Trying presidents

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

ONE could well say Pakistan’s democracy suffers from a president problem. Ghulam Ishaq was adept at dismissing Parliaments. Farooq Leghari, popularly doubted for the party status he enjoyed till assuming office, let down the party, if not the public. Tarrar, unofficially renowned for carrying a briefcase, drifted through the crosscurrents of a countercoup without a hiccup. Presidents Musharraf and Zardari though are in a class by themselves; and who would you send to the top of the class? If one posed a conceptual challenge as a COAS president, the other posed a more empirical one as an active party promoter and controller.

And now, perhaps the thorniest nettle the incoming premier, Mian Nawaz Sharif, will have to grasp: Should the government he is to lead press treason charges on the former President Musharraf?

guest-contributorRemember when simply COAS, Musharraf refused to be dismissed by his prime minister, the very same Nawaz Sharif, and assumed political charge. It would be easy to see personal vindictiveness in a state move to charge Musharraf for treason now when the PPP-led executive arm pressed no such charges over the last five years. It is equally easy to link that restraint to a camaraderie over the NRO that Musharraf and Benazir negotiated which helped her return while Nawaz Sharif remained exiled. Politicians and their loyalists record and recall the political narrative selectively rather than holistically. So whatever way the decision to press charges goes the debate will occasion embarrassment and stress in party circles and the media will have a ball.

Though not indicted for treason Musharraf has been assailed in court on various grave counts and declared a proclaimed offender. But more than the requisite years having passed since he held public office, he dared the prospect of detention and returned to contest elections. So post those elections, will the PML-N do what the PPP failed to do? Must it? Ought it?

It has always been a popular assertion that until one or the other of Pakistan’s Bonapartists is treated constitutionally and given his constitutional deserts the lack of deterrent punishment will continue to reinforce the possibility of such intervention. Facts bear this out. Other Bonapartists having died unmolested, Musharraf is the only one at hand for exemplary punishment in a democracy that is gaining traction. If one argues by the book there is no debate. But there may be greater working wisdom in recognising that the book is hard to digest. In some, full perusal could reduce rather than enhance our democracy’s traction.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the wayward Musharraf not only threw out Pakistan’s prime minister; he also later threw out its Chief Justice. Obviously, in being indicted or tried Musharraf will encounter people who know or knew him rather well. In fact it would be impossible to find any one in Pakistan who is subjectively neutral about him: The man ruled for more than ten years. Internationally too, Musharraf had strong alignments, and as they were made and unmade in the context of the global war on terror they continue to resonate. And then of course it is as parlous to meddle with army chiefs as it is to meddle with reform of blasphemy laws.

As there is ongoing evidence of the heinous and continuous misuse of blasphemy laws and the injustices and deaths incurred because they continue to exist in the Zia-ul-Haq format, there is every reason to welcome and laud the courage and salutary reforming zeal of coming to grips with those constitutionally. But what is gained by hitting an army chief who is down and out already and where the bar of public opinion passed judgment on him and his Bonapartism long ago?

The president’s office is emblematic of the state. There might have been every reason to impeach Musharraf while he was in office, with a corresponding increase in democratic traction to boot. But his parliamentarians found it more rewarding not to. Eventually he tried the trust of his people too far and had to come to terms with transiting into a ceremonial exit. Pakistan has often made a sorry spectacle of itself. What would the fact that we are retrospectively trying a man we were content to be led by for years, and who is presently politically irrelevant, say about our own judgement and priorities?

Is there sense in embarrassing our national army or burdening the superior judiciary with a political case that has no meat in it in terms of threats to democracy from the army? Much wiser for the new government to prioritise the missing persons’ case: that has urgent democratic relevance. Secret funding too has relevance. Presidents who come out of the amnesty net also have relevance. But Musharraf has shredded his amnesty net already and faces charges. If popular demand (as opposed to vested or politicised urgings) to try Musharraf for the treason he committed is unwisely stoked to gain a momentum it presently lacks, Nawaz Sharif might have to succumb to it.

He may then be wise to have the state include a plea for presidential pardon while pressing charges — with a caveat that the former General renounce politics! The public remembers the civil and political legacy of General Musharraf — a King’s party and a Karachi constituency to play power games with. Presidents do no good when they practise party politics.

4 thoughts on “Trying presidents

  1. Rifaat Ghani has raised a very relevant question. Obviously the question of bringing to trial persons who have harmed democracy and set aside the constitution should, on principle be taken to court and in so doing deter others in uniform taking the same path. But I agree with Rifaat that in this case the best 'punishment' for Musharaf would be to ignore him. He is already been rejected by the people, as shown by the response he got when he returned to Pakistan. He should be allowed to fade away, preferably in Dubai. But what he did should neither be forgiven or forgotten. Pakistan has more important problems to take care of and Musharaf's trial would be an unnecessary distraction.

  2. there was a time when nawaz sharif was pm and not pm-on the advice of his 2 advisers who were brothers who had discovered the swiss accounts -i received a call from one of them through a friend and see nawaz sharif -so i came from karachi and went straight to shujaat's house where he was staying -i was ushered in soon so i thought he would talk to me about afghanistan-but he started to talk directly to me and said' 'can you help me to better relations with usa-i was surprised but i replied 'last time i went to usa on the invitation of an aligarh friend of mine in the penn state republican convention at waldorf astoria hotel in new york-so i was stayiing there and attending all the lunches and dinners and meeting the king makers-so if you can spend the money i will go but stay in waldorf not in 'delhi muslim hotel'-so the conference ended .i had given the card of my 'think tank' sherpur group- and went to usa my grand neice foned me in usa 'they are asking 'how many factories you have'.

  3. In my opinion not only Parvez Musharraf but all his accomplices be tried for abrogation of constitution but the question is who will try and who will give judgement.We have seen hundreds of cases being tried in this country but end of the day convicts are released due to lack of evidence.So we better inprove our judicial system before we start such high profile cases.

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