Institutions or individuals?

Published: August 8, 2012
The writer is a political economist

The writer is a political economist

It has been suggested in the media and print public sphere that, perhaps, Pakistan’s superior judiciary may have emerged as Pakistan’s strongest and most influential institution. Arguments have been made which suggest, that by dismissing the previous Prime Minister of Pakistan and threatening the present one, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has been flexing its muscle and putting parliament in its place, brandishing its new found activism to make elbow room at the power table with parliament, the military and the media.

This argument suggests, that in the absence of an activist military, the judiciary has become the keeper of what it assumes are Pakistan’s morals. It has decided to make decisions, which will have a bearing on the political course of the country, as it has in the past, but with greater vigour and public support. It is being argued that the judiciary now moves with a ‘mind of its own’, perhaps, independent of pressure from the President as in the past, or providing justification for a military coup, part of the judiciary’s many accomplishments. While it is clearly noticeable that the judiciary is taking proactive decisions in the political — not just the public — life of the country, a challenge has been thrown, which says that until the military is also put into the dock for many of its well-documented misdemeanours, the judiciary will simply be perceived to be on a vengeful drive discriminating against a few chosen opponents. In other words, the question of whether the judiciary is the strongest institution in Pakistan, depends on its ability to take on the military, rather than the soft target of the Prime Minister.

These assertions and this line of thinking have been questioned and challenged by those who point to flaws in the original argument. In the vibrant public discourse on such matters, some interlocutors have questioned the basic premise of the argument that this judiciary was acting as an institution, and argued that this judicial activism is probably on account of the particular historical circumstances of the moment, and specifically due to the role of the incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan. They see this as an individual’s particular penchant, not necessarily an institutional shift.

Some commentators make the very valid argument, that in discussions on the Supreme Court, it is essential to distinguish between the power of the existing crop of judges and the judiciary as an institution. One needs to avoid using the two interchangeably, and that the Supreme Court under its existing Chief Justice needs to be seen as an anomaly. Based on historical events, his authority flows not from the institution but from his self — what is seen to be his heroism (in saying no to a dictator), his exemplary character (to remain steadfast in his resolve while deposed) and his extraordinary accomplishment (to return twice in the face of resistance from first Musharraf and then Zardari). These comments imply that institutions are only as relevant as their leaders, and that it is from this that the Chief Justice’s authority and legitimacy flows, not from the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

Examples from recent history support such conclusions, where individuals have led revolutions or broad social movements and have influenced major events, yet after their passing or removal, their successors have not had the legitimacy, support or power they had. The same institutions (or outcomes) have lost their earlier power and substance. Examples can be found from scores of cases related to institutions, such as the military, political or social movements, and even the superior judiciary.

Individuals matter immensely and even if they are embedded in institutions, in numerous cases, have the ability to make the institution in their own, preferred, image. For good and for bad, many leaders fail to do so, not simply because they are caught in straitjacketed institutions, but on account of personal failure or excessive or non-existent vision or ambition. As world history shows, over and over again, leadership is crucial to outcomes and results, good and bad.

Clearly, one has to examine the cliché being posted as analysis, of the ‘clash of institutions’, between parliament and the superior judiciary. Are these institutions clashing, or is it a particular leadership using that institution to further a particular case or crusade? A more belligerent Pakistan Peoples Party leader could have taken on the Supreme Court, and the outcome (and analysis) would have been very different. A military coup in 1977 and another in 1999, with very different leaders of the same institution, has left very different legacies.

There are far too many examples to emphasise the point made by those who question the institution-strengthening arguments, and we know, ‘institutional change’ does come through the direction provided by its leader. Apple might not feel the same without Steve Jobs, but is still much the same company. However, it is impossible to predict what happens some months from now under a new Chief Justice, and what degree of independence and belligerence a new Supreme Court exhibits. Nevertheless, one ought to expect, as has been suggested in other contexts, that the bar for the future has been raised.

As has been argued before, Musharraf, despite the dislike many have of his military dictatorship, did raise the bar on the political front with regard to women, the media, and even relations with India. It is expected that the next Chief Justice will also have to deal with raised standards set by his predecessor, and whether the legacy of a strong institution prevails, will only be tested after a series of events which allow us to examine outcomes in a somewhat longer time-span. It is too soon to answer the question: which is Pakistan’s strongest institution?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Falcon
    Aug 8, 2012 - 11:25PM

    Doctor Sahab…Good insight. But isn’t it possible that till the time institutions are established, personalities will continue to be important and institutions are nothing but codification of intelligence and learning experiences of many such people across the ranks over a period of time?


  • Rick
    Aug 9, 2012 - 12:10AM

    Islamic history is full of high powered kings and dictators and not institutions. No wonder out of more than 50 Islamic countries there are not even half a dozen democratic countries. Institutions and people mean nothing only individuals and tyrants who want to assume totalitarian power in the garb of CJ, army chief or plain dictator are the kings.Recommend

  • Ken Bryant
    Aug 9, 2012 - 12:24AM

    As long as the US and Pakistan hold different goals (Pakistan wants Afghanistan controlled by Pashtun, US doesn’t), and different values (Pakistan places the ummat above all, the US doesn’t), no rational shared policy is possible. The sad truth is, Pakistan is inherently an enemy of the US.


  • Khan
    Aug 9, 2012 - 1:33AM

    Agreed…There is no doubt that Ch Iftikhar has become a dictator in the garb of a chief justice…He displays all its characteristics: ruling on his whims, disrespecting the Constitution and violating the country’s own laws, massive corruption of family, getting rid of democratic and elected head of government, making his own laws and rules as he gives orders and judgments, judicial fascism brooking no opposition from other judges, totalitarianism tendencies of interfering in everything including people’s lifestyles, religion etc, etc


  • Max
    Aug 9, 2012 - 2:08AM

    The author has done a good job in analyzing the Pakistani malaise. Everywhere around the world (particularly in established polities institutional interests take a precedence over individual interests. Pakistani Ganges runs the other way and it has always been so. With all due respects, Mr. Jinnah did not care for the institutions and ran the new polity in typical viceregal tradition. So the seeds were sown, and the trees are bearing the fruit now.


  • Logic Europe
    Aug 9, 2012 - 2:24AM

    Pepole have low opinion of courts as it is here in courts where people ,especially the poor suffer the most. soon people will start seeing the supreme court political in one way or the other and their faith in judiciary if any, will be completely eroded


  • sabi
    Aug 9, 2012 - 4:34AM

    Pakistan is a muslim country hence it should seek guidance from holy Quran which puts great emphasis on obedience.Unfortunately the element of obedience desperatly lack in pakistani society may it be at individual level or at national level.Because of ignoring this advise of Quran the whole country is at the verge of collapse.The key to sucess lies in obeying the authorities.West has applied this precious rule in their life and has seen great progress.Only if pakistanis learn to obey respective authorties the things will channge in good direction.


  • Aug 9, 2012 - 5:37AM

    Good article.

    Pakistan needs more than anything else stronger institutions. Strong leaders may raise the bar for their successors but unless organizations and systems are strengthened beneath them their achievements will be fleeting.


  • Ravi
    Aug 9, 2012 - 7:12AM

    It’s only a matter of time when the CJ will push the Army to a corner and then they will align with the government to put a firm lid on Judiciary’s lawlessness.

    Fragile democracy indeed, but still don’t they understand that the parliament makes Laws and Judiciary interprets them.


  • Caramelized_Onion
    Aug 9, 2012 - 8:15AM

    The public is still waiting for the Parliament to raise the bar. But forget the energy crisis, or the economy, the only cries coming out of the parliament are of ‘saving democracy’ and treasonous laws that go against the basic human rights of citizens.

    And yet, people like Asma J. and Aitzaz. A have the guts to defend them.


  • Hafiz Shah Ali
    Aug 9, 2012 - 8:33AM

    Individuals make Institutions.What is needed is an ethical framework fr institutions to function


  • DevilHunterX
    Aug 9, 2012 - 9:25AM

    You think the Pakistani political parties are democratic?


  • asim
    Aug 9, 2012 - 10:55AM

    Pakistan is only a muslim country by name. However, there is no system which is followed.


  • Rick
    Aug 9, 2012 - 11:35AM

    Political parties are more democratic than the SC which always sides with the generals and ambushes the democracy. Parties offer themselves to voters but generals and judges have no accountability ever.


  • Aug 9, 2012 - 1:17PM

    the judges in queue to be CJ are more stick then the current one. standard set, if accompanied by a strong parliament will help Pakistan establish institutions in the country and focus on the real issues of the people of pakistan.


  • Parvez
    Aug 9, 2012 - 1:31PM

    Democracy is like a chain with three links. The chain is as strong as its weakest link. In our case all three links are weak, one may say all three have serious cracks in them. Some claim two have broken down completely. So what democracy are we talking about ? Does it even exist ? My opinion is that the people who are the beneficiaries of this system seem quite convinced that it does not exist.


  • elementary
    Aug 9, 2012 - 1:57PM

    @sabi: You said: “The key to sucess lies in obeying the authorities”.

    Sir, I would beg to strongly disagree.Obedience to Authority is a key to despotism ,stagnation and decay.Democracy and individualism seeks unimpeded growth of all that is good in indidviduals,by promoting original ideas and critical thinking.Obedience demands blind faith in the gospel of authority ,which can make any society retrogressive.
    Obedience ,loyalty and sacrifices as attributes are the tools of tyrants and dictators,whcih they use to oppress the masses.

    Perhaps you meant ; abiding by laws,rules and regulation which are of course essential for any funcional society.But these laws and rules are under constant scrutiny and are modified and updated according to the ground realities i.e not written in stone.


  • elementary
    Aug 9, 2012 - 2:06PM

    Whilst there can hardly be any doubt that instituion’s interest should reign supreme over individual’s interest running it,however to say that an institution is only as good as it’s leader would not be false either.


  • Logic Europe
    Aug 9, 2012 - 4:37PM

    @ carm onion
    people like Aitzaz and Asma are intellectuals who struggled to restore this judiciary Nowmthey see what their man is doing.,uttingbthe whole country to shame and ridicule His own family is involved in corruption and he himself has unanswered allegations against him He has disgraced judiciary institutions all over the world People are still waiting for him to become rational
    He is responsible for allowing Musharaf to break the constitution
    PPP will not and should not scumb to his antics and tantrums


  • Abid Khan
    Aug 9, 2012 - 4:56PM

    Please write in a straight forward manner. The question is which institution or institutions are going to be most effective rather than the “strongest.?” This is the very question that needed analysis but your write up evades it.


  • Khadim Karrar
    Aug 9, 2012 - 8:20PM

    @Abid Khan:
    I agree with you the style is somewhat tortuous. And, prognostic assessment of institutional efficacy could have been attempted, perhaps through the method of extrapolation of the present developments?


  • umer gul
    Aug 9, 2012 - 11:14PM

    institutions are prior to individual


  • pmbm
    Aug 10, 2012 - 3:03AM

    @ sabi
    Obey Who? It also says do not obey even your parents if they are on the wrong track.
    Obey what is right, and have leaders who can discern right from wrong to follow.
    Quran also says to understand its injunctions with God-given reason to do the right thing and enjoin the truth.


  • Dr Azhar mukhtar
    Aug 10, 2012 - 3:38AM

    Death of democracy… Courtsey hper azad adaltean!!!

    I wish courts follow constitution


  • sabi
    Aug 10, 2012 - 5:26AM

    My dear to dissobey is only permitted when authorities prohibt someone from worshhiping God.In worldly matters Islam advises it’s followers to obey the laws of the country they live.Simple as that


  • pmbm
    Aug 11, 2012 - 3:09AM

    Sir we are talking about a Muslim majority state where muslims pick their government which needs to follow the principles laid down for governing.
    you might be right about non-muslin country where muslim minority has no choice.


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