Mar 18, 2009

Expectations after justice

The problem with us Pakistanis is that we don’t often have a happy moment and when we have one, we don’t live it to the fullest. Hence, all we have to show for our marches behind a Benazir Bhutto or a Nawaz Sharif are swollen feet, aching backs and a bad temper.
We need destinations along the way to keep ourselves going. Man has landed on the moon. Let’s not get bogged down in details of whether he was pulled up by the president or pushed up by someone else. We must celebrate and savour what has already been achieved before we consolidate and move on. Will he find signs of life on the planet? Let’s hope he will and we will have a new human settlement. A certain calm prevails in Lahore on the morning of March 16, 2009. There is a sense of relief and the prospects for business, traders say, are good. The city moves ahead with confidence, its labours of the previous day having brought it quick rewards. The large crowd that threw its weight behind Mian Nawaz Sharif must definitely have played a part in the decision to restore Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. A housewife in Lahore is waiting for inflation to dip sharply and the law and order situation to improve drastically before she goes on her next shopping spree. Advocate Asma Jahangir reminds Asif Ali Zardari that his and his party’s election last year was not an end in itself but that the PPP was supposed to actually bring in democracy after it came to power.
A similar task now challenges the chief justice — he must now work to bring in justice, at least the rule of law. But, of course, post-celebration, the people need to be chastened against coming up with unreasonable demands for the just-freed judiciary.
It is doubtful that the cautious words spoken by Athar Minallah are going to be good enough to hold back a people whose expectations have been raised so high. But surely, while Mian Shahbaz Sharif also warns the crowd to not expect streams of milk and honey to flow in this land, the more principled amongst us would be inclined to believe that a certain level of lawfulness will be maintained. Now that the judiciary is free, it is not too much to expect that Punjab will be getting rid of its police encounters.
Speaking of the province, it’s fortunate that we survived the last-minute scare of the pro-judiciary movement being blown into a full-scale war between various units in the federation. It would be fair to say that the long march had a far from ideal start in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan while the Frontier’s response had yet to be fully recorded as the matter was decided before the promised caravans from Haripur and Abbottabad set out for a sit-in in Islamabad.
The lawyers were at the centre of it but it finally took a politician angry at being thrown out of power in Punjab to force the issue. The massive rally in Lahore on Sunday and its timing were proof of just how offended the people here actually were at the disqualification of their leaders. This was an out and out Punjab issue tagged with the independence of judiciary and an impression was surely created that the people of Punjab were the most vocal supporters of the judges.
By way of a compromise between positions, it can be said that, lately at least, provinces other than Punjab were at best indifferent to the idea rather than being averse to it: only they found themselves faced with problems more pressing than the restoration of Justice Chaudhry. One huge factor that led to the restoration movement being painted as a Punjab issue was the (forced or voluntary) withdrawal of the PPP, which has a presence all over the country, from Justice Chaudhry’s caravan. As Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani now rather weakly recalls, the PPP had given the movement its sweat and blood.
There were a few PPP flags fluttering outside Justice Chaudhry’s residence after the restoration on Sunday night. Many of its workers will be out to claim credit for the return of the chief justice but all this can hardly help the party revive its image after its leader(s) anti-popular profile in recent months. Also, while the judges issue may have been solved, President Asif Zardari continues to bear the brunt of a vicious campaign.
Power had brought him charges of corruption; absolute power exposes him to even stronger allegations that are deemed as being absolutely correct. If he wants to salvage his party in the all-important Punjab province as well as in the Frontier and Balochistan he has only one option — he must cleanse himself of absolute powers and for a change act like a democrat.
The chorus against him will not stop, it will not stop at least until he repeals the 17th Amendment. Actually the PPP must reinvent itself not only because it has suffered this glaring setback on the judges issue but more importantly to act as an anti-thesis to the consolidation of the right as witnessed on the Lahore streets on Sunday.
If not for its own sake, for the sake of others who believe that right now — like always — it is their only option to maintain some kind of parity in Pakistani politics. Unless it does, it is not needed. The first step towards that direction would be for the PPP to try and woo back some of its dissenters to the party’s centre-stage.
And surely, without colliding with anyone, it has to come up with its own show of strength some time soon to control the damage caused by President Zardari’s prolonged opposition and ultimately his seemingly abject surrender to the demand of Justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement. Zardari’s party must merge itself with the party of Benazir Bhutto.

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