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A day at the bullfight

July 20, 2012

DESPITE the traditions and colour surrounding bullfighting, the bull really has no chance in the arena.

Before the matador steps out, the animal faces a pair of picadors on horseback who place two lances each into the bull’s shoulder and neck muscles.

The object of this preliminary bit of cruelty is to weaken the beast and reduce his stamina. When the matador emerges in all his brocaded finery, twirling his red cape, he faces an adversary whose ferocity and strength have been suitably diminished.

This enfeebled, bloodied bull reminds me a bit of our president who faces far more than two picadors. He has endured lances from the judiciary, the army and the media. The question that remains to be answered is, who will administer the coup de grâce to put him out of his misery?

Imran Khan? Nawaz Sharif? Or will the troika of the military, the judiciary and the media prevail?

The picadors goad the bull into charging their horses so he will tire himself out. But if he refuses to attack them, the crowd whistles and boos to express its displeasure over this show of cowardice. Occasionally, a black banderilla, or cape, is awarded to such an animal to shame his breeder.

Will history award this symbol of disgrace to Zardari? To switch sporting metaphors, he has most resembled a punching bag, absorbing blows from every quarter. And yet, he remains bruised but unbowed. Several of his close associates have been either forced to resign, or humiliated by the judiciary. But Zardari soldiers on.

Most politicians seek to leave a legacy behind them when they finish their stint in office. What will Zardari’s be? That he completed his tenure? This low ambition may accord with his abilities, but surely five years in power should leave more than this feeble achievement.

Even this modest goal has often seemed beyond this government’s capability. Given the poisonous hostility it has faced from day one from the judiciary, the military and most of the media, it is a wonder that Zardari and Co. are still in the ring. In the aftermath of one prime minister’s removal as a result of a Supreme Court decision, and another’s possible sacking on the same grounds, it is useful to revisit a similar stand-off between an elected prime minister and an appointed judiciary.

After the then-chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah issued a notice for contempt to the then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif in November 1997, tension escalated as the government sought ways to remove the troublesome judge.

On Nov 28, the day the hearing was due to commence, a mob of PML-N goons (including MNAs) invaded the SC premises, forcing the judges to flee. The next few days saw pressure build up against Shah in the court and on the streets. Finally, an in-house coup within the SC, orchestrated by the government, forced Shah out.

The details of the constitutional crisis that took the country to the brink have been recorded at tedious length by Sajjad Ali Shah in his book Law Courts in a Glass House (OUP, 2001). I only wish our judges wrote less turgid prose. But retired Indian Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju is eminently clear in the views he expressed some time ago, published in The Hindu, on the contempt cases presently preoccupying the courts and the people of Pakistan:

“…Section 248(2) of the Pakistani constitution states:

‘No criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted against the president or governor in any court during his term of office.’

“The language of the above provision is clear, and it is a settled principle of interpretation that when the language of a provision is clear, the court should not twist or amend its language in the garb of interpretation, but read it as it is.

“I therefore fail to understand how proceedings on corruption charges (which are clearly of a criminal nature) can be instituted or continued against the Pakistani president.

“Moreover, how can the court remove a prime minister? This is unheard of in a democracy. The prime minister holds office as long as he has the confidence of parliament, not the confidence of the Supreme Court.

“I regret to say that the Pakistani Supreme Court, particularly its chief justice, has been showing utter lack of restraint. This is not expected of superior courts. In fact the court and its chief justice have been playing to the galleries for long. It has clearly gone overboard and flouted all canons of constitutional jurisprudence.”

Our judges are quick to fire off contempt notices to lesser mortals; perhaps they might heed the advice of a brother judge, even if he’s Indian.

Another thing that has struck me in the unending legal battles being waged between the judiciary and the executive is the complete unanimity in the judgments. Surely there must be some judges who disagree with the chief justice and are willing to record their dissent?

Apart from the fact that for the first time, an elected government might complete its tenure, the other memorable feature of the last five years is the perpetual gridlock caused by judicial activism. Even if this government had the capacity of actually doing anything worthwhile, the constant legal battles it has been forced to wage would have prevented it from performing.

However, it’s not been all bad news: the government has some progressive legislation to its credit, even though these laws have not translated into tangible benefits for the ordinary Pakistani. Clearly, the meagre achievements of the Zardari administration are not the stuff of which re-election bids are made.

But while the government is answerable to the electorate, the other players in this saga of institutional clashes and internecine warfare will get a free pass. This is why parliament is considered supreme in a democracy. Our studio warriors get away with the most outrageous accusations against elected officials and our judges can humiliate any civil servant or minister; neither is held to account.

So who ever said life was fair? The bull doesn’t ask to be pierced with lances and then dispatched by the sword. But when he’s facing his tormentors, he fights as best he can. That’s all Zardari can do, or be awarded the black banderilla.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.