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The Last Secret of the 1971 India-Pakistan War

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By James Maclaren

In the weak December sunlight, the Indian Air Force Hawker Hunter began a second run to strike the heavily defended radar complex set atop the Sakesar Mountain in West Pakistan. Its pilot, Flight Lieutenant Gurdev Singh Rai, knew the terrain well. He had conducted the same bombing run the previous day, dodging the wall of anti-aircraft fire that rose like a curtain from the Pakistani ground forces deployed to protect the base. The 1971 war was only two days old and Rai was part of the enormous air offensive that would decimate its Pakistan Air Force opponents and cripple Pakistan’s navy. That would allow Indian forces in the east of the country to strike deep into East Pakistan and force the capitulation of its forces, resulting in the creation of the new state of Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, Flight Lieutenant’s Rai’s short war was over. The hail of anti-aircraft fire from the ground batteries fatally wounded his aircraft. Rai crashed, and he was declared missing in action by his squadron later that day.

 

Two days later and 4,000 miles away, his younger sister Rajwant Kaur was sitting anxiously in the front room of her modest home in North London. She was watching the BBC’s evening news coverage of the war and alongside her was her husband and their landlord. Suddenly she bolted from her chair and went to the television pointing at the screen. “There,” she said excitedly. “Thank goodness, there is Gurdev.” There on the grainy screen was her brother, dirty and battered but safe, standing in a line of prisoners of war (POWs) guarded by Pakistani troops. Relief washed over her. He would be safe now; however the war went he would come home.

But Gurdev Rai never did come home. Rajwant waited days, then weeks, months, years, and finally decades for news, but she has never seen him or had official news of him since that grainy television picture.

How could this be? Gurdev was a POW and protected by international law. In theory when the conflict ended just a few days later with a decisive Indian victory, completed lists of prisoners should have been exchanged via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As POWs they would have been entitled to mail and fair treatment, and should have been repatriated as soon as possible under internationally monitored arrangements. The 90,000 Pakistani POWs were rapidly returned but the unknown fate of Flight Lieutenant Rai is not an isolated case. When Pakistan produced its list of 635 POWs, 51 suspected Indian POWs from 1971 were not accounted for — leaving their families grieving confused and over time to a large extent forgotten. The earlier conflict between the two countries in 1965 had left three other personnel still unaccounted for, bringing the total missing to 54 men who served in all branches of the Indian Armed Services.

Suspicion that the men may still be alive and held captive by Pakistan continues. Over the years, reports of sightings of the men have emerged. Dr R.S. Suri, father of Major Ashok Suri, at first believed the army when they declared Major Suri as “Killed in action” in the 1971 war. Then in early December 1974 he received a smuggled note apparently from his son saying that he was well. The note had been carried by a released prisoner in Pakistan who claimed Major Suri was still being held in jail. To raise hope further, a second note from Major Suri arrived and was declared sufficiently authentic by the Indian Defense Ministry to have the officer’s official status changed from “killed in action” to “missing in action.”

Various other sightings of the missing men have taken place.

Major A.K. Ghosh was caught on camera by a Time newspaper reporter in late December 1971. A Pakistan radio broadcast in early December 1971 reported that Flight Lieutenant L.M. Sasoon, shot down while on a bombing mission, had survived the wreckage of his Canberra aircraft and was in captivity. The young wife of Flight Lieutenant Ashok BalwantDhavale received his wallet, which included her photograph, and his scarf intact, but despite these personal belongings there was no apparent sign of his body near his wrecked aircraft.

Wing Commander Hersern Singh Gill was by reports befriended by two imprisoned Pakistani officers jailed in Attock military prison in 1973-1974 for their role in plotting a military coup. Other reports suggest that up to 40 unaccounted for Indian prisoners were held in Attock Jail at that time.

A Sikh prisoner repatriated to India reported a meeting in 1983 with a Captain Kamal Bakshi, whom he had met while serving time in Multan Jail. Captain Bakshi’s sister is British and still lives in London.

As late as 2003, a Canadian human rights representative visiting Lahore Jail was called out to by prisoners claiming to be held from the 1971 conflict but was denied contact with them by his minders. Even more recently, in 2012, an Indian carpenter working in Oman reported he had been approached by a fellow Sikh who claimed to be SepoyJaspal Singh and said that he and four other Indian POWs had been held in Oman since 1975, in what would be one of the earliest cases of rendition.

Pakistan has always denied any knowledge of the men. In 1982, Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan, visited India. In a surprise move, he agreed to allow some of the families to have consular access to prisons where it was suspected the majority of the 54 POWs were being held. Six of the families travelled to Pakistan, although the heavily controlled visit yielded no sign of their loved ones nor clues as to where they might be.

As the years have passed, the families’ faith in their own government’s actions in attempting to recover the men have been shaken. The Indian government seems unwilling to internationalize the issue.

In 2015 human rights lawyer Jas Uppal, who runs the U.K. charity Justice Upheld, petitioned the Indian Supreme Court wanting the matter raised with the International Court of Justice as a matter concerning international law. As a result of her petition, the Court received an affidavit from the Indian Ministry of Defense in which it declared that it had no details regarding 54 missing defense personnel believed to be held captive as prisoners of wars (POWs) in Pakistan jails after the 1965 and 1971 wars.

Uppal has had the question of the missing POWs raised in the U.K. Parliament, bringing the attention of the U.K. government to the fact that two of the missing POWs have sisters who are British citizens. However, the Foreign Office declined to become involved, referring to the matter as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Uppal does not consider that good enough.

“Two of the kin of the Indian POWs are British nationals who urgently need the support of their government to ascertain the fate of their kin,” she says. “The British authorities have good diplomatic ties to both India and Pakistan therefore Britain is the best placed to mediate in this situation.”

So far, her calls to elevate the case of the men has gone unheeded.

So, what happened to the missing 54 POWs? There is much evidence that these men survived the combat phase of operations and Pakistan has a history (which continues today) of conducting extrajudicial detention. Its jails hold detainees who fall into special categories of prisoner, determined by the nation’s powerful security apparatus rather than the courts. Many believe that the fear of prosecution by the new nation of Bangladesh for war crimes committed by members of the former Pakistan military meant Indian POWs were held for use as bargaining chips against such prosecution. Over time the prisoners became an embarrassment — possibly to both sides — as the turbulent diplomatic relationship between the two countries never produced the right time to reveal their existence.

This view may be supported by the decision of the Red Cross to keep its records of the Indo-Pak war of 1971 confidential until 2035. The reasons for this remain obscure but suggest that details of negotiations between the two countries are too sensitive to be made public. That’s only a short step from explaining away the missing 54 as simply collateral damage as the two nations struggle to live next to one another. It’s unlikely all of these men have survived nearly five decades in captivity but it’s quite possible that some did. If so, they continue to wait with diminishing hope that their government and international pressure will come to their assistance and allow them to live the last few years of their lives in a dignified manner.

The men have never faded from the memory of their families, who keep hoping to learn the truth of what happened to their loved ones following that short war. Numerous appeals for information and legal applications to both governments and the international community have led nowhere.

Sadly, for Rajwant Kaur, a serious car accident has left her confined to a wheelchair. Yet she still waits, patiently sustained by the hope that one day her brother will walk into the room where she lives alone in a North London suburb and they will be reunited.

Elsewhere, when Indians celebrate December 16 as “Vijay Divas” (Victory Day) the families to whom the 54 POWs never returned will have mixed and muted feelings as they wonder whether their loved ones remain hidden after all this time behind a Pakistani prison door.

(Source: thediplomat.com)


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Opinion

The new citizenship bill and the Hinduisation of India

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By Apoorvanand

On January 8, India’s lower house of parliament approved a bill that would grant residency and citizenship rights to undocumented non-Muslim immigrants, sparking protests in the country’s northeast. The protests took place mainly in the state of Assam, where millions of people were accused of being foreigners and effectively stripped of their citizenship last year.

The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which still needs the approval of the upper house of parliament, seeks to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act to make Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from three Muslim-majority countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – eligible for Indian citizenship. This would mean migrants belonging to these religious communities who entered India without the necessary documents prior to 2014 would not be imprisoned or deported and would gain permanent citizenship after six years of residency in India.

 

The government says the bill aims to provide succour to persons who have been persecuted in their homelands because of their religious identities and who have “nowhere else to go but India”. The proposal assumes persons who identify as Muslim cannot be persecuted in Muslim-dominated countries, and therefore excludes all Muslim immigrants. Hence, members of the Ahmadiya and Shia communities of Pakistan, despite being persistently targeted by extremists, would not be able to seek refuge in India.

The bill has been widely criticised for attempting to make religion an eligibility criterion for Indian citizenship – an act that would fundamentally alter the secular character of India.

Critics have questioned the reasons behind the government’s decision to limit the scope of this bill to migrants from Muslim-majority neighbours of India. Some have argued that the fact that the proposal excludes thousands of undocumented immigrants from Sri Lanka, Nepal and most importantly Myanmar implies that the Indian government is not at all concerned about the persecution of minorities if they are not living in Muslim-majority countries.

Indeed, when members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority sought refuge in India after being persecuted in their home country for their religious and ethnic identity, the Indian government did not attempt to provide any legal protection for them. On the contrary, the members of the government perceived these desperate refugees as a threat to India and made attempts to force them out of the country.

In this context, the claim that this bill is a humanitarian gesture aiming to help people in need does not hold. So what is the Indian government’s real motivation for supporting this bill?

The governing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) main strategist for the northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, recently exposed the real purpose of this bill: protecting India’s so-called Hindu identity.

Before the citizenship bill was put to a vote in the lower house of parliament, Sarma, who is also the finance minister of the state of Assam, said, “If this Bill is not passed, then Hindus in Assam will become a minority in just next five years. That will be advantageous to those elements who want Assam to be another Kashmir and a part of the uncertain phase there.”

And soon after the bill was passed, the minister argued that this decision may have prevented Muslims from taking control of Assam’s 17 assembly seats and the Muslim leader of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Badruddin Ajmal, from becoming the chief minister.

By using the potential electoral success of Muslim Indian citizens, who have every right to contest and hold public positions, as a way to legitimise the citizenship bill, Sarma clearly demonstrated that the purpose of this bill is not to “help” anyone, but to protect and promote Hindu supremacy in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also previously admitted that the bill is tied to his party’s desire to make India a Hindu nation that prioritises the rights of Hindus irrespective of their citizenship.

During a rally in Assam’s Bengali-Hindu dominated region of Silchar, Modi said that the citizenship bill is an “atonement for the past mistakes of partition”.

Emphasising that he believes blood relations are more important than the “colour of passports”, he promised the region’s Bengali-speaking Hindus that he would make sure that they will be accepted and welcomed by “mother India” by passing this bill.

Today, Assam is at the centre of protests about the proposed amendment to India’s citizenship bill and this public anger has historical roots.

During Bangladesh’s bloody struggle for liberation from Pakistan in the early 1970s, many Bengalis moved to Assam. Over the years, their increasing numbers stirred anxieties among the indigenous Assamese people about the preservation of their distinct culture and ownership of land. As a result, between 1979 and 1985, an “anti-foreigner” agitation – dubbed the “Assam movement”, targeting the Bengali immigrants – erupted in the state.

To end the violence, India’s central government signed the Assam accord with the leaders of the Assam movement in 1985. The accord specified that only people who could prove that either they or their parents had entered or lived in India prior to March 1971 can assume Indian citizenship and legally reside in the state of Assam.

Last year, a new National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared in the state to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants according to the rules set by the 1985 accord. This list included only 28.9 million of the 32.9 million people residing in the state, rendering nearly four million people stateless.

The decision to denationalise millions of people was widely supported by Assam’s indigenous population, which still fears their culture may be decimated by the influx of “foreigners” and widely criticised by India’s Bengali communities and international observers. The Assamese’s main fear is that Bangla-speaking people from neighbouring Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion, would come to dominate Assam. Hindu and Muslim Assamese are united on this viewpoint and they all want undocumented immigrants to be kicked out of the state.

However, with this new citizenship bill, the BJP government is trying to convince Assamese Hindus that their loyalty should lie not with the indigenous Muslim communities of their state – who speak their language – but with Bengali Hindus. For now, the majority of Assamese Hindus seem not convinced by Hindu nationalist arguments.

The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), the successor of the Assam movement, has already severed ties with the BJP and expressed its displeasure over the move. The AGP and its allies see in this move an attempt by the BJP to lure as many Hindus from Bangladesh as possible to this region, which, they think, would make it Bengali-dominated and eclipse the local cultures.

The citizenship bill needs to be seen as a part of the BJP’s larger ideological and political agenda to transform India into a “Hindu homeland”. The governing party believes India belongs to Hindus and everyone else are invaders, or at best latecomers, who should expect nothing more than a guest status.

The BJP is clearly using this bill to send a message to the Hindus in other parts of India that under their rule, “Hindus will always come first”.

From the very beginning, the BJP viewed the NRC as way to rid the country of Muslim “foreigners”. Using this citizenship bill, the governing party is trying to make sure no Hindus are harmed by the NRC and their quest to expel Muslims from India can continue without complications.

If this bill gets the approval of the upper house in the coming days, it will not only cause division and conflict in the northeast of India but will significantly contribute to the ongoing Hinduisation of India.

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Opinion

Are they really concerned about India’s poor?

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By Alf Gunvald Nilsen

On January 9, the upper house of India’s parliament – the Rajya Sabha – passed a constitutional amendment to lift the cap on reservations in education and public sector jobs from 50 to 60 percent. The next step is for the bill to receive presidential assent, but its fate is still somewhat uncertain, given the possibility that it might not withstand judicial scrutiny and be struck down by the country’s Supreme Court.

What is certain is that this initiative has proven deeply controversial. Opposition parties have criticised its legality, intent, and practicability, while public intellectuals such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has labelled it cynical politics and cynical policy.

 

Reservations are what passes for affirmative action in the Indian context, and entail, simply put, a percentage of state and central government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions being reserved for Dalits and other lower caste groups. This form of affirmative action has colonial antecedents, and was written into the constitutional backbone of India’s political system after the coming of independence as a means of improving the condition of groups who were thought to be suffering from social and educational backwardness.

Reservations were initially limited to Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes). However, in the early 1990s, in accordance with the recommendations of the Mandal Committee Report, reservations were expanded to encompass other lower caste groups (Other Backward Classes) as well. In 1992, the Supreme Court imposed the 50 percent cap on reservations, which is currently in the process of being overturned, avowedly to avoid compromising the constitutional principle of equal access.

What is crucial about the constitutional amendment that has now successfully made it through parliament is the fact that it is delinked from caste. The additional 10 percent of reserved jobs and seats in higher educational institutions that is to be introduced by removing the current 50 percent cap is intended to benefit what the Modi government refers to as “economically weaker sections” that do not fall under the categories Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, or Other Backward Classes – that is, so-called general category poor.

Economically weaker sections are defined as households with an annual family income of less than $11,345 (800,000 rupees) a year, who do not own more than two hectares of agricultural land or a house that is larger than 1,000 square feet.

However, as commentator Ajaz Ashraf has pointed out, upper caste groups are expected to benefit disproportionately from this policy measure, as their high levels of education, as well as their accumulated social capital, will most likely enable them to corner most of the benefits.

This is why Modi’s scheme has come to be scorned as “upper caste reservations” that erase the fact that, in India, affirmative action was introduced specifically to remedy the indignity of caste-based discrimination. In this regard, it is also significant, of course, that the economic criteria for eligibility have been defined in such a way that nearly all Indian households qualify – a fact that, according to Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy, renders the constitutional amendment nothing less than ridiculous.

Modi is making this move in no small part due to an electoral imbroglio that is emerging from his project of authoritarian populism. His electoral success in 2014 was based on the fact that he and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to extend their base of support from the urban upper caste and middle class groups that have been the main supporters of Hindu nationalism in electoral politics to incorporate Other Backward Classes, Dalits, and Adivasis.

From 2016 onwards, this bloc began to crumble. Dalit and lower caste voters began to abandon the party, and Modi was the target of large-scale protests both by Dalits and farmers. Modi has attempted to stem this tide – for example by reversing the Supreme Court’s decision to relax the provisions of laws aimed to prevent violence and atrocities against Dalits – but this seems in turn to have resulted in the alienation of upper caste voters. As the 2019 general elections are looming on the horizon, Modi is now attempting to shore up the support of the BJP’s main vote base.

In doing so, he is appealing to upper caste and middle class groups who resent caste-based reservations due to the profoundly mistaken belief that affirmative action prevents social mobility based on merit. He is also attempting to appease Hindu nationalist hardliners who have recently called for caste-based reservations to be abandoned in favour of reservations based on economic criteria.

“Poverty does not see caste,” argues Desh Ratan Nigam – a leading activist with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, the BJP’s ideological parent-body – and therefore reservations should be based on economic criteria.

How should progressive forces in India respond to this initiative? A good starting place is to point out that Nigam is as wildly incorrect in his assertion that poverty does not see caste as he was in his ludicrous claim that the Taj Mahal – which was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan – was in fact a Hindu temple.

According to the Oxford Poverty and Development Initiative, 65.8 percent of India’s Dalits, who predominantly earn a living as wage labourers, and 58.3 percent of the country’s lower castes are poor. By contrast, 33 percent of the rest of the Indian population are poor. The fact that poverty in India is structured in this way testifies to the truth of the claim made by Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde that “beneath the veneer of a modern developing superpower, India remains a republic of caste.”

Closely linked to this must be the argument that reservations were never intended to be an anti-poverty measure, and that it is therefore disingenuous when the BJP speaks of it as such. However, this point in turn needs to be connected to a progressive critique of the limitations of reservations for the politics of social justice. Again, Anand Teltumbde’s reflections are instructive.

Reservations, he argues in a recent interview, were never about rooting out caste – if that had been the intention, the caste system as such would have been abolished, which it was not. Moreover, the persistence of dramatically low social development indicators among Dalits suggests that reservations have done little to achieve progressive change even on their own terms. Advancing social justice for Dalits, he suggests, has to be linked to a struggle for universal social citizenship, which can grant access to healthcare, education, and secure livelihoods.

This perspective provides a way in which to link struggles against the injustice of caste with the political economy of inequality in India – a political economy that is writ large in the fact that in a country which has grown at an average rate of 7.3 percent since 2007, 57 billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of the country’s population, while at the same time India’s social development indicators are much weaker than those found in far poorer neighbouring countries.

Importantly, that link is already being forged by Dalit activists who couple claims for dignity and recognition with demands for social justice and redistribution, and it is quite possible that it is struggles such as this that can consign the republic of caste to the dust heap of history where it belongs.

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Opinion

Missing leadership in Pakistan

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By Miftah Ismail

One of the first things you learn in management is that you can delegate authority but you cannot delegate responsibility. Indeed, the central traits of effective leadership are to motivate your team, led by example and to accept full responsibility for any failure.

A great trait of Imran Khan as cricket captain was his ability to lead from the front. He was able to take wickets when partnerships threatened and anchor the innings when collapses were imminent. He not only made things happen but took responsibility for his and his team’s failures.

 

Prime Minister Imran Khan, although often called ‘Kaptaan’, has yet to show anything close to his leadership traits as a cricket captain. Not only is he not able to lead by example or motivate his team, he is especially averse to taking responsibility for the failures of his government.

This is the reason there seems to be so much infighting within his team, and his players are neither willing to work hard nor exhibit discipline and nor certainly willing to accept responsibility.

Take the example of the recent devaluation of the rupee, after which the prime minister said he wasn’t informed, the governor of the State Bank (a man with an unblemished record of integrity and probity) said that he did inform the finance minister and the finance minister too said he did inform the prime minister. The rupee went down by about eight to ten percent, came back up by seven to eight percent a day or so later, there was great turmoil in the currency markets, and to this day we don’t know who first decided to devalue the rupee, who then decided to appreciate the rupee and who was responsible for the whole turmoil. No one led from the front.

Then there is the urban legend of Pakistanis having $200 billion in Swiss bank accounts. When the myth started, it was just Pakistanis having this money in the bank. But then over time in the speeches of Imran Khan and other PTI leaders the myth gained momentum. It became money that was illegally sent abroad by Pakistanis. It then became money that was even illicitly earned by Pakistanis. And finally it became illicitly-earned, laundered money of (non-PTI) Pakistani politicians.

According to PTI leaders, PM Imran Khan was going to bring back the money in no time and in the words of Imran Khan himself this would result in a ten-year tax holiday, reduction in prices, creation of jobs, etc, etc. However, it took only a week into the new government for the myth to be laid to rest.

No one took responsibility for this incessantly repeated falsity and no one ever expressed regret over misleading the nation. The finance minister kicked the ball down to the accountability adviser who then kicked the ball further down the field.

(For all our expert financial and media experts who had been baying for the blood of politicians over the $200 billion, here’s a reality check. It is inconceivable that from a poor country like Pakistan where there aren’t even a dozen private jets there would be even a thousand accounts in Swiss banks. For there to be $200 billion held by Pakistanis, there would need to be an average of $200 million cash holding in each account. Not even billionaires, of which there are no more than ten in Pakistan, have this much money in cash. This myth would have died a death under the burden of its own implausibility had someone spent perhaps ten minutes thinking about this preposterous claim).

All of this brings me to the completely avoidable electricity loadshedding coupled with the massive gas shortages going on all over the country. I wrote about this last week in this space, saying that the crucial mistake was the government not procuring enough LNG to run all the available gas-fired plants.

This much is now apparent even to our ‘tabdeeli sarkar’. They first stopped the import of furnace oil (something our PML-N government had done last year but which for some inexplicable reason was restarted after we left). They are now scurrying about trying to import more LNG. Fortunately, both these are steps in the right direction.

But no one in the ‘tabdeeli sarkar’ is willing to accept responsibility for their failure and for causing the country perhaps a billion rupee per day extra loss due to using wasteful furnace oil plants and closing down factories.

First, the government set up a committee to find out if the MDs of Sui Southern and Sui Northern were responsible for not ordering LNG and causing gas and power shortages. This committee was headed by the Ogra chairperson, a woman who understands the gas sector as well as anyone else in the government. The committee exonerated the two MDs and explained, among other things, why the import of furnace oil had caused a decrease in the production of domestic gas.

The government was not happy with the report as it didn’t recommend what it wanted. So another report was ordered, this time under the petroleum secretary, the top bureaucrat in the sector. He too wrote a report largely exonerating the two MDs and blaming a lack of coordination among the ministries as the prime reason for not ordering enough LNG. But, perhaps understanding the mood of the government and the temperament of his own minister, he recommended that the MDs may be issued a warning to perform better and that there should be improved coordination between the power and petroleum ministries.

Winter loadshedding, however, is an embarrassing failure of the PTI government – and neither the prime minister nor his ministers are willing to accept the blame. So someone had to be made the scapegoat. Both the MDs were fired, even though neither report had recommended it.

When the petroleum minister was asked about the shortage he blamed – well, obviously – the previous PML-N government. When it was pointed out that the PML-N had left seven months ago, and that it had set up the infrastructure for the import and regasification of LNG, for transportation of gas and also sufficient power plants, he then egregiously blamed the two MDs. Yet from him not one word of contrition, much less an apology.

The power minister, however, had the grace to express regret that people are suffering from these power outages.

Sadly, however, no minister or the prime minister is taking responsibility for the great hardship caused to the people and the huge loss faced by the government and the economy.

And what does this say about the Kaptaan’s leadership? As an opposition member, I have always believed that PM Khan didn’t understand the complexities of governance, that he was too tolerant of his party’s shortcomings and that his unshakable belief about the PML-N being corrupt was not just self-serving but also plainly wrong.

However, like much of the nation, I always thought he would be a strong and decisive prime minister. Unfortunately, it is now becoming patently obvious that he’s not really the Imran Khan of the 1992 World Cup but more like a journeyman cricketer happy to keep his place at the top.

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