The Supreme Court’s pronouncement on the Asghar Khan case about the payment of public money to certain political leaders to influence the 1990 general elections constitutes a historic judgment, as it is the first time that it has ruled against two top living military Generals, albeit retired. Nevertheless, it sets a precedent. Though the court’s short order issued on Friday is based on constitutional provisions, yet it reflects a bold decision, considering the authority and the clout the army has enjoyed almost throughout Pakistan’s history, whether when it had been itself in the seat of power or when it had returned to the barracks. The bench, consisting of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain, ordered criminal proceedings against the then COAS General Aslam Beg and the then DG ISI Lt-General Assad Durrani for their involvement in the disbursement of the cash. Commentators feel that Brigadier (r) Hamid Saeed, very much part of the dirty business, would also have to face legal consequences. However, by declaring that it was the personal act of these military officials, but that had brought a bad name to the institution, the court at the same time gave a clean chit to the armed forces whose sacrifices it praised. The judgment aptly pointed out that the armed forces’ principal role was to defend the frontiers of the motherland and, secondly, to come to the aid of civil authority whenever called upon to do so; it was not to indulge in political matters.

The President at that time, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, did not go scot-free; the court found him in violation of the constitution for sponsoring the ugly game of doling out cash to win over votes; thus, subverting the basic democratic right of the people to choose the candidates of their choice. As for the politicians who were the beneficiaries and whose list Brig. Saeed had provided, the Supreme Court decreed that the FIA should conduct an investigation to make the picture clear and proceed against those found involved. It also maintained that action should be initiated against the CEO of Habib Bank Younis Habib, besides officials of the ISI and MI.

The illegality of this shady deal apart, there was also scandalously huge misappropriation of the funds (Rs 140 million) that were supposed to be utilised for the purpose. Politicians received only Rs 7 million, but, inexplicably, Rs 80 million went to an account maintained by the MI. All those who had received the dole have been ordered to deposit the amount with interest in the Habib Bank.

The court declaration that President is representative of the republic and has to stay above politics can be considered a precursor of what one should expect of the fate of the case contesting the dual roles of President Zardari. Also of significance was the order that political cells, if any existing in the Presidency, ISI and MI, must be disbanded. For the various issues the judgment deals with, it is, without doubt, a landmark order that, coming as it has just before the general elections are due, would hopefully go a long way towards free and fair polls and the emergence of a leadership that is responsive to the needs of the electorate.