Lathi Politics

A visitor from another planet would be forgiven if he dropped in today and believed that Iftikhar Chaudhry and Babar Awan are the national pop stars. It seems like they spend more time on TV and on the front page of the newspapers than anyone else in the country. Which is really quite strange if you stop to consider it for a moment. As everyone knows, the story is the ongoing feud between the executive and the judiciary. But again this seems strange. For all the predictions about the court overreaching and throwing out Zardari or the executive overreaching and withdrawing judicial reinstatements – nothing ever happens. So what’s all the yelling about?

Cyril Almeida has an interesting perspective. He sees the behavior of the executive and the court as a type of political jockeying that can be explained largely as a leftover from the past.

The government’s strategy is quite obvious: stall. Buy time, somehow, anyhow, and let the clock wind down on the government’s term as far as possible. The why isn’t hard to figure out. Zardari & co are convinced the robes are getting their cues from Raiwind and/or Rawalpindi. Which means they fear the ultimate goal may be the government’s ouster, or of Zardari and his circle.

If there is a judicial trend that is discernible, it is this: carve out and fiercely protect an institutional space for a judiciary that has historically been trampled by the other institutions and powers-that-be.

The biggest fight to date — not in terms of fireworks, but in substance — has been over the appointment of superior court judges, first over the fate of justices Ramday, Saqib Nisar and Khwaja Sharif and now over the 18th Amendment appointment process. That’s not very surprising. The goal of a hermetically sealed judiciary, wherein the judges dictate who can become a member of their fraternity, is perhaps the single biggest step towards a judiciary which can assert itself as the constitutional framework aspired for it to do.

Remember, the judges are fighting the weight of history, not legal theory. If they err on the side of excess — pushing back on the appointment issue even when there are genuine concerns of jurisprudential overreach — they can justify it as necessary to throw off the executive’s yoke. In a deterministic sense, they are probably right.

Now slot the NRO saga into this framework. Keeping the government on the defensive, keeping it mired in controversy and muck works to the court’s advantage. If the government tries to create fissures and divisions in the superior judiciary, as the judges must surely suspect some in the government would love to do, the court can cry foul — activating the media, public and opposition combine of true believers and opportunists waving the flag of the heroic Court of CJ Iftikhar against the villainy of the rule of Zardari.

So the NRO/NAB stick is looking less and less like a knife meant to be plunged into the heart of the government and more and more like a blunt object to rap the government’s knuckles and thwart any clever ideas about undermining or dominating the judiciary.

Unlike most of the conspiracy theories and rumours being peddled on TV, this actually does make some sense.

Pakistan does not have a power vacuum, we have a power stalemate. Everyone is paralyzed because everyone is suspecting the other of some subterfuge. Zardari cannot trust the judiciary because he has already served so many years in jail without ever being convicted, and now he continues to see judges holding threats over his head. The CJ cannot trust Zardari because he has already been treated badly in the past by Musharraf who threw him out and had him detained on house arrest.

We have a real problem with trust in this country. Jis ki lathi, us ki bhens. It’s a lesson that has been too deeply ingrained in our national psyche. But this is no way to live, in constant suspicion and fear. If we are going to save this country, we must being learning to trust one another.

There are two sad ironies in this case. The first is that these two men could probably be a most powerful force for moving the country forward if only they could learn to trust one another.

The second sad irony is that, even though the men who held the lathis have been gone for some years, they are still wielding this awful power of fear over the country.

Our problem is not Kalashnikov politics, it is lathi politics. It’s time to put an end to the power of Zia, of Musharraf, of the corrupt judges of the past and all the other lathi wielders that have left scars on our nation. It’s time to unclench our fists and join hands. It’s time to heal.

Divided, we are doomed. Together, anything is possible.

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