“…nobody who felt shocked, depressed or angry after reading the edited White House transcripts should ever be allowed to hear the actual tapes, except under heavy sedation or locked in the trunk of a car. Only a terminal cynic, they say, can listen for any length of time to the real stuff without feeling a compulsion to do something like drive down to the White House and throw a bag of live rats over the fence.” These were reportedly the words of Hunter S Thompson on the occasion of the discovery of the Watergate tapes. I can pretend that we are this enraged by the Mehran Bank Scandal, but I will have to pretend real hard, but then all of us should be. Our subdued anger can be attributed to the fact that most of us knew this for some time, still the “real stuff” is fairly jolting and spares us nothing, and it is in short the stuff to get livid about.
Further, I can still maintain that while it is a good thing that the matter has been taken up but why did it take this long, and in any event it is nothing special, the Courts are supposed to hear matters pending for more than fifteen years, but again I know I will be protesting too much. It is indeed extraordinary and the cynicism can be momentarily put at rest, to extend the Supreme Court a genuine congratulation, a rarity in recent times. While we are at it, also dip our flag and salute the old yet indefatigable lion, Asghar Khan.
Once one gets past the minor irritation of the almost universal habit of mercilessly plugging the ‘gate’ suffix after every scandal, the realisation that the Asghar Khan hearing is truly groundbreaking is unavoidable. A former army chief and the DG-ISI coming to Court and submitting sworn affidavits of confession of bribing and rigging the election process provides some closure and an almost guilty pleasure, even if we knew all along that something like this happened and perhaps happens. The most grotesque feature of the episode is the tactlessness of our ‘commandos’ and politicians, there are no subtle promises or sophisticated indirect campaign donations. It is the crudest, most stereotypical form of petty corruption, direct cash payments.
The episode should also put an end to a vague, rather witless notion that though the ‘Generals’ might undertake some enterprises which are not strictly legal, but their patriotism should not be doubted, heart in the right place and similar clap trap. They evidently behave like the most crooked of mafia bosses, at least those in question did.
The case of the Generals is simple, there is a confession on record and a remorseless admission of deliberately breaching their constitutional oath and hence, they should stand the necessary trial and be sentenced. There is irony lurking somewhere in their feeble defence that they were merely carrying orders handed down by the now deceased Ghulam Ishaq Khan, I am not sure if they are aware that this is identical to the plea taken by the Nazi officials in the Nuremberg trials. In any event, if General (Retd) Aslam Beg is fit enough to come on television and spin the most fantastic of conspiracy theories, I am sure he will manage to survive a trial and hopefully a prison term.
It is easy to get detracted by the pleasure derived from possibly viewing the spectacle of the Generals going to prison and miss the bigger picture. The Supreme Court has displayed a fondness for looking at the ‘holistic’ picture and one hopes it continues in the same vein. Not only should the guilty Generals be incarcerated, but also the question asked is there a political cell of the ISI now? If yes, under what authority is it constituted or does the ISI still undertake any activity which is political? If not, when was it disbanded, and if a record has been maintained, which it would have been, that should be declassified. A gentle notice to the new DG-ISI to explain the agency’s position, of course, along with a warm and fuzzy welcome, might be in order.
The most startling thing on the political front is that the PML-N has suddenly lost all its zeal for the formation of high powered fact finding commissions. Perhaps Mian Nawaz Sharif does not consider this matter to be of equal significance to the ramblings of Mansoor Ijaz. The response of many PML-N representatives is evasive denial, and betrays a lack of conviction. The list submitted in court is an assorted ‘who is who’ of our politics, including some surprises. No politician has yet confessed and hence, it is slightly premature and speculative, however, it is good speculation. Separate proceedings can be initiated against the individual politicians on the basis of prima facie evidence and the allegations proved. However, one would be pleasantly surprised if someone volunteers to defend themselves in the Supreme Court if they feel they have been wrongly accused or even more pleasantly and more surprisingly confess. Here again, the guilty should be convicted for violations of Representation of Peoples Act and disbarred from politics alongside with addressing the larger issue of campaign finance. The regulations governing campaign finance are obscure, outdated and most significantly not enforced. This is an opportunity for the Court to set guidelines and perhaps urge parliament to legislate more realistic and more implementable guidelines.
Optimism is very rarely justified in Pakistan, however, equally rare are moments which mandate such almost unguarded hopefulness. My Lords, do not let this moment pass, it will be a long while before a Pakistani Court has a similar opportunity to make history, if this one is squandered. It might not solve load shedding and corruption, but seeing the mirthless, arrogant face of Gen Beg in the back of a prison wagon, will certainly make it easier to endure all of this, knowing that there is, perhaps, justice at the end of the road.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2012.