General Musharraf who is fighting a desperate battle for his survival has set the stage for yet another confrontation with the judiciary by declaring that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would be arrested or sent back to Saudi Arabia if he dared to return to Pakistan in violation of his ?exile deal?. The Supreme Court had held that the exiled leader had an ?inalienable right? to return to his homeland as a citizen of Pakistan and asked the Government not to create hurdles in his return. Sending him back to Saudi Arabia will certainly amount to creating hurdles in his return and thus violate the apex court order. Pakistan'sAttorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum has a different take on the issue by pointing out that the court never asked the Government not to arrest Sharif. In the event of Government taking the former Prime Minister into custody on his return to Pakistan, the issue will most certainly go before the judiciary once again. Since 2007 is not 2000 when the judiciary was virtually subservient to the dictator, it would be interesting to see how the court reacts to Government'smoves against the person who was removed from office when he was a duly elected and legal head of the Government. Government action then was sanctified by the judiciary under the infamous ?doctrine of necessity? propounded by the apex court.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court, rejuvenated after its victory in the battle over removal of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, virtually sidestepped the debate on the ?exile deal? by stating that no one could contract out of his fundamental rights under the Constitution. A citizen, the order said, couldn'teven do that of his own violation. Hence, in the light of the Article 15 of the Constitution that deals with freedom of movement, the Sharif brothers were free to return to Pakistan. Some Pakistani commentators say the judgment is more political than legal even while admitting that the court'sarguments were sound. They significantly hold that the Supreme Court had scratched the ?political deal? and established the rule of law but only when the political situation began to unfold in its favour. The judiciary needs to be lauded for making a strong statement for rule of law. However, the Government'sresponse is that if the ?deal? had no legal value, then it is status quo ante in relations to Sharif and his brother. That means cases against them remain intact, as do their convictions. In the event of Sharif returning to Pakistan, says Government, his properties would be confiscated to recover Rs 50 crore fine imposed on him in the plane hijacking case. The case is a mockery of law. How can a General who staged a coup to unseat a democratically elected Prime Minister?his corruption and inefficiency apart?can charge and get him convicted in a case of conspiring to hijack the plane carrying the Army Chief ? Sharif is bound to seek a review of his conviction. What would be the Supreme Court'sstance in the changed political scenario is not difficult to predict. Hopefully, the judiciary will give a go by to the ?doctrine of necessity??
The latest developments have over-shadowed the US supported Musharaff-Bhutto deal. US perception is that combining army'ssupport to the General and mass base?or whatever remains of it?of Benazir Bhutto is the best possible option to lend some stability to the system and prevent the take over the country by Islamist groups. There are not many takers for this line of thinking in Pakistan and in any case, US is one of the most hated country in the Islamic Republic. Further, US perception is not based on sound reading of the ground situation. It envisages General'sre-election as President while retaining his uniform and Benazir's?election? as Prime Minister in the coming parliamentary elections. The July 27 not-so-secret meeting between General Musharraf and former Prime Minister Bhutto at Abu Dhabi was meant to seal the agreement arrived at after prolonged negotiations. It is at best a ?marriage of convenience?.
General Musharraf holds that the constitutional requirement was to hold the presidential elections between September 15 and October 15, 2007 and that there was no constitutional bar for his election by the present assemblies whose terms expire by the end of the year. He is also adamant that he can hold on to his uniform till the end of the current year. He will have to take into account the viability of his re-election. He can get re-elected only if the ruling party?Pakistan Muslim League (O) that is sarcastically dubbed as King'sparty?remains united and supports him wholeheartedly. As of now, there is great dissatisfaction and anger in the party over the prospects of General'sdeal with Benazir'sPPP that is its archrival. The party is gripped by the feeling that it has been betrayed by the General to ensure his continuation as President. There are indications that many in the ruling party?that is a breakaway group of Sharif'sPML?will try to return to the parent party as Musharraf gains popularity by emerging a champion of democracy and the one who has the courage to oppose the dictator. Sharif is also likely to gain from the wave of anti-Americanism sweeping the country.
Pakistan is once again on cross roads. With General Musharraf in deep trouble and unsure of his future, it is not clear where the country is heading. Will the political forces unleashed in recent months lead to the revival of democracy?that many in the troubled country long for?or will religious extremism take over from military dictatorship? Will the General respect judicial verdicts in crucial issues like that of return of the exiled former Prime Ministers to national politics or will he confront the judiciary by imposing emergency or even declare marshal law to remain in power?