And so another tumultuous chapter in Pakistan’s political history draws to a close. The Court has ruled, the Election Commission has notified, and the PM has been told that his services are no longer required. In the coming weeks, we’ll read a lot about the judgment, the factors that led to the judgment, and the political implications of the judgment. Media reaction will be scrutinized, the PPP will be put under the microscope, and a few anchors will wail about how all of this ignores the woes of the common man. Ruckus and shor-sharaba aside though, one thing worth noting in the immediate aftermath of Gilani’s disqualification was pervasiveness of the ‘well done Supreme Court’ sentiment on television, and more starkly, on social media platforms.
Even the strongest critics of our higher judiciary, and the most ardent of PPP loyalists will have to admit one thing: the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice are immensely popular within certain segments of the population.
Between 2008 and now, the Chief Justice and the rest of the higher judiciary have obtained a status that can only be classified as supra societal. The romanticism associated with the judiciary - in the public imagination - sets it apart as a functional institution in a dysfunctional society. A symbol of salvation in an otherwise dog-eat-dog world. The last resort, the long awaited savior, the ultimate arbiter. Interestingly enough though, if our history was anything to go by, such lofty praise and sentiment shouldn’t have lasted for this long. The army would know, they’ve been on the receiving end of this arsh se farsh treatment on at least three occasions. Yet here we are, 5 years on from when a group of boisterous (later on, rowdy) lawyers took to the streets to protest the arbitrary dismissal of their spiritual leader, and the reputation is not only intact, it glows more brightly than ever before thanks to support from some mainstream political parties. It’s a testament to this unblemished character that even a dubious son and a shady billionaire couldn’t uncover the inherent humanness and corruptibility of the higher judiciary. The popular response to the allegations leveled by Malik Riaz, most notably from the PTI and the PML-N, was that street action is required to save the Chief Justice from such malevolent attacks.
To argue that the Court’s popularity is limited to a particular province, or a particular class would be infinitely lazy. From Chitral to Quetta, and all the way down to Karachi, you will find people - poor, middle class, or rich - who feel that the Chief Justice and his robed brethren are the only bulwark in preventing society’s spiral towards complete socio-economic and moral breakdown. But what is worth pointing out, however, is that a particular class, mostly hailing from a particular province is responsible for developing, upholding, and propagating this narrative of salvation. It is the Punjabi middle and upper-middle class, (the professionals, the commercial groups, and the intelligentsia), that was most vocal and active during the lawyers’ movement, and remains the most active in seeking political redress through the higher judiciary. Little surprise that the two parties most organically linked to this societal strata were also petitioners seeking the Prime Minister’s disqualification.
Knowing which groups and classes are responsible for defining the judiciary’s political and social capital is hardly sufficient for understanding intra-state tensions and the changing nature of political contestation in the country. The key to understanding these phenomena lies with recognizing the ideological, cultural and socio-economic ethos of the core pro-CJ, or as someone recently said, jaan nisar camp.
The idea that Pakistan needs saving is probably as old as the country itself. It was the driving sentiment behind the dismissal of the constituent assembly in 1954, behind Iskander Mirza’s coup in 1958, and behind every similar act from that moment on. This concept of salvation, in turn, emerges at the junction of morality, economics, and politics, and finds voice through middle class groups, such as the intelligentsia and educated professionals. Little surprise that when Pakistan’s moral fabric required saving in 2007, it was members of the middle class that came out on the streets, many for the first time in their lives.
So what was it about the Chief Justice that made people shed two decades of political disassociation and turn to the streets in a bid to support Him? Part of the explanation is that the middle class, especially in Punjab, is far less provincial and far more nationalistic than those found in other provinces. Punjab, being the most privileged province out of the four, partially by default and partially by design, plays host to an ethos of technocratic superiority that aims to transcend the messiness of Pakistan’s democratic process. Talk to any educated Punjabi, especially from the northern and central districts, and you’ll get a run-down on how ‘narrow thinking’, ethnically charged, and law-evading leaders are preventing Pakistan from progressing. Hence the CJ at that point in time represented all that was good and moral about upholding rule of law, overriding any doubts that might be cast on the basis of his previous act of constitutional abrogation.
Coupled with this disdain for politics, is a moral code that borrows heavily from religious notions of justice, fairness, and public behavior. While nobody actually ascribes to these notions on a day-to-day basis, they end up serving an important purpose as a standard of public morality, and hence a yardstick for measuring who is ‘fit’ to govern. By this calculus, politicians who are perceived to be venal and corrupt are not only incompetent, they are also religiously amoral.
Viewed in the light of this middle class culture, the religious references, and moral proclamations in judgments by the Supreme Court contribute further to its popularity. The moral middle class, while being small in absolute size, manages to make its impact felt on the larger polity through its presence in the media, in public sector universities, and increasingly over the last five years through professional associations like the bar councils.
A change in the intra-state dynamics, one that’s seen the steady assertion of the Supreme Court in political affairs would not have been possible without the cultivation of a powerful constituency in society. The problem for Pakistan is that while this constituency seems willing to back a political party like the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), it still prefers a supra societal institution, like the army or the courts, in the role of an all-powerful guardian, undertaking interventions to rectify perceived political and moral excesses. With an environment like the one we have now, it’s fairly plausible to question whether parliament can substantively function in the shadow of another institution that claims to represent the will of the people.
Originally published in The Friday Times on 22/06/2012