The Siege Of Islamabad – S Iftikhar Murshed

“We must laugh at man to avoid crying for him,”said Napoleon Bonaparte in one of those rare occasions that he was able to lose himself in the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. 

But there are times when laughter becomes impossible and a dreadful sense of foreboding holds people in a vice-like grip. This is what Pakistan has endured for the last several weeks and it is anyone’s guess how long the prevailing uncertainty will last or what the eventual outcome will be.

The country is yet again in the midst of a storm which it need not have strayed into. The ongoing crisis is built around Nawaz Sharif, the three-time prime minister of Pakistan who is incapable of benefiting from the abundance of political experience that fortune, in her mysterious way, has bestowed on him over the decades. His party, the PML-N, won a comfortable majority in parliament in the May 2013 elections. But he has made every mistake by the book since then and the consequences have been disastrous.

I vividly recall as though it were yesterday that a day or two after the publication of my article, ‘Nawaz’s foreign policy gladiator’ (June 23, 2013), a close friend, who also has the dubious distinction of being a confidante of the prime minister, dropped in to see me. He said that the article was an accurate portrayal of the haphazard manner in which the newly-elected government was addressing issues and then made the telling comment: “I really wish that the PML-N had not won so many seats in the National Assembly. I care enormously for Nawaz and I have nightmares that with this spectacular success he will go completely berserk, and, in a little more than a year the government will be destabilised. I hope he will be able to go through his entire term but I am not too sure.”

In hindsight, these words seem almost prophetic. Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has trudged along from crisis to crisis, but never before has the capital of the country been under siege as it has for the last several days. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief, Imran Khan and the leader of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, Tahirul Qadri along with thousands of their supporters have occupied Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. 

Imran, the rabid ex-cricketer-turned politician, whose moment of glory was at the pitch when he led the Pakistan team to its triumph at the world cup in Melbourne on March 25, 1992, and Qadri, the angry self-righteous cleric from the windswept prairies of Canada, will settle for nothing less than the immediate resignations of the prime minister and the Punjab chief minister as the first of several steps towards the transformation of the country.

The self-centred leader of the PTI has been shouting form the rooftops unconvincingly that last year’s elections were massively rigged. He has, however, tempered his demand for the prime minister’s resignation but now insists that Nawaz Sharif should step aside temporarily, even though there is no constitutional warrant for this, till the completion of the Supreme Court’s inquiry on the allegations of electoral fraud. 

Tahirul Qadri’s grievances are on more solid ground. He has demanded that those responsible for the coldblooded killing of 14 of his supporters in Lahore on June 17 be brought to book. But he has assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner by insisting that the prime minister and the chief minister Punjab should not only be hounded out of office but also sent to the gallows. 

As expected, the parallel talks between the government and the PTI and PAT negotiating teams came to naught by Wednesday night and tensions soared sky high. Like the ghost of Banquo, Imran Khan made his usual nocturnal appearance on the roof of his container and told his followers to prepare themselves for action the next day.

Qadri’s exhortations to his supporters were as dramatic as they were sinister. There would be no further talks and he would announce plans for his promised revolution on Thursday. Come hell or high water there would be no looking back till the Nawaz Sharif government had been toppled. 

The cricketer and the cleric have turned out to be more devious than one had imagined. On Friday afternoon the prime minister informed the National Assembly that the two self-styled revolutionaries had surreptitiously requested the army chief for a meeting. But as an officer and the perfect gentleman that he is, the COAS had first sought the permission of the prime minister and met them only after this was given.

After their separate meetings with General Raheel Sharif, the PTI and PAT leaders have yet again insisted that the prime minister and the Punjab chief minister must step down. Some politicians are convinced that there is no legal justification for this. But what they do not realise is that in and by itself the demand does not violate any law and is in accord with the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the constitution. 

This is recognised by constitutional democracies and political speeches are regarded as a means for garnering support for a specific objective. The principle was clearly defined by the US Supreme Court in Meyer v Grant (1988) as inclusive of any “interactive communication concerning political change.” The implication is that the demand for the resignation of the head of government is completely in accord with the democratic principle of free expression of opinion.

But freedom of speech in all constitutional democracies is not unencumbered and has to be within the parameters of the law. It cannot be disruptive of public order, incite violence or contravene national interests. These are the norms that have been violated by Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan. 

They have used inflammatory language, threatened to storm parliament and the prime minister’s house, brought the federal capital to a virtual standstill and resorted to violence against media personnel. Imran Khan keeps ranting about a ‘third umpire’ thereby suggesting military intervention and Qadri has urged his supporters to brace themselves for martyrdom. 

Need one remind the cleric that a few years back he solemnly swore: “From this day forward, I pledge my loyalty and allegiance to Canada and Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada. I promise to respect our country’s rights and freedoms, to uphold our democratic values, to faithfully observe our laws and fulfil my duties and obligations as a Canadian citizen.” Tahirul Qadri has not violated any law by taking this oath, but it raises a serious question. He has pledged fealty to Canada, does he have any loyalty for Pakistan?

The PTI and PAT have every right to demand the resignation of the prime minister but he is under no compulsion to oblige. Article 91 (5) of the constitution clearly states: “The Prime Minister shall hold office during the pleasure of the President, but the President shall not exercise his powers under this clause unless he is satisfied that the Prime Minister does not command the confidence of the majority of the members of the National Assembly, in which case he shall summon the National Assembly and require the Prime Minister to obtain a vote of confidence from the Assembly.” 

Furthermore, the anti-defection provisions of the constitution as embodied in Article 63-A rules out the possibility of a PML-N member of the National Assembly voting against his party in the event of a no-confidence motion. The prime minister can, however, voluntarily resign under Article 91 (6) but under the circumstances this is a near impossibility. 

What Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri should bear in mind is that any attempt to forcibly oust the prime minister is tantamount to undermining the constitution and will make them liable to charges of high treason under Article 6. Eleven political parties represented in the National Assembly have unreservedly pledged their complete support to Nawaz Sharif as result of which the PTI is completely isolated. With their ill-thought-through escapades Imran and Qadri are emerging as the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of Pakistani politics.