Ballots over bullets

April 19, 2008

Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, in The Times of India:

Kathmandu: Mao is dead; long live Mao. The Great Helmsman maybe in a mausoleum in Beijing, but he is alive and kicking in Nepal.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Maoists were supposed to come to power by the barrel of the gun. In Nepal, they have been voted to power. With results of last week’s elections nearly in, it’s been a rout. The Maoists have got 50 per cent of the votes in the first-past-the-post ballot, with the mainstream Nepali Congress (NC) with just 14 per cent and other parties trailing further behind.

The result has left pundits scratching their heads, foreign embassies in Kathmandu are red-faced, the NC and CPN-UML are too stunned to even speak. Even the Maoists themselves were surprised by the vote.

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Nepal’s Maoist landslide

An electoral earthquake reflects the social distance that had grown between Kathmandu’s elite and media and Nepal’s people, says Prashant Jha, a political analyst with Nepali Times, in OpenDemocracy:

The results of the general election in Nepal on 10 April 2008, won overwhelmingly by the Maoists – officially the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – have come as a complete shock. Many people thought the former armed rebels would be a distant third, winning perhaps fifteen-to-twenty of the 240 seats directly elected to the constituent assembly under a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system (335 of the remainder are elected under proportional representation). Some argued that the Maoists would do better than conventional wisdom in the capital Kathmandu suggested, giving them about thirty-to-forty of the FPTP seats. Only a few voices sensed the people’s desperate yearning for change, the Maoist base among the young and marginalised, and flagged the possibility of the party coming in second – or first.

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Triumph of the new mainstream in Nepal

By voting in the Maoists, the Nepali people have chosen the party most likely to push for an egalitarian society and inclusive republican system in the Constituent Assembly. Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu:

After failing to recognise the obvious groundswell of support that had built up for the Maoists in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in Nepal, India needs to move quickly to adjust itself to the new power balance. Despite receiving reliable field reports of the widespread support the Maoists were enjoying across the country, South Block deluded itself into believing that the former rebels would be at best a distant third. Bogus surveys commissioned by t he U.S. embassy in Kathmandu in which the Maoists were shown as winning only 8 to 10 per cent of the popular vote started circulating within the corridors of power in New Delhi. Accordingly, the foreign office’s contingency planning revolved around coping with the fallout of a poor showing by the former rebels. Even here, the official assessments showed scant understanding of the ground reality with improbable scenarios like a Maoist “urban insurrection” being bandied about.

More on his blog:


Nepal’s “radical Democrat”

April 17, 2008

Flanked by portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Baburam Bhattarai, the chief ideologue of the Nepal’s Maoists, spoke to Nepali Times about sleepless nights, his party’s economic agenda and about whether he’d been offered the prime ministership.

Nepali Times: How does it feel to arrive here after the long journey from a village in Gorkha?
Baburam Bhattarai: There is a deep sense of responsibility, and that comes from the fact that I was born in an ordinary village family, my mother can’t read or write, my father is a farmer. As a child I used to tend livestock and help in the farm, and when I went to high school I had to carry water and cook for myself. From that to be able to go to a good school and be educated, and to have that contrast in one lifetime is fascinating in a way. But now we have been brought to this position where we have to try to resolve issues of national importance, there are enormous aspirations, there is lots to do but we have very little time and resources. It makes us somewhat anxious, thinking about whether we can do it or not. There are sleepless nights, getting up at three in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep.

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Nepal’s perilous ascent

April 10, 2008

Manjushree Thapa, the author of “Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy,” in The New York Times:

Nepalis will vote today for the first time since a democratic uprising in 2006 that rejected King Gyanendra Shah’s absolute rule and led to a peace deal that ended a 10-year Maoist insurgency. This is not an ordinary election. We will be voting for a 601-member constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution that most likely will abolish the monarchy and will certainly restructure Nepal.

It is compelling, and moving, to live through the remaking of one’s nation.

Still, Katmandu has grown hushed and watchful, and anxious, as Election Day has neared. In previous weeks, the political parties staged rallies, canvassed door to door, and filled the streets with scratchy loudspeaker announcements imploring us to vote.

[Nepal is voting in landmark elections today, March 10]

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Bhutan: First step towards democracy

March 22, 2008

From Associated Press (via IHT):

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Thimphu, Bhutan: The command came from the king, as commands normally do in a nation where royalty has ruled for a century. But when the Precious Ruler of the Dragon People spoke that day, he stunned this deeply isolated corner of the Himalayas: The age of monarchs is ending, he said, and power should be yours.

That was a little over two years ago. Now, on the eve of national elections Monday that will upend a system rooted in feudal monarchism, much of the country remains unconvinced there should even be a vote.

Just ask the candidates. “If you had a referendum, even today, Bhutan would reject democracy. That’s the ground reality,” said Khandu Wangchuk, the burly, gravel-voiced former foreign minister who is running for a seat in the western town of Paro. “But there’s no use wishing democracy away.”

What most people want is what they’ve always had: a powerful king.

[Photo: Bhutan's King and the Crown Prince]

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Smile census: Bhutan counts its blessings

In The Wall Street Journal, Peter Wonacott reports from Thimphu:

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GNH (Gross National Happiness) is about to face a series of big tests. On Monday, Bhutan will hold its first democratic election. That will install a parliament, pass a new constitution and dilute the powers of a popular monarch. Later this year, Bhutan plans to join the World Trade Organization, even though its industry comprises little more than high-end tourism and hydroelectric power.

As Bhutan enters these uncharted political and economic waters, its leaders want to prove that they can achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture. To do that, they’ve decided to start calculating GNH. It means coming up with an actual happiness index that can be tracked over time.

[Photo: The Punakha dzong, one of Bhutan's most beautiful buildings]

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A new deal in Pakistan

March 18, 2008

William Dalrymple in the New York Review of Books:

You can see the results of a system dominated by landowners in a town like Khairpur, a short distance from Sukkur in the northern part of Sindh. As you drive along, the turban-clad head of the local feudal lord, Sadruddin Shah, with a curling black mustache, sneers down from billboards placed every fifty yards along the road. Shah, who was standing, as usual, for no less than three different seats, is often held up in the liberal Pakistani press as the epitome of all that is worst about Pakistani electoral feudalism. After all, this is a man who goes electioneering not with leaflets setting out his program, but with five pickup trucks full of his men armed with pump-action shotguns and Kalashnikovs.

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In Peshawar, a dream of a peaceful life

February 24, 2008

Music and dancing are back as a poll landslide for secular parties brings a vibrant change to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. Jason Burke in The Observer.

Sinking back in his armchair, Maulana Shuja ul-Mulk strokes his thick beard with one hand and the fluffy tail of a small toy dalmatian with the other. ‘We were surprised by the results,’ he admits from a supporter’s home in the small rural western Pakistani town of Mardan, ‘but we believe in democracy.’

Whether the claim is true or not, the hard political reality is that Mulk and his hardline religious party are now out of power. In the 2002 election, he and scores of other ultra-conservative clerics swept into government in Pakistan’s turbulent North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on a tide of anti-Americanism and resurgent religious enthusiasm, vowing to impose Islamic law. But in last week’s national and provincial polls, voters backed secular and liberal candidates and evicted the ruling alliance of religious parties.

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Running on hope

Employment, security and freedom are what the common man in Pakistan dreams of. Travelling through Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi — first after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and then for the election — Subhajit Roy of Indian Express pieces together Pakistan’s story of despair and dreams.

It’s the night of Sunday, February 17, the night before Pakistan goes for the “mother of all elections”, and in posh seaside Clifton area in Karachi, a group of about 150 young men in 15 cars and tempos and a dozen bikes are dancing to the tune of a Benazir Bhutto song in full volume. Waving the Pakistan People’s Party banners and flags, these young men are dancing, clapping, shouting, laughing.

That is the first sight of pure relief and happiness in Pakistan that I see in the past two months of my fly-in-fly-out visits to the country, after what can be described as a ‘stressful’ period in the country’s history. After eight years of military rule, people don’t know whether it’s over yet. And after months of collective depression, it is as if these young men-most of them studying or unemployed-have sniffed victory in Karachi’s cool sea-breeze nine hours before the country goes to the polls.

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I will stay on job: Musharraf

February 21, 2008

pakelection.gifA day after Pakistan held historic elections that restored the nation to civilian rule, President Pervez Musharraf talked to Peter Wonacott, senior South Asia correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, in Islamabad:

President Pervez Musharraf, confronted with a crushing political defeat, said he intends to stay in office to guide Pakistan’s democratic transition — even if it means working with a man he believes once tried to kill him.

In an interview a day after a landmark national election delivered resounding losses to his allies in Parliament, Mr. Musharraf said he has no plans to step down. Instead, he said he wanted to help end the internecine battles between presidents and prime ministers that have marred Pakistan’s political history and precipitated military interference in the government.

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Musharraf Q&A: ‘We Have to Move Forward’


U.S. ponders next steps in Pakistan

February 20, 2008

Helene Cooper in The New York Times:

The Bush administration was scrambling Tuesday to pick up the pieces of its shattered Pakistan policy after the trouncing that the party of President Bush’s ally, President Pervez Musharraf, received in parliamentary elections. The United States would still like to see Pakistan’s opposition leaders find a way to work with Mr. Musharraf in some kind of power-sharing deal, administration officials said, but that notion appears increasingly unlikely given how poorly Mr. Musharraf’s party did in the elections, against strong showings by the Pakistan Peoples Party of the late Benazir Bhutto and the party of Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister.

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Pakistan election: rise of the middle classes

February 19, 2008

The election has been a quiet triumph for upwardly mobile urban Pakistanis, says Jason Burke on The Guardian website.

Drive down the Grand Trunk Road from Lahore to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and you would be forgiven for thinking that the idea that the strip of ragged bitumen symbolises Pakistan’s new prosperity is a bit far-fetched. The road slices across green fields with their bent-backed peasant farmers, scruffy bazaars and through rubbish-strewn cities such as Gujranwala. The landscape is hardly a picture of wealth and stability.

But, if you had travelled the road 10 years ago, you would be less inclined to argue. You might notice the number of new factories, the cheap concrete “shopping malls” with their tile and glass facades and the swarms of Suzuki Mehrans, the tiny four door car which is Pakistan’s best-selling vehicle.

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An extraordinary encounter with Musharraf

February 18, 2008

Jemima Khan is granted a rare interview with Pervez Musharraf. In The Independent, UK:

‘Since you were so kind as to greet us in London at Downing Street last month, the President would like to return the favour,” announces Major-General Rashid Qureshi, President Pervez Musharraf’s PR man over the phone. Only in Pakistan could the government’s head of spin be a retired major-general. He is referring to my last encounter with the President on 28 January – when, along with a 2,000-strong, placard-waving, slogan-jeering mob, I protested on the main road outside 10 Downing Street while Musharraf discussed democracy with Gordon Brown over lunch inside. On the way in he waved at us. Clearly he’s a man who is not afraid of confrontation. Much to the justifiable fury of every journalist in Islamabad, he has now granted me an exclusive half-hour interview despite or perhaps because of the fact that I have recently described him as one of the most repressive dictators Pakistan has ever known.

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The politics of paranoia: Jemima Khan reports from Islamabad

Pakistani elections are excellent value for the spectator. There are the huge, colourful jalsas (rallies) providing free entertainment; the raucous but generally good-humoured demonstrations at which effigy-burning is a staple; the slanderous mud-slinging between candidates who will soon be making expedient last-minute deals with each other; and the endless titillating conspiracy theories.

As the wife and constant Achilles’ heel of a hapless former contestant, I, too, have been in the line of fire. In 2002, I was apparently a Rushdie-loving apostate after admitting I had read his novel Shame. The previous time, I was a Zionist conspirator with a £40m election budget provided by my (half) Jewish father to further the cause of Israel. Yet the fact that Pakistan has become a nation of conspiracy theorists is hardly surprising, given the decades of fraudulent and mendacious politics.

More in The Independent:


Missing in Pak: Mr Candidate

February 17, 2008

In The Telegraph, Calcutta, Sankarshan Thakur’s report from Lahore on the eve of elections in Pakistan:

It’s odd to bring you the first report on an election on the last day of campaigning. But in a sense it’s fitting because there has really been no campaign to speak of.

Lahore should have been a raucous swirl of rival bandwagons today as the deadline ran out; it was merely its daily humdrum self. The babble all belonged to the weekend bazaars; if this campaign ever had a decibel, it was too low to catch the street’s ear.

“Oye, lection te atte-jatte rainge, bauji, Chaman ke angoor le lo, kal is rate pe nai millange,” countered the fruit vendor in the midday mill of Mall Road, perhaps a little irascible that he was having to waste precious time talking politics.

“Hamare paas to na koi vote maangne aaya, na hum kisiko denge.” (Elections will come and go, buy these grapes from Chaman, you won’t get this rate tomorrow. Nobody came to seek my vote and I am not giving it to anyone.)

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In Pakistan, Islam needs democracy

February 16, 2008

Waleed Ziad, an economic consultant and an associate at the Truman National Security Project, in the New York Times:

While it’s good news that secular moderates are expected to dominate Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on Monday, nobody here (in Karachi) thinks the voting will spell the end of militant extremism. Democratic leaders have a poor track record in battling militants and offer no convincing remedies. Pakistan’s military will continue to manage the war against the Taliban and its Qaeda allies, while President Pervez Musharraf will remain America’s primary partner. The only long-term solution may lie in the hands of an overlooked natural ally in the war on terrorism: the Pakistani people.

This may come as a surprise to Americans, but the Wahhabist religion professed by the militants is more foreign to most Pakistanis than Karachi’s 21 KFCs. This is true even of the tribal North-West Frontier Province – after all, a 23-foot-tall Buddha that was severely damaged last fall by the Taliban there had stood serenely for a thousand years amid an orthodox Muslim population.

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Bhutto ghost dominates Pakistan election

February 15, 2008

In The Guardian, UK, Decian Walsh reports from Faisalabad:

Shielded behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by armed police, the Pakistani opposition leader Asif Zardari told supporters yesterday that his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, had come to him in a dream.

“She said ‘I am with you, and I am with the people,’” he said, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd at his party’s last rally before next Monday’s tensely anticipated general election.

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As election nears, Pakistanis fan out to combat vote rigging

Peter Wonacott reports from Rawalpindi in The Wall Street Journal:

Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians have signed up as election monitors, fostering hope that Monday’s national vote will end a history of rigged elections and restore stability to this jittery, nuclear-armed nation.

Ambreen Saba Khan is one of them. The 27-year-old teacher has been patrolling this army garrison town outside Islamabad with a notepad and camera phone, meeting with politicians and local officials. She’s looking for signs of vote rigging, such as politicians promising money, jobs or gifts for votes.

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Pakistan needs more than just an election

February 14, 2008

In The Spectator, Stephen Schwartz writes that in this failing state, the ballot box is also a tinderbox. Even if Monday’s elections do go ahead, Pakistan might well end up in a worse state than before: exporting terror, spawning confrontation and at war with itself:

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The most important country in the world right now faces the most dangerous election in recent times. The country is Pakistan, not America, and the elections for parliament take place this coming Monday. Policy experts speak of ‘failed states’, and Pakistan is just about as close to failure as it is possible for a state to be. That’s one reason the world will be watching on Monday. Another and more immediate reason for interest is the assassination at the end of last year of Benazir Bhutto, twice the country’s prime minister and the secularist leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

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Mood of hopelessness in Karachi

February 14, 2008

Pakistan’s electoral process has been stifled by the spectre of suicide bombings and the long shadow of Musharraf. Kamila Shamsie, author of the novel Broken Verses, on The Guardian website.

Earlier this month in Pakistan, a popular television show instructed viewer on the proper method of casting a ballot in the coming elections. Th programme was the satirical 4 Man Show, and the elections in questio are being run by a music channel to determine the people’s choice for best VJ The subtext to the skit was the listlessness surrounding those other elections i Pakistan, scheduled for February 18

On the streets of Karachi there are few visible signs of campaigning, aside from banners announcing various constituency candidates. But many of those banners have been in place since the run-up to the January 8 elections, which were postponed following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and the slogans on the Pakistan People’s party banners – The Return of Benazir is the Return of Hope – now sound a note of doom.

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In tribal Pakistan, religious parties are foundering

February 14, 2008

Since being swept to power in 2002 on a wave of anti-Americanism, religious parties in Pakistan have found the public mood has now shifted against them. Carlotta Gall reports from Peshawar in International Herald Tribune:

Senator Asfandyar Wali, the leader of an opposition party, the Awami National Party, is campaigning for the elections next week from the safety of his bed, under a quilt and propped up on bolsters for his bad back at his country home outside Peshawar.

Ill health aside, Wali is staying home because suicide bombers are seeking to kill him, his party has been warned by high-level government officials. There have been two bomb attacks on his party’s election gatherings in the last week. Two candidates have been killed, one in a suicide bombing and one in a shooting in Karachi. Yet despite the attacks and the limited campaigning, his party is expected to do well in the parliamentary elections on Monday.

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Seven things India should not do in order to help Pakistan

February 12, 2008

Manoj Joshi in Mail Today:

The general elections may be around the corner, but Pakistan continues to careen dangerously out of control. Specific incidents and events are not the issue, but the totality of developments that have been taking place, beginning last year.
A convenient date would be March 9, 2007, the fateful day on which President Pervez Musharraf began his ill-advised campaign to edge out Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from the country’s Supreme Court. This enraged the community of lawyers, who have since led the civil protest movement against Musharraf.

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Pakistan in the line of fire, running out of options

February 12, 2008

Sahabzada Abdus-Samad Khan in World Security Network  

No one expected that one fatal move – the removal of the Chief Justice – would have unleashed such a rash of democratic forces that would so rapidly lead to the serious political impasse Pakistan is faced with today. In the process, President Musharraf lost much of his most important constituency – the professionals and the middle class.

For the U.S., the assassination of Benazir Bhutto means that it is left with little or no options, seeing that Washington had pinned its hopes on the “Musharraf Plus” package. The latter envisaged the President in control of foreign policy and national security matters, and a Benazir Bhutto-led government focusing on all other matters of state (and giving the country a democratic façade).

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Musharraf: Locked in his own bubble

February 10, 2008

Kamran Rehmat on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on aljazeera.net.

In a poignant moment captured by the media during his tour of European capitals last month, Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, pulled out a handkerchief, wiped his forehead and wondered aloud: “The temperature is rather warm … or is it just that I am talking.”The remark highlighted Musharraf’s increasingly difficult task to project himself as the right man to lead Pakistan in the face of increasing acts of terrorism and political instability.

The European tour, which was publicised as a mission of “correcting Pakistan’s image”, was further set back when a Pakistani journalist in London asked the president about the recent escape of a high-profile terrorist from government custody.

The fracas which ensued between the president and the journalist seemed to indicate that Musharraf is losing not only his media savvy but more importantly the perception of indispensability.

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Pakistan’s mixed record on anti-terrorism

February 9, 2008

Bernard Gwertzman interviews Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on CFR.org:

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Ashley  J. Tellis, a leading expert on South Asia who has served in the National Security Council and State Department as a senior adviser, expects a coalition government of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party, which backs President Musharraf, to emerge from the February 18 elections. He also says Pakistan has a mixed record on anti-terrorism and still tolerates Taliban elements that operate from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan.

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Musharraf gets 85 per cent airtime on PTV

February 8, 2008

via The Hoot:

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Reporters Without Borders has monitored the state-owned TV broadcaster PTV’s coverage of the parliamentary election campaign since 28 January and has found that, despite an effort to assign some space to all the main political parties, most of the air time has been given over to the parties that support President Pervez Musharraf, the federal government and the president himself.

The president and his allies were the subject of 84.9 per cent of the political items (reports, interviews, analyses and so on) in the four daily news programmes that were monitored from 28 January to 2 February. The press freedom organisation had already identified PTV’s lack of neutrality as one of the five major problems to be resolved before the elections, scheduled for 18 February.

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Change is a February feeling

February 2, 2008

When the February 18 elections bring a new parliament in Pakistan, civil society will continue to pressure it, says Ejaz Haider in The Indian Express.

Will the February 18 election change Pakistan? Yes and no. Let’s consider the negative first. If change relates to structures of power, the answer is largely a ‘no’. The army will retain its primacy in the system; political parties will not emerge as reformed entities; institutional inefficiencies will remain intact; the poltergeist of political instability will keep haunting the house; and terrorism will continue to threaten the country.

Yet, and this is important, much will also change.

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Breathing life into gross national happiness

January 21, 2008

Happiness is a fine goal, but for one in four people who live below the poverty line, bread and butter issues might be more important writes Tashi P Wangdi in Kuensel

National Happiness (GNH) isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – especially those who have to think twice about where the sugar or milk is going to come from. And that is what distinguishes rhetoric from reality. Conceptually speaking, GNH is perhaps the highest goal that any nation can aspire for. Yet, when one person out of every four exists, or persists, below the poverty line, it remains a lofty goal. One that is delegated to the realm of literate thinkers and those who will finance anything that is out of the ordinary.

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Bhutto’s last day, in keeping with her driven life

January 16, 2008

Before assassins struck on December 27, Pakistan’s ex-premier kept up frenetic pace but also found time for a prayer, report Griff White and Emily Wax in The Washington Post

Gripping the podium with both hands, Benazir Bhutto spoke in a shout that filled the cavernous park and echoed into the streets beyond.

“Wake up, my brothers!” she implored, her trademark white shawl slipping off her head to her shoulders. “This country faces great dangers. This is your country! My country! We have to save it.”

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Musharraf: ‘Pakistanis know I can be tough’

January 15, 2008

Newsweek

Fareed Zakaria talks to President Pervez Musharraf

Since Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination weeks ago, Pakistan has been plunged into one of the worst crises in its history. President Pervez Musharraf, having recently given up control of the nation’s army, remains firmly in charge and as reluctant as ever to share power, despite a rising tide of criticism. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zakaria from his camp office in Rawalpindi. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you make of reports that the United States is thinking about launching CIA operations in Pakistan with or without Pakistan’s approval?
Pervez Musharraf:
We are totally in cooperation on the intelligence side. But we are totally against [a military operation]. We are a sovereign country. We will ask for assistance from outsiders. They won’t impose their will on us.

How do you take Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that the United States and Britain help Pakistan secure its nuclear weapons?
Does she know how secure [the weapons] are and what we are doing to keep them so? They are very secure. We will ask if we need assistance. Nobody should tell us what to do. And I’d ask anyone who says such things, do you know how our strategic assets are handled, stored and developed—do you know it?

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