Autumn of the jackals

Published August 31, 2007

FROM the sublimity of the lawyers’ movement (and don’t tell me it didn’t have a touch of the heroic about it) we are down to the spectacle of the country’s politicians — most of them — lost in a wilderness of their own making.

What should be their first priority? It has to be blocking Gen Pervez Musharraf’s ‘reelection’ as president from these assemblies if the victory of democracy is their aim. But what are they actually doing? Playing bizarre games as if power is already in their grasp and all that remains is to decide how to share it. Placing the cart before the horse, something like it.

They are overlooking a basic truth. If Musharraf is cornered, if he is now having to talk to the very politicians he earlier reviled, it is not because of the political parties or any struggle mounted by them.

It is solely because of two factors: the lawyers’ movement and a rejuvenated Supreme Court. This has upset the power equation hitherto governing Pakistani politics. Whenever the army rode into the political arena, the unconstitutional acts it committed, and there was always a long list, were validated by the superior judiciary. This was a very effective collaboration, between generals and judges, and the people of Pakistan had to live with the consequences.

Things have changed, utterly changed, a new Supreme Court arisen from the seeds of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s defiance, his saying no to Musharraf, and from the lawyers’ movement which erupted in his support. It is this new Supreme Court, revelling in its new-found powers, which is causing nightmares to Musharraf and his coterie.

The political parties are trying to profit from this situation. They are feeding on the carcass brought down by the lawyers and the judiciary, in this respect emulating the conduct of the jackal who feeds on prey hunted by others. But to a great extent they are abdicating their own responsibilities.

If it had only been up to the political parties Musharraf would have managed his ‘reelection’ from these soon-to-expire assemblies without too much difficulty. Whether a deal with the PPP comes about or not, we know at least this much that Benazir Bhutto is keen on a deal. She is in no mood to forge a common front with other political parties although if she were mindful of her father’s legacy that’s what she should be doing. Perhaps her priorities are different.

As for the holy fathers, no one can teach them the virtues of ‘pragmatism’. Well-versed in the intricacies of this game, they cut a deal with Musharraf at the time of the Seventeenth Amendment and at least a part of them would do so again if the terms were right or the Americans were not that heavily involved in our politics. (In their present mood the Americans equate terror with most forms of Islam).

Nawaz Sharif’s clash was directly with Musharraf. He had to be out in the cold and Saudis or no Saudis would have stayed there had it not been for the lawyers’ movement and the rediscovered power of their lordships in the Supreme Court. So we need to keep things in perspective. The independence of the judiciary is the key to the triumph of democracy. It is only the judiciary protecting the rule of law and the spirit of democracy. But the judiciary must not be left alone in this task. The politicians must fulfil their responsibilities which, at this juncture, boil down to taking a correct stand on the question of the president’s election. There are other issues but these come later. To put the country on the right track, to correct the derailment caused by the Oct 99 coup, to ensure the supremacy of the Constitution, it is essential that the president, it could even be Musharraf if the Constitution allows him, should be elected by the next assemblies.

The legal community realising the gravity of this issue is already gearing up for another movement if Musharraf files his papers for election from the present assemblies. But what about the political parties? Are they looking ahead too?

We know about Benazir, still in thrall to the prospect of a deal with Musharraf. We know about the holy fathers although even they, being smart politicians, will flow with the tide if a democratic movement gathers strength. But what about Nawaz Sharif? Valuable time I think has already been lost by not taking the first available flight to Pakistan after the Supreme Court verdict. Choosing when to come and which city to land in is not a mathematical conundrum waiting to be solved by a party meeting first in Islamabad and then London. Such homework should have been done earlier. Any Saudi or Lebanese complications should also have been sorted out before approaching the Supreme Court.

If on August 23 after the Supreme Court decision, when the atmosphere outside was delirious, the Sharifs had announced that they were flying to Lahore the next day, or the day after, chances are all of Lahore (I exaggerate but you get the point) would have poured out to welcome them. No elaborate arrangements would have been needed for a reception. Spontaneity would have taken over.

The crowds will still turn out when the Sharifs eventually come but, I suspect, the element of spontaneity will have been lost. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune…” etc.

Anyway, speculation is rife that Musharraf is prepared to shed his uniform prior to seeking a vote from these assemblies. This is a measure of the straits to which he has been reduced. Even if he has mooted this point it is fair to assume that he won’t step out of uniform unless he has iron-clad guarantees regarding his ‘reelection’. He would have to be dumb to entrust his fate to the next assemblies. ‘Who has seen tomorrow’, as the Urdu expression goes. Who has seen the next assemblies? The Q League would have disintegrated by then.

But who can furnish him guarantees about his ‘reelection’? Not Benazir because the real issue is the attitude of the Supreme Court. Will it allow a violation of the Constitution? Will it go along with a farce conducted in the name of a presidential election? The charged armies of the legal fraternity would also not allow such an outcome.

Musharraf may have the numbers but he doesn’t have the Constitution on his side. The Constitution was not of much importance before March 9. Things have changed since then. But even as far as the numbers are concerned, his party, the Q League, has begun to leak. Who knows how wide the breach in its side in the next 10-15 days?

So whatever the deal between Benazir and Musharraf, the rest of the political parties have to sit down and decide quickly what their strategy is going to be. There is no time to lose. The clock will start ticking from Sept 15, barely a fortnight away. Where the PML-N should have been concentrating on this issue, and leading the effort to forge a united front, it is still caught up in the nuts and bolts of the Sharifs’ return to Pakistan. It should be moving faster.

Pakistan has been marking time at one spot for too long. It should move on. The army too can do with a fulltime chief (hopefully the best professional available rather than a favourite chosen for his Musa Khan-like meekness or his presumed loyalty). We have to revisit the American-dictated war in our tribal areas. The sovereignty we have forfeited must be reclaimed. But this won’t happen with Musharraf around. After eight years in power he now represents the past. For Pakistan to embrace the future there must be a return to the Constitution (as its framers intended it to be and not as military expediency has distorted it).

The political parties need to show some imagination and panache, the kind displayed in the letter written to the Election Commission by a serving professor of pathology at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr Anwar ul Haque, submitting that if Gen Musharraf, a government servant, can run for president he (the professor) should also be allowed to run for the same. Impeccable logic which the government has not found amusing. The professor has been transferred to the ministry of health, presumably to cool his heels. But he has made his point.

The first act of any post-Musharraf government must be to reinstate Dr Haque in his post.

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