Last week, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani informed the nation that he was the “Prime Minster and not a peon.” While nobody has any confusion about which of the two offices he holds, he made this statement to justify his defiance of the Supreme Court's order asking him to write the much-delayed letter to Swiss authorities. Though he is going around these days giving various frivolous reasons for not writing the letter, this unconstitutional assertion of his prime ministerial weight is especially shameful for a number of reasons and it militates against the very essence of democracy. After all, prime ministers and peons are both bound to follow the orders of the Supreme Court. In fact, a prime minister has a bigger responsibility to uphold the rule of law and to conduct himself, according to the Constitution. Besides, prime ministers and peons are not lords and serfs, and the Prime Minister must learn to make that distinction.

Instead of respecting the constitutional mandate of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, the Prime Minister has stubbornly insisted on interpreting it himself. He has offered no explanation for this unwarranted expansion of his role as the Chief Executive. Perhaps, he thinks that a prime minister is the same thing as a monarch or a feudal lord whose word is law, and that the powers vested in a prime minister are defined not by what is written in the Constitution, but by his whims and fancies. So, having thus assumed the powers not only to run the government as he pleases, but also to interpret the Constitution as he pleases, he is going around misleading people and promoting lawlessness in the country.

According to his interpretation, tainted by fear and favour and a big dose of loyalty, the Supreme Court's order about writing to Swiss authorities is against the Constitution. He says that he will be going against constitutional provisions regarding presidential immunity, if he writes the letter that could revive litigation involving President Asif Zardari. Does he think that the honourable judges have not read what the Constitution says about presidential immunity? And why has this point, that is so vociferously argued in the media and public meetings by the Prime Minister and his loyal yes-men and yes-women, never been raised before the court by his legal team? Even in the ongoing contempt proceedings against the Prime Minister, his counsel refused to address the issue, even when asked by the court. While most of the comments on his recent statements have explored the political compulsions and expediencies behind the Prime Minister's refusal to write the letter, the problem does not end there!

If we analyse further his statement declaring that he is a “Prime Minister and not a peon”, it is not difficult to decipher the mindset of the Prime Minister and his partymen engaged in this unscrupulous clever-by-half politics. Having suggested that the Supreme Court order is against the Constitution, the Prime Minister's statement conveyed the message that peons must follow orders, right or wrong, without asking questions. It is actually serfs and slaves, who are supposed to do that. A peon is paid salary for performing certain duties and he is not bound to follow orders that do not fall within the ambit of his duty. For people like Prime Minister Gilani weaned on feudal privileges, the difference between a peon and a serf is, of course, a very difficult distinction to make, or one that they refuse to make even when they are elevated from their feudal settings to be inducted in constitutional offices. The sooner we rid democracy of such feudal baggage that treats public servants as unquestioning serfs, the better.

It is the same mindset that views authority vested in constitutional offices as a personal privilege and a tool for patronising family, friends and loyal partymen, a mindset that views assets of the state as personal jagirs. In this hierarchical order, the name of the game is ‘loyalty’ and not the ‘rule of law’. There are different rules for different people depending on their status and it is very important to understand your place in the scheme of things. The person at the top of the heap is always right and there are no fundamental rights. To improve one's station in life, one must carry out the orders of the lord, right or wrong, convince him of one's loyalty, and seek his generosity with arms folded behind the back, head tilted towards the ground and a sheepish look in the eye. The most interesting part is that those lording over their serfs are quick to act like serfs when the situation so demands.

Take the case of our Prime Minister who has declared that he is not a peon. His loyalty to President Zardari is clearly the force that has driven him to interpret the Constitution in his convoluted unprincipled way. He has chosen to flout his constitutional obligations in order to obey the orders, right or wrong, of someone he considers responsible for elevating him to the position that he likes to throw around as a licence of unbridled authority. He understands his place in Zardari's PPP, and looks up to the PPP-lord, hopeful of the generosity that will be showered upon him for his undying loyalty. A lord in his constituency, he understands that in the PPP-darbar he is a serf. The problem is not that as Prime Minister he feels that he should not be ordered around. The problem is that the Supreme Court does not fit into his feudal hierarchy that ends at the person of President Zardari.

So while this feudal circus gets more and more obscene in the so-called democratic corridors of power, the nation pays a heavy price to keep democracy alive. Government structures are shamelessly used as chequered boards to play feudal power games of privilege and patronage. Political parties that espouse democracy for the nation, operate like feudal estates complete with lords and vows of loyalty to them. State institutions that refuse to become a part of this gory drama of deception and greed are maligned and pushed against the wall. The Constitution is a heap of words to be used, abused and amended as and when required. And people of Pakistan, in whose name these revolting games are played, figure nowhere in the picture. The nation is expected to stand in a circle around the circus and clap, feeling good about being a democracy. If only our champions of democracy could see beyond their games, they'd see that there are only a few serfs who are clapping half-heartedly. And the peons are not amused.

n    The writer is a freelance columnist.