudhry having taken over as Chief Justice of Pakistan?

A Dawn columnist, Irfan Husain, says (March 21), scrapping of the NRO, if at all it comes about, “will severely damage this government’s prospects of completing its tenure. People forget that the NRO covered over 700 cases, most of them had to do with MQM leaders and workers. If this can of worms is opened, the country’s courts will be flooded with hundreds of cases that will be resurrected.”

Unending turmoil

“The political turmoil that exacerbated the existing polarisation eventually subsided when the two mainstream parties agreed in principle to run the system on the basis of the Charter of Democracy.” This comment carried in The Nation is no different from what many other newspapers have said after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s meeting with Mr Nawaz Sharif at the latter’s farmhouse at Raiwind, near Lahore. But is it really all over? Has the political crisis in Pakistan come to an end?

According to Business Recorder, “As he (Mr Gilani) broke bread with Mr Nawaz Sharif at Raiwind Farm, PPP Information Secretary Fauzia Wahab was telling the media that the PML (N) was ‘conspiring to create differences between the President and the Prime Minister’.”

Given this kind of feeling in the Zardari camp, he may do all he can to prevent the repeal of the infamous 17th Amendment to the constitution, which gives enormous powers to Mr Zardari. He may never allow his Prime Minister, his “yes man” till some time ago, to become stronger. That may be the reason why Ms Wahab told journalists after the Raiwind meeting that the 17th Amendment would be repealed at an “appropriate time”. 

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