ISLAMABAD - The way the ‘merit’ system works in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and what the upholders of the Constitution can do to achieve certain targets has been revealed by a former prime minister, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. In an interview to an English language daily published yesterday, he has been quoted as saying: “Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was elevated to the coveted office of chief justice of Pakistan on my recommendation after Judge Sahib worked out how General Sahib (Pervez Musharraf) could remain in uniform after his mandated term.”

Justice Nazim Hussain Siddiqui was about to retire as Chief Justice of Pakistan after six months and General Musharraf was on the lookout for a replacement, but the one who could help him retain the offices of the president and the army chief. Shujaat and Musharraf discussed the matter at a meeting. The president of the then king’s party proposed the name of Justice Chaudhry, who also happened to be the senior-most judge. (Since the appointment was the prerogative of the president, he could elevate even a junior judge).

“I told the president [Musharraf] that Chaudhry Sahib would be the most suitable choice for the top slot in the Supreme Court. He would do what we say. Musharraf said, ‘Ok, let’s meet him’,” the then PM told the interviewer.

Shujaat, who had very good relations with Justice Chaudhry, took him to the Presidency. “En route, I briefed Judge Sahib on what to say and what not to. When we reached the presidency, Tariq Aziz [the then national security adviser] was also at the Presidency. The discussion started. Judge Sahib did not say a word. When the president [Musharraf] went to the washroom, I said, ‘Judge Sahib, what are you doing? Please talk!” recalls Shujaat.“When Musharraf returned, Judge Sahib broke his silence and started speaking on how he [Musharraf] could continue with his uniform. He spoke on all the technicalities involved,” says the senior leader.

After the meeting, the two left the Presidency. “On our way back, Judge Sahib asked me, ‘Chaudhry Sahib, did I speak well?’ I said, ‘Yes, you spoke very well,” says Shujaat, who heads his own faction of Pakistan Muslim League. The deal was already done. Musharraf had made up his mind. And subsequently, Iftikhar Chaudhry was elevated as the chief justice of Pakistan on June 30, 2005. Can you imagine appointment to the top judicial office being made like this? Heads of all law-abiding people should hang in shame. The three characters mentioned in the story are free to feel proud (or ashamed) according to their respective consciences.

Gen Musharraf, who had overthrown the PML-N government, was supposed to have acted like an icon of constitutionalism. Chaudhry Shujaat should not have taken - and Iftikhar Chaudhry should not have accompanied- him on such a “commercial” mission. But all three had their vested interests. Musharraf was a benefactor of the Chaudhrys as he had made Shujaat prime minister and his cousin Pervaiz Elahi the Punjab chief minister. The senior Chaudhry held the office for less than two months as his health did not permit him to discharge the heavy responsibilities of the head of government for long. However, Pervaiz Elahi completed his five-year term. The dream would have never come true if Musharraf had not helped them.

In a way the Chaudhrys, politically, gained a status equal to the Sharifs. If one Sharif is prime minister and the other a chief minister, the Chaudhrys can also claim to have the same credentials. Also, if the Punjab chief minister’s son – Hamza – is playing an important role, Pervaiz Elahis’s son – Moonis – was doing the same when his father was ruling the country’s biggest province. So beholden were the Chaudhrys to Gen Musharraf that they were prepared to do anything for him. It was because of the same reason that Pervaiz Elahi said at a public meeting that the PML-Q was willing to elect Gen Musharraf president in uniform for ten terms.

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, being the senior-most judge, should have kept himself at a distance from the rulers. Judges of integrity say that judgeship is like solitary confinement and one feels free only after retirement. In mid-eighties, Judge Fazle Karim was hearing a hijacking case at the Agriculture House, Davis Road. SM Zafar, Wasim Sajjad, Dr Abdul Basit and Khwaja Sultan (now late) were arguing the case. It was during those days that Wasim Sajjad was elected the Senate chairman. One day during the tea break, Mr Zafar took Wasim sajjad to the judge’s chamber and asked him, “Sir, will not you congratulate him, he has been elected Senate chairman?” The judge rose in his seat and said ‘not from this seat’. This is the sanctity of the office.

If Justice Chaudhry was to tell Gen Musharraf how he can retain uniform and the presidency simultaneously, as narrated by the PML-Q chief, it was not justifiable for him to sit on any bench subsequently. This, however, does not mean that situation is ideal during the present rule. Unfortunately, many allege that the present rulers believe that instead of engaging lawyers it is better to engage judges. Maybe it’s a misperception but it’s widespread.

Gen Musharraf’s decision to elevate Iftikhar Chaudhry was equally condemnable. It was an appointment with a particular agenda, in other words a quid pro-quo. The appointee knew what the general expected of him. The writer sent a message to Justice Chaudhry to ask if he would like to offer his comment on Chaudhry Shujaat’s interview. It was not responded. The ex-CJP’s phone was inaccessible.