Common decency and democratic custom required that the prime minister tender his resignation after the Supreme Court convicted him of contempt of court. World leaders have resigned on far lesser grounds as a matter of principle, even on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, let alone convictions. But not our lot. They would rather drag the whole country through muck and sleaze than relinquish the reins of power, which accidentally fell into their hands for fear that they may never wield them again.
Therefore, the prime minister was seen leaving the court premises, forcing the best smile he could muster under the circumstances, waving to a band of sycophants who showered him with rose petals, as if he had achieved some great feat rather than being convicted by the highest court in the land. Shortly thereafter, the cabinet declared him to be pristinely blameless as they deemed his conviction to be of a political rather than criminal or moral nature and, as such, he was deemed to be under no compulsion to resign.
But the national humiliation of being governed by an obstinate convict was not enough. We have come to accept that the worse imaginable scenario is rarely enough for this government. They find it necessary to plummet deeper still and take the nation down with them. So now we have a state of affairs whereby the convicted prime minister and his party are treating his conviction as a political victory. This is what they wanted all along; an opportunity to claim victimisation and political martyrdom.
But the prerequisite to milking the benefits of political martyrdom is having the weight and substance of righteousness on your side to attract genuine support and sympathy of the people. This government is woefully lacking on this count. Apart from a few people sporadically chanting slogans in a few villages and towns, there has been absolutely no noteworthy display of public support for the prime minister. Even Larkana remained quiet, apart from a dozen or so students who burned a few tyres but then got bored and went home, and a few jiyalas in Naudero tried to shut down the bazaar but failed. So much for the Sindh card. So much for political martyrdom.
The prime minister has publicly stated that if you get into the coal business, you are likely to get your hands blackened. Gilani has missed the mark entirely on the essence of the princely art of politics by likening it to shovelling coal. If politics were like shovelling coal, then why did Zulfikar Ali Bhutto not get his hands soiled? He stands triumphant in history and even now elections are won in his name. How did Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, John F Kennedy, Sukarno, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela manage to keep their hands clean? No Mr Gilani, politics is also about serving mankind and championing just causes that entail struggle and sacrifice. If you find your hands blackened today, it is so because you and your cohorts wilfully chose to wallow in coal, not because your profession called upon you to do so.
It is an established practice by this administration to procrastinate and draw out every mess and crisis its incompetence, corruption and disregard of law generates, so that it can complete its term. It became unavoidable for the Supreme Court to initiate contempt of court proceedings against the prime minister because the government was dragging its feet in implementing the NRO verdict.
True to form, it now appears that the government is set to impede the constitutional consequences that are bound to flow from the prime minister’s conviction. The prime minister commented that the office of the speaker of the National Assembly was not a post office, implying that the speaker was not bound to automatically send a reference to the chief election commissioner under Article 63(2) of the Constitution to declare the prime minister disqualified from continuing as a member of the National Assembly under Article 63(1)g.
Gilani’s lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, clarified this stance in a press conference: He argued that the speaker would examine the Supreme Court verdict to see if any question arises with regard to the disqualification of the prime minister. He said it would be argued before the speaker that no such question arises, because the Supreme Court’s short order goes beyond the ambit of the charges on which he was arraigned. According to him, whereas Gilani was accused of disregarding the court verdict, he has been convicted of wilfully flouting and ridiculing court directions to the extent of being ‘substantially detrimental to the administration of justice’ and bringing ‘this court and the judiciary of this country into ridicule.’ He has, therefore been wrongfully convicted so the question of his disqualification does not arise.
This line of reasoning is fundamentally flawed. Firstly, all we have to go by so far is a short order from the court. The detailed judgment is yet to come. Typically, a short order announces the guilt or innocence of the accused without going into the reasoning, which is revealed in the detailed judgment that follows. It is inconceivable that the learned judges of the apex court could possibly make such a fundamental error in their judgment. If they appear to have transgressed the perimeters of the charges against the prime minister, they could only have done so with situational justification and sound legal authority which is bound to be laid out in their detailed judgment.
In any case, the leap from disregarding court rulings to flouting and ridiculing court directions is not a particularly spectacular one. One is merely an extreme form of the other. Secondly, regardless of whether the prime minister was rightly or wrongly convicted, there is no law, statute, constitutional provision or court ruling that allows the speaker of the National Assembly to assume the authority to place a Supreme Court ruling under a microscope.
The speaker can adjudicate neither on the validity of the ruling nor the soundness of their lordships’ reasoning. To do so would amount to assuming judicial powers above the Supreme Court and, in effect, over ruling the Supreme Court order. According to Article 63(2), the speaker shall send a reference to the chief election commissioner for a member’s disqualification from the National Assembly “If a question arises whether a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament) has become disqualified from being a member...”
But the Supreme Court short order leaves no unanswered questions suspended in the ether. It clearly finds the prime minister guilty of flouting and ridiculing the Supreme Court. Not only that, but the short order elucidates that ‘As regards the sentence to be passed against the convict, we note that the findings and the conviction for contempt of court recorded above are likely to entail some serious consequences in terms of Article 63(1)g of the Constitution which may be treated as mitigating factors towards the sentence to be passed against him.’
Article 63(1)g stipulates that a person shall be disqualified from being a member of parliament if ‘... he is propagating any opinion, or acting in any manner, prejudicial to ... the integrity or independence of the judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings into ridicule the judiciary...’ Since the Supreme Court’s short order unambiguously states that the prime minister’s conduct has ridiculed the judiciary, the speaker of the National Assembly, therefore, has no option but to refer the matter to the chief election commissioner. No ambiguity exists in this. The more the speaker leans on dubious crutches to procrastinate, the greater the stink this brewing constitutional crisis will throw up.
The writer is vice-chairman of the Sindh National Front and a former MPA from Ratodero. He has degrees from the University of Buckingham and Cambridge University.