The pace at which the Supreme Court is summoning prominent politicians in contempt proceedings in an effort to have itself ‘respected’, and the snowballing pace at which disrespect, instead, appears to be snowballing among professionals, politicians and the common public is nothing short of a stunning spectacle. Certain decisions of the court have been perceived as unfair, too harsh, or even bordering on the illegal or unconstitutional by many. Naturally, criticism was going to follow. And courts are expected to abide by the criticism. But the Supreme Court seems to have taken extraordinary umbrage at the articulation of said criticism and has taken to serving contempt notices on those politicians whose party is perceived to be at the receiving end of controversial judgments.
Admittedly, the ruling party PMLN is angry at the slew of judgments it sees as one sidedly against it; it is angry at seemingly prejudicial observations from and prologues in judgments calling them the Sicilian Mafia and pronouncements of great crimes always being behind great wealth, without enough evidence to convict the accused of the yet unknown and yet unproven crimes. Hence the PMLN has reacted angrily at the great injustice it perceives as being perpetrated on its party leader and his family.
The optics are not pretty: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif whose name was not in the Panama Papers leaks stands ousted from office versus his adversary who indeed owned undeclared offshore companies, property and bank accounts, who stands declared ‘sadiq and amin’. Such was the lack of evidence against Nawaz Sharif that he had to be disqualified for not declaring an un-received salary, a technical requirement for the residence permit he held for the UAE when he was in exile. In contrast, the discrepencies in Imran Khan’s money trails, his non-declaration of his offshore company and its assets when contesting elections, his changing story during the trial, his lumping blame on his advisors/accountants/lawyers for his misstatements was all overlooked. One cannot then blame the ousted prime minister and his entire party if they smelt foul play and a judicial coup. As a result, in their various public statements they hinted as much.
The PMLN’s review petition too was thrown out, without much deliberation as to the merits of the unprecedented decision and its precariously weak legal moorings. Together with the support of a well-orchestrated media trial, the ouster was expected to be the political end of Nawaz Sharif and the PMLN. But something extraordinary happened. Sharif hit the roads and explained to the masses in very simple words the crux of the verdict against him, with a success perhaps even he could not have imagined.
The tables of public perception had turned on the judiciary. Of course, it was hinted time and again that the judiciary was not independent and was working at the behest, or under pressure, of the establishment. This too was accepted not only by his angry followers, but also by neutral, democratically inclined opinion leaders and sections of the population, who had watched the trials unfold. Gloves came off and an all out war began, with the PMLN taking its narrative to the people and the judiciary striking back with remarks and more cases and notices.
The war seemed unequal, with the judiciary holding extant power over the politicians and the politicians equipped with words alone. In latest developments, Senator Nihal Hashmi, who had hurled condemnable threats at members of the JIT for its visible victimization of the Sharif family in a private gathering, has been disqualified for five years and imprisoned for a month – for contempt of court. This, after having obtained an unconditional apology amended thrice by the judiciary to their satisfaction. As an aside, it is widely understood and acknowledged that Hashmi was only indulging in political grandstanding to a small closed door audience, and the his ‘threats’ were just that, a mobile video of which was leaked. Straight after Hashmi’s conviction, contempt summons were issued to two or three more ministers of the ruling party who are seen as loyalists of Sharif and who have persistently criticised judicial actions, remarks and decisions.
Side by side, the Chief Justice began his own brand of judicial activism taking notice of the quality of milk, chicken, hospitals, child abuse, schools, colleges etc. in the Punjab, the province that effectively elects the government at the center, and the province over which the PMLN currently has a pincer grip.
The public was taken aback by the nature and timing of the activism and reacted too. One particular remark stood out as a first amongst equals: that he (the Chief Justice) would put a stop to developmental projects of the government such as the Orange Train project, if health and education were not fixed. An entire essay could be written analyzing the rationale of such an observation, but the mention of the Orange Train hit a very raw nerve among the residents of Lahore, who had had to live with dug up roads and traffic snarls for months because the project had been abruptly suspended mid-construction. This project had been held up because of controversy around its environmental impact on the historic buildings of the city. But the legal proceedings had been completed almost eight months previously with the judgment being reserved and no verdict, and no relief for Lahore residents, in sight. None could fathom the reasons behind the unprecedented and inexplicable inordinate delay in the verdict. The final judgment had just come in from the Lahore High Court allowing the project to go ahead with provisos,. Hence, the remark about stopping the Orange Train like projects of the Punjab government were immediately perceived as, well, how shall put it, controversial and un-judicial, the relationship between hospitals and trains unclear to people. Result: increased perception of victimization and popularity of Sharif. Collateral: increased disrespect for the judiciary manifesting itself in pillorying and insulting remarks by all and sundry.
All of a sudden, the war began to seem not so unequal. The more the judiciary attempted to shore up its respect with contempt notices and threats, and with supposedly populist initiative, the more the public responded with larger crowds at Sharif’s rallies. Meanwhile, there is evidence that the results for the judiciary are increasingly opposite of the desired, with insults reaching a crescendo. Videos of Khadim Husain Rizvi and Imran Khan abusing and insulting the judiciary, and of General Pervaiz Musharraf almost calling them puppets, have gone super viral. On the face of it, the aim of posting and reposting these videos is to discuss why these patently contemptuous utterances never drew the judiciary’s ire, to highlight the seemingly selective justice dispensed to Senator Hashmi. However, one suspects a sense of veiled expression and satisfaction with digging up the insults that people fear to articulate themselves.
This is not going well and it will not end well; it is not obtaining desired results; Sharif is not becoming unpopular; he is drawing mammoth crowds. On the other hand, the judiciary is fast losing the support and giddy popularity it once gained when it was seen as the underdog and victim of former president and dictator Pervaiz Musharraf. The public always side with the perceived victim, always end up turning against the perceived aggressor. Clearly, all institutions must retreat into their constitutional boundaries, else the volcano can erupt, and none will be the winner – at least not in the short term. In the longer term, the winner may surprise.