What A Prime Minister!

Our Chief Executive has managed to remain in position after another somersault. In his latest, he retracted his earlier statement that the COAS and DG ISI had violated the Constitution and rules of business when they submitted their statement in response to the Supreme Court orders. He did so on Wednesday at the Chaklala Airbase, while talking to the media.

It is interesting how he has zigzagged during the last few weeks. On December 16, after he met with the COAS, the official statement said: “The PM and the Army Chief also agreed that replies forwarded by the COAS and DG ISI were in response to the notice of the honourable court (sent) through proper channel and in accordance with the rules of business and should not be misconstrued as a standoff between the army and the government.” On December 22, Mr Gilani changed his stand when he said that certain conspirators were planning to bring down the democratic government and that “a State within a State” would not be allowed. He added that the rules of business had been violated by the Army Chief and DG ISI. This evoked a statement from the ISPR, which assured that the army supported the democratic process in the country. A few days later, on January 9, 2012, Mr Gilani told a Chinese media outlet (while the COAS was visiting China) that the said top army officers had violated the Constitution and the rules of business in the memo case when they submitted their replies to the Supreme Court. An ISPR statement rebutted the PM’s charge, adding that “allegiance to State and the Constitution is and will always remain prime consideration for the respondents who in this case had followed the book.”

This was followed by the COAS calling on the President and later the Prime Minister. The general thinking in the media was that the COAS was most unhappy with what the PM had said about him and DG ISI, and that he had demanded a clarification and a retraction of Mr Gilani’s remarks. Amusing, indeed, are the words the Prime Minister used to backtrack his allegations: “I am dispelling the remarks given at that occasion, they were under a unique situation when things were overlapping and there was no clarity. But since there is clarity and now we have all met, the statement does not pertain to these two gentlemen”, adding that “the country cannot work in an atmosphere of confrontation among the institutions. Therefore, for national interest, we have to be on the same page.”

All these twists and turns, revolve around the core issue of civil-military relations. One may here recall an earlier sharp reaction expressed in an ISPR press release threatening the government of “grievous consequences”. BBC’s Nik Gowing’s interview with Gilani, at Davos, highlights the impression created abroad of the recent tussle between the PM and the COAS. (Mani Shankar Aiyar a former Indian Minister, writing in a Pakistan daily has aptly referred to the “straight confrontation” between the government and the top brass: “It was a situation ripe, in the light of the past six decades, for a coup to send the civilian government packing, more ripe perhaps than ever in the past, but there is no charismatic Bhutto at the head of the political establishment, (there is) a fragile coalition held together by leaders, who can feel under their feet the heaving discontent of their own supporters.) Just read the question put by Gowing: “Mr Prime Minister, I have listed some of the tensions and confrontations that you are now facing. Many observers believe that a creeping coup was somehow taking place in your country with the army tightening its grip on the levers of the power. Are you really in charge?” When Gilani denied any such threat, Nik repeated the question bluntly: “Are you in charge? Do you feel under challenge from the military still?” “No, not at all,” was the Prime Minister’s short response. When the BBC anchor asked if democracy is under threat and Pakistan “is now a failing State”, the PM replied that democracy was not under threat and “even the military wants democracy.” Nik’s next question: “Do you control the military as the elected government?” All the Prime Minister could say, without stepping on any toes, was: “I follow the Constitution and everybody has to follow the Constitution.”

It is often Kayani’s restraint and the judiciary stern warnings not to accept any future martial laws that are credited with having kept the army from directly taking over the reins of the government. The civilian government’s extremely poor performance and stories about horrendous corruption at the highest level aired in the media could have pulled an ambitious general to just walk over and put an end to the civilian rule.

In the memogate case, Mr Gilani could not resist the temptation to brag that whatever the verdict in the memo case might be, only the government ultimately had the power to implement it and the thanedar (SHO) would be assigned by the Prime Minister himself. My question is: Does it behove the Chief Executive of a country to make such bizarre statements?  What message does he give to the civil servants working under him?

No wonder on January 23, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry remarked that the apex court was being abused and no official was ready to submit files as directed, while hearing the case about the distribution of 4,000 plots by the Capital Development Authority (CDA). The Chief Justice further said that the country was run like a rented house.

There is little doubt that the Prime Minister is bound to serve his boss  and must balance this with abiding by the Constitution and accord due respect to the highest court of the land and its pronouncements. He is lucky to be dealing with a Chief of the Army, who has more than once publicly expressed his commitment to democracy and the Constitution. Considering the poor record of his government’s performance and the menacing challenges the country is facing, internally and externally, as also alleged charges of corruption levelled at him and his family, isn’t it time that he ruthlessly and thoroughly reviews the state of the nation?