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Letter of the law

June 27, 2012

LETTER-WRITING is a dying art in the 21st century, and Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry’s epistolary focus may earn him a commendation one day from some academy of letters, but last week’s judicial overreach is unlikely to go down in Pakistan’s history as a particularly salutary episode.

Last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court not only stripped the nation of a government but also informed Pakistanis that they had effectively been prime minister-less for nearly two months, given that Yousuf Raza Gilani’s disqualification was retrospectively dated to April 26 — the day he was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to be detained for less than a minute.

Presumably on the basis of legal advice that an appeal would be futile, the government decided against filing one. Its failure to do so has been cited as a trigger for last week’s verdict.

The judgment comes in the backdrop of a scandal relating to allegations of bribe-taking by the chief justice’s son, especially after the accuser-in-chief was caught on camera chatting amicably to a caller who was ostensibly Gilani’s son.

And then Asif Ali Zardari’s first choice as a replacement prime minister, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, found himself facing arrest soon after his candidature was aired, on the basis of a warrant obtained by the military-controlled Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) in relation to a scandal over the manufacture of large amounts of ephedrine while he was health minister.

He has, not surprisingly, denied all insinuations of complicity in a case that also embroils one of Gilani’s offspring. Whatever the validity of the charges, however, the procurement of a warrant at this particular juncture suggested to many that the khaki institution was complicit in efforts to stymie the process of fielding a new government.

Zardari then decided to back the “covering candidate”, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was duly sworn in as prime minister. By Monday he had a deputy in the shape of PML-Q’s Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who was chief minister of Punjab for much of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s presidential rule.

There are no grounds for assuming that a fresh confederacy of Pervezes might bode better than the previous one, but there’s cause for greater alarm in the fact that virtually every report in the domestic and international press relating to the new top honcho refers to his troubled tenure as minister for water and power until 2010.

His relationship with the rental power plants that were supposed to solve Pakistan’s energy crisis excited much comment, and he was eased out of the portfolio two years ago. Given that association, it takes considerable chutzpah to put him forward as prime minister at the height of summer, during a time when power cuts extending for 20 hours or more have led to outbreaks of serious rioting in parts of Punjab.

It is perfectly possible, of course, that it was not Zardari’s intention to go out of his way to insult the Pakistani public. He had to come up with an unquestioning loyalist who would be tolerated by the PPP’s diverse coalition partners. He evidently managed to do so. The PML-Q, as a result, has 15 posts in the new cabinet.

And while ‘Raja Rental’, the sobriquet the new prime minister earned during his aforementioned ministerial posting, is likely to fall short of earning popular approbation, his vow to “make sure I live up to the example set by those who have come before me” shouldn’t prove terribly hard to fulfil. It would, after all, be an exaggeration to contend that Gilani’s undistinguished administration will be missed.

It was not incompetence or corruption that saw him off, though. It was his refusal to write a letter.

The letter was, the Supreme Court decreed, to be addressed to the Swiss authorities. The wording was never decreed, but it might have gone something like this:

“Dear Swiss Miss [or Prosecutress, or whatever] “I really don’t want to write this letter, but my country’s Supreme Court has decreed that I must. Do you remember the case you once instituted against Asif Ali Zardari and Benazir Bhutto? You found them guilty but then dropped the charges.

“Well, one of them is still alive, so would you mind reopening the case? As the head of state, he enjoys immunity. Would you be kind enough to overlook that minor point?

“And if for some reason you can’t, could you possibly intimate that to Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry “Gratefully yours, “The Prime Minister of Pakistan, The Presidency, Islamabad.”

It is wisely assumed that Raja Pervez will in due course be called upon to take over Gilani’s letter-writing obligations. What then? How many prime ministers can you fit into a slot of eight months or so, until the next election? Why would you bother amid a multifaceted national crisis that extends from the near-absence of electricity and a tanking economy to almost untenable relations with Uncle Sam, which offers the hand of friendship even as it keeps on pushing the buttons of belligerence?

Iftikhar Chaudhry seemed like a breath of fresh air at a time when an independent judiciary was a novel concept for Pakistan. The Supreme Court under him has taken some creditable actions.

There is a place for judicial activism in almost every country, particularly one in which the rule of law has all too often been conspicuous by its absence. But the rule of law does not mean rule by the Supreme Court, which has no right to be a substitute for parliament.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com