The President's surgical strike

Nov 09 - 15, 1996

History, it is said, moves sometimes with glacial slowness and at other times with the suddenness of an avalanche. In the witching hours of Tuesday night last week it took the fury of an avalanche that swept away the structure of a self-indulgent, myopic and exotically mismanaged democracy. President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, invoking Article 58(2)(B) of the Constitution, dismissed the federal government and dissolved the National Assembly. He appointed a senior and highly respected political celebrity, Malik Meraj Khalid as the caretaker prime minister and vowed to hold fresh election within the stipulated period of 90 days. That is, on February 3, 1997.

It is not without significance that in the plethora of charges piled up against the ousted government the President has given priority of place to the unconscionable violation of human and legal rights as he put it in his proclamation, "During the last three years thousands of persons in Karachi and other parts of Pakistan have been deprived of their right to life in violation of Article 9 of the Constitution. They have been killed in police encounters and police custody. In the speech to Parliament on 29th October 1995 the President had warned that the law enforcement agencies must ensure that there was no harassment of innocent citizens in the fight against terrorism, and that human and legal rights of all persons were duly protected. This advice was not heeded. The killings continued unabated. The government's fundamental duty to maintain law and order has to be performed by proceeding in accordance with law.... No meaningful steps were taken either by the government of the federation or at their instance by the provincial governments to put an end to the crime of extra judicial killings, which is an evil abhorrent to our Islamic faith and all canons of civilised government.

Denigrating the judiciary

"Instead of ensuring proper investigation of these extrajudicial killings and punishment for those guilty of such crimes, the government has taken pride that in this manner the law and order situation has been controlled..." This is followed by other grave charges, such as the former Premier's insinuation (though subsequently denied) that the Presidency and agencies of State were involved in the conspiracy to kill Mir Murtaza Bhutto. These "malicious insinuations", says the proclamation undermine "the institution of the Presidency which represents the unity of the Republic" and cause "damage to the reputation of the agencies entrusted with the sacred duty of defending Pakistan". Then comes the ousted government's confrontation with the Supreme Court, its ridiculing of the landmark judgment of March 20, and a sustained assault on the judicial organ of the State continuing under the garb of a bill moved in Parliament for the prevention of corrupt practices. It is "designed not only to embarrass and humiliate the superior judiciary but also to set at naught all efforts made to combat corruption and to commence the accountability process..."

Economic mismanagement

Included in the litany of accusations are the government footdragging in fully separating the judiciary from the executive in violation of Article 175(3) of the Constitution; illegal phone-tapping of judges of the superior courts, leaders of political parties and high-ranking military and civil officers; corruption so rampant that "The orderly functioning of government in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution and the law has become impossible and in some cases national security has been endangered". 'Public faith in the integrity and honesty of the government has disappeared. Members of the government and the ruling parties are either directly or indirectly involved in such corruption, nepotism and rule violations...." Last, but not least the proclamation refers to the matter of the sale of Burmah Castrol Shares in PPL and BONE/PPL shares in Qadirpur Gas Field involving national assets valued at several billions of rupees. The President required the Prime Minister to place the matter before the Cabinet for consideration/reconsideration of the decisions taken by the ECC. This has still not been done despite the lapse of over four months, in violation of the provisions of Articles 46 and 48 of the Constitution.

Analysts have made the point that while the President's action under Article 58(2)(B) may be a matter of judicial review, "from a political perspective Ms Bhutto does not seem to have the leverage to project herself as a 'martyr' of democracy". Even in her second term, with the experience and wisdom of hindsight, she seemed to have remained for the most part imperviable to the existence of multiple centres of power' in the state apparatus. Her predicament, say political pundits, is largely of her own creation.

Doubts about fair polls

In her first reaction to the dismissal, she has unleashed a strident denunciation of "a man whom I trusted but who dishonoured the pledge and the solemn commitment with the people of Pakistan". She was doubtful of the fairness and impartiality of the elections of February 3 and vowed to move the courts against the "unjust dissolution of her government". She also injected an ethnic/parochial slant saying it has to be decided now whether there are two laws or one law for two different prime ministers who hail from two different provinces. As was to be expected we might be in for a series of legal battles. Calling in question the presidential intervention. It remains to be seen how scrupulously the deadline for the February election is met. The people are still suffering from the disastrous effect on the body-politic of an earlier promise of 90 days that had degenerated into a gross Constitutional deviation for more than a decade. There must be no alibi for that to happen again.