Twenty-two years after a ‘fixed’ general election, the Supreme Court has legally validated the otherwise well-known story. Pakistan’s ambitious generals were adept at engineering electoral outcomes by raising funds and financing pliant or favoured politicians. At the centre of this macabre game in the 1990s was Benazir Bhutto, a legitimate and popular politician, whose appeal had not diminished despite the charges of corruption and incompetence. The army and ISI chiefs were personally involved in this exercise. In short, they violated their oaths under the Constitution, even if they were given illegal orders by the then president.
The Court’s short order is clear in terms of setting out the facts correctly. This by itself is an unprecedented development. The judiciary always played second fiddle to the executive, especially the army; and this is the reason why judges did not take up the case for almost 16 years. Today, Benazir Bhutto is dead but she would have stood tall and vindicated. During the 1990s, media campaigns against her kept on negating the stories of manipulation by the army, but today, those who laundered the GHQ’s agenda must reflect on why they aided such anti-democratic shenanigans, harming the country and its progress.
The Supreme Court has asked the federal government to proceed against the former army and ISI chiefs. Similarly, it has asked the government to inquire against the politicians through the Federal Investigation Agency. This is not consistent with the earlier orders of the Court whereby it proactively set up commissions, such as the one formed to probe charges against former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, and more recently, in the case of corruption allegations against Arsalan Iftikhar.
In the main, the order finds the creation of an election cell in the presidency against the Constitution. However, it is also well-known that then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was backed by the army and could not have reached the office without the GHQ’s support in the aftermath of General Ziaul Haq’s death in an air crash. Khan continued to play anti-democratic politics at the behest of the army until he lost his job through another extra-constitutional ‘army action’ led by General (retd) Abdul Waheed Kakar in 1993 when both Nawaz Sharif and Khan were asked to go home. It has been clear to even a naïve observer as to who has been calling the shots in Pakistan. Thus, the legalese of the political cell in the presidency is but a cover for the direct puppeteering of politics by the military in the 1990s.
The ISI’s involvement in national politics since the 1970s is contrary to its mandate of protecting Pakistan against external threats. Instead, we now have a judicially confirmed ‘version’ that ISI chiefs were setting up the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad and doling out funds raised in a dubious manner.
In its order, the Court has cautiously exonerated the armed forces as an institution. Paragraph five of the order states: “… an Election Cell was established in the Presidency to influence the elections and was aided by … the Chief of Army Staff and … Director General ISI and they participated in the unlawful activities of the Election Cell in violation of the responsibilities of the Army and ISI as institutions which is an act of individuals but not of institutions represented by them respectively …” This is a little baffling as the army chief, given the chain of command and internal structure, represents the very ‘institution’ the Court is trying to protect.
The saving grace of the order is a clear direction contained in paragraph six on the ISI and the Military Intelligence that “such organisations have no role to play in the political activities/politics, for formulation or destabilisation of political Governments nor can they facilitate or show favour to a political party or group of political parties or politicians individually …”. This comes at an opportune time when the country is heading towards a general election.
Pakistan’s power centres are multiplying and shifting. But it would not be sufficient to shift the power from one ‘unelected’ institution i.e., the army, to another ‘unelected’ and insular institution, i.e., the Supreme Court. The latter is not even prepared to submit its accounts before a parliamentary committee under the apparent notion that it might affect its ‘independence’. The riddle, therefore, remains: how will Pakistan ever achieve civilian ascendancy and parliamentary control on powerful, ‘unelected’ state institutions?
Finally, the comments on the president’s powers may lead to further complications. The interpretation of the president’s office in paragraphs three and four is something that the incumbent president’s opponents are concerned about and this interpretation may be used to start another round of president-hunting in the media, as well as in the courts. Hopefully, the detailed order will take care of the apparent ambiguity.
The PPP has gained tremendously for now. But the vindication of its stance would be diluted if it does not take timely and effective action. In terms of rhetoric, the statement of Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira is instructive. He stated that the government will institute cases of high treason against retired generals. Kaira also defended the ‘political’ role of President Asif Ali Zardari. However, it will need to tread a cautious path with both the PML-N and the retired generals. Perhaps, this verdict will lead to another round of ‘bargains’ that President Zardari uses as an instrument of the Pakistani brand of democratic politics. After the resolution of the NRO case, the dual office controversy is a potential threat to his office and a potential second term. But he has also demonstrated his survival skills. His opponents may well be warned to prepare for another retreat.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2012.