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A rare opportunity

November 13, 2012

EVEN as the ruling party tries to make what political capital it can out of the Asghar Khan case, it will probably not be able to sweep under the carpet the real question: who will punish the generals? If Nawaz Sharif and other politicians took bribes to rig polls, who doled out those bribes? And here’s another complication: at whose direction was the money handed out? For all the temptation to use the case to make the main opposition look bad before the general elections, the ruling party knows it will look just as bad if it tries to implement only those parts of the Supreme Court verdict that suit it best. Because along with sordid tales of how low Pakistani politicians can go, there are two other important things at stake as the IJI saga unfolds in all its gory detail: the government’s courage in the face of the military, and its willingness to accept that a Pakistani president should not be involved in politics.

Perhaps that is why the FIA has yet to start investigating who received the money, despite the ruling party’s protests about the evil machinations of the PPPs opponents and the PML-N itself now courting a probe. For the opposition party, this appears to be a reasonable political gamble at the moment: invite accountability, betting that the ruling party will not have the fortitude to open up a can of worms that will require trying retired but very senior army generals and will also invite more questions about the PPP co-chairman’s occupancy of the presidency. Add to this the assessment that concrete proof about who received bribes will be hard to come by, and the opposition’s push for an investigation emerges as a reasonable risk-reward calculation.

But that is consistent with the opposition’s primary goal at the moment — performing well in the general elections. For a ruling party that claims to have achieved a milestone for Pakistani democracy, something more last-ing should be at stake. Through a combination of its own political savvy and because of the leanings of the current chiefs of the military and the judiciary, the government and the president have managed to bring the country to the brink of completing a full democratic tenure. But during that time they have hardly been willing or able to assert their authority as the military’s commanders. This could be the last real test of the current set-up’s commitment to democracy. With just a few months left to go, a civilian trial of generals Beg and Durrani, rather than leaving their fate to the military, would add to a lasting legacy.