Although the unexpected is never far from the surface in Pakistan, the surprise call of Prime Minister (PM) Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar came as a bolt from the blue, leaving many gasping at the turn of events. It was surprising not only because such meetings are not normal but also given the backdrop of the heightened tensions between the PML-N government and the judiciary since the Panama case disqualification of former PM Nawaz Sharif. Reports speak of the possibility of defusing such tensions and lowering the political temperature in the run up to the general elections. Needless to say, the PML-N has enormous stakes riding on the outcome of the polls. Although scantily reported, the two-hour meeting yielded what appeared to be a meeting of minds on issues of concern to either side. The PM delivered the unequivocal message to the CJP that the government did not want a confrontation between state institutions while also communicating the government’s difficulties because of the proactive role of the judiciary in regards to governance. The PM promised a visible improvement in areas in which the judiciary in general, and the CJP in particular, have been actively intervening of late. These include improvements in the education, health and clean drinking water spheres in particular but also in the public interest litigation taken up by the judiciary of late. PM Abbasi pointed out to the CJP the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) and the tax department’s woes regarding litigation stuck in the entrails of the judicial system. The PM also offered the CJP support for the judicial reforms the latter is desirous of to provide affordable and easy access to justice and wading through the mountain of pending cases in the lower and higher courts. The CJP in his response reportedly reiterated that the judiciary would continue to function independently, in a nonpartisan manner according to the law and Constitution. He promised to speed up litigation affecting the FBR and tax authorities.
On the face of it, the meeting could be considered a thaw when juxtaposed against the extended diatribe Nawaz Sharif and daughter Mariam have been directing at the judiciary since his disqualification. Although that aggressive response may have served to keep the PML-N ranks united, it appears the pragmatists have now won the argument on what approach best serves the party’s interests in the obtaining circumstances. Reports speak of the role of Shahbaz Sharif, the newly anointed PML-N chief, in persuading an initially reluctant Nawaz Sharif to agree to allow PM Abbasi to meet the CJP. As often happens in sudden turns by political parties in the midst of troubles, some in the PML-N ranks were not only caught off-guard by the development, they voiced their fears that this opening to the judiciary would wash away the gains of the aggressive approach so far. Others feared the PML-N was conceding more to the judiciary than it received in return. But from all accounts the Shahbaz Sharif pragmatists’ camp in the PML-N rejoiced at this ‘breakthrough’. The wisdom seems to have slowly sunk in that the PML-N could not afford to go into the impending general elections while in confrontation with the judiciary, widely believed to have the backing of the military. That conclusion does not mean the apprehensions regarding the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) corruption cases against the Sharifs have dissipated. The calculation appears to be that irrespective of the outcome of those cases, whether, as is being speculated, before or after the polls, the political future and intrinsic interests of the PML-N are best served by defusing the confrontation and fighting the good election fight without (hopefully) the shadow of the judiciary’s sword hanging over its head. Logical and pragmatic as the argument appears to be, the ball now seems to have landed in the judiciary’s court, and it remains to be seen how it responds to this ‘peace overture’.