Three headlines, three crises

Published September 27, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE previous week began with high-profile UN meetings and international hobnobbing and ended with a judicial conference, audio leaks from the Prime Minister’s Office and an unsurprising change at the finance ministry.

Stories were big and small but each one of them hinted at the real crisis of the state and governance, if we could look beyond the headlines. In between the details of the news stories, which come and go rapidly, can be found hints of what really ails us. Here are three such stories and what they say about the crises we need to address.

Judiciary. At the judicial conference on Friday, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court spoke of the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the judiciary. While he focused on past decisions and what they stand for at present, the event in general also reminded one of another crisis facing the institution — the polarisation within.

These divisions have been obvious for some time. There is no effort to hide them. From the case against Justice Faez Isa to the recent letter spree about appointments and benches, the fault lines are rather public.

In between the details of news stories can be found hints of what really ails us.

Not all of these issues are new. From the time of Iftikhar Chaudhry, there have been murmurs about, say, the manner in which the chief justice used his powers to form benches and how there was a tendency to fill them with like-minded judges. But back then, the ‘revolution’ to restore the judiciary and ensure its ‘independence’ had just taken place and few were willing to speak of the issues too publicly. After all, the moral legitimacy of the first leader of any ‘revolution’ is rarely challenged.

Read: Why transparency in judicial appointments is critical

Over time, this authority fades and traditions set by him are questioned. What we are witnessing is something similar regarding the formation of benches, the appointment of judges and even the purely political cases which have been taken up by the courts. This is not such a worrisome development. But focus on it tends to camouflage the more serious crisis for the judicial edifice.

This crisis exists at the level of the lower judiciary, where those looking for justice face delays, where judges can be influenced by the ligating parties, the state and the lawyers themselves. Before and after the Iftikhar Chaudhry restoration, stories about judges being beaten up by lawyers and influenced by militant organisations or powerful stakeholders have been aplenty. The recent change of fortune for politicians vis-à-vis their ‘corruption’ trials are a case in point.

This truly is the bigger crisis and is evident in the video going viral of Justice Isa where he asks an audience if they are satisfied with the judicial system. No one raises their hand. Let’s not forget this happened around the same weekend that the two parties in the Nazim Jokhio case came to a resolution.

The institution: This year has also laid bare the crisis among those who cannot be named. Never before have their role been discussed so much and so loudly. And it is not just because of the hushed whispers of the differences of opinion within but more because of the events leading to the vote of no-confidence.

Read: Selecting the army chief

The popular explanation which has emerged since is that of Khan’s preferences for the November appointment — whether this perception has been created or is the truth is now irrelevant. The story is selling and it implies that the ones who can’t be named are now a shadow of their former self. For why else would a prime minister’s efforts to choose his apna banda (own man) succeed where all his predecessors had failed?

Pakistan’s history has been shaped by those who were brought in to be loyal to a politician but ended up being loyal to their mother organisation. But this time around, apparently, no one could count on it. So, has something changed within?

These bad thoughts refuse to go away. Since April, there has been unending speculation of what will happen in November — more of the same or tabdeeli? But the real issue is that one position has held hostage the entire country, its politics and its economy, and the organisation itself.

If this is a sign of strength, I wonder what weakness looks like. If a prime minister is elected, or another removed or one man silenced or not silenced, it is all linked to the ones who can’t be named and their internal politics. Will the Sharifs last or not, will Khan return or not, will there be peace with India or not; whatever the question may be, the answer is only one. To wait till November passes. And we are too scared to ask if this obsession is more worrying for us or for those who remain unnamed.

Gatekeepers: Last but the biggest news to come our way this weekend was the change of financial czars. After all, the fragile and unstable state of our economy is our biggest story — and has been since 2018. We discuss it every day and we all have our view on what the root cause is, from instability to incompetence to corruption to elite capture.

Editorial: Dar’s return

But the real crisis, it seems, is that our gatekeepers remain oblivious to the issue, its causes and the changing times. They want more of the same: easy loans, IMF, short-term solutions. This is why we keep obsessing about the management of numbers and ‘hard talks’ with the IMF rather than reform. And this is also why they end up picking the same five or six men who have all played their part in getting the economy to where it is.

For, the gatekeepers — political parties, the establishment and commentators — keep rejecting the likes of Asad Umar and Miftah Ismail (who despite their faults wanted change) to pick Hafeez Shaikh, Shaukat Tarin and Ishaq Dar. Because they still think it is possible to convince the world to give us an easy pass, it is still possible to use administrative methods to manage the economy and survive by applying quick fixes to inflation and growth rate. The world has changed; Pakistan has changed but our gatekeepers refuse to do so.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2022

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