Learning Lessons, Moving On

From the very first, the controversy begun by news reports that the government was secretly planning to withdraw the reinstatement of judges was a bit ridiculous. At this point, though, the non-story has become simply a waste of everyone’s time. Now that Prime Minister Gilani has publicly and nationally addressed the controversy and assured that the government has no intention of sacking the judges, it’s time to take our lessons and move on.

From the very beginning, the story was a bit silly. Whatever you think about Zardari’s political mistakes, it’s hard to imagine that he would do something so obviously self-destructive as sacking the Supreme Court. If the PPP thinks they are getting attacked now, the result of sacking the judiciary would be nuclear annihilation in comparison.

There are some important lessons to take as we move on from this fiasco, though, and Dawn does a good job of pointing them out:

There are, however, clear lessons to be drawn from the latest near-upheaval in the country, if such incidents are to be avoided. First of all, the media regulators, industry-run and public, need to conduct a thorough inquiry into the events leading up to certain news channels airing the de-notification claim. The results of the inquiries should be made public, not just to ascertain what happened that fateful evening, but to prevent recurrences. The media — which now appears able to wield political power of its own — must open itself up to fair and proper scrutiny.

Next, the superior judiciary must reflect on behaviour unbecoming for an institution which is supposed to be cloaked in an air of calm and dispassion. Flip through news channels day or night and one is likely to find some outrageous news or the other that is soon either denied officially or quietly taken off the airwaves. Anything is possible in Pakistan, but some things are less likely than others. A judiciary which even a military dictator could not sack is unlikely to be undone by a weak political government saddled with fractious coalition partners and surrounded by opponents. Politics does not happen in a vacuum.

Finally, the PPP-led government. Its bona fides would not be so casually suspected if it were serious about governance and developed a reputation for smart but fair play. The party may feel aggrieved, but that is part of the reason a media rumour can instantaneously turn into political ‘fact’ in the minds of many.

This is good advice to all the players involved. We’re still suffering from the psychological scars of the past, but we must work together to move forward. Rather than treating everyone with suspicion and jumping immediately to wild accusations, let’s inject a bit of civility into the political discourse, shall we?

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.