“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Mr Dumpty, meet Mr Zardari
This week, for the umpteenth time, the president got to invent his very own reality about what the law of the land allows.
When opposition parties and majority legal opinion tried to stand in the way of the new contempt bill, President Zardari said what he always does: I’ll do it anyway.
And so, he did it anyway, suspending the rules of business in the National Assembly and getting the contempt bill passed in haste before the opposition could as much as utter the word “amendment.” And there it is now: a new law that renders an entire cadre of top government functionaries legally untouchable.
Welcome to Humpty Dumpty’s Pakistan: where by the president’s decree and the nod of all his horses and all his men, disobedience becomes “good faith,” contempt becomes “fair comments,” and settled laws give way to the kind of Elysium where Alice stumbled upon the Mad Hatter and countless other fabricators of reality.
But while no one can deny that the PPP and its patriarch should be whacked for wiping their feet on the law, one can’t help but wonder what would become of the PML-N’s threat to create bedlam if the PPP tried to do such a thing.
For starters, let’s be clear: the PML-N isn’t going to oppose the contempt law with the same furor with which it did PPP’s intransigence over Gilani’s conviction – because one day, it hopes, God willing, the new contempt law will make things easier for the PML-N also.
Indeed, the PML-N swamis know all too well that such issues don’t turn on constitutional or politically ethical considerations, but on political expediency.
So two factors together may determine the PML-N’s future moves: one, its understanding that while it needs to turn up the heat on the PPP, it can’t afford to get burnt in the process; and two, the PPP too is playing by the get-out-my-way-everybody ethic now.
The question for the PML-N is simple: can it afford at this point to drive the ship of government on a rock? No – because if the government were felled, what would replace it?
A caretaker setup worries Nawaz. Made up of technocrats and unsoiled politicians, this arrangement would almost certainly be getting some of its tips from the boys in uniform. Sure, elections would follow, but with the military backing the caretaker government, would it allow a level playing field to the Sharifs?
What about immediate elections? Sure, but what if things don’t go as intended? Everyone knows Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst form of government – except when compared with its alternatives. And Nawaz knows this all too well.
So here’s what he’s thinking: the combination of a legal-constitutional track and street action right before the polls may be just the right amount of thrashing to decisively sway the Pakistani electorate against the PPP.
On the legal front, Khawaja Asif, the mover of all polity-shaking petitions, could take the PPP to court yet again. However, the party also understands that it can’t afford to have its anti-PPP message entirely buried under a torrent of legalese just a few months before elections. Plus even if the court were to strike down the contempt law the victory would not be entirely to the PML-N’s credit. In the public eye, it would be the messianic CJ who had come to the law’s rescue once again.
For the PML-N then, the only plausible option at the moment is to get as much time as possible to cash in on the PPP’s unpopularity. With an eye to the ballot box, it may be better to sloganeer, hold rallies and send out a simple message: “One corrupt PM lost his job to protect a corrupt president who is now doing everything in his power, including defiling the Constitution, to save another PM, who is also refusing to obey the court.”
But that’s the narrative of the dreamers in the PML-N. The truth-tellers tell a different tale.
The hawks in the opposition, they say, have emboldened the hawks within the government also. A rapid succession of encirclements – the memo controversy, contempt of court proceedings against Gilani, the blockade of Makhdoom Shahabuddin as PM, the sustained smear campaign against PM Raja – have seen the government’s hawks swell in numbers, with more and more in the PPP feeling that the ‘game is set’ against them at the hands of extra-parliamentary forces, leaving them no option but to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it mindset and confront oppositional forces head-on.
Indeed, it may be because the consequences of ‘derailing the system’ have always scared the pants off Nawaz that Zardari keeps blazing the trail – whether by ordering his prime ministers not to obey court orders or passing laws that will almost certainly lead to more conflict.
So where do we go from here?
The PPP has made a mockery of everything we entrusted in its hands while the PML-N has let it. Democracy, it is clear, must be saved from the democrats themselves. Who will do it? One may wish the court could knock down this ruinous government; one may even want the army to stomp on it. But no “god from the machine” will come down and save us.
An election is upon us. An election that will allow us either to slap the usual suspects on the back and crown them with votes or do the exact opposite: tell them to get out.
If we think we reneged on our responsibility to catch the pig-in-the-poke on offer by the PPP and PML-N during the 2008 election, democracy offers us the opportunity to make amends. Carpe diem.
The writer is an assistant editor at The News. Email:email@example.com. Twitter: @mehreenzahra
(From the News Pakistan)