By Ravi M. Khanna
Pakistan is again going through a crisis. But this time for optimists like me the instability is dynamic. It is dynamic because this kind of struggle between a civilian government and the judiciary can also nudge the country towards a real democracy. In this case the fight is between a principled chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is trying to establish the supremacy of the judiciary in the country, and a corrupt civilian government that came to power, ironically by supporting the independence of the same judiciary.
The Chief Justice is asserting the judiciary's supremacy through a kind of judicial activism that is becoming very common in several of today's democratic countries. But the problem is Pakistan is still a fledgling democracy which is not ready for this kind of judicial activism.
Since 2009, Pakistan's Supreme Court has issued numerous rulings that have propelled them into areas traditionally dominated by the government in Pakistan. The court has also dictated the price of petrol and sugar, and supported the rights of transsexuals.
Not only that, this judicial activism, very new for Pakistan, has also prompted the court to intervene in a fight between the civilian government and the army over allegations that government officials sought US help in averting what they thought could have been a military coup.
It all began some four years ago when the chief justice showed his readiness to hear the petitions filed by the families of a number of Pakistanis who went missing during a crackdown on Al Qaeda militants at the insistence of the US. Then military president Pervez Musharraf was so worried about the possible exposure about the alleged missing Pakistanis that he fired the chief justice, allegedly for agreeing to hear the families' petitions. But the military leader forgot that the large number of TV channels he had helped in creating, could become his own nemesis by projecting his bad image. At the end of the day, he had to resign and the chief justice was reinstated.
So now the civilian government leaders, who helped in the reinstatement of the chief justice, believe he is forgetting the favour and stepping out of his limits. But the chief justice says his court has always worked within its limits laid down on the country's constitution.
He told a gathering in Karachi that the country's courts have always played their part within the parameters of constitutional domain. The responsibility of judiciary, he said, is not to play the role of an opposition to legislature or the executive. But the judiciary has to exercise its power of judicial review in the cases of "unauthorized, illegal or unconstitutional actions".
The chief justice said Pakistan is not the only country where the judiciary is having difficulty in playing its proper role. Corruption, he said, is hindering fair dispensation of justice in many developed as well as underdeveloped countries of the world.
He acknowledged it will not be easy, especially in a developing country like Pakistan where the judiciary has been trampled upon again and again. And he rightly cautioned that there is "no complete and instant cure" for this problem.
What he did not say was that to achieve a proper role for Pakistan's judiciary, the cornerstone of any democracy, the country would need such struggles. Dynamic struggles where the government will try to limit the judiciary and the judiciary will try to protect its supremacy under the constitution. The struggles are common in almost every new democracy until it blossoms into an established one.
And the most heartening aspect of this crisis is that today in Pakistan the army rule is not being seen as a solution, but a new election is. And that, for me, means that Pakistan, knowingly or unknowingly, is slowly drifting towards becoming some kind of a democracy. Of course, it will not be easy. But it is possible, provided such dynamic struggles among the essential elements of a democracy continue without any interference from the military.
(Ravi M. Khanna is a longtime South Asia observer. He has also headed the South Asia Desk in the Voice of America Newsroom in Washington and published a book called "TV News Writing Made Easy for Newcomers". He can be reached at ravithenewsmanonline.com)