Against the law of popular politics – By Asha’ar Rehman

THE mere locking of horns with the government is no more acceptable to lawyers in Lahore. They locked up the lower courts in the city on Nov 4. The Lahore High Court has taken suo motu notice of the extreme action and has angrily asked the Punjab government to do its duty of standing by the law. On Friday the case was adjourned for an indefinite period.

The lawyers are looking to revive their movement. Their campaign, initially for the restoration of the judiciary but later on aimed at the return of Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as the chief justice, had lost some of its steam. The government had managed to contain the lawyers’ advance by bringing back many of the judges who had been deposed by the November 2007 Provisional Constitution Order issued by Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Even the leaders of the ‘free judiciary’ caravan appeared worried by the government’s approach which was spearheaded by Law Minister Farooq Naek and Attorney General Latif Khosa. Chastened by the increasing control of the pro-PPP lawyers over the powerful Pakistan Bar Council, Messrs Aitzaz Ahsan, Hamid Khan and Ali Ahmed Kurd came up with a national coordination council of their own to run the movement.

The move may have been liable to criticism since it amounted to creating a parallel, even if pro-judiciary, system of command among the lawyers. It could also have been interpreted as an attempt by a few to monopolise the lawyers’ leadership, guarding against the Pakistan Bar Council as well as against the possibility of a government nominee somehow managing to succeed in the election of the Supreme Court Bar Association which was around the corner.

The step didn’t generate any controversy in the legal circles — no debate was sparked off — mainly because of the sheer number of lawyers willing to fight the government on this one. The strength of the anti-Zardari, previously anti-Musharraf, lawyers was reflected in the SCBA election late last month.

While some observers were expecting a real battle between Ali Ahmed Kurd and PPP-sponsored M. Zafar for the SCBA presidency, it turned out to be a tame affair. The fears of rigging expressed by Aitzaz Ahsan proved to be a false alarm as Mr Zafar failed to make too much of an impression — even in areas where the pro-PPP lawyers were supposed to wield some influence. The big margin of victory provided Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s soldiers the strength needed to ward off the onslaught of the government.

On the other hand, the inaction of the government is a boon for lawyers. Stability has been lacking ever since Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani took oath as the prime minister in March this year and those who had been hoping for a turnaround in fortunes with the rise of Asif Ali Zardari to the presidency have been frustrated.

The government has failed to come up with certain popular measures that could have pushed the issue of the judiciary into the background. The PPP government is yet to come up with a plan for the general good of the people. Instead it has been caught up with the task of creating and strengthening alliances inside the parliament.

It has also drawn flak from the general public for being obsessed with blessing its own people — from those who had the good luck of accompanying Mr Zardari to jail in the past to the so-called political appointees given jobs by the previous PPP governments and sacked by subsequent regimes. If that was not evidence of parochialism on the PPP’s part, we now have in the garb of ministers people who have the nerve and the audacity to defend in the parliament acts as horrendous as honour killings.

This is where the reconciliation initiative that Mr Zardari inherited from his wife has badly gone wrong, and it will most certainly contribute both to the negative image his party is fast building for itself and the lawyers’ movement which remains a big challenge for the government. The tribal-like relationship that Mr Zardari seeks to establish with those he wants to appease disenfranchises the people at the heart of his party. PPP leaders have been repeatedly pleading for time to set the affairs of the state right. They must realise that no amount of time can benefit them if the job was entrusted to the wrong hands. In the meantime causes that Mr Zardari, Mr Naek and their associates seek to drown in ‘other important matters’ will continue to draw a large number of people.

If there was a Naekian scheme to neutralise the lawyers by the side of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, it has not only failed, it has also further jeopardised the PPP’s chances of sailing smoothly in government. Today there is no shortage in Lahore of people who are justifying the locking up of the courtrooms by referring to a leadership that has a habit of going against public sentiment, of continuing in the footsteps of Gen Musharraf. An alternative strategy for Mr Zardari would be to approach the people at large rather than concentrate on the good of only a group on the basis of political affiliation. (Dawn)