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January 13, 2012

Sitting on blisters

 
January 13, 2012

The writer is editor The News, Islamabad.
This week has been a nerve-racking one. It was a week that missed an unmitigated constitutional disaster by a whisker. But are the coming weeks free of similar dangers? Not really. Even an all-important 6pm Wednesday evening telephone call by a very, very powerful man to an equally could-be very, very powerful man failed to assuage edgy nerves. According to a highly credible insider, “deep anguish and bewilderment” was shown over the prime minister’s recent statement against the army leadership and indications were given about a big change in the ‘larger national interest’.
The call however did not have the desired impact. Sensing a good-cop-bad-cop act, ‘defences’ were beefed up a notch higher and show no signs of slackening before Jan 16, the day a larger bench of the SC takes up the critical issue of whether to convict the prime minister on contempt charges.
The week got off to a flying judicial start. Reading the riot act to the government, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court branded the prime minister “dishonest” and threw him at the mercy of a larger bench. The prime minister blessed us with another, shameless volte-face when he first accused the COAS and the DG ISI of having trampled their Constitutional limits by filing independent affidavits in the memo case issue only to later blame it all on the defence secretary and firing him.
When the ISPR shot back with a tersely worded rebuttal, the prime minister, instead of taking the military leadership to task, put on a dumb deadpan expression and told the media that he had himself authorised the army leadership to “issue a clarification in the matter”. The appointment of his trusted bureaucratic aide, Nargis Sethi, as acting defence secretary unleashed a wave of speculation about an immediate impending move to scalp both the COAS and DG ISI. To add to the growing tension, the government also summoned a special session of the

national assembly.
Meanwhile, the government’s political allies, notably the MQM and the ANP, made it clear to the government that they would not support any confrontational move. Taking full advantage of Pir Pagara’s passing away, the MQM declared a politically expedient three-day political Sabbath, giving itself the room to watch from the sidelines as the deliberately created official crisis continued to take new twists and turns. Just as the situation reached a feverish peek, as usual, the prime minister backed off.
To call the ongoing governance debacle a theatre of the absurd would be an understatement. It is simply shameful; the prime minister’s inexplicable verbal vacillations unacceptable. During the past one week, the self-proclaimed heir of a Sufi lineage has done more unholy back flips then the cheap Chinese toy monkeys being sold for a few trinkets. Is this what the nation deserves for braving Musharraf’s wrath for the sake of reviving democracy and bringing back democrats? Surely not. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” Little did he know about the agony of Multani blisters.
Two things are clear: 1) The government, which has little to show in terms of performance in power, appears hell-bent upon being booted or convicted out to rise from the system’s ashes as the democratic phoenix and 2) both intended protagonists’, the judiciary and the army, appear equally reluctant to accord this privilege to the government in its last months in office.
Contrary to the apparent bullishness of the Supreme Court in various critical court cases, including that of non-implementation of its NRO verdict, the court has exhibited a frustrating restraint in the face of the executive’s deliberate public mocking of its orders. Maybe it’s the presence of an extremely belligerent media and an active judiciary, we don’t know, but the army too has shied away from barging in at the first proffered opportunity or ruse. And there have been many.
But for how long can a persistently humiliated superior judiciary look the other way at the cost of its own image and credibility, and till when will the generals continue hunkering in their bunkers at the risk of their own careers and necks? To treat all government provocations of both institutions as political naivety would be stupid in itself. Prime minister Gilani has been around long enough, and the president shrewd enough, to know the minimum possible fallout and adverse ramifications of their recent moves and utterances. There is clearly a method to this apparent madness.
President Zardari was fully cognizant of the implications, both perceived and real, of his going on TV to announce that he would not accept any rulings of the SC-appointed judicial commission on the memo affair and that “his party” would not start the trial of Benazir’s grave by implementing the SC’s clear-cut verdict. That coupled with the prime minister’s ‘bold’ declaration on the floor of the house that he’d rather go to jail than open investigations against his own leader is nothing short of throwing the gauntlet at the apex court.
Now either the court convicts the chief executive of the country for contempt or itself stands guilty of committing contempt of court by failing to honour and implement its own verdicts. It’s a win-win situation for the government however, because if it loses a prime minister who is playing his last political innings anyways, it can cry ‘murder most foul’ and go to the hustings draped in the colours of political martyrdom. And if the court blinks, then the government emerges as an impregnable ruling force with a Teflon coating.
Similarly on the khaki front, if it manages to ‘scare and provoke’ the edgy military top brass into any pre-emptive or retaliatory move, the martyrdom die is cast. And in the event of the military cowering down even in the face of any top-level culling, the PPP government would emerge as a power juggernaut nobody dare challenge. But the real question remains, is any of this a winning formula for democracy and the system itself?
The army is keeping a wary watch on recent developments and is not ruling out the possibility of an attempted change of its top leadership. Exhaustive background interviews indicate that any such move will neither result in the going away of a Jehangir Karamat or coming in of a Ziauddin. The move will have retaliatory consequences and could cause irreparable damage to the democratic and constitutional process. There is clear talk of “not taking any chances” till Jan 16 when the Supreme Court takes up the matter of constitutional violation by the prime minister.
Then there is also the issue of the Memogate hearing starting the same day. That there would be no popular or legal support for any such drastic action makes matters all the more precarious and deadly. But it would be naïve to imagine that the mere unpopularity of an eventuality is sufficient to preclude its happening as well.
For democracy to survive and thrive in Pakistan, our so-called democrats must realise the inevitability of submitting to the law of the land and bow their heads before the verdicts of the country’s apex court, no matter how inconvenient or distasteful. That is a small price to pay for democracy. The alternative could be both devastating and bloody.

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