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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 32

A New Chapter Unfolds

Editorial

Sunday 29 July 2007, by SC

July 19 was indeed a memorable day. In India, due to the murky nature of the presidential poll campaign with allegations against the UPA-Left nominee, the first woman contestant for the highest constitutional post, flying thick and fast one felt apprehensive as to whether all these would have a negative impact on our system of governance undermining the democratic values we have been able to preserve all these years despite tremendous constraints and numerous lacunae. Those appre-hensions blew over with the successful conclusion of the presidential election on that day and the subsequent resounding victory of Pratibha Patil to become the first woman President of the country only helped to reinforce the democratic foundations of our Republic. One is of course sad that a reputed figure like Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has had to suffer such a decisive defeat—however the defeat was not of Shekhawat the person but the ideology and politics of the party he represented (despite being an Independent candidate in the fray he could barely conceal his BJP background). Indeed the isolation of the BJP as an organisation came out as a stark reality in this election—even its close allies in the Third Front as also its partners in the NDA decided to distance themselves from it for fear of public reaction. Nonetheless, the presidential election did bring out the continuing relevance of our democratic traditions (this was also reflected in the grace and dignity with which Shekhawat accepted his defeat).

Subsequently the decision of the UPA-Left parties to opt for a person of rectitude and integrity like Hamid Ansari was also noteworthy because he has the capacity to further strengthen those very democratic traditions.

However, more than what happened in our country on that day, July 19 will be remembered in our neighbouring state of Pakistan for the manner in which the judiciary in that country upheld its independence, dignity and the rule of law. Seldom has the judiciary in Pakistan taken such an upright stand as it did by striking down the Presidential Reference against the Chief Justice as unconstitutional and reinstating the suspended Chief Justice. As a matter of fact past experience has been quite different. As Ayesha Siddiqa, the Islamabad-based author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, cogently explains in a recent article in the momentous developments in her country, The general perception is that the decision (judicial verdict) is the defeat of a military dictator. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called it the death of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ invoked in the past by the Supreme Court to legitimise military rule. From a legal perspective, the decision indeed heralds a new chapter in the otherwise sad history of the country’s superior court. For the common Pakistani, the restoration of the Chief Justice is not just a decision but a symbol of the strengthening of an institution that has the capacity to check authoritarian leadership.

Seen from this perspective the historic nature of the July 19 verdict becomes all the more transparent.

In this context the words of Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, chief counsel of the suspended Chief Justice (now reinstated honourably), are exceptionally important. He was unequivocal in his opinion that Musharraf’s Presidential Reference against Iftikhar M. Chaudhry had plunged the country into a “grievous crisis”. Following the Supreme Court judgment, Ahsan underlined that Musharraf “is in an awkward position”. Then he said:

Morally and ethically he should apologise to the people of Pakistan for putting them in this grievous crisis. If he thinks he is an honourable soldier, he should resign.

Ahsan has only sought to bring into focus the palpably undemocratic and authoritarian approach of Musharraf who, like any dictator anywhere, considers himself to be indispensable for his country. His handling of the Lal Masjid crisis has created more complications than what he had bargained for. And his weakness has been brilliantly exposed in a Western publication by former ISI chief Hamid Gul. Nonetheless, the fact that Musharraf promptly accepted the Supreme Court verdict was also indicative of his acknow-ledgment of the judiciary’s key role in today’s Pakistan. The significance of this development should not be minimised.

A new chapter is definitely unfolding in Pakistan, something which augurs well for the future of this region as a whole.

July 26 S.C.

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