By Muhammad Akram
LAHORE: The 22-day-long lifeline to a prime minister who was in a Catch 22 situation only a day earlier on whether to appear before the Supreme Court’s special bench hearing NRO implementation case can safely imply as a show of restraint on both the sides as well as an explicit desire to find a middle way out of the deepening quagmire of more than three-year-long stand-off between the executive and the judiciary.
If on the one hand the top PPP leadership had ignored the most popular demand within the party circles that the PM should not appear before the bench to express displeasure over the disqualification of his predecessor, the special bench headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa on the other hand granted 22 days to the government to amicably resolve the lingering dispute over writing a letter to the Swiss authorities for reopening alleged graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The court proceedings in the NRO implementation case on Monday continued for over an hour, which itself reflects the desire on both sides that they wanted to listen to each other on the matter and were serious in resolving the dispute without compromising the integrity of the judiciary and political stakes of the elected government.
The explicit desire on the part of the bench to secure a commitment about writing a letter by the government and the PM’s effort to seek more time to find a way out during the borrowed time was a positive outcome of the lengthy proceedings that suggests the unleashing of a face-saving exercise for both the institutions in days to come.
The special bench’s suggestion to the PM to depute some official to write the letter hints at letting the executive out of the NRO hook it tied with by the judiciary itself through a verdict passed by 12-member full bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in 2009.
When the NRO judgment was handed down in 2009, the judiciary, which had been restored as a result of a massive agitation, was all-powerful as compared to a parliament that was divided on the issue of converting the National Reconciliation Ordinance into law. At that time, while the judiciary was riding high on the popularity graph and promises were made of instant justice at all levels, the government was struggling to keep its allies such as the MQM on its side despite being the major beneficiary of Musharraf regime’s infamous NRO of which it remained a proud ally until the end.
The PPP-led coalition government was besieged also by the fact that it has to act on the reported advice of all-powerful Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani when the long march reached Gujranwala. It was the same time when the meetings, that too in the dark of the night, between the army chief and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in the company of opposition leader in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan were reported in the media much to the displeasure of all political leades, including Nawaz Sharif.
That was it then and there. And then the political trump card came into play on the part of the PPP government. The PPP successfully wooed as a coalition partner the PML-Q of Chaudhries of Gujrat who were in hot waters due to the involvement of Moonis Elahi, scion of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and political future of the family, in a massive corruption case at the NICL. With significant numerical strength in both the Houses of parliament, the PML-Q turned out to be a source of strength to the ever-struggling PPP government since assuming power in 2008.
With strong presence of the PML-Q in the treasury benches, the PPP not just got out of the political blackmailing from its partners from urban Sindh, but also found a renewed strength against not just the PML-N on the political front, particularly in Punjab, but also to withstand a pro-active judiciary whom it had been accusing of hearing only PPP-specific cases on top priority while deferring cases or providing instant relief to its opponents.
It was largely due to the political support of the PML-Q and the Awami National Party in parliament that the PPP-led coalition government was not just able to keep tamed the troublesome ally, the MQM, but also elect a PM with two-thirds majority after what is being termed an unprecedented judicial coup in the country against a democratically elected government.
The comfort and the two-thirds majority that the PPP enjoys in parliament had in fact emboldened it enough to take on what it sees as a hostile judiciary and dubbed as real ‘opposition’ in the absence of an effective political opposition to the democratically elected political government.
The slow process of criticism of a judiciary that was restored as a result of political movement, in fact, started from the very NRO verdict, which was termed a right-wing judgement by one-time staunch supporter of the movement, Asma Jahangir. Her view was later on endorsed by the petitioner in the case, Dr Mubashar Hasan, for mention thereof in the judgement of Article 63 – that pertains to disqualification of a member of the National Assembly – made part of the constitution through 8th Amendment by Gen Ziaul Haq from an assembly elected on party-less polls as a pre-condition to the lifting of his martial law, in 1985.
The suo motu notices on frivolous issues, including fixing prices of sugar and petroleum products to finding bottle of liquor from a famous actress, and misplaced remarks, including the ‘pity the nation’ ones, widened the gulf not just between the bench and the bar but also annoyed the masses who thought the judiciary had failed to dispense justice at the lower level while the superior judiciary remained stuck mostly to the high-profile political cases that hits headlines almost on daily basis.
While the superior judiciary was still struggling to come out clean from its pro-GHQ activism in the memo case against a struggling yet democratically elected government, the disqualification of former PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, at a time when he was enjoying overwhelming support of parliament, served it a serious blow, as everyone started drawing parallel of the judiciary’s endorsement of the imposition of all martial laws to not letting a democratically elected government complete its term. The surfacing of Arsalan Iftikhar case wherein the scion of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was accused of accepting expensive gifts and foreign travels from business tycoon Malik Riaz and using the CJP’s official residence address as mailing address for his business concern is said to have served as a serious blow to the integrity of the independent judiciary.
The pending investigation into the Arsalan Iftikhar case, which reportedly has not moved an inch since handing over of the investigation to a joint probe team by a bench of the Supreme Court, is perhaps the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back as far as integrity of certain members of the judiciary are concerned. While the support of the Supreme Court registrar in getting suspended the Arsalan Iftikhar investigation by the joint team was being questioned by many including the respected members of the bar, the challenge being thrown to the CJP on all of his judicial and administrative acts by a PPP senator appeared to have led the independence of judiciary to a further low.
It was largely being questioned as to why a select group of court contemnors, who happened to be the chief executives of the country, were being tried on much lower degree of contempt than those who openly flouted or are flouting the court’s integrity daily. Gravely perturbed over the increasing criticism of certain high-profile members of the judiciary, political analysts and senior jurists suggest serious introspection on the part of the judiciary for overtly yet unnecessarily treading in the political arena and that too by crossing all red lines not meant to be crossed by the judiciary in all established democracies in the world.
Has the 22-day lifeline granted to a PM reluctant to write a letter to Swiss authorities by the special bench of the apex court got anything to do with the abovementioned changing fortunes for one side and misfortunes for the other? An answer to this lies in the days to come until September 18 during which one side could feel off the hook while the other could remain burdened with numerous unanswered questions.