Something interesting has been happening in Pakistan lately. The leader of the ruling party, PML(N) (and the former Prime Minister of Pakistan), Nawaz Sharif, was sacked by the Supreme Judiciary in 2017 on charges of misconduct while in office. His party remains in power after the ruling. It promptly elected another Prime Minister from among its top leaders. The ousted prime minister held rallies all over Pakistan and complained that he was removed from office without a valid cause.
What followed was rather interesting. Some of the ruling party’s most menacing looking members openly threatened to make Pakistan a living hell for members of the judiciary who gave the ruling against Nawaz Sharif. The premise was that the judges are aloof from political action. They sit in closed chambers and write judgments for a select few. The ousted PM is the creator of ‘political action’ and can mobilize masses in his defense. He has multidimensional power at his disposal as a democratically elected leader.
NS took to the streets with the narrative that the judgment against him is unjust. He claims the trial served as a substitute for yet another ouster of an elected office holder by the military establishment, which prematurely ousted NS twice in the past due to, claims NS, personal vendetta. As NS, assisted by his beautiful and charming daughter Mariam, tried to mobilize masses through holding big rallies all over Pakistan, the CJ, without the accompaniment of the extensive motorcade and security NS moves around with, embarked on a mission to expose the poor quality of services provided to the polity by the PML(N) rulers. He made surprise visits to hospitals, checked the water supply systems of dense cities, the high fees charged by educational institutions versus the low quality of their structures and content, etc., and where ever the CJ went, the media appeared to bring home to all the sorry state of affairs that prevailed everywhere. The CJ didn’t make speeches, he didn’t hold rallies, he didn’t mobilize the lawyers to come out in his favor. He simply started to personally supervise the quality of governance in the country and after exposing the wrong, issued orders for improvement.
Theoretically, few could challenge CJ’s activism. A learned member of the PPP, Farhat ullah Babar, took to the podium and tried, in his characteristic style, to raise philosophical objection to such activism, but he was promptly sidelined by Asif Ali Zardari. CJ’s activism was being hailed in society as that of a savior. As “supervisor and auditor of public works,” (Wikipedia’s first line in describing a supreme Qazi), his activism seemed in keeping with his office.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mian Saqib Nisar, instead of getting intimidated by the unveiled threats, chose to come out among the very people the PML(N) leadership tried to make him afraid of. He took on the role of a watchdog. NS’ activism was based on the narrative that he is victim of injustice. CJ’s activism is building the narrative that far from ‘suffering’ injustice, NS was ‘committing’ it at mass level while he ruled.
Whereas the ruling PML(N) cadre was mobilizing itself in solidarity with NS, the CJ mobilized himself to redirect attention to the urgency of thinking about human affairs within a broader perspective because it is the quintessential responsibility of rulers.
The CJ thus depicts himself as the jurist who guards public interest versus the elected representative who ignores it. He inovatively handles his official domain, the public good “justice,” by serving it through unprecedented action on behalf of the ‘polis.’ The PML(N) cadre has now been morally preempted from mobilizing their constituency to help reinstate their ousted leader. The collective political authority they were going to utilize to de legitimize the Supreme Court’s verdict stands informally indicted as being ‘abused.’ CJ’s narrative is being built by visual evidence, not words.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar, has demonstrated that a jurist who is mindful of people’s needs can also command popular respect. For this demonstration, he stepped out of the de jure domain of justice, the court room, and took to the de facto and philosophical domain of justice, the society. The ‘accord of respect to citizens’ that NS tried to symbolize physically in his ‘person’ as elected representative has been countered by the CJ as being embodied in the ‘quality of service’ a ruler renders his subjects. The CJ took to establishing that the real worth of a ruler is not in the quantity of votes he gets to occupy office but in the quality of service he renders while holding office.
NS did not just call the verdict unjust, he called the judiciary unjust. The CJ on the other hand pointed out what a just rule is and called the rulers unjust. In response to NS’s question “why was I ousted?” the CJ posited his question; “why do you have increasing wealth and private property during your rule when those you ruled have decreasing levels of protection from disease, ignorance, law?” NS’s stance against the judiciary is not new. Back in 1997, a similar stance by NS ended up dividing the judiciary into two factions, one pro NS the other anti NS. Today’s apex judiciary stands united in legal action against “self-seeking politicians” of all hue and shape.
The moral power of CJ’s activism has prevailed. An unprecedented wave of fear is running through the bureaucracy at all levels in Pakistan. Those who acted with impunity are now cautious. CJ’s message is “serve people in office rather than serving your selves in office – Legislate in the common interest as opposed to legislating in the interest of a faction that you belong to.” PML(N) leaders’ activism to help their besieged leader failed to propel itself on higher moral grounds and this failure exposed the quality and substance of PML(N) cadre more than ever. A political tone has been set in Pakistan that leaders of all types will have to cater to in future. Pakistan must be built as a ‘welfare state’ (versus the emphasis hitherto of ‘ gateway state’) and government must derive legitimacy from success in providing basic services to its people.
CJ’s activism ended up making NS’ stance against the CJ devoid of the Socratic tension between political philosophy and authority. The society was instead given the choice between NS’s endorsing of civil disobedience versus CJ’s endorsing of provision of services to the citizens. The PML(N) movement is not taking off because civic unity cannot be attained against those who try to deliver civic goods.
The PML(N)’s narrative about CJ’s ‘busy body’ interference, ‘each part to do its own work’ etc., has generated a debate in Pakistan whose quality can only be ensured if the debate is taken out of the domain of populist jargon into the realm where philosophers, political scientists, jurists and development strategists come together to grapple with the true meaning of justice as a public good. Justice or injustice does not lie in the judgment of judges alone but in the conditions of society. All those who govern are responsible for delivering justice. As such, the CJ’s activism, though unquestionably popular, is at best a half measure, at worst an arbitrary norm. It is adopted in specific circumstances for reasons of expediency.
It may be possible to ‘monitor’ justice as a public good at the top levels of society, but justice cannot be ‘delivered’ at the top in a sustainable manner. Conditions’ of society must change for the better and sustainable justice must endure the change. The rulers must create an enabling environment for changing societal conditions. Nawaz Sharif’s predicament has shown that rulers who fail to create such an enabling environment will be perched on a slippery slope from where any crisis can dislodge them with ease.
CJ versus NS is an unprecedented situation in Pakistan. A lot of political and moral maturity can be gained if civil society leaders approach this debate in a meaningful way.