Asif Zardari’s injudicious vacillation

MOMENTS after his unanimous election as Pakistan‘s prime minister last month, Yusuf Raza Gilani said in parliament that he was ordering the release of all incarcerated judges. The announcement produced dramatic results almost immediately. It seemed back then that the restoration to office of the judges who had lost their jobs for refusing to take oath under the emergency proclaimed by General Pervez Musharraf on November 3 last year would only be a matter of time.


At their post-election meeting in Bhurban, the leaders of the two largest parties had jointly declared that the restoration of the judiciary would be accomplished within 30 days of the formation of a federal government. It is possible to quibble at length about the starting point for the designated period, but that’s hardly the main bone of contention.


No one could seriously take issue with Asif Zardari’s comment in an interview last Friday with the BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones that resolving the matter could take 31 or 32 days, or it might take less: “It could take 22 days, we could do it probably in a week’s time.” He had earlier taken umbrage at the interviewer’s suggestion that “if you ask for the parliament to do this … it could happen in half an hour”. Somewhat more ominously, he also said that he didn’t “believe in the clock” and that “this clicking and this non-clicking, I don’t buy that. They do not intimidate me.”


The Pakistan People’s Party’s ambivalence on this question has been evident for a while. Although Benazir Bhutto did make one half-hearted attempt to visit deposed Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry while he was under house arrest, her enthusiasm about the lawyers’ movement and the revolt of the judges – which provided a channel for popular discontent through much of 2007, and played a significant role in creating conditions conducive to the revival of democracy – was decidedly lukewarm. In this respect, at least, Zardari hasn’t strayed from the course: he has consistently been considerably less animated than Nawaz Sharif on the matters related to the judiciary. And, notwithstanding the outward displays of fraternal bonhomie, they also don’t appear to see eye to eye on the question of Musharraf’s future.


The two issues are not unrelated, given that restitution of the status quo ante would presumably pull from under the president’s feet the soiled legal rug on which he stands. The Supreme Court under Chaudhry had declared Musharraf’s emergency illegal, and it is unlikely that the former military chief’s re-election by a tainted parliament on its last legs would go unchallenged. Even if Zardari has no personal cause to collaborate in prolonging Musharraf’s tenure, he couldn’t possibly be in any doubt about Washington’s preferences in this respect. BB was firmly of the view that sucking up to Uncle Sam was a prerequisite for gaining and retaining power, and there is little evidence of Zardari diverging from that unfortunate view.


The PPP’s co-chairman also has a personal axe to grind. In his interview with Bennett-Jones, he emotionally recounted his ordeal in the context of a case involving a BMW on which the relevant duty had allegedly not been fully paid. “That was my last case,” he said. “I was languishing in prison for two years and I went to Iftikhar Chaudhry five times.” Chaudhry apparently said he hadn’t read the case, so he couldn’t hear it. “So we don’t allow the judiciary again to do that.”


After he’d had his say, Bennett-Jones remarked that his demeanour had “changed in the last minute. You’re angry. It seems to me you’re angry with this man, the chief justice… The difficulty, of course, is that the vast bulk of Pakistan wants this man restored to office.”


Zardari denied the charge, saying: “I don’t believe in anger, it’s a wasted energy.” Why, he implied, would he be angry towards Chaudhry when he wasn’t “angry with the people I’m sitting in politics with”. That’s a reasonable question, and many Pakistanis would be keen to hear a convincing answer. If the likes of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement can so readily be accommodated, notwithstanding their nearly psychotic antipathy towards the PPP and its leadership in years gone by, why is Zardari finding it so hard to be equally conciliatory towards Chaudhry?


Chances are that the personal angle is but one part of a complex equation. The official line is: “I’m not interested in only restoring the judges. I am interested in restoring judiciary – the rule of law, the majesty of law. So that no other Asif Zardari stays in prison under trial for eight years.” The constitutional package being prepared for presentation in parliament will apparently include, in some form or another, the restoration of the judges. Sharif and, among others, Aitzaz Ahsan seem to believe that there’s no obvious reason to link the two: the judges can be sent back to work while parliament debates the constitutional changes.


In his interview with Bennett-Jones, Zardari’s charge-sheet against the judiciary included the “judicious murder” of his father-in-law. He surely didn’t mean that: the judicial assassination of Z.A. Bhutto was, to say the least,  highly injudicious – as at least some Supreme Court judges recognized at the time. He also referred to Chaudhry’s penchant for playing politics but chose to overlook Musharraf’s part in the game. Elsewhere he has adopted the tack of mild mockery, suggesting that the judges were interested only in getting back on the state’s payroll and that their restoration would not reduce the price of flour.


One could fill reams of paper with a list of what the return to the bench of the likes of Chaudhry and Rana Bhagwandas will not reverse. What it would achieve is a sense of judicial independence and dignity, apart from facilitating a friendlier environment for worthy constitutional changes. Not all the judges concerned need be rated highly as legal minds or moral stalwarts. What matters is that they have displayed a backbone that may well have impressed illustrious predecessors such as justices M.R. Kayani and Dorab Patel.


Unlike Musharraf, Zardari has not descended to describing Chaudhry as “the scum of the earth”. But whatever anyone’s personal opinion of the unfairly dismissed chief justice might be, his stature has clearly been enhanced by his conduct over the past year, as well as by the legal fraternity’s passionate support.


Reforms in various spheres of life are welcome and even necessary, but they shouldn’t stand in the way of righting the wrongs of November 3, nor should the manner of their introduction be allowed to sour the honeymoon between the ruling coalition’s partners in chief.


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