Fasten seat belts

Fasten seat belts
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Saqib Nisar, continues to hit the news at home and abroad. The reputed international paper, The Economist, has a perceptive commentary this week on His Lordship's determination to give succor to lay citizens deprived of clean water, unadulterated milk, safe medicines and assorted health services. The CJP's meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, at the latter's request, has also made headlines, not all for the right reasons.

The official readout from both quarters suggests that matters of public interest were discussed. The government is seeking the CJP's support for swiftly resolving financial disputes pending in the courts and hampering the executive's performance and efficiency. The government is also planning to shortly unveil a tax amnesty scheme to raise revenues and bring offshore assets back to Pakistan. But the CJP has already commissioned a committee to report on its desirability and efficacy. Any derailment of the scheme by the judiciary after it is launched would seriously hurt the government. Therefore, a mutual and cooperative understanding of the way forward would be helpful. In return, the CJP is seeking positive and swift executive response to the issues of public health and safety that he has highlighted. This is all to the good.

Unfortunately, however, in the acutely distrustful atmosphere prevailing among different organs of the state in the country, the meeting has drawn unhelpful comment from the leader of the opposition, Syed Khurshid Shah, and the PM's de facto boss and ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Shah thinks the meeting will "backfire" and could be "dangerous" because people will read different motives to, and consequences, from, it. He alluded to the consequences of some sort of "NRO" or "rapprochement" between the SC and the PMLN government that might let the latter off the hook on the eve of the elections. Clearly, Mr Shah is perturbed that any public impression or perception of any sort of sympathetic "understanding" between the SC and the government would indirectly help the government regain its credibility and prove detrimental to the cause of the opposition.

Mr Sharif, on the other hand, has immediately weighed in to counter any possible impression that the PMLN government has "caved in" to the SC, exhibiting political frailty. "The CJP should not go to places where he has no business", said Mr Sharif, adding that the SC is clearly transgressing into the domain of the executive and legislature and ignoring its own job of resolving nearly two million disputes pending in the courts. However, Mr Sharif approved of the meeting between the PM and CJP, implying that he had given the green light for it in the interest of his government and party.

In all this toing and froing, two significant developments relating to the SC have largely been ignored by the media. One is the rather sudden revival of interest of the SC in the Memogate case involving Husain Haqqani. The other is the SC judgment that validates the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) enacted by parliament in 2012 after the 18th Amendment seemingly turned over such labour laws into the domain of the provinces.

The revival of Memogate at this juncture of US-Pak relations is interesting. Mr Haqqani is proving to be a big headache because of his sharp advocacy of punitive American measures against the Pakistani Miltablishment. The CJP has now ordered the FIA to bring Mr Haqqni back to Pakistan to face trail. But in the absence of any extradition treaty between the US and Pakistan, the FIA has been obliged to trump-up a case of criminal "misappropriation of funds" against Mr Haqqani while he was Pakistan Ambassador to Washington in 2011 and rope in Interpol to do its bidding. But if this is not likely to cut ice with the US Administration, it may still serve to chastise Mr Haqqani and serve the Miltablishment's interests. Since all this is known and anticipated, the revival of the case only serves to reinforce the critics of the SC who have been alleging some sort of nexus with it.

Critics of the SC also claim that the court's judgment in the IRA case undermines the scope of the 18th Amendment that abolished the Concurrent List of Subjects and turned over matters of trade unions, welfare and conditions of labour, including employers' liability etc, to the provinces. The reinstatement of the IRA legislation as valid federal jurisdiction, however justified in the interests of the national economy, strengthens an unfortunate perception that perhaps the Miltablishment wants a strong centre and is opposed to a devolution of power to the provinces, a point that the DGISPR was recently at pains to disprove and disavow.

With dark clouds looming over the fate of Nawaz Sharif and lightning threatening to strike at the general elections, Justice Saqib Nisar is all set to pilot a turbulent flight in Pakistani politics. It's time to fasten seat belts even though we may be assured that he will make a safe landing.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.