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Battle of elephants

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, Jan 27,2012

Before commenting on the current stand-off between the government and the judiciary, let us take a look at two sharply contrasting realities: the depressing social reality and the bitter but ironic political reality. Looking at both these realities is essential for a scrutiny of the way the ruling elite behaves to the disregard of those who elevate them to power.

When elephants - the government, the military and the judiciary - fight, it is the grass (tens of millions of Pakistanis) that suffers.

Social Reality: Pakistan in 2012 stands out as a land of contrasts and contradictions, living in two worlds. On the one hand we have a president who sees nothing wrong and scoffs at "journalists' assessment" of the plight of the majority in the country. On the other hand, one of the 85 million poor - and one among the 50 million voters who put the ruling coalition into government four years ago - suffered a massive cardiac arrest up in Murree hills on January 16, was rushed to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, the capital's prime medical facility. His hapless relatives were told to deposit Rs200,000 before he can be put to angiography. The shocked relatives scrambled for money, asking friends and acquaintances for help. All they could muster was less than Rs50,000. Eventually, through contacts, we managed to get him a place in the ICU.

Imagine what happens if the patient is unable to get the money demanded by the hospital or he doesn't know someone?

Also imagine what happens if a minister, member of Parliament or a federal secretary goes to the hospital for treatment? Everybody is on their toes. He is not asked to deposit any money even if the treatment costs millions. The tens of millions that MPs charge for treatment abroad is a different story altogether.

Political Reality: Pakistan is under the thumb of a ruling elite - politicians of all shades and the mighty military establishment, ably supported by the bureaucracy - that considers power as a privilege and not as a trust of the man living in deserts, villages or on the hills. The combination of financial wealth and political power also results in contemptuous disinclination, if not rejection, of respect for law. It also elevates the incumbents such as Yousuf Reza Gilani, Asif Zardari, Babar Awan, Nawaz Sharif, and the generals to a level where they begin equating a legal query on their personal conduct to an assault on democracy. The thundering Gilani in the parliament, the sharp-tongued Babar Awan, the soft-spoken Zardari, or the self-righteous Sharifs - they are all manifestations of the phenomenon called power and privilege. The mighty military elite is also an extension of the same phenomenon, wrapped in a skewed vision on defence - a nationhood based on a sense of holier-than-thou self-assessment.

Gilani's repeated assertions that he restored the judges, or the dismissive attitude of Babar Awan, simply belies their stated commitment to rule of law. Was it a favour they did to the judiciary and now expect a favourable treatment by the judges in return? They must not, one would argue, because a) their dismissal was unfair and illegal altogether, and b) the whole world wanted their restoration. It was not charity handed to the judges but their due right. Only President Zardari and his cohorts - probably for fear of persecution on charges buried under the controversial NRO - opposed their restoration. That is why the Sharifs fell out with him, and accuse him also of having violated the Charter of Democracy.

Coming back to the sabre-rattling and chest-thumping by Gilani, clearly he embarked on this path presuming that the Supreme Court was acting under the influence of the military with Zardari being the common target. But this presumption is pretty misplaced, and weird, too, if one still believes that Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry wrote history by challenging the might of General Musharraf and other generals on March 9, 2007.

If the chief justice did it then - presumably out of commitment to rule of law - why would he comply with the wishes of the military establishment now, and why would he repeatedly reiterate - in and outside the court - that time for unconstitutional government changes is over? Accusing him of being pliant to the military, I guess, is an insult to his action, his possible dislike for Zardari and aversion to taking up public interest cases such as the one filed by Asghar Khan on the ISI's role in politics notwithstanding.

Secondly, the choice of Aitzaz Ahsan probably means that better sense has prevailed in the party and the Gilani-Zardari duo did prefer sane response rather than the confrontationist and arrogant posturing coming from people like Babar Awan, who publicly ridicules the judiciary. The visuals on TV screens - Awan surrounded by his disciples making remarks on the judiciary - are alarming. What does it signal to the man on street if the purported guardians of law - draped in black gowns - behave in a manner that amounts to the mockery of law itself?

Political power is infatuation. It corrupts. And it prompts people to bend - often at the cost of moral norms and professional principles. That is what deprives politicians of the integrity that is required to challenge the omni-present creeper called the establishment.   
Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk