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The strongest institution?

July 02, 2012

THERE has never been any doubt, that for more than 50 years, from the mid-1950s to almost exactly the end of 2007, the single-most powerful and dominating institution in Pakistan’s body politic has been the military, or more specifically, the army.

It has ruled, governed, manipulated, deformed and interfered in the political process in the country, as if it had a right to do so. There is also no denying the fact that the military has acted with a mind of its own, and made judgments which benefited itself as an institution, and which it believed were in its vision of the ‘national interest’, often under what it felt was a moral obligation to save the country under different meanings of the doctrines of necessity.

Importantly, the military has always been anti-politician — but never anti-politics — singularly going after elected representatives individually, and against political institutions elected outside the ambit of the rules created by the military. It has not had a problem dealing with some elected politicians, as long as these elected politicians have accepted the hegemony of the military and played according to its rules.

There are a number of important differences in the way Pakistan’s most recent prime minister was dismissed, compared with those dismissed over the last four decades or so.

Firstly, and importantly, the prime minister was not dismissed, as were the five between 1988 and 1999, or even the one in 1977, on accusations of corruption, inefficiency, ineptitude or because the economy was perceived to have collapsed. If anything, the most recent of Pakistan’s prime ministers was dismissed due to his defiance based on his loyalty to the co-chairman of his party. Columnist I.A. Rehman even considers this dismissal to be a ‘non-political’ charge.

The second major difference is that the prime minister was not dismissed by the president or on his orders, or by the chief of the army staff, as were the prime ministers between 1988 and 1999. Importantly, in this last, most recent dismissal, it was the Supreme Court of Pakistan which dismissed the prime minister — what Asma Jahangir has called a ‘judicial coup’ — on its own initiative, not on the recommendations or advice of the president.

Finally, while Pakistan’s military is always playing politics, sometimes running government, at others from behind, manipulating politicians and interfering in how civilian governments work, at the moment at least one cannot clearly see the hidden hand of the military at play in the Supreme Court’s decision.

By all means, this seems to be an independent intervention pushed through by the Supreme Court in order to — depending on how one sees the higher judiciary — either enforce the rule of law in Pakistan, or victimise the PPP and settle old scores as supporters of the party suggest. The higher judiciary’s ‘revenge’ is a term which might come to mind. Whatever the rationale, it is clear that the higher judiciary has acquired a mind of its own, believing that it has done so and is acting on that belief, something which one did not see on many occasions in the past.Does this newfound independence and a coming into its own suggest that Pakistan’s high judiciary has become the strongest institution in the country? Its ability to dismiss a democratically elected prime minister might suggest this. This has been the doing of the military for the last five decades, and no one has ever doubted the military’s dominance. What difference does it make if a coup is a military one or a judicial one, when the end result is the same or similar? In fact, one could go a step further, based on the recent judgment, and some might argue that by constitutionally, and hence supposedly legitimately, having dismissed the prime minister and barring him from public office for five years, the supreme judiciary has greater legitimacy and authenticity than any of the unconstitutional military coups and other dismissals of the past.

Hence, the argument could be made, that of the four main political institutions of the country — parliament, the military, the media and the judiciary — it is the last named which has acquired a position of supremacy, if not dominance, in making political decisions.

There is no doubt that the judiciary has been moving with a mind of its own, making elbow room at the political table, pushing other institutions aside. It is also true that the higher judiciary as an institution as well as its leader continue to be immensely popular in the public imagination, and are also supported by some key political parties. At the moment, the higher judiciary seems to have far greater popular and public support and legitimacy than any other institution in the country. But is it the strongest institution in Pakistan today?

Parliament and elected representatives have always been a soft target. They can be dismissed easily, and the judiciary has proven this in the past as well by disqualifying certain candidates, or dismissing governments.

The media too, or at least important opinion-makers in the media, can be easily bought over — as we have seen — or told to toe the line of the government or the military, something one can easily discern from opinions and positions taken by the media people.

But for the judiciary to really emerge as the strongest institution in Pakistan, it will have to show that it can also, in its judicious spirit of independence, autonomy and impartiality, make decisions which challenge the strongest institution of the previous five decades.

Until the military is also put into the dock for many of its well-documented misdemeanours, the judiciary will simply be perceived to be on a vengeful drive discriminating against a few chosen opponents. Although the judiciary has made some beginnings in the military’s domain, the question is: will the judiciary be able to dismiss the leader of the military if he is seen to have broken the law?

(So what if they douse the candles in rooms where lovers meet? If they’re so mighty, let them snuff out the moon.)

The writer is a political economist.