Sunday, October 21, 2012

Daily Times Editorial Oct 22, 2012

Asghar Khan case fallout The Supreme Court’s (SC’s) long delayed verdict in the Asghar Khan case has put the cat among the pigeons in terms of its fallout for the politics of the country, now and in the future. The former COAS General (retd) Aslam Beg, former head of ISI Lieutenant-General (retd) Asad Durrani, some prominent politicians alleged to have received funds from the Rs 60 million out of the Rs 140 million given by former Habib Bank and Mehran Bank head Younis Habib, have all been put in the dock by the verdict. Although the detailed judgement is to follow, the short order of the SC has directed the government to take action against the generals and the politicians, as also Younis Habib for manipulating the 1990 elections through the formation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) with the help of these secretly distributed funds, which were also aimed at helping anti-PPP politicians and parties to win the 1990 elections. Late president Ghulam Ishaq Khan has been found to be the main culprit in this shoddy business. An election cell operating within his presidency ordered the COAS and ISI chief to distribute these funds, facilitate the formation of the anti-PPP IJI and ensure the mandate of the electorate did not go in favour of the PPP, then led by Benazir Bhutto. Certain questions have arisen in the wake of the court judgement, a judgement that cannot be considered anything but historic, given the history of manipulated elections in the country, and arguably a game-changer, provided the investigations ordered by the court are conducted thoroughly and no one, no matter how prominent, spared the long arm of the law. As far as the errant generals are concerned, the question of what law or legal regime to try them under remains unresolved. One view is that they should be court martialled. Recently, in a case of embezzlement of funds, retired generals have been ‘reinstated’ in order to be court martialled. Although that has set a new precedent, it is not clear whether the present military leadership would be wiling to extend this precedent to two such prominent past generals. The other view is that the two have attracted the provisions of Article 6 of the constitution, dealing with treason and violations of the constitution. That would be an explosive departure, given the continuing dominance of the military in national affairs and the high profile of the two accused generals. This could prove a ticklish matter for both the army high command as well as the government. As far as the politicians named as beneficiaries of the ‘largesse’ of the ISI/military establishment in General Durrani’s affidavit in the SC are concerned, the court has ordered the FIA to investigate the charges and take legal action against all those found guilty of accepting these ‘gifts’. How long such an investigation might take is another concern. The FIA thinks it can complete it within two months, Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira thinks it can be done fairly quickly and before the caretaker setup takes over to conduct the general elections after the PPP-led government’s tenure expires on March 18, 2013. It certainly looks, despite these confident assertions, that this might be a race against time. If the investigation is not completed before the present government departs, it would remain a matter of conjecture what might transpire in the tenure of the caretaker government: continuation without break of the investigation, or its getting lost in a cloud of uncertainty amidst the political changes taking place then. Another cloud of uncertainty kicked up by the verdict are the strictures in the verdict against the president’s office transcending its constitutional role to intervene in politics, that too in a malign manner. The SC has ordered all election cells in the presidency and the intelligence agencies abolished, and reiterated the politically neutral role of the presidency according to the constitutional construct. That inevitably has implications for the present incumbent, who is both president and co-chairperson of the ruling PPP. Mr Qaira has manfully risen to the defence of the president’s political role, arguing that the president’s office is inherently political, part of parliament, and therefore inherently allowed to conduct politics, albeit in a neutral manner. This is a questionable line of argument, if measured against the conventions of parliamentary democracy in mature democracies. The head of state in a parliamentary democracy is by convention supposed to abjure involvement in politics, except at moments when after elections governments are to be formed, and then too, he or she is supposed to exercise their minds by reference to guidance from the party claiming a majority in parliament. Only if no party enjoys a clear majority does the president ask the party enjoying a plurality or the next largest party in parliament whether it is in a position to form the government in coalition with other parties. Other than that, parliamentary conventions enjoin the president to refrain from intervention in politics. Pakistan’s peculiar history of dictatorial or autocratic regimes, with intermittent and weak bouts of ‘democracy’ has meant that such well established parliamentary democratic norms and conventions have not taken root. An added complication is the co-chairpersonship of President Zardari. How these two roles are to be reconciled in the light of the SC verdict (and the case in the Lahore High Court on this very issue) will test the political acumen of the ruling party in days to come. Those politicians named as beneficiaries of the illegal funds in the SC’s verdict, particularly the leaders of the PML-N, are trying to kick up as much dust as possible to obfuscate the implications of the judgement. If a transparent and thorough investigation is undertaken by the FIA on a war footing, time being short, no amount of ‘dust storms’ can obscure the fact that past misdemeanours have to be accounted for (including the generals) and a clean break made with this sordid past, that continued up to and including the rigged 2002 elections under Musharraf. This is a test of political will, one that will determine for years to come the shape and character of the democratic system and help roll back the malign influence of any person or institution interfering in the genuine exercise of the people’s will to elect the representatives they want, not GHQ, ISI, or an overbearing president, as happened in the past all too often. This could be a genuine turning point in the political history of the country, provided the thrust of the SC judgement is implemented in its true sprit and without shrinking in the face of the admitted difficulties in its path.

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