The bubble of long March; and the Lawyers’ movement

Zardari tours Lahore – Aftab Iqbal

Is it judges versus the economy?

Interestingly, no one is fully satisfied with the “conclusion” of the Long March. This is because, if truth be told, what was undertaken was not really capable of satisfying them. The lawyers’ movement was advised that the campaign was not relevant to the crisis of the economy which afflicts the masses, but such was the general enthusiasm of the campaigners that this advice was spurned as “motivated” or “subjective”. Indeed, the top legal leadership told us that after the judges are restored in the manner advocated by the lawyers, all our economic and social problems will evaporate because justice will be enshrined. (Would flour be cheap and available, electricity subsidised and loadshedding abolished?) Justice, we were told, was a universal value and the restored judiciary would produce the “just society” we craved, in short order.

With this kind of hype, disappointment was sure to come. Now the other leader of the movement, Mr Hamid Khan of Pakistan Bar Council, says that the lawyers made an “honest mistake” by not proceeding to “dharna” at the parliament and instead resolving to call off the Long March after the mammoth meeting in front of the legislature. He thinks that the decision to not allow a sit-in or “dharna” was hastily taken by “one individual who announced it without taking the implementation committee that was overseeing the event into confidence”. Clearly Mr Khan was in favour of escalation and Mr Aitzaz Ahsan of the Supreme Court Bar Association was not.

The movement has developed the classical syndrome of the radical and moderate factions. Mr Khan further says: “Members of the committee were under the impression that lawyers would stage at least a day-long sit-in, but its (sudden) termination should be construed as an honest mistake. Many bar associations went away fuming over the lost opportunity to force the government to reinstate the deposed judges”. Compared to Mr Ahsan, Mr Khan has been more courageous in telling the judges in the past what was wrong with the judiciary. As a representative of the lawyers, his valedictory speeches to the outgoing “pro-military judges” always verged on the insulting. His classic study of the judiciary — Constitutional and Political History of Pakistan (2001) — amply testifies to his credentials and his disappointment.

The movement is now being vigourously criticised. People who had kept quiet about the negative aspects of the movement are creeping out of the shadows to accuse the lawyers of “betraying” the people whose priorities were more related to their economic plight. At the risk of being provocative, one can say that they were shanghaied into the movement with an unspoken pledge of revenge. The profession’s leadership is on the backfoot and is now promising more action — maybe this time more confrontational — which would be a folly. The lawyers will continue to strike work on Thursdays, but there is a Train March in the offing too. One can hardly doubt that the aggressive lawyers who shouted slogans against Mr Ahsan at the rally for not besieging the parliament, will get the upper hand this time around. But this might also mean a bifurcation and ultimate scattering of the movement.

If it is the economy that remains issue number one and not the judges, unfortunately the problem is that our economists cannot agree about solutions in the economic realm. After the announcement of the Budget 2008-09 that is tilted heavily in favour of the agriculture sector — and making an unconvincing bow in the direction of the poor — the analytical daggers are out. And the passion for the judges is in addition to the hurt experienced at hearing that the Stock Exchange earnings were not being taxed for a period of time: “As long as the issues of the president and the judiciary hover over the head of the government and its allies, governance will be ineffective and weak. Hence, economic revival will also not be possible”.

Whatever the final response to the crisis, which is global in its sweep, it is the economy which can set Pakistan right after a period of great unavoidable pain. In Iraq, after the sects squared off electorally and rendered democracy meaningless, and the Americans relied on useless “surges” of troops, the turnaround finally came from the economy. The Economist, which had supported the 2003 invasion and the later “surge”, had to admit this week: “Thanks to soaring oil prices [the Iraq government] is flush with money. It is standing up to Iraq’s assorted militias and asserting its independence from both America and Iran. The overlapping wars — Sunni against American, Sunni against Shia and Shia against Shia — that harrowed Iraq after the invasion of 2003 have abated. The country no longer looks in imminent danger of flying apart or falling into everlasting anarchy”.

One can say that Pakistan’s problem number one was terrorism in 2007, but the national crisis occurred only after the economy faltered and the people traced it to the past government. We know that some professions are not directly affected by the economy — in fact some prosper on public misfortune — but it is their altruistic duty to help the state recover from its economic downturn. (Daily Times).