Democracy absorbs fireworks from outspoken chiefs sel will be sorely missed

It started as a clash of the titans at least that is how it was billed by the media but has since been added to the burgeoning evidence that Pakistan's transition to democracy now has considerable weight.

General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, appeared to set the cat among the pigeons with a loaded address to his officer cadre at the General Headquarters for long the fulcrum of real power on November 5 that appeared to take on the increasingly assertive judiciary.

"Weakening of the institutions and trying to assume more than one's due role will set us back. We owe it to the future of Pakistan, to lay correct foundations, today. We should not be carried away by short-term considerations, which may have greater negative consequences in the future," Kayani said, in what appeared to be a swipe at the Iftikhar Chaudhary-led judiciary, whose apex bench only last month declared a former army and spy chief guilty of stealing the people's mandate in a 16-year-old case.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, who fancies himself as a champion of the rule of law, while announcing the verdict pulled no punches in asking the military to stop meddling into politics even as it asked the elected government to proceed against the errant generals.

In his own address at the National Management College in Lahore to mark the 97th National Management Course of National School of Public Policy the same day, Chaudhary had this to say in unequivocal terms: "Gone are the days when stability and security of the country was defined in terms of number of missiles and tanks as a manifestation of hard power available at the disposal of the state.

Today, the concept of national security has been redefined as a polity wherein a state is bound to provide its citizens with overwhelming, social security and welfare nets and to protect their natural and civil rights at all costs," the chief justice observed.

Soon the media was in overdrive as attempts to draw conclusions from the remarks were made at a frenetic pace.

One could be forgiven for assuming that Pakistan was finally headed for a major showdown that would take its hard-fought, hard-assembled edifice of democracy along with it.  Partly, the media was to blame for one obvious chink in reportage that appeared to herald a political Sandy of sorts.

The dozens of private TV channels capable of wreaking havoc in a matter of minutes such is their mojo in today's Pakistan either forgot to check their facts or were deliberately overlooking the small matter of the timeline of the two chiefs' addresses.

It turned out that the chief justice wasn't exactly throwing in a rejoinder to the army chief's blitz. His address had, in fact, come earlier in the day, which was followed by the army chief's.

And significantly, the speeches of both the chiefs were prepared in advance, and neither was linked to the other at least on purpose.

However, more than ten days after the apparent clash of the titans, the jury is still out on what and who were the targets in the army chief's address.

Even the best self-proclaimed judges of the devil in the script are still vexed over what Kayani really meant. Guesses, educated or otherwise, have not entirely turned into confirmed references.

But this did not stop the chief justice from thinking aloud. During a court hearing the next day that sought seditious charges against a reputed journalist by the prosecuting counsel of the military and spy agencies, he said sarcastically to the allusion made by them that they always respected the judiciary, "We have seen how much you respect the judiciary yesterday."

The chief justice's observation was undoubtedly in reference to the army chief's address of the previous day. Since the Inter-Service Public Relations, the army's public wing, has made no effort to clarify the remarks, this ensures we haven't heard the last on this subject.

It is instructive to consider the background against which this controversy cropped up. Currently, there are eight retired generals/lieutenant-generals facing probe for alleged abuse of authority/corruption in a number of scams.

The guilty verdict against former army and spy chiefs hitherto considered untouchable because of the clout and a halo of invincibility carried by their respective institutions — is unprecedented.

This has obviously brought immense pressure on the army chief from within his ranks, who are not used to taking orders from the civilian leadership, much less the apex court, which was considered by his predecessors as little more than a handmaiden.

But if proof was ever needed that the contours of the Pakistani state have undergone a paradigm shift in the last half-a-decade, this is it.

In fact, General Kayani was only confirming this status, when he admitted during the same address how "no individual or institution had the monopoly over what is right or wrong in defining the ultimate national interest". 


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