Sock it to ‘em

EJAZ HAIDER

Noted lawyer and human rights activist, Asma Jehangir, has won the Supreme Court Bar Association election with a narrow margin of 38 votes, becoming, in the process, the first-ever woman president of SCBA. Congratulations! In the larger scheme of things, however, this win is more than just a celebration of any feminist victory against entrenched patriarchy. It has to be seen in the backdrop of hardnosed politics.

The Pakistan Peoples Party government’s fight against its political opponents and the judiciary has just entered another phase. Having vacillated between placating the judiciary and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and trying to take them on, and unable to do either effectively, the PPP strategy seems to have undergone a shift. Sock it to ‘em now seems to be the new slogan. Consider.

It had been in the pipeline for some time with the law minister, Babar Awan, doing two things: dealing with the Supreme Court through controlled brinkmanship and working towards creating a vertical fault-line among the black coats, as the lawyers have come to be called, reminding one of the black-and-tans in Ireland, a term equally pejorative. The 38-vote win for Ms Jehangir shows, as nothing else, the presence of that fault-line and, to that extent, the success of Mr Awan’s strategy.

But this is not all. This particular contest saw divisions among the leaders of the lawyers’ movement with some supporting Ms Jehangir while others backing up Ahmed Owais who has lost the election. Also, there is now a split between the bar and the bench which, as far as street nuisance is concerned, goes against the honourable judges. This is not to say that those lawyers who have voted in favour of Ms Jehangir are going to up and do a Maula Jat on the bench; they are far smarter than that. But it does mean that their Lordships cannot rely on the full support of the bar taking to the streets and manifesting their penchant for activities other than strictly legal to uphold, presumably and ironically, the law.

By and large, and in tandem with some other developments, this should have a salutary effect. To invoke Shakespeare, there is now no constant spur to prick the sides of the judges’ intent – and the ambition of some lawyers’ leaders will also be less vaulting now.
But while Mr Awan was performing his magic, wearing his Terminator-style dark glasses – one uncharitable friend thinks he looks more like Sherminator from American Pie – even Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who chants “compromise” as if it is abracadabra decided to cock a snook at their Lordships. When the rumour of de-notification got their Lordships into an emergency huddle from which they emerged thundering they will huff and they will puff till they blow the house in, Gilani said not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin: I am the prime minister; I say this rumour has no substance; there will be nothing in writing; if you don’t believe me, too bad, you can lump it.

Surprise, surprise! Their Lordships decided they are not going to try and get in through the chimney and fall right into the kettle of boiling water. They backed off. That left quite a few instigators disappointed. It was they who had fallen into the kettle.

This done, Mr Babar Terminator Awan, came to Lahore to meet with Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. It was the PPP’s thrust to the cut of those trying to bring multiple Leagues together as the League. It is also a signal to the Nawaz League, the League of former General Pervez Napoleon Musharraf, and, you guessed it, the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement of Altaf Innocent Bhai, which wants to hold Karachi by the short-and-curly and use that parochial clout to play on the federal stage.

A smart move this by the Terminator, though how far this might go remains to be seen. The Chaudhrys, Jats of Gujrat, are not new to this game and they would weigh their options and see how best to get their pound of flesh. The Q-League is already split with the “Likeminded” faction floating around like detritus. The situation on that front is fluid.
Seen through the nested games model, it can be argued that what look like suboptimal choices of actors are actually owed to the observer’s incomplete perspective and because the observers may be focusing on the “principle arena” in which the actors are engaged. But actors are always engaged in more than one arena and “the payoffs of the game in the principle arena vary according to the situation prevailing in other arenas”.

What is important to note is the PPP’s strategy to do a holding operation and combine it with an offensive. If we were to discount the presence of an external actor as the joker in the pack, it should be clear that the strategy seems to be working. It may not be great in the short term for the kind of politics which we desire from the clean confines of our drawing rooms, but given the low cut and thrust of real politics is likely the only way out for the PPP government.

Important, however, is to ensure that brinkmanship does not result in keeling over. That presupposes that all actors involved in the competition will make rational choices. The current tug-of-war must be allowed to create a better institutional balance. Overreaching would redound to no one’s advantage.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times

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