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The ‘ghurmas’ in politics

Nawaz Sharif’s case is that political disputes should be decided at political forums and through political means only. This is something an independent and responsible judiciary also would welcome

The ‘ghurmas’ in politics

Political agitators in the good old days, particularly in Punjab, tried to find a way out of a bad situation by calling for a ghurmas. “Pa deo ghurmas”, they would say. The nearest English expression might be throwing spanners in the works, or what batsmen facing defeat sometimes do when they try to hit out of trouble. The outcome is never certain but sometimes the tactic works.

Ghurmas is what Nawaz Sharif has created by deciding to return home and face all the trials prescribed for him. He has taken a huge risk, for he might lose his liberty for a long time. But he is not shooting in the dark. The risks in any other strategy were prohibitively higher — disruption of family unity and disintegration of the flock of nodders called PML-N, which should simply be called Nawaz League. (Likewise, the words ‘Pakistan Muslim’ may be dropped from the titles of all outfits pretending to be successors of the pre-partition Muslim League, and replaced with the name of the gentleman whose personal ambition they promote).

Thus Nawaz Sharif is fighting to save his party at personal risk to himself. This is quite unusual in Pakistan. It is also sound politics. His slogans about respect for the people’s vote and the need for saving democracy have weight, and such thoughts can be aired without resorting to abrasive language or insinuations against the judiciary. (That a reform of the judiciary is urgently needed is a separate issue and it can be discussed seriously and with due respect for sobriety).

Nawaz Sharif’s plea for the supremacy of an elected civilian government is unexceptionable. But he may not be the best person to advance this argument.

Unfortunately, however no gladiator in the political arena today can begin his speech without unburdening himself of the extra ration of gall that he carries.

Stripped of all fire and fury, Nawaz Sharif’s case is that political disputes should be decided at political forums and through political means only. This is something an independent and responsible judiciary also would welcome for while deciding political issues it risks getting politicised itself.

Nawaz Sharif’s complaint against (the abuse of) Articles 62 and 63 is genuine though he still appears to be afraid of making a forthright assault on these extra-democratic provisions. Still, the enormity in disqualifying a politician for life will have to be addressed, and the sooner the better. Even in the existing constitutional arrangement the maximum period of disqualification of a legislator for any crime is five years, which means simply barring him from taking part in the next elections, assuming that elections are held every five years only.

There is need to ponder the reasons that persuaded the authors of the Indian constitution to lay down the rule that if a parliamentarian was found guilty of moral turpitude he did not lose his seat, he only lost the chance to contest the next election. This provision became controversial in recent years and for a good reason but the matter should be open to debate because it is not fair to punish the electorate for something done by its representative after being elected and of which the voters had no knowledge at the time of election.

The flaws in Nawaz Sharif’s legal arguments are quite obvious. While his criticism of the composition of the JIT and of the way it worked may have some substance, he cannot take exception to a court’s taking notice of facts revealed during the hearing. Further, an attack on Articles 62/63 alone will not do. Such provisions are perhaps exclusive to Pakistan but politicians and prime ministers have been hauled up and punished for criminal acts all over the world. Nawaz Sharif can at the most say that he had a right to fair trial in the normal courts, that is, beginning with a trial by a subordinate court.

Nawaz Sharif’s plea for the supremacy of an elected civilian government is unexceptionable because there can be no democracy where this principle is not followed in practice. But he may not be the best person to advance this argument. No ruler in Pakistan since 1953-1954 has upheld the supremacy of elected representatives by respecting the sovereignty of the parliament and Nawaz Sharif himself has been found wanting in this regard. In fact when he talks of democracy many people get irritated because they cannot accept his style of governance as democratic. Therefore, he must convince the people that instead of seeking restoration of status quo ante he solicits people’s support for establishing as much of a genuine democracy as they can sustain.

This could be done by telling his party that is still in power to have its faith in the parliament alone and to abstain from the kind of chicanery it resorted to while getting a perverse amendment to the Election Bill adopted by the Senate. Indeed he will serve his cause better by not becoming the party’s formal boss. Further, he could help democracy by democratising the party apparatus. (This applies to other parties as well).

Unfortunately, the environment has been thoroughly polluted by hypocrites in the morality brigade. They are trying to impose on politicians their moral codes of doubtful validity while any student of politics can tell them that politics is the art of the possible and it has little place for morality and certainly none for religiosity.

When somebody asked the Quaid-e-Azam during a meeting of the Muslim League (the asli te waddi) to adopt the slogan ‘Pakistan ka matlab kia. La ilaha illa Allah’, the answer was: “Has any such slogan been adopted by the party?” The meaning is clear. Whatever one’s ideal or ultimate goal may be, politics at any given time must be guided by objective conditions and the community’s capacity to move forward, unless somebody is thinking of a revolution and has the means to carry it out. This is fully understood by religio-political parties as they take part in elections and crave for seats in assemblies and the perks without admitting that their faith allows such institutions and practices.

At the moment nearly all politicians are denouncing one set of institutions or another — including the parliament, the executive, the judiciary, the Election Commission, the police, the media, the NGOs, et al. While some of these institutions, or all of them, may need a healing touch or even radical reform, their denunciation day in and day out creates doubts in ordinary citizens’ minds whether such institutions should at all be allowed to exist. Like abuse of institutions this too jeopardises the whole edifice of governance and it is bound to result in greater anarchy than is evident at present.

Some thought should be given to the need for fixing the period for which political squabbles should be in order. The ordinary citizens are already sick of the politics of confrontation that has been going on since 2014, while the state becomes more and more precarious, problems of governance multiply at a compound rate and the people’s plight gets aggravated by the day.

There is much to be said for the judicial practice of treating past transactions closed, even if carried out by authorities or under laws / rules subsequently declared unlawful, except in case of discovery of a new fact or any fresh interpretation of the constitution and the law that may persuade the superior courts to review their own judgments.

Maybe, our politicians should study what happened in the US presidential election of 2000. Al Gore led George W. Bush in national balloting by half a million votes but lost the election with 266 electoral college votes to the latter’s 271. Questions were raised about the fairness of the poll in the state of Florida. A recount of votes was ordered but when the Supreme Court realised that the constitutional recount could not be completed by the cut off date, it stopped the process by a majority decision at a moment when Bush had a majority of 550 only in the state’s vote, and he pocketed all the electoral college votes. The complete recount could have gone either way and the architect of the “War on Terror” might not have been able to march into the White House.

Al Gore accepted the situation in the interest of unity of the people and protection of democratic institutions. Anybody can get these facts from Wikipedia. There was much for which G.W. Bush was censured while in power but the questionable manner of his election was never mentioned.

All this will be contested on the ground of Pakistan’s special conditions and people’s patience having been exhausted. But it is precisely in days of extreme emergency and during the hardest of trials that those who matter need to rely on their brains instead of running amok for personal aggrandisement.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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