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The distance travelled

Updated January 01, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT seems to be a case of much ado about nothing. The FIA, after five years of investigations, has recommended that the Asghar Khan case be put to bed. According to news reports, the investigative agencies found little leads as most politicians have denied receiving any funds.

The news has outraged the easily outraged. For it simply proves the impunity with which the military operates and intervenes in politics at a time when politicians are being targeted and imprisoned. But those in uniform who meddled with politics can’t even be held accountable decades later.

Analysis: Accountability for all

And this is why the FIA wants to wash its hands off the Asghar Khan case.

Retired Gen Asad Durrani had provided an affidavit, after he left the military, that he had distributed money among politicians opposing the PPP in the 1990 polls (which were held after the first PPP government was thrown out). In 1994, retired Gen Naseerullah Babar brought up the issue in parliament and a year or so later, Asghar Khan asked the then chief justice to take up the matter and determine what happened. We had to wait till 2012 for the judiciary to hold regular hearings.

But there is more than one way of viewing the case and its history and what it signifies.

There is more than one way of viewing the Asghar Khan case, its history, and what it signifies.

For one, it shows the difficulty of ‘proving’ legally what is an open secret — the military’s intervention in elections. Or for that matter any kind of systematic rigging in elections. Considering the allegations of rigging in nearly every election in recent memory, there has not been a single election apart from 1990 in which there is ‘credible’ proof — and the proof in this case is provided through a perpetrator’s testimony, which he still hasn’t resiled from. And it is this testimony which provides proof of the conspiracy behind the rigging in the election.

Before and after that, there have been allegations aplenty but little more. In 2008, the PML-Q accused Musharraf of rigging in favour of the PPP and in 2013 it was the PTI which alleged rigging, an allegation that the court didn’t find sufficient proof of. This time around, in 2018, it is the PML-N (and others) who don’t just allege a conspiracy but also point fingers (or at least some of them do) at the security apparatus. And though parliament has formed a commission to look into the matter, there is little hope of concrete answers — not just because of the power of those being accused but also because it is not easy to prove a conspiracy.

The Asghar Khan case too indicates this — according to the FIA, many of those who had, according to Durrani, accepted money from the military, denied that they had done so. (A paper trail is hard to come by after so many years and also because such transactions rarely involve cheques and receipts.)

Not just that, even the chief of army staff of that time, Mirza Aslam Beg, claimed that Durrani’s actions were not due to orders from GHQ but from the presidency. The one person who could have perhaps provided the account to address these contradictions had passed away — Ghulam Ishaq Khan, then president.

The PML-N and others will face similar challenges as they try to ‘prove’ that systematic rigging took place in 2018 in front of the parliamentary commission.

Second, it is equally important to understand the context which has allowed the Asghar Khan case to progress this far — which is no less significant than a successful conclusion of the case.

The Asghar Khan case came to light in the second term of Benazir Bhutto and it dealt with the emergence of the first Nawaz Sharif government after the 1990 election. However, it lay in cold storage or rather the pending cases storage till Iftikhar Chaudhry was restored during the PPP’s term. It was only then that the judiciary felt comfortable enough to take up the case.

Or was it that it took over a decade before the military’s power was diluted enough for this assertion of power by another institution? This was not the only assertion; the executive also felt confident enough to initiate a treason trial against a military strongman.

While we all know how the latter ended and bemoan the dominance of the military, it can’t be denied that the end of Musharraf’s period had tilted the balance of power enough for other institutions to try and test the waters. In retrospect, it seems that the judiciary didn’t cross any red lines with the Asghar Khan case while the executive’s decision to push ahead with Musharraf’s trial obviously did. But despite the case having lost steam due to the pushback, its initiation was an indication of the changed times.

We can’t simply lament our failure to convict a dictator; we should measure the distance we have travelled by our success in indicting him.

Linked to this is a third point — history is seldom linear and neither is the path to democracy. Progress, as we see it, will come in fits and starts as indicated by the Asghar Khan case and the treason trial. And this progress cannot be discounted simply because both cases did not reach their logical conclusion. These cases, among other events, reveal a changing balance of power and a military which is no longer able to dominate the political arena as it did in the 1990s, for example. Just because there was a pushback doesn’t mean that we have slid back to where we were earlier.

Indeed, for us in Pakistan, every development deemed regressive leads to the conclusion that there has been no progress whatsoever; but this is far from correct. One needs only look back to judge how far we have come instead of simply despairing at the thought of the great distance still left ahead of us.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2019