Mar 13, 2009

A game with no rules

By Cyril Almeida
So what is Nawaz up to now that he’s calling the shots? Unhappy that the PPP still has one stronghold left, he imposes governor’s rule in Sindh and uses his two months to buy votes for a PML-led coalition in the province. The PPP, rudderless and demoralised, makes for easy pickings and the MQM, the PML-N’s ‘Qatil League’, is won over with juicy titbits, including the CM slot.
Having conquered the provinces, Sharif then turns his attention to the other potential threats: the army and the judiciary. Kayani is set to retire in a few months, so the jockeying for his position is intense. Sharif doesn’t really know the main candidates because they became eligible while he was stuck in Jeddah and London, so he goes with his gut. As ever, his gut tells him to throw caution to the wind and do the unexpected. Reaching down the ranks, he picks a junior officer to be his COAS.
The result is the stables are virtually cleared out as most senior officers opt to retire in line with army tradition rather than serve under someone who used to be their junior. Sharif is pleased; he thinks the army’s new top brass is beholden to him. Over in their palatial accommodations, the newly installed generals pensively run their fingers over the fine upholstery. One day, some of them think, one day, Sharif will pay for his arrogance.
The judiciary is the other thing on Sharif’s mind. The love affair with CJ Iftikhar is over because the shoe is now on the other foot and it’s Sharif who has to deal with the maverick judge.
And what a mess the CJ is creating. In Punjab, CJ Iftikhar is poking his nose into police encounters that take out drug peddlers, rapists, murderers and the occasional innocent. At the centre, the CJ is investigating private power project deals negotiated by the PPP. Prima facie this is another useful stick for the PML-N to beat the PPP with, but CJ Iftikhar is so zealous that he’s scaring off all new investors — something that is worrying the PML-N because it is now the one left holding the bag for the worsening power crisis.
And across the land fresh sugar and wheat crises are brewing and a whiff of scandal is hovering over the mills owned by Leaguers. Here too CJ Iftikhar is on the job, using his suo moto powers to sniff around and make some very important people very uncomfortable.
So Sharif resorts to the oldest trick in the book: stuff the courts and use the carrot and stick against recalcitrant judges. The good ol’ Charter of Democracy comes in handy, a way to clear the decks while abiding by the suddenly remembered principle of non-PCO judges (goodbye, CJ Iftikhar) or perhaps to kick CJ Iftikhar upstairs to the newly instituted Federal Constitutional Court.
Oh, and that business of constitutional amendments and righting the imbalances of power? Right on. With Akram Sheikh at his side, Sharif is pushing through ingenious legislation that widens the space for himself and narrows it for everyone else.
Before long we are back to square one, a discredited government fending off a rejuvenated opposition with the ever-watchful army standing on the sidelines.
Is the above scenario inevitable? No. But impossible? Surely not.
More importantly though, does it matter what Sharif does or will do? Or Zardari? One of the myths that refuses to die is the myth of the good politician. If only we had good politicians, things would be better. Or so people like to think. But by focusing on the individuals we miss the point. Who is a good politician?
Raza Rabbani? Demeaned and degraded by his boss, he stuck it out for reasons best known to himself. But did anything in Zardari’s record suggest he would give the Senate chairmanship to anyone other than a crony? After all, the Senate chairman is a heartbeat away from the presidency. And yet, hoping against hope, Rabbani has done his boss’s bidding until kicked to the kerb.
Why? Because a politician’s quest for power overwhelms anything else he may believe. So there was Rabbani again on the floor of the Senate yesterday, speaking on behalf of his government and vowing to defend democratic norms as the TV split-screens showed lawyers and opposition activists being bundled into police wagons.
Shahbaz Sharif? Administrator extraordinaire, he has resolutely stood behind his brother through folly and more folly. More than anyone else, he’s had the luxury of always looking good by comparison, hardly difficult if your brother is Nawaz Sharif. But the truth is we don’t really know much about Shahbaz’s politics, for rarely has a figure been in the national limelight for so long without having to take responsibility for the decisions of his party.
In the long run we may get better politicians, but in these days when Keynes is fashionable again it’s good to remember what he said: we’re all dead in the long run. What we really need is a system that forces the politicians to play by some rules, a system that survives despite the politicians not because of them.
Enter the judiciary. A rules-bound game can only work if someone other than the players arbitrates. The problem is that neither of the two options before us at the moment is the answer. One side is epitomised by CJ Dogar. By wanting to be a justice rather than dispense justice, he precluded the possibility of ever becoming a legitimate arbitrator. The other side is epitomised by CJ Iftikhar. By elevating justice to a fetish, he’s gone beyond the call of his office. The gallery may applaud raucously, but a judiciary isn’t the vehicle for change, it’s only the referee. Forget that, as CJ Iftikhar has, and with it goes your chance to ever be a legitimate arbitrator. So democracy can work, just don’t expect this lot to ever make it work. The real tragedy of Pakistan is that long before any of us are dead, the country may well be.

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