Politics and the judiciary
The Central Working Committee of the PML-N has unanimously and enthusiastically declared former prime minister Nawaz Sharif its Quaid (leader) for life while electing his younger brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif its interim president. The arrangement has a precedent. When Nawaz Sharif was in exile during the Musharraf regime, Javed Hashmi was made the president and Nawaz Sharif the Quaid. In the present circumstances, the move has been necessitated by, and is a response to, the Supreme Court’s (SC) striking down the provision of the Elections (Amendment) Act 2017 allowing disqualified Nawaz Sharif in the Panama case to become the party president. All the portents point to Shahbaz Sharif being elected the permanent party president by the PML-N’s General Council on March 6 to meet the deadline for a replacement permanent president. According to some reports, there was a discussion whether Nawaz Sharif should be called Rahbar (guide) or Quaid. It may be recalled that when old age and indifferent health forced Khan Abdul Wali Khan to relinquish the Awami National Party’s reins, he adopted the sobriquet Rahbar. However, the PML-N has plumped for Quaid, not the least to send a message to the party’s detractors and critics, especially the judiciary, that Nawaz Sharif has a special place in the hearts of his party colleagues and workers and nothing, not even the double disqualification of their leader by the SC, can change that. The advantage of naming Nawaz Sharif Quaid is that it is not a constitutional title, nor does it give Nawaz Sharif any formal power over the party’s affairs, thereby pre-empting any further hostile move against him from any quarter. While, therefore, ‘Quaid’ does not anoint Nawaz Sharif with any de jure position or powers, de facto he is and will remain the leader and final decision maker of the party. The enthusiasm of the PML-N members at this outcome was in sharp contrast with the ‘missing’ former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar. Contradictory reports speak of Nawaz Sharif’s reluctance to invite him to the crucial meeting because of his opposition to Nawaz Sharif’s confronting state institutions such as the judiciary (and allegedly behind them the military). He had also made disparaging remarks rejecting the possibility of working under rising political star Maryam Nawaz, the elder Sharif’s daughter. On the other hand, some reports say the invitation was indeed extended but Chaudhry Nisar chose to stay away. Now a flurry of statements indicates Chaudhry Nisar intends to ‘speak up’ on the issue in a couple of days. The reluctant Chaudhry did however congratulate Shahbaz Sharif, with whom he is said to see eye-to-eye on the need to avoid confronting powerful state institutions.
On the very day these developments were taking place, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar ‘clarified’ during an unrelated case that he had no political agenda except ensuring the people were provided services and facilities that were their due. The CJP also expressed his reluctance to hear political cases but argued the SC had no choice when such cases were brought before the court. With due respect to the honourable CJP, it is possible to disagree with the latter statement. Well intentioned efforts to ‘do good’ may have landed the SC in controversial waters when the perception takes hold of judicial over reach and intrusion into the spheres of the executive and legislature’s responsibilities. Such dividing lines may become blurred sometimes, but our jurisprudence, at least until CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry’s restored court, tended to weigh more in the direction of judicial restraint so as to avoid controversies surrounding the boundaries of the division of powers that is the foundational construct of our Constitution. As the developments within the PML-N have once again shown, the judiciary cannot prevent political logic from taking its course. Only the electorate can truly decide the ultimate fate of political leaders, certainly not the judiciary, however noble its motives.