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June 13, 2008

Pieces which don't fit


June 13, 2008

We know what the lawyers' long march is for. It is for a noble cause with which few people in post-Feb 18 Pakistan will disagree: the restoration of the deposed judges, starting from My Lord Iftikhar Chaudhry and encompassing all the other judges who, showing courage and integrity, refused to take oath under President Musharraf's Provisional Constitutional Order (Nov 3, 2007).

So far so good. But who or what is the long march against? Who is its target, against whom or what this outpouring of passion and emotion, this vast expense of time and energy? It is at this point that the lines blur and confusion sets in.

Last year there was no such confusion. Right from March 9 when My Lord Chaudhry's departure from the bench was sought by Musharraf and a clutch of his generals, to Nov 3 when Musharraf, in the last throes of desperation, struck at the Constitution and imposed emergency rule, the target of the lawyer's movement could not have been clearer: it was Musharraf and his increasingly detested dispensation.

But things changed when emergency rule was revoked and elections were held in which the people rejected Musharraf and his works and reposed their trust in parties on the other side of the divide: the PPP which bagged the highest number of seats and the PML-N which was not far behind. The rules had changed and so had the ground reality. While Musharraf continued to be demonized---elements in the media still finding it hard to come out of this mode---the judges' issue was now not in Musharraf's lap but in parliament's. It was for parliament---or, more accurately, Asif Zardari, the real power behind the new PPP-led government---to take a decision about the judges: whether to restore them or how to restore them. Musharraf could nurse his likes and dislikes, and indeed his prejudices, but the decision on this contentious issue was no longer in his hands.

Now if Zardari is playing an elaborate game of bluff, and there's no doubt that he

is, if he is not comfortable at the prospect of My Lord Chaudhry returning to the Supreme Court as an all-powerful chief justice, and if he is out to protect and preserve the incumbent chief justice, Justice Dogar, from whom he has received many a favour, he has his own reasons for doing so. And whether those reasons are pious or driven by less than the purest motives is beside the point. Of relevance to the long march is the circumstance that impeding the smooth, hassle-free restoration of the deposed judges is not beleaguered Musharraf but very much buoyant and perpetually-smiling---his wide grin beginning to grate on many nerves---Asif Zardari.

The National Assembly as a whole is guiltless in this respect because the parties represented in it act according to the good sense or the whims and prejudices of their respective leaders. I am sure there would be many members of the PPP parliamentary party who may not see eye to eye with Zardari as regards his all too clever stance on the judges' issue. But they wouldn't speak out because that is not the fashion in our parties. Indeed, anyone speaking out or showing himself a dissident would soon be out in the cold, having committed something close to political suicide. The same of course holds true for other parties.

The point of all this exegesis is that for the lawyers' long march to make sense it would have to be directed against the PPP government, especially its leadership as represented by Asif Zardari. But the leaders of the long march dare not train their guns openly at the PPP because that would split their movement. So they are speaking in a language which at best can be described as coded. They thunder against authoritarianism and say that their long march will lead to momentous consequences. But they are not able to say with much clarity as to what exactly they mean by authoritarianism in the present context or what precisely those consequences are likely to be.

This lack of clarity, or call it enforced prudence, already makes this march different from the lawyers' movement last year. Everything about the movement last year was spontaneous and true. About the only calculated element in it was Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan's driving, his Formula One formula being to arrive at a destination as late as possible. Workers of various parties also formed part of the movement but they did so out of conviction and not on orders from their party high commands. In any case, the leadership of both the major parties was outside the country. So whether for good or ill their influence on the movement was limited.

Because ground realities have changed and because on the judges' issue at least it is parliament which is the relevant body rather than the presidency, this long march has something forced and strained about it. So, not surprisingly, it has not triggered anything like a mass movement which alone, under the circumstances, could have caused the government to panic and led Zardari, the key man in this entire equation, to alter course and change his mind.

It is hard even to say whether the upfront involvement of some political parties in this affair is a good or bad thing. It might be good for the parties concerned in strengthening their democratic and pro-judiciary credentials but this upfront involvement also allows critics and detractors to suggest---even if the imputation is false---that the lawyers' movement is playing into political hands. My Lord Chaudhry has also come out in front during this march. Should he have done so? I personally think---and I could be wholly wrong---that maintaining some distance and cultivating a measure of silence would have served the purposes of the long march better. Familiarity may be a good thing but it can also breed indifference.

So my guess is that Zardari, his wide grin always at his service, will choose to ride out the mini-storm making its way to Islamabad. Indeed, signs suggest that the PPP leadership may try to smother the long march with kindness. Interior boss Herr Rehman Malik's container policy---a leaf out of the pages of the MQM: heavy containers deployed around the presidency and parliament to block the progress of the march---would have played right into the hands of the long-marchers and given their passion and fury something to strike at.

This policy thus was the best guarantee for the partial success of the long march. The containers would have been the barricades the long marchers would have charged. And if then the forces of law and order had responded with batons and teargas, the world's television cameras would have caught the burning images in their sights and the long march would have been able to claim some vindication for its efforts.

But second thoughts having prevailed, and I suspect Herr Malik having been overruled, the container policy has been reversed and although there will still be roadblocks and plenty of police and rangers, there is likely to be no attempt to completely block the marches, unless of course the marchers turn lucky and Herr Malik has his way again.

So the marchers, if the picture I am painting turns out to be correct, should be able to flow on to the Constitution Avenue, on which the principal buildings of state stand, there to stage a sit-in or hold a public meeting. I am dying to hear my friend Ali Ahmed Kurd, the pre-eminent orator of the lawyers' movement last year, once again. But what then? What happens after the speeches? Are we likely to see a prolonged sit-in in front of parliament?

That would be heady stuff but for any revolution---velvet, orange or Bolshevik---to get going, let alone succeed, you need three indispensable elements: teargas, the sound of occasional rifle fire and, behind the scenes, a Herr Rehman Malik pulling the strings. But I think the most fearsome thing we are likely to encounter is Zardari's flashing teeth, which should be enough to set teeth on edge and make any beer taste flat.

I'll of course be there on Constitution Avenue hobbling on my crutches---having stepped into a hole as deep and booby-trapped as the one the Islamic Republic seems to be permanently in---and there will be, I trust, a sufficiently impressive contingent from Chakwal to augment the strength of the long march.

But do I see My Lord Dogar taking to his heels from some back door of the Supreme Court, and My Lord Chaudhry being swept into the same portals by an unstoppable tide of revolutionary zeal? For this soul-stirring sight I think we shall have to wait some other day.

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