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The lost half of a decade

The ruling coalition in Pakistan ceaselessly brags that it is the first “democratically elected” government that will be completing its term. As the curtain rings down on its five-year tenure, it expects the world to applaud. Providence has been kind to the PPP-led dispensation, which has escaped being scorched by the vicious fires that it has been largely responsible for igniting. Three interlocking reasons are immediately identifiable for its survival.

The first, and most important, is the decision of the military establishment to stand aloof from the foibles of the inept and corrupt civilian government. The chief of the army staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, adopted a policy of ‘splendid isolation’, a concept that was crafted by Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquis of Salisbury in respect of 19th century Europe. In the context of Pakistani politics, Kayani, a realist par excellence, understood only too well that there was no alternative to a hands-off approach.

The people of Pakistan had had enough of military rule and yearned for a civilian dispensation. Bitter memories of the past come stealing into the mind like a dreaded phantom. It seems only the other day when, on October 7, 1958, President Iskander Mirza abrogated the 1956 constitution – which had taken nine years to be drafted – and imposed martial law.

His justification was: “It is said that the constitution is sacred, but more sacred is the country and welfare and happiness of the people.” It is strangely ironical that a day after the Supreme Court, under Justice Muhammad Munir, validated Iskander Mirza’s action citing the doctrine of necessity in its verdict on the Dosso case, he was ousted and sent into exile by Gen Ayub Khan.

Nineteen years later, after toppling the Bhutto government on July 5, 1977, Gen Ziaul Haq declared: “The constitution is just a scrap of paper which can be thrown in the dustbin at any time.” Three decades on, nothing had changed. On November 3, 2007, the chief of the army staff and president, Pervez Musharraf, imposed emergency, suspended the 1973 Constitution and issued the Provisional Constitutional Order. With insufferable self-assurance he proclaimed: “The country is more important than the constitution or democracy.”

These men, mounted on sturdy stallions, thought themselves the saviours of the country. Yet they had all pledged: “I do solemnly swear that I will bear true faith and allegiance to Pakistan and uphold the constitution…I will not engage myself in any political activities…” Gen Kayani, however, was not contaminated by the messiah complex that had infected his predecessors.

He reckoned correctly that military intervention, under any pretext, would have resulted in Pakistan being quarantined and isolated as a pariah state. This would have had terrible consequences for the country, which is heavily dependent on external assistance. Gen Kayani readily concedes that the core ingredient for national security is a robust economy. On April 18 last year he told the media: “You cannot be spending on defence alone and forgetting about development.” In a perverse sense, the incompetent ruling coalition, by rendering the country hugely reliant on foreign aid, has unwittingly ensured that there will be no military takeover!

The second reason for the survival of the PPP-led government is the decision of the Supreme Court to never again validate any abrogation of, or deviation from, the constitution. Yet the track record of the judiciary has not been entirely aboveboard. Besides the controversial judgement in the Dosso case, some of the other decisions of the apex court show that, in the past, it has been influenced by extraneous factors.

In the Maulvi Tamizuddin case in 1955, for instance, the Federal Court under Justice Munir upheld the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly. In the Asma Jilani case of 1972, the Supreme Court declared Yahya Khan a usurper, though barely three years earlier, it had validated his assumption of power. Some of the same judges later endorsed Ziaul Haq’s coup, and subsequently sent the ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows.

Similarly, Musharraf’s toppling of the Nawaz Sharif government was rubberstamped by the Supreme Court which included the present chief justice. Later, the court validated the 17th Amendment of December 2003 which confirmed Musharraf as president and allowed him to continue as army chief.

After six tumultuous decades, the judiciary has finally come into its own. The process started with Musharraf’s sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry on March 9, 2007. This set in motion an unprecedented tidal wave of popular support for the ousted chief justice and resulted in his reinstatement by a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Khalilur Rahman Ramday on July 20, 2007.

But the high drama continued. Emergency was imposed by Musharraf and judges who refused to take oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order of November 3, 2007, which included the chief justice and Ramday, were ousted and placed under virtual house arrest. Thus, in a mere eight months, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry had been treacherously dismissed twice by an army dictator.

This convinced him after he was reinstated for a second time to never validate any ‘constitutional deviation’ again. Thus, on July 31, 2009, a 14-member bench of the Supreme Court declared the November 2007 emergency “unconstitutional, unauthorised and without any legal basis…” The immediate reaction of the Presidency was that the judgement was “a triumph for democratic principles, a stinging negation of dictatorship and is most welcome.”

Several months ago, Justice Ramday said that the new-found independence of the judiciary is derived entirely from popular support. “The courts,” he added, “are not equipped with tanks, guns and fighter planes. Their strength lies in the people… if anybody plays around with the judiciary the people will not accept it. Military coups are no longer possible and the government should therefore be able to complete its term. The rest depends on the internal political dynamics of the country within the parameters of the constitution.”

Here again the ruling coalition was singularly fortunate because the main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who heads his own faction of the Muslim League, had also been humiliatingly ousted by the military. He was, therefore, as determined as the chief justice not to allow the derailment of the elected government. In the process Sharif’s reputation, perhaps unfairly, was tarnished as the leader of the ‘friendly opposition’. This restraint was the last of the three interlocking factors that has enabled the ruling coalition to muddle through its inglorious innings.

In this period, the currency has plummeted to an all-time low of Rs100 to the dollar. As of January 31 foreign exchange reserves stood at $8.7 billion – way below the minimum level of $10 billion recommended by the IMF. In addition, the country has to repay the IMF $3.4 billion in 2012-13, $3.43 billion in 2013-14 and $1.35 billion in 2014-15.

The desperate economic situation has impacted on ordinary people, who measure time by throbs of pain and anguish. Loadshedding, and consequently burgeoning unemployment, accompanied by spiralling inflation, have taken their toll. Last month, 45-year-old Muhammad Qasim of Faisalabad shot his wife and five children in their sleep and then killed himself after losing his job because of the power crisis. On average, three such heart-rending tragedies occur every single day.

For the last 65 years, Pakistan has limped on from crisis to crisis. On Wednesday the Supreme Court snuffed out an attempt by Tahirul Qadri, the self-righteous leader of the Tehreek-e-Minhajul-Quran, to replace the existing Election Commission of Pakistan with a new one. Had his petition not been rejected, it could have resulted in the postponement of the coming elections. It is not possible to predict what will happen in the weeks ahead.

The only certainty is that the government will continue to project the completion of its five-year term as a triumph for democracy. But these years have been shameful and are, undoubtedly, the lost half-decade in the country’s history.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed @gmail.com

S. Iftikhar Murshed, "The lost half of a decade," The News. 2013-02-17.