February 13th, 2012. Islamabad. For those of us still following the game of thrones taking place at the center, it appears that Prime Minister Gilani is running out of road. He’s taking a long walk off a short pier. Insert your own cliché here. The debate has overtaken the Prime Minister, the discussion is now focused on what Pakistan must do, post-Gilani. To write the letter or not? Will Senate elections go ahead or not? Will the PPP spin this ungraceful end to a five year term as a victory, will Gilani go back to Multan a living shaheed? Pity the constituency whose only claim to a fruitful five year term is a representative with a knack for getting stabbed in the stomach and making it look like he meant to fall on his sword. Gilani will end up being a sacrifice for an utterly worthless cause – twenty-eight million US dollars that will never be returned to the people of Pakistan. Ever.
The statute of limitations on the Swiss cases are rumored to be anywhere between April and August 2012. The time for reopening old cases is diminishing fast. Yet we insist that the court charade of the last few months was necessary – it’s not about the money, it’s about setting an institutional precedent.
It has been nearly two decades since our President and his late wife stole a mind-bubbling sum of money and squirreled it away into Swiss banks, mansions in Surrey, bank accounts in Dubai and trendy flats in London. Reading the famous 1998 New York Times article reinforces the idea that when politicians from very poor countries amass vast amounts of wealth, they are not likely to let go of it that easily. So forget fantasies of liquidating the Bhutto assets and paying off Pakistan’s international loans. The Pakistani Supreme Court can humiliate the Prime Minister, but it can’t overturn decades of sophisticated white collar crime, much of which takes place outside its judicial territory.
And surely impotence of this intensity is severely humiliating for Chief Justice Chaudhry himself. Having become the defacto arbitrator of every aggrieved party in Pakistan, he suddenly finds himself without any implementation power whatsoever. He is the supreme commander of a court system that is rotten at the foundation, fighting the country’s largest and most public corruption scandal while his own lower court clerks accept petty bribes to tie up litigation for years. His own middle-class biases against the landed elite of the PPP notwithstanding, Chaudhary now faces the task of living up to the dubious honor of being the sole institution in this country deemed impartial and uncorrupt. Which means that if he isn’t seen going after egregious acts of corruption, he will be immediately deemed implicit.
In the face of such impotence, charging and convicting a seated Prime Minister of contempt is a sufficiently bold task to secure Chaudhary’s tripod of potency: judicial independence, of having real power (as opposed to simply striking down the NRO and not being able to do a damn thing to implement it for a full two years), and of being a guardian of the people. Gilani’s removal, whenever it happens, will be sufficiently large to distract from the fact that the PM never stole the twenty-eight million. He never decided to write the letter, or not to write it, for that matter – any more than he decided to become Prime Minister. It will serve to silence those who suggest that post-reinstatement, the CJ has been “bought out” by the PPP, to outcry those who notice that investigations into sugar cartels, NILC, Hajj, Abbotabad, and Karachi came to naught. It is eye candy for the myopic, a desperate sideshow to distract from a flaming circus of budget malfunctions, energy scams and policy fubars.
But lets not beat ourselves up too much. John Burns pointed out in 1998 that multilateral organizations such as the World Bank regularly support teetering Third World economies “bled dry” by corruption in exchange for weak promises of institutional reform. The last five years have been immensely lucrative for friends of the regime, for those individuals and institutions capable of buying out or bullying Mr. Hundered Percent. At last count, this included everyone from ARY Gold to the Pakistan Army, from AKD to NLC to the men who bring you fantastically overpriced imported cars at huge markups. Zardari did not invent corruption, but he’s a fine example (an institutional precedent, as it were) of just how successful some men and women become in countries with broken democratic systems. Where the Army can quietly wring the neck of anyone attempting to infringe on its economic and political territory. Where an entire Parliament – incumbent, opposition and all – routes all decision-making through the Supreme Court. Where a judge is deeply contemptuous of men who take advantage of their office for personal aggrandizement – and then goes and does exactly the same.