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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Pakistan lawyers' unrest is futile

March 21, 2007

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Despite the media hype over the controversial sacking of Pakistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, it is becoming obvious that the controversy as such has scarcely set the Jhelum on fire.

But then, not for the first time is such a drama unfolding in Pakistan.

The last civilian government under Nawaz Sharif had resorted to equally vicious attacks on the judiciary.

In fact, Pakistan's judiciary has faced assaults in varying degree at one time or the other from virtually all successive governments, civilian or military.

The major political parties have a uniformly dismal track record on this score and, naturally, when Pakistani politicians speak of the independence of the judiciary, it stretches credulity, and maybe it even smacks of opportunism.

It shouldn't surprise if the common people begin to smirk.

Beyond that, the judiciary in Pakistan has always been not only subservient to the government but has been visibly understood to be so in the public perceptions.

That further knocks the bottom out of the present campaign.

The saving grace of the present campaign narrows down to its implicit reaffirmation that Pakistani civil society groups can undoubtedly match in sheer robustness their counterparts anywhere else in the subcontinent, no matter their actual weight and influence in moulding national policies.

While these factors may have put an inherent brake on the scope for agitational politics apropos the Chaudhry issue, the fundamental reason why last week's commotion was fated to fizzle out must be sought within the country's party politics, which is in disarray.

Clearly, the two major political parties -- Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz -- have found themselves unable to come together on a common platform.

They seem to harbour different political priorities at this juncture.

The PPP has taken a cautious, moderate line of self-restraint, and is disinclined to widen the scope of the present agitation, while remaining open to capitalising on it politically.

This is no doubt a calculated approach on the part of the PPP leadership.

The PPP's political conduct in the coming weeks and months, therefore, will bear close watch.

The Jamaat-e-Islami has been the most vociferous by demanding that President Pervez Musharraf step down and the country go for fresh general elections under a revised constitution initiated by a caretaker administration.

But the JI's historical sub-soil nexus with the country's security establishment is an open secret. So, its credibility as an opposition political party has always been in doubt.

And its current stridency can perhaps be taken to be a matter of grandstanding, which it might cynically use eventually to augment its bargaining strength with the country's establishment.

Naturally, the controversy has failed to assume the form of a mass agitation of a kind that compels the army to come out of the cantonments and grapple with the people's discontent on the streets -- the red line for army rule in Pakistan, historically.

Meanwhile, the lawyers' agitation itself has slowly metamorphosed into 'token hunger strikes' and 'token boycott' of court proceedings for an hour or two.

The militancy that was visible a week ago has begun oozing out of the lawyers' agitation. The fatigue factor now comes into play.

That is hardly surprising. A professional class on its own steam has nowhere made a revolution happen.

In turn, the job becomes much easier from now onward for the law enforcing organs of the government to roll back the agitation.

Who has gained?

It is entirely conceivable that having made a point about the locus of power in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf may offer a face-saving compromise formula to the ousted chief justice.

On balance, however, Pakistan's judiciary is unlikely to pose roadblocks on the path ahead leading to Musharraf's re-election.

Nor is the judiciary going to be unduly inquisitive about the story of the so-called 'missing persons.'

But the real impact is likely to be on the country's party politics.

Last week's events have shown that even if push comes to shove, the two leading political parties have their own sectarian interests to pursue at this point in time, and their leaderships have a serious problem in coming together on a common platform.

The PPP point blank refused to respond the overture from the PML-N.  

The bad blood spilling out of such open disharmony holds every prospect of being carried forward to the coming parliamentary and provincial assembly elections.

Similarly, the PPP has stated that it intends to draw a line of distinction not only between those who are within the government fold and those who are not, but also between those who are 'moderates' and those who are not.

There is delightful ambiguity in this contention.

The resultant mutual misgivings among the opposition leaders can only work to the advantage of Musharraf in the run-up to the elections ahead.

Again, Pakistan's political culture is such that Washington's apparent disinclination toward any 'regime change' in Islamabad or Rawalpindi at this juncture would send its own message to all concerned on the Pakistani political spectrum.

Musharraf may once again have made a point to Washington how indispensable he is for the United States' regional policy in present-day terms.

But, it is equally possible to argue that these are after all Pyrrhic victories for Musharraf, considering that Pakistan itself has been a loser.

Its international image, already smudged on account of its easy identification with the forces of international terrorism and religious extremism, takes a further beating.

Besides, simply put, the overall uncertainty that clouds Pakistan's political economy becomes a shade thicker.

The popular alienation from the country's political class as a whole deepens.

The only real silver lining would be if last week's events have shaken up Washington to the extent to realise that in the ultimate analysis, its best ally in the 'war on terror' in the region would be a genuine democratic dispensation in Pakistan based on the rule of law, which only has the moral authority to harness the forces of moderation.

Better still, if Washington realises that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation cannot win the war in Afghanistan unless and until Pakistan becomes a truly functioning democracy.

But that seems too much to expect out of Washington.

Guest Column