The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service.
Some people grow into their jobs. Others don’t. But there is also a third category. They actually shrink when saddled with responsibilities that are too big for them. Gilani belonged to this category. Not only that, he also diminished the office of prime minister that he held, technically, for four years, two of them after the adoption of the 18thAmendment. Even after the adoption of this amendment, which made the prime minister constitutionally the most powerful man in the country, Gilani remained Zardari’s mouthpiece, much like Shaukat Aziz, who served as Musharraf’s major domo for three years.
Gilani was chosen by Zardari as prime minister four years ago mainly for his personal loyalty to the Bhutto family and because he lacked both the independence of character and the political standing to be able to challenge the authority of the PPP co-chairman. He never came to grips with the responsibilities of the prime minister’s job. Under him, corruption thrived as never before. After four years in office, he leaves the county with a sinking economy, debilitating power shortages and a virtual collapse of state institutions.
Without any political vision, without even an elementary concept of good governance and without a moral compass, the only purpose which guided Gilani’s actions as prime minister was to prolong the rule of the Bhutto-Zardari dynasty and protect Zardari from legal proceedings in the Swiss money-laundering case. He kept the Dogar court in place as long as he could, was a party to Zardari’s failed conspiracy in 2009 to topple the Punjab government, attempted unsuccessfully to have the NRO approved by parliament and refused to implement the Supreme Court’s orders directing the government to write the “Swiss letter.”
The sacking of Gilani through a judicial verdict has been called by some a “judicial coup.” It is certainly not the finest hour in Pakistan’s turbulent constitutional history. But the fact is that the Supreme Court, as the guardian of the Constitution and rule of law, had been left with no other option, especially after the speaker’s highly partisan and legally indefensible ruling that the question of Gilani’s disqualification had not even arisen. The course of events would have been somewhat different if the speaker had allowed the Election Commission to take up the issue in accordance with Article 63 (3), which allows up to 90 days to decide the question. But in her mistaken zeal to prove her loyalty to the PPP boss, the speaker gave a completely one-sided decision in favour of Gilani, dropping the matter once again in the lap of the Supreme Court.
There is an opinion that the court should have avoided pursuing the contempt of court case against Gilani so zealously because the larger corruption issue involves not him but the president. Legally, there might have been a case against the prime minister, but it was best for the supreme judiciary not to have waded so deep into such obviously political waters, according to one commentator
First, the Supreme Court had already given a long enough rope to the government, granting it every possibility of adjournment, appeal and review, but the court could clearly not have allowed the government to use procedural subterfuges to evade justice indefinitely. Second, the argument that the court should have showed leniency because the case involves top political leaders is simply appalling. The fact that we apply different and more permissive standards to the rich and powerful than to the ordinary citizen has been our bane. The Supreme Court verdict in fact deserves to be applauded precisely because it dents the impunity that our privileged “elite” effectively enjoys from our laws and rejects the notion that they are more equal than ordinary mortals.
A single judgment will not change deeply ingrained habits or mindsets, but it is a good step. Another test will be coming soon enough when Pervaiz Ashraf, our new prime minister, is called upon to write the “Swiss letter.” He was chosen by Zardari not because of his competence or integrity but because he too is tainted with allegations of graft and is a card-carrying loyalist of the Bhutto-Zardari family. Syed Nasir Ali Shah, an outspoken PPP MNA from Quetta, put it quite bluntly when he said that the only criterion for the top slot is that “you must be a corrupt person.”
Our conspiracy theorists have often spoken of collusion between the judiciary and the “establishment” in destabilising the PPP-led government. Some of them are now hinting that Gilani was toppled through an intrigue by the judiciary. Zardari claimed in an unusual speech at the oath-taking ceremony of the new cabinet that some unnamed “detractors of democracy” had long been hounding Gilani and had been hoping that his departure would give them a chance to send the National Assembly packing and create political uncertainty. They had been proved wrong, Zardari said.
Unfortunately, Zardari offered no solution to the mystery why he withdrew Shahabuddin’s candidature. The conspiracy theorists have been quick to blame the army for having instigated the arrest warrants against him in the ephedrine scandal. But they have not explained why the military should have been so dead set against Shahabuddin and, if they were, why they should have resorted to this crude ploy to make their point. It is in fact more plausible that it was done to save Shahabuddin from disqualification in the same way as Gilani so that he remains available for the prime ministerial post at a future time. Raja Ashraf, in comparison, is more “dispensable” and could be sacrificed. It is also possible that Shahabuddin himself asked to be spared the honour so as not to risk disqualification and jeopardise his political career.
Raja Ashraf is totally beholden to Zardari and has no political following outside his constituency. As minister of water and power for three years in Gilani’s cabinet, he failed miserably in tackling the problem of growing power shortages which is crippling the country’s economy. He is dogged by serious allegations of graft in connection with the hugely expensive Rental Power Plants project and could well face investigations into this scandal ordered by the Supreme Court.
No one expects Raja Ashraf to concern himself very much with the country’s huge and pressing security, economic and power problems. Even if he were to wish it, he lacks the capacity. In any case, he is a stopgap choice and will serve for a maximum of nine months, probably less. Decision-making is therefore expected to shift even more than under Gilani from the cabinet to the presidency.
As Zardari told the PPP parliamentary party last week, the new prime minister will also “not allow the trial of Benazir Bhutto’s grave.” The main question now is, when the Supreme Court will start legal proceedings if, as is certain, and Pervaiz Ashraf refuses to carry out the orders to write to the Swiss government, whether the court will then act on the fast track or follow a leisurely pace, as it did with Gilani.
The question of the Swiss letter will simply not go away. Gilani was the first prime minister to lose his job because of it. Those who follow him could meet the same fate. Even the caretaker prime minister appointed after the National Assembly is dissolved and the government which emerges from the next elections will be confronted with this issue.
In a TV interview last December, Zardari boasted that “for us, Swiss courts are history.” If he was so sure, the whole nation would not be held hostage to the issuance of one letter.