Sunday, January 22, 2012


Pakistan in crisis 

S P Seth
Daily Times

The Supreme Court and the military brass are angry with the government for contempt of court and the secret memo respectively

If media coverage were to rate a country, Pakistan would be one of the top contenders. But it is the kind of coverage that the country could do without, if only its ruling establishment were not so bent upon dishing it out. As an example of such bad publicity, here is the opening paragraph of a Sydney Morning Herald editorial. It reads: “As if the lethal opera that is Pakistan — a nuclear-armed, basket-case economy with corrupt politicians and an Islamist insurgency — is not bad enough, the country’s military is displaying renewed interest in running the show” (‘Clearing the air in Pakistan’, January 18, 2012). This, in a way, sums up much of the commentary in the international media, especially in the west.

The situation is further confounded with the country’s highest judiciary determined to pursue an old corruption scandal that has dogged President Asif Ali Zardari when he was a minister in his late wife, Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is charged with contempt of court for defying the Supreme Court’s instruction to investigate corruption charges against Zardari. He is alleged to have stashed some $ 60 million in his Swiss bank account(s). Gilani’s appearance before the court has taken some heat out of the issue, but it has still to make its findings with the case adjourned till February 1.

At the same time, a Judicial Commission is investigating the matter of the Memogate, as it is called, where allegedly someone high-up in the government — might even be Zardari or someone under his direction — wrote an anonymous memo seeking US help/intervention to prevent a possible military coup after the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden; with the government undertaking to ensure that the army will duly cooperate in the fight against terrorists.

Of course, Pakistani readers would be familiar (if not over-familiar) with all that is going on. But this raises some pertinent questions. First and foremost is the judiciary’s role. Pakistan’s highest court gained tremendous public support when it stood up against former President Pervez Musharraf’s bully tactics to cow it down by dismissing the country’s chief justice. The popular protests that followed virtually forced General (retd) Musharraf into exile. Since then Pakistan’s Supreme Court takes its role as the guardian of law and order and the country’s moral conscience very seriously — no matter how exalted a person’s position might be. Hence its orders for Prime Minister Gilani to appear before it to answer the charge of contempt.

When he appeared before the court, Gilani reiterated that President Zardari has immunity under the law “inside Pakistan, and outside”. But he maintained: “I have no intention to defame or ridicule the court...” The court seems to relish its symbolic victory. According to Justice Saeed Khosa, “This is a great day for the rule of law, when the sitting chief executive has appeared before this court.”

Even as the tussle between the Supreme Court and the government is still unresolved, the issue of Memogate, where the army chief is fuming about treason against the military, is hanging like a live grenade. And in both cases, the judiciary will be the arbiter. The Supreme Court and the military brass are angry with the government for contempt of court and the secret memo respectively.

In an odd sort of way, both the judiciary and the military seem to be working towards bringing down the government. However, with the judiciary committed to the rule of law that enshrines civilian supremacy over the armed forces, the Supreme Court might be trusted to maintain that fundamental principle of democratic functioning.

It is over the top for the generals to brand the said memo as treasonous, as if the military is an autonomous state — if not a supra state. As Akram Zaki, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, has reportedly said: “All politicians of high ambition have been leaning on the US in one way or another for a long time.” In his view, the memo issue has been “blown up beyond all proportion”. There are huge egos at clash, where personalities have become the issues over substance.

The Zardari administration appears highly unpopular, and for good reasons, for failing to deliver the public good. Every day the Pakistani media is replete with stories of people’s suffering on a whole range issues, like rising unemployment, inflation, failing infrastructure and so on. You name it and it is there. But according to the basic principle of democratic functioning, it is the court of the people that should decide the fate of any government during the elections. If that is adhered to, as it should be, it will be the first time since General Zia’s coup that a civilian Pakistani government would have completed its term of office — a hopeful augury for democratic building in Pakistan.

Even as one examines the present imbroglio in Pakistan, it seems surreal that the Pakistani establishment (the government, the judiciary and the military) is expending so much energy and time into marking their respective boundaries and domains when the country is faced with much more urgent issues that threaten the very state they are part of. The most dangerous of them is the threat from militancy/terrorism. An estimated 3,000 people reportedly died from militant violence last year. Even more than the number of people killed, and that is substantial, such violence is creating an image of Pakistan as a failing state. If this continues, the image might become a reality.

Against this backdrop, the clash of bruised egos of the personalities involved in this tug of war is a luxury Pakistan can ill afford.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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