IT is hard to outrun legitimacy.
Judge Arshad Malik is unemployed as of Friday. That is his problem. But he could become someone else’s problem. And this is a huge problem not because of the problematic nature of the problem per se, but of the stakes — and players — involved in the problem.
In short: Judge Arshad Malik gave a judgement in the accountability court in December 2018 convicting former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the Azizia steel mill reference. In July 2019, Maryam Nawaz Sharif held a press conference and played a secretly recorded video in which Judge Arshad Malik is heard confessing that he was pressured to convict Nawaz Sharif. Soon thereafter, another video featuring the same judge surfaced which compromised him further. It then transpired that the judge had actually gone to Raiwind and met Nawaz Sharif after convicting him. All these disclosures triggered a series of inquiries and petitions and departmental actions that unfolded over subsequent months. Finally on Friday July 3, an administrative committee of the Lahore High Court headed by the chief justice dismissed Judge Arshad Malik from service.
Is this then the end of the Judge Arshad story? Dream on.
Judge Arshad’s judgement legitimised a certain narrative. His dismissal has inconvenienced it. This narrative — that brought PTI to power — had already begun to sag under the weight of its underwhelming performance; now Judge Arshad’s dismissal could drag it down to a perilously low level. How low does low need to be before it becomes low enough to scare the government?
Judge Arshad’s judgement legitimised a certain narrative. His dismissal has inconvenienced it.
Context may help. Judge Arshad’s fate has legal and political consequences for Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. Legally speaking, experts now have to determine if Judge Arshad’s dismissal has any bearing on his judgement against Nawaz Sharif. We could be looking at a gruelling court battle in the weeks and months ahead. Politically speaking, the war begins now.
This is the war PTI should be ready to fight with all its might because at stake is the one thing that no government can afford to lose: legitimacy.
Legitimacy issues have dogged PTI since it clawed its way into power in 2018. These issues pertained primarily to the allegation that the party won the elections with more than considerable help from those who can provide more than considerable help. Such help, it was said, started much before the elections and gifted PTI willing and winning candidates among other goodies. Anecdotal evidence of this political nourishment may not hold up in a court of law but it has enough substance to dilute the fragrance of victory that PTI desperately wanted to savour.
The election of 2018 was Round 2 of this bout. Round 1 was the downing of Nawaz. Together, both rounds stitched a narrative that catapulted Imran to power. While it was easier to talk about the help that Imran received in Round 2, it was much harder to speak of any such stuff in Round 1. When it comes to courts and the dispensation of justice, even anecdotal evidence piles up with great caution and trepidation. For Imran’s opponents therefore it was easier to delegitimise Round 2 than Round 1.
Judge Arshad’s judgement played a critical role in Nawaz’s downfall and by extension Imran’s victory in Round 1. His dismissal from service on Friday is the first real challenge to the political verdict of Round 1.
Then of course, there’s Round 3.
This round — covering PTI’s stint in power — has been an unending series of governance migraines for all concerned. The promise of PTI’s reformist governance was supposed to have compensated for the problems of legitimacy in Round 2. The opposite happened. In the absence of institutional reform and in the presence of unending scandals — sugar, wheat, petrol, aviation, just to name a few — PTI has succeeded in fuelling legitimacy concerns even in Round 3.
This is where we stand today in terms of a new low for PTI: legitimacy issues now plague Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3. Together, they may start generating some very serious questions that PTI would rather not address.
But it may be starved for choice. Round 2 cannot change; Round 1 can only get worse and Round 3 is already afflicted with the inadequacy of performance. Early warning signs have started becoming visible and data — both anecdotal and otherwise — is piling up. The admission of a retired Supreme Court judge that history will not be kind to the Panama case verdict may not have much to do with a latest survey showing PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif rated higher as a leader Pakistanis want today than Prime Minister Imran Khan — and this may not be linked with the literal and metaphorical grounding of PIA; which in turn may not be connected with the dismissal of the judge who convicted Nawaz Sharif; and yet, somehow, these random sequencings seem to draw a discernible pattern across the darkly clear political sky.
It is a pattern the PTI government better read correctly because it is harkening the ghosts of deeds interred in the past. Something stirs yonder. Wrongs may yet be righted amid cosmic corrections whose faint rumble is audible over the din of shallow politics.
PTI’s success lay less in its politics and more in its ability to make people dream of a better Pakistan. It was a dream easy to dream when escaping from the drudgery of seven decades of mal-governance by a soiled leadership. But for dreams to come true, they have to be weighted down with the armour of legitimacy and potency of action.
Or else, you wake up — and poof, just like that — the dream is gone.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2020