The supra court of history | Talat Hussain

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It is a battle for power. And it is bloody. Imran Khan wants to down Nawaz Sharif because he knows that this will open up Punjab for him. This is his path to the PM House. Nawaz is holding on because he knows that another year will make his position unassailable for the future political contests and another victory of his party would be the end of Imran Khan’s steaming ambition.

The PPP’s Punjab chapter has much riding on the Sharifs’ ouster. They can perhaps piggyback on the PTI’s ascendency. Either that or get themselves started again in Punjab politics, or through a network of limited alliances in constituencies win back some seats. PPP Punjab also sees itself somewhat closer to the country’s establishment, the permanent political party. Many of its stalwarts believe that they have fewer disqualifications as compared to members of PPP Sindh, which is considered by the establishment as a den of deep corruption.

The Jamaat-e-Islami is restricted to Karachi and other urban centres of Sindh. It is hemmed in Khyber Pakhtunkwha because of its senior and overbearing partner, the PTI. Sirajul Haq is lightweight with very little understanding of national politics. The party wants to see the N-League collapse in Punjab because this will open up the conservative vote bank that has been lost in the League government’s continuous occupancy of power.

Besides these factors, the PTI and the N-League fight is also about the sugar business. Jehangir Khan Tareen and the Sharifs directly compete with each other for the sugar market and for business space. This involves billions and billions. JKT understands perfectly well that without getting a solid political cover of a government in power he, like the Sharifs, cannot see his business expand at the cost of his competition. So he stands behind Imran Khan.

With JKT stand the real-estate gurus who eye the lucrative lands of Punjab. They hope to attains super-rich status once they are in power. Put differently, just as there can be only one prime minister, there can only be one monopoly, whether in business or in other ventures. One has to disappear for the other to take full control. This makes this battle for Islamabad not just politically explosive but also business-wise crucial for the parties involved.

It is fair to assume that if the N-League had this type of political preponderance in say Sindh or Balochistan there would not have been any uproar about its leadership. There would not have been a squeak about rigging in four ‘halqas’ nor a string of Dharnas. It is Punjab’s politics, and with it the race for the centre, that is at work here.

Also the N-League’s present term in power is not the issue. The N-League’s future term in power surely is. Nawaz has to be ousted now – and thus start the unravelling of the party that is centred around the elder Sharif – for future political and business prospects to open up. If Nawaz stays now, it will be a never-like scenario for the rest.

The establishment, collectively, has its own axe. For them Nawaz as an individual is not a problem. Nor is his family. The two were great buddies not long ago till Musharraf came along and caused a permanent separation. The view – projected, propagated and written about daily by pen-pushers and talk show hosts – is that continuity of the civilian order headed by a strong man runs the risk of shifting the balance of power towards elected institutions.

Now that is something of an upheaval and a structural change in the power equilibrium between the unelected establishment and elected governments. A pliant order is what they seek, it seems. This thinking is cemented by the general theory of politics that politicians are bad for the country as all of them are thugs and looters – all of them except those who pay homage and accept alms.

This sets the context of the matters that now lie before the Supreme Court. We can all adorn perfect civility and decorum before the Lords and argue with all respect and humility the legal side of the case, but that does nothing to change the political and extra-constitutional nature of the questions involved in the matter.

The honourable judges would obviously be seized of this situation. They live in the same world. They breathe the same air. They have read their own history and the history of power struggles in this country. They understand what stakes are brought before them for adjudication in the name of fundamental rights. And yet they cannot go beyond the remit of the law. Their options are limited. However, the effect of the options that they exercise will be gigantic, for politics, democracy and the constitutional order as it exists now.

The legal road ahead has to be travelled carefully. Foremost care has to be exercised in observations made in the court about the contents of the petitions. The words spoken will have consequences expanded beyond reason by a hyper media wired on the backend with well-established political and business interests. Whether we like it or not, there is a parallel court in a state of permanent trial and it is called the electronic media. Nothing that the honourable judges may say in the course of the proceedings would be left alone. Media judgements will be passed instantaneously and conclusions will be drawn. The court won’t be able to clarify everything. Some interpretations will stay and will become the criterion to assess the court’s inclinations.

Adding to these ‘proceedings’ of the media’s ‘supra court’ will be politicians who would hold press conferences after every appearance and give strange twists to what transpired in court. Of course the Supreme Court (or for that matter the Islamabad High Court) would not want to concern itself with what gets said outside the court room. But it is also a fact that politicians generate pressure outside to influence what is happening inside.

We have seen what has happened to the orders passed by the IHC last week. Even clearly written words got lost in the wind of fantastic interpretations. The honourable judges of the Supreme Court will have to speak strictly from their orders and their judgements. An additional sentence here and there can make a crucial difference to how their role is assessed in the realm of politics.

But in the end it is not politics but certain fundamental principles that ought to determine the course of the proceedings. For the most part of its existence, the judiciary has been perceived as a pawn on the chess-board of national politics, being moved here and there by the hands that play such games deftly.

The past has been haunting this country. Verdicts obtained beforehand made trials held later mere game-shows. An elected prime minister could be hanged, a self-confessed abuser of the constitution had to be allowed to leave the country for the treatment of back-pain and yet schizophrenia is not a permanent mental disorder – this sums up the confusion that clouds the future path of justice in this country.

The honourable judges bear no burden of the past, nor can they be expected to address individual issues raised in previous cases. But they certainly are expected to bring clarity to the key question that none of their predecessors or contemporaries have provided and answer with total clarity: can power politics be allowed to hold the Supreme Court hostage to its whims and desires? Can law and constitution be allowed to become guises for political goals using judges as endorsers and facilitators?

The honourable judges will decide the way they must. But then history will judge them the way history always does – clearly, severely, and without any fear or favour. And on this earth, history remains the better judge.