Until recently, despite three naked seizures of power lasting over 30 years, the Miltablishment was a sacred cow whose very mention evoked omnipotence and patriotism. There were three main reasons for this exalted status: it was perceived as the sole bulwark against Hindu India domination, an image it has assiduously cultivated and propagated by implanting revisionist history in our textbooks; its leaders were not perceived to be overly corrupt or Machiavellian, partly because it was successful in “managing” the media to black out anything to the contrary, especially its commercial contracts and perks and privileges, “in the interest of national security and the ideology and solidarity of Pakistan”. Civilian politicians, by contrast, were perceived to be venal, back-stabbing and corrupt, partly by their own omissions and commissions but also because the Miltablishment worked overtime to manipulate and entrench such opinion in the imagination of the people.
But these perceptions have been significantly eroded in recent times. The Emperor has been exposed as a scheming, hypocritical, self-righteous, self-interested entity in open conflict with popular opinion about the sanctity of the vote that was stolen in 2018 to install a puppet, hybrid regime. As a corollary of this theft and a consequence of the dismal failure of this hybrid regime to deliver results, ex-thrice elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has recaptured the imagination of the people to become the most potent obstacle to the Miltablishment’s political objectives. Indeed, after he crossed the Rubicon to deliver telling blows to the leaders of the Miltablishment, the institution was compelled to protect its corporate interests and restrain the personal ambitions of its exposed leaders.
Now it is the turn of the judges. Since independence, the judiciary was perceived to be a handmaiden to the executive, a hangover from colonial times when such was indeed the case in political matters of concern to the imperialist administration. But a degree of “independence” was imposed by a democratic constitution in 1973 which gave scope for shrugging away the burden of the executive. Unfortunately, however, this was eclipsed by decades of martial rule when the man on horseback wielded the sword of necessity over the judges and cut them to size. A brief revival took place when the Lawyers Movement in 2008-2009 against a military dictator elevated the rebels led by ex-CJP Iftikhar Chaudhary to self-appointment and self-accountability status, overriding parliament and the executive. Unfortunately, however, the new bench soon lost respect in the eyes of the bar and media that had restored it to power following the ego-centric, hypocritical, wayward and cowardly conduct of some senior judges, opening the way for the Miltablishment to reimpose its hegemony over this important pillar of the state. The two ex-Chief Justices of Pakistan who will be condemned by history are Saquib Nisar and Asif Khosa, whose judgments and insults will reverberate in the bars of the country for a long time to come. Once again, as a consequence, it is Nawaz Sharif who has been a victim of the judges and, as a corollary, is poised today to exploit public opinion to nudge them into standing up and be counted in the hall of fame instead of shame.
Five recent incidents have thus far demeaned and exposed the higher judiciary. The first case related to the independent and brave supreme court judge, Qazi Faez Isa,who dared to expose the unconstitutional machinations of the deep state and found himself under the heel of his pro-Miltablishment colleagues. He has survived only barely because a united bar rallied vociferously to his constitutional cause. The second case is Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification for life from standing for election on the basis of a third rate judgment by Justice Asif Khosa pegged to an income he didn’t receive but which was deemed to be an asset. The third is about ex-Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui who refused to oblige the Miltablishment by convicting Nawaz Sharif. He has been kicked out without pension while the Supreme Judicial Council has frozen his appeal. The fourth case was about Accountability Court judge Arshad Malik whose video testimony of succumbing to Miltablishment pressure to convict Nawaz Sharif was blocked by then Supreme Court Chief Justice Asif Khosa. Judge Malik later died in mysterious circumstances. The fifth case is about ex-CJP Saquib Nisar’s audio recording confirming Miltablishment pressure to knock out Nawaz and Maryam Sharif. More such exposures are likely to follow. The opposition has already decided to take its pro-justice narrative to the masses, in the expectation that this will compel the judiciary to cut its losses by abandoning its black sheep and reclaiming a semblance of autonomy from the Miltablishment.
The fourth pillar of the state, the media, has already turned against the Miltablishment and Judiciary by reflecting the sentiment of the public.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement senses all this but is unable to chart the way forward for several reasons. The PPP fears that if it strays too far out of line from the Miltablishment, Asif Zardari will be incarcerated, the party will be ousted from office in its last stronghold of Sindh and be relegated to the dustbin of history. The PMLN is divided between the opposing political outlook of two brothers who cannot be parted even though their joint struggle is the very cause of their own impotence that has created confusion and de-motivation in the rank and file of the PMLN.
Sooner than later, however, something will give. The situation is primed for it. Either popular pressure originating from comprehensive hybrid regime failure to manage the economy and state will compel the Miltablishment and/or judiciary to review options and abandon Imran Khan. Or the PDM will finally find a windfall political opening to surge ahead with confidence and besiege Islamabad. The tragedy of Pakistan is that in such a potentially revolutionary moment when the masses are waking up to the sham sanctity of post-colonial state institutions and are ready to challenge them, the opposition is unable, even unwilling, to seize the day.