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Dateline Islamabad: Of heroes, villains and in-betweens

March 24, 2013

On my cell I get a text message from the Election Commissioner of Pakistan. He’s asking for the verification of my NIC number to make sure I’m on their voter’s list. The cost for an SMS reply to him is a mere Rs two plus tax. FGI as we have always called Justice (r) Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim is the hero of the hour. He’s reaching voters directly, caring to remind them that they must respond if they want their vote to be counted. To dig out my cell number, inactive for two years, and hook up with me, shows FGI takes his job seriously. He has relayed this message to millions over their cell phones. The response reportedly is poor to date.

When FGI vowed to change the election process, most hailed him as Daniel come to justice. Except, given his advancing age, one doubted if he could deliver. The jury on him is still out as none knows what tomorrow brings. So far, FGI is a lion (albeit aged) whose roar is heard all across Pakistan. As expected, politicians from every party other than Imran Khan’s have ganged up to silence the roar. They don’t like FGI’s tone nor his intrusiveness to investigate their personal wealth, income tax returns, academic degrees, number of foreign junkets, dual nationalities and even their (pathetic?) performance as legislators. Their caboodle (read family members) is not exempt from this scrutiny either. Their wealth and movements need to be duly recorded by the candidates wanting to fight in the elections.

According to press reports a significant number of former parliamentarians paid no tax or very little. As for degree verification of 2008 election contestants, 19 cases have remained pending in high courts for over two years and a number of cases referred to lower courts have not been decided. The State Bank has a list of loan defaulters which is alleged to include politicians or their spouses, not been made public. FGI is the first person who wants to screen out the people who have violated the law, but they in turn, are determined to hijack the election commission and dictate their own terms.

Some TV anchors are critical of FGI. “Who is he to play the role of a cop”? they scream. “Investigation of candidates is not his mandate. He was hired to make the electoral process smooth, not be the chief snoop”.

Unfortunately, Aitzaz Ahsan, the don of constitutional law has become his master’s voice, given that his wife is an aspirant to a party ticket. Senator Ahsan jumps to judgement on FGI saying that he should have waited to get Zardari’s response before rushing to print the electoral forms. Someone should have asked Senator “why won’t the president respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when he knows full well that there’s a time crunch and the commission is working on a deadline”?

When you ask around if the TV anchors are portraying the truth, most say that that the spokespeople of political parties invited to participate in primetime shows parrot the same stuff every night. The cross talk and shouting is often so shrill that the viewer can barely make out what’s going on. Often PPP politicians find themselves in the dock. Their high pitch defence of their government’s performance provides the anchors and other guests an opportunity to mock them rather than hear them out. Being a lame duck defending the PPP is tough.

These past five years, the duel between the Supreme Court and Zardari government without much ado leaves one to wonder if the time and energy consumed was really worth it. The apex court, it seemed, had a one-point agenda: to scold the PPP government each time it went off the rails. And the party gave the Supreme Court plenty of reasons to call them out for their wanton delinquencies, obvious violation of rules and desecration of law. The apex court had the nation’s nod; it nurtured the hopes of the masses; it won banner headlines in newspapers; it roused the anchors into admiring the Chief Justice. In sum, he was saluted as a national hero.

What then went wrong? Whither was fled the glory and the dream?

Supreme Court watchers have not lost hope. “We will see results. Maybe not just now, but mark my word, the past five years judgements by the apex court against wrongdoing will bear fruit one day”, says Masud Mufti, a former federal secretary. Some years ago Mufti launched a political party hoping to bring in change, but soon gave up when he realised that decency and  uprightness were values foreign to the game of politics.

The government, as we well know, slyly strung the Supreme Court along stubbornly resisting its orders and getting away with it most of the time. The only two casualties that President Zardari suffered were losing his prime minister (whose political star was already on the descent) and his wily ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani. Both the men were dispensable commodities and hence once they were unceremoniously shunted out, no tears were shed at the Presidency.

As for the ‘Honours’ list, Pakistan stands first in paving the way for the Arab Spring long before this phrase became a proper noun. When Musharraf sent Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry home, the whole of Pakistan came out on the streets to protest. A Pakistani Spring hitherto never seen, bloomed.

What happened after the chief justice was restored. Dissident voices from the most vocal supporters of the chief justice began to surface soon after the Chief assumed his rightful place. Even Aitzaz Ahsan who, I think, deserves the most credit for not only chauffeuring Justice Chaudhry but singing, pleading, appealing, persuading ‘his Chief’s’ cause at home and abroad (Harvard University and New York Bar included) returned to the PPP fold after being expelled from its CEC.

Today, even more so, the Supreme Court has its fingers in every pie. It’s like a train charging at you at breakneck speed but never stopping at a station to review the distance (primary issues) covered. Disremembered are the contempt of court cases; overlooked are the past corruption cases; elapsed are the fake degree cases; ignored is the Asghar Khan case and a thousand others that the Supreme Court exhausted its time and energy on.

Remember the ephedrine case? According to news reports the ‘missing link’ Khushnood Lashari plans to come out of his secret hiding abroad and present himself before the courts. I get an email from him vowing to defend himself. The former principal secretary to PM Gilani informs me that he retires in a few weeks after a 37-year-old career in the civil service. “

“I have served with ability and honesty throughout,” he claims. “I was never been accused of any illegal activity, or wrongdoing until a military-run Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) embroiled me in the ephedrine case after the then director general health Dr Rashid Juma turned a court approver”.

Ephedrine, he says is indigenously produced by Alpha Chemicals in Lahore. It’s used for making asthma medicines. No use in any narcotics has ever been reported in Pakistan to date, is his claim. But the press reports give a different story. Epherdine is used in the production of narcotics that are mostly being smuggled through Iran to European countries.

In his defence, the runaway Lashari alleges that he has been the whipping boy after the fallout of the Memo scandal.

Remember the war of words that ensued between the civil and military power wielders after the Memo case? Ambassador Hussain Haqqani eventually resigned while the Defence Secretary was let go. Things came to such a pass that the prime minister had to say on the floor of the House that ‘he will not accept a state within the state’. In an interview to a Chinese TV channel, Gilani said that Gen Kiyani and Gen Pasha had ‘acted illegally and unconstitutionally’ while filing affidavits in the court (in the Memo case).

Readers may wonder that while the politicians involved in the ephedrine case are painted as corrupt, how come a senior bureaucrat running the prime minister's office is not?

Anyway, presently the ephedrine case has come down to the wire. Who’s a hero, villain or an in-between rests on the judges if ever the case comes up for hearing.

The past five years offer a dismal performance by the courts including the highest. Cases like the ephedrine often end up in the foggy bottom of the apex court like a flotsam that, one day, is sure to choke the channels of justice and render them dysfunctional.

Ending on a definitive note, let me say that the martyred Parveen Rehman, 56, director Orangi Pilot Project is truly a national hero who never sought ‘stardom’ as some social workers like to do nor was her name ever linked with corruption of any kind, the type some NGOs are well-known for.