Time to stand down

Updated November 28, 2019

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THIS is a good time to remember that institutions are more important than individuals.

Leaders come and go, but what matters ultimately is what they leave behind. Those who lead with an eye to their legacy, and a sense of service to the institution to which they belong — whether an organisation or a movement or a profession — are the ones more likely to leave behind a legacy that others can build upon. Those who lead with a sense of their own indispensability and entitlement will leave behind legacies that their successors will have to battle with, rather than build upon.

All day on Wednesday the country was in the grip of a high-stakes courtroom drama that has held up all decision-making. The future is uncertain because far too much depends on the outcome of the decision that the judges will announce. What is worth remembering through all this is how often we keep finding ourselves in these situations.

The Panama trial and prior to that the extended battle between the Supreme Court and the PPP government over the revival of the Swiss cases are some precedent moments in which the issues being discussed may have been different, but they were courtroom dramas that held the country in their grip and cast a pall of uncertainty over the future since so much hung in the balance.

Prior to these were the NRO hearings, the repeated announcements in prime time broadcasts that ‘the next 48 hours are critical’ as another bench sat down to deliberate in another ‘decisive’ case that held the future of the country’s leadership in its stead. Prior to that was the restoration of the judges issue, and then those days when the Supreme Court took up the case of whether or not Pervez Musharraf could seek another term in office, proceedings that ended in the declaration of emergency in November 2007.

Power struggles do not end until those who stand in the most powerful office of the country learn that the office is larger than them.

The list is long and varied. And no, I’m not trying to say that all these cases were the same. Each had their own issues, their own laws to interpret. But each one created an aura like a singularity, as if this was the moment towards which all history had been flowing and from which all futures would emanate. Each of them brought the feeling that the destiny of the country was at stake, that fundamental, foundational issues were being discussed and resolved in the light of the law.

To some extent that was true. One reason another army chief will think twice about launching another emergency or another political leader will think thrice before storming the Supreme Court is because of the lawyers movement and the enhanced place of the court in the power structure of the country. But to an equal, if not more significant, extent, the sheer number of times this country keeps landing up in this moment, especially in the past decade, shows an intensification of the power struggle at the highest levels.

This is what has to end. One thing about power struggles that keeps them going is people whose desire for power is larger than their desire to build the institution that has bestowed this power upon them. It is with sadness that all day we were reminded that there is only one example of an army chief in the past 20 years who did not get, nor publicly seek, an extension in his tenure.

This power struggle does not end unless this thirst for extensions ends. It does not end until those who stand in the most powerful office of the country learn that the office is larger than them. It was there before they came into it. It will be there long after they are gone. While they occupy it, it is the office that they serve. Not the other way round. And one of the central tenets of this service is respect for the rules under which it is constituted, and the same rules through which they have come to occupy the office in the first place.

The proceedings before the court established one thing clearly: there is no law under which an extension of tenure can be granted to an army chief. Those who took these extensions in the past either gave it to themselves because they were military rulers, or in the one lone case of General Kiyani, took it without contest.

None of those conditions exist today, the court observed. The government’s decision, putatively made independently though that is hard to believe, to grant and extension in tenure to Gen Bajwa, has been made by a political government led by a prime minister who bitterly opposed granting extensions in the past, especially when the same was granted to Gen Kayani.

His words back then are worth quoting in full, so here goes: “Even in wartime, back in World War I, they never made an exception for anyone, because institutions function according to their rules, when you break their rules, or change them for the sake of an individual, like Musharraf did, like every dictator does, you destroy that institution ... If we are to save this country, we have to strengthen institutions, look at how Gen Musharraf destroyed the image of the army ... For every institution, whether a judge or a general, there is a rule of law, and they should operate according to those rules.”

In that same interview he was categorical that he would never grant an extension to an army chief like President Zardari had just done for Gen Kayani.

There is more to the institution of the military than its might and its prestige. As a leading institution in the country it has to show the way to others as well, and curate its legacy and its place in the country’s power structure. After Wednesday’s hearing in the court, there is little doubt that this higher purpose, before which all chiefs should submit, will best be served by standing down.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2019