Mar 21, 2009

Liar's poker

The PPP government has just lost another round of poker when the lawyers' movement, and the smattering of political parties led by the PML-N, called their bluff. The rest has been nothing but spectacular and is seen by most Pakistanis as a spark of hope during hopeless times. The restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will not solve the multitude of problems that face this country, but it does give my countrymen hope that the system cannot be short-circuited every time a strongman – civilian or military – wants to do so. By refusing to back down in the face of immense pressure from different players and governments, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry captured the hearts, minds and imagination of millions of citizens of Pakistan. The chief justice became a symbol for the regular citizen of Pakistan who has been pushed around by the "Establishment" since the day he was born – the policeman, the KESC, WAPDA – just about every facet of officialdom that exists. And that is where the support came from. Channeling this support was a gargantuan task and one executed by people like Aitizaz Ahsan and the leading lawyers of this country. The fact that they and their families withstood immense pressure from all quarters shows their mettle, resolve, and their ability to gauge the mood of their countrymen. The PML-N's political position was also based on the mood in the street, which the PPP has misjudged. I wonder if Benazir Bhutto would have made the same mistakes – I highly doubt it. The lawyers of this country who have given up so much over the past two years formed the backbone of this movement while being augmented by activists, civil society, and students. After decades of slumber young people across the nation took to the streets and stood up to be counted. Pakistan and Pakistanis owe a great debt to Aitizaz Ahsan, Munir A Malik and Ali Ahmad Kurd. They stood behind the chief justice on principle when they could have taken the easy way out and folded for personal gain. The cynics, including myself (I prefer to call myself a realist), are asking if all of Pakistan's problems will be resolved now that Iftikhar Chaudhry has been restored to the office which was illegally taken away from him. My answer is a definitive no. But his restoration brings the concept of checks and balances back into play. The government should be held responsible for its actions, not only by Parliament but also by the justice system as the Constitution of Pakistan envisaged. For any society to progress it needs a functioning and independent judiciary, something Pakistan has been deprived of for decades. Gone are the days when we had judges who had the people's interest at heart and not their own interests. This is not to say that everything will change overnight, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.The Sharif brothers have played their cards well in this whole episode, and their popularity has increased not only in the Punjab but also across the country. Principled stands are rare and pundits can argue their motives till they're blue in the face, the bottom line is that the public percdption of the Sharif brothers as men of principle stands. Human beings have short memories and the PML-N's assault on the Supreme Court has been forgotten and forgiven – for now. The real losers have been the PPP and their allies who have tried to suppress the lawyers' movement, and then crack down on the PML-N via Governor Taseer. The people have bigger problems, ranging from water, the escalating cost of living, the power crisis; and they see the PPP government indulging in Machiavellian politics for which they have no appetite for. The PPP has now turned its sights on the press – always an unwise move, and usually unsuccessful in the long run as many a Government all over the world has found out too late. Raza Rabbani and Sherry Rahman, two of the brightest individuals in the PPP, resigned during this imbroglio, and the party will be poorer for not having their sharp minds to count on during the coming months. To steal a line from Topgun where an instructor tells Tom Cruise, "Your ego is writing checks your body cannot cash," is what I'd tell President Zardari. He is making the exact same mistakes as his predecessor President Musharraf made by thinking he is bigger, smarter and more popular than anyone else out there. With his cadre of advisors and friends who shield him from public sentiment and the mood on the street, they are handicapping him from making decisions based on reality, which is not a good thing, at least for him. If Mr Kaira and Ms Wahab are Sherry Rehman's replacements, then the PPP is in deeper trouble than I thought. At this rate, all his opponents have to do is let him keep making the wrong calls and implode himself. The last one year has been a case study in how to alienate people, piss people off, appoint the wrong people for the right jobs (and then lose the few good ones), and drop your popularity levels to atrocious levels.The people of Pakistan deserve better, and the only way they're going to get better is if they stand up and demand it. The politicians of this country, and I mean the PPP and the PML-N, need to be cognisant of the fact that the more they squabble and indulge in petty politics, the more the people lose their faith in them, making it easy for yet another coup – something we can ill-afford at this juncture. It's time to grow up and address real problems associated with governance.

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