On Thursday, for only the second time in history, a Prime Minister of Pakistan presented himself to the Supreme Court. Summoned to show cause as to why he should not be charged with contempt, the PM must have spent the last few days uncomfortably; listening to doomsday predictions on television, amid rumours that the day would end with his resignation or dismissal. On the day itself, helicopters circled ominously overhead, barbed wire and policemen in riot gear at every turn and traffic inched along gridlocked roads. Green passes in hand, the press thronged to Courtroom number 4, which was packed to more than maximum capacity. The Prime Minister’s Press Secretary and Ms Sharmila Farooqui found space in the balcony gallery, among the foreign correspondents, late-night talk show hosts, star columnists and editors. All strained to hear the arguments, over the thudding of helicopters overhead. The microphones were often turned away from their Lordships while they consulted, and then rarely turned back, making for frequent rounds of Chinese whispers around the gallery.
While Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, who appeared uncomfortable and ill at ease, presented his client’s case; he also attempted to remind the court of his pro-judiciary credentials. Mentioning the media, he informed their Lordships that the sort of news being circulated was alarming and he, himself, had been trying to defuse it by defending the court and its impartiality. As Mr Ahsan’s defence of the PM was in short, that he had not acted with mala fide intent (by not writing to the Swiss courts as directed by the SC). He argues that the PM genuinely believed, or believes, that the Constitution allowed the President immunity. The seven-member SC bench seized this opportunity to offer Mr Ahsan an invitation to prove it. The same invitation had already been issued to the government a few weeks prior, during the NRO review petition hearing, when the SC had stated that if a person believed that he/she enjoyed immunity, they may approach the SC to so verify it. Mr Ahsan, on the other hand, tried to reframe the issue as not one of immunity, but whether his client - the PM - “believed” the President had immunity.
The courts, however, seem adamantly interested in hearing only of the President and not much about the Prime Minister’s beliefs or opinions on immunity. Mr Ahsan has been advised to persuade the court of the President’s immunity, and “the matter will end there.”
On Mr Ahsan’s plea that he had not had time to study the record, the Bench granted him a further 10 days to prepare his client’s case. The PM himself was excused from having to present himself personally at the next hearing. As seven green-coated munshis lined up behind their respective Lordship’s chairs, the press made a mad dash for the stairs. Guards with rifles and large gap-toothed smiles blocked the way and despite entreaties, threats and indignant cries of “but, there are ladies here!” refused to give way. From where we stood, we saw a mad scrum begin, as the doors opened and the Prime Minister’s entourage poured out, scrambling to beat the rush before the PM himself walked out. Being physically propelled forward by his Military Secretary and a three-member detail, the Prime Minister emerged beaming in a ring of security. Catching sight of the media straining against the guards holding them back, he waved enthusiastically and seemed about to jam his foot in the door frame to have a chat, before he was quickly swept away in a shower of congratulatory pats and handshakes.
In the aftermath of the court proceedings, the PM’s departure, Mr Ahsan’s abruptly cut off ‘victory’ speech, and the dissipation of the circus - it seemed as though all had gone well. The court’s prestige had risen further, they had successfully managed to summon a sitting Prime Minister to appear before them and were not about to look Mr Ahsan’s gift horse, of Presidential immunity as a defence, in the mouth. The PM’s steadily-growing reputation of giving a good impression of a man unafraid, received further bolstering. The PPP won by demonstrating that their respect for the courts was not just empty rhetoric. There has been vocal criticism of the SC reacting with unusual speed to all cases related to the NRO, memogate etc, but there are also those who are disappointed. Those who had been hoping that the day would end with the PM’s dismissal. Thus, after suffering this disappointment, it only made sense that the same evening Mr Mansoor Ijaz was issued a visa from Lowndes Square. Folks back home needed cheering up after Plan A proved to be an anti-climax and thus the entertainment for Plan B, performing on January 26, had to be arranged.
The government has already been asked for written assurance that the COAS and DG ISI will not be sacked. This was unlikely to happen in any case, but hearing this case and asking for written assurance seems like overkill. The military, alarmed by the Kerry-Lugar episode and now comments that while the invitation to the Americans was found objectionable in the extreme, under the Constitution, civilian control of the military is how it ought to be. With four years of bad governance to its credit, what the government has going in its favour is that it represents a democratic setup - while the military does not. It is the democratic setup that will and should receive every kind of backing. The army, while frustrated by the triumph of mismanagement and the sinking economy, does not have many options, except to encourage general elections as soon as possible. After the Senate elections, where the PPP is expected to comfortably secure the Upper House, this should not pose much of a problem. Any attempt to incite some sort of regime change, without elections, will not go down well in Pakistan. At minimum, we are five months away from elections. Here's hoping, these months pass without any major mishaps.