Lahore: He is a household name in Pakistan today. As chairman of the country’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan took up the cause of chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was summarily dismissed by President Pervez Musharraf last year. Lawyers took to the streets, forcing the people and political parties to choose between a deposed judge and the most powerful man in Pakistan. As the movement snowballed, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both former prime ministers who had been in exile, summoned the courage to come back, one of them to tragic consequences. In elections in February, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) were voted back to power though they are already starting to bicker over issues.
Over the last few days, Ahsan has been in the news again, first because there was talk he would contest a byelection from Rawalpindi, and later because he announced a “long march” to galvanize support for the judges sacked by Musharraf. With Pakistan’s domestic politics again in a ferment ahead of a visit by India’s foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon, Mint’s Jyoti Malhotra caught up with Ahsan at his Lahore home. Edited excerpts:
You’ve announced that you will not contest the assembly byelection from Rawalpindi, why have you done that?
Chairman of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association Aitzaz Ahsan
It was actually an easy seat for me because I was the joint candidate of the PPP and PML(N). I have been in parliament earlier as well. I didn’t contest the February elections because the lawyers decided to boycott it. I was opposed to that decision, but I was in jail and could not influence it. But, on Saturday, a representative conference of lawyers from across Pakistan decided to press for restoration of the deposed judges through a long march. This will take place on 10 June. Obviously, that needs a lot of preparation, needs me to travel around the country to mobilize. I would not be able to do justice to the election campaign. So I thought I should come out of it.
What if the judges are restored before the long march?
We will have nationwide celebrations. We have got some indication of their restoration but, the fact is that we’ve had good news before. The long march has been announced because we can’t take chances, can’t keep waiting.
So (deposed chief justice) Iftikhar Chaudhry becomes chief justice of Pakistan again?
He is the chief justice of Pakistan, he was never deposed. There are not two chief justices, there is only one and he is Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The other man, Abdul Hamid Dogar, is not the chief justice of Pakistan. A judge or chief justice can only be removed under Article 209, which means that judicial proceedings have taken place. No such thing happened. One man throughmilitary power prevented judges from going to their courtrooms and arrested them. Iftikhar Chaudhry has not been removed. So there is no question of there being two chief justices.
Will the movement continue?
This movement for the restoration of the judges will stop, the lawyers deserve to return to their profession, start earning their living, we can’t just have the movement to go on beyond the achievement of its goal.
This movement is not against Pervez Musharraf?
It will have a very adverse impact against him. The General has publicly said that these judges whom he removed are no longer judges and won’t come back. So if they come back, it will be a severe blow to his government, his credibility and his position. He’s already suffered two significant defeats, one on 20 July when Iftikhar Chaudhry was restored unanimously, and I pleaded his case. The other on 18 February when the elections were held and the people of Pakistan sacked Gen. Musharraf. They sacked him, because out of 272 direct seats, his party managed to obtain only 40. The issue is quite evident. Musharraf has suffered a severe blow, he ought to resign. But our movement is for the restoration of the judiciary.
So you are making a distinction between the people’s movement and the lawyers’ movement?
Lawyers belong to many persuasions, to all religions, political parties, you can’t make a political party or movement out of them. All we want is that the judges are restored, and if we get that, we have won. We would have won a historical victory and Musharraf would have won a historical defeat. But we are not there to chase him out, to ferret him out of the presidency. It will have an impact on him, it will gravely degrade his position and authority. Other political forces will of course be generated.
You hope this will catalyse into a people’s movement?
We would love that to happen, but for the lawyers the limited objective is to restore the judges. We are not expanding our movement… The purpose is not to expand into a khudai khidmatgar movement (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s followers).
That precisely is the criticism—that this is a middle-class movement, full of people like us?
We have a limited objective and to that extent the people will support us. The people came out last year, but we are not a political party, so don’t expect us to start reforming everything.
But you hear all the time that Aitzaz Ahsan could be the next prime minister.
I am not even in the National Assembly. Also, I have just renounced my seat, how can I be the next prime minister?
But things could change.
I doubt it. Right now I am content with doing what I think right, according to my conscience, without any great avarice or hunger for office. The main difference between India and Pakistan has been an independent judiciary. For 60 years we did not have one. Iftikhar Chaudhry gave to the people the dream of an independent judiciary. Democracy is not possible where the judiciary is subservient. We need fearless and independent judges to sustain democracy. India is a democracy because of the independence of its judges.
If the judges come back, then is the political instability over? Will Nawaz Sharif’s party return to the government?
It was ill-advised for the government not to have restored the judges on Day One. When you have bread lines, power shortages and outages, an oil crisis, where food inflation is touching 18%, you could have a law and order situation. The government is being blamed today for every ill. You could have, at no cost, given a gift to the people of Pakistan by giving the judges back. But Pervez Musharraf…he weeded out all the independent judges. Like weeds, 60 of them, he just plucked them out.
People are saying there is a deal between Musharaf and the PPP on this…
People are certainly saying that, you’re right. I don’t know what the truth is. There appears certainly a congruence of desires between Musharraf’s policy and the government on this.
Is this a betrayal of the verdict of the people?
What is clear is that the issue has eroded the PPP’s vote bank enormously. I don’t think the PPP will ever get an election like this one, with the charged emotion generated by the violent death of Benazir Bhutto, the images, her last speech being played over and over again. The emotion it evoked would make a dead voter come out of his grave and walk to the polling station. I personally think Nawaz Sharif corroded the PPP vote bank by vigorously supporting the judges’ cause. Even Benazir’s violent death and assassination in blood was neutralized in the voter’s mind because of the intensity of this issue.
Is there a danger the government could fall apart if this issue is not resolved?
It is likely. They will try and save the coalition and restore the judges. In Pakistani politics, the only thing you can predict with certainty is the past.
Do you want to start a political party?
On this issue you are closer to Nawaz Sharif?
On this issue, yes. But I am with the PPP, so what if I differ with the party on one matter. I have spent long years in jail, slept on the floor with party workers, in demonstrations, been attacked in lathi-charges…
What is your view on dynastic politics?
India provides the most stunning example, it is fascinating how dynasties can co-exist with very genuine democracies… it is a South Asian phenomenon. But it doesn’t come as a free ride. The only person who got a little bit of a free ride, who had never been in politics before, was Rajiv Gandhi. Otherwise Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia, Mrs Bandaranaike were all active in politics, Benazir took over the mantle of her father when he was in jail. The only person was Rajiv and today there is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Can Aitzaz Ahsan make a difference to the dynastic principle?
I am not an overly ambitious person. I am quite smug with being one of Pakistan’s top lawyers, and one of its more prominent politicians. I also believe, somewhat, in renunciation. In India you are more used to this. You have examples like Gandhi, Kamraj, Jayaprakash Narayan, but here in Pakistan we are not used to that. People here are going to be shocked by what I have done. Many will say I am just stupid. People are more fascinated with politicians in office here, politicians out of office are considered dumb.
A lot of them calling you the next Jinnah..
(Laughs softly) No, no. These guys, they were giants, Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi, I am a very small person, I have no illusions about myself. People love me but if I make a wrong move, they will ditch me also. It’s not permanent.