23rd March, this year, was celebrated with great pomp and display of (military) might. Choreographed activities, throughout the day, were designed to send three different sets of messages: 1) to all those beyond our borders – Pakistan is a strong and resurgent nation that defends its territorial and ideological borders; 2) to the insurgents within – Pakistan has the muscle to quash the (already dwindling) militant threats; 3) to the people – the ‘ship of our State’ has navigated through the storms and is entering calmer seas; and 4) to the ‘mujhe kiyo’n nikala’ gang – neither you, nor anyone else, is indispensable to the survival and progress of the nation.

But a peek beyond the orchestrated curtain would have revealed that simmering tension continues to exist between the different institutional heads (most of whom were present on the same stage in Islamabad). The generals, who have had to repeatedly assure everyone that they are not interested in undemocratic adventures, the Prime Minister, whose ‘dilo’n ka Vazeer-e-Azam’ resented not being on the stage himself. And a President… well, who is still searching for his political heartbeat.

In the circumstances, on this 23rd of March, it is perhaps important to look back at the promise of Pakistan, articulated at the doorstep of Badshahi Masjid in 1940, and compare it with where we are today. It is important to reassess who we have become, in comparison to who we were supposed to be. To analyse how we have arrived at this junction, and to readjust our sails and trajectory hereon.

At the very outset, let us get the obvious out of the way: we have been unsuccessful in creating the sort of society and State that our forefathers had envisioned. Neither Iqbal, nor Jinnah, nor anyone else from that generation would give us a pat on the back for the last 70 years of bad governance. We have had repeated military adventurism, baptised by pliant judicial verdict. We have had stop-start democratic experiments, resulting in the creation of a corrupt ruling elite that almost makes you pray for military intervention. We have sown the seeds of fanaticism in this land, which has stained our soil with innocent blood. We ostracised people like Abul Salaam, and made heroes out Lal Masjid mullahs. We allowed the rich to create gold-plated mansions, while others sleep on the footpath outside. We allowed democracy to descend into a game of hereditary politics, and swore allegiance to individuals instead of institutions. We showered rose-petals (from a plane) to celebrate political leaders who do not even have the courtesy to visit the bereaving family of a young boy trampled under the cavalcade. And when the empire of our Constitution gathered the strength to call a thief by his name, we chose to swear allegiance to the fiefdom of kings over the dominion of our Constitution.

During these seventy years, we have failed to provide our children with mandatory and affordable education. We are still struggling with the issue of providing clean water to the populi. We are, just now, inspecting if our public healthcare system works as it should. We are trying to figure out who took all the forest land. Who stole the funds that were allocated for provision of polio medicine to kids? Who ran away with the zakat money? How were emerald palaces built by those who have paid no more than a few pennies in tax? How did we become a country that can barely pay its debt installment, while two ruling families (only) own more assets than the entire national debt?

In this backdrop, a new debate has started: should institutions like the honorable Supreme Court (and the military?) dabble into issues that otherwise fall within the (exclusive?) mandate of the executive? In simpler words, should the honorable Chief Justice be making visits to the public hospitals, setting the fee structure for medical schools, and investigating the provision of clean water? Or, better yet, should the Army Chief be setting the regional security policy, meeting foreign dignitaries and responding to the statements made by U.S. President… while the civilian government snoozes on the job?

The answer to this question has two completely diabolically opposite (and bona fide) answers. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that neither the honorable Court, nor the military, should dabble in such matters, and allow the civilian government to take the lead. Proponent of this viewpoint have no trouble conceding that the civilian political leadership has faltered… but argue that the systems take time to develop. If only the army and the judiciary stayed away from such issues, the civilian leaders will have no choice but to step forth. And in case they do not, the people of Pakistan will replace such leadership (through elections) and install new government that is more responsible. In fact, it is argued that the very reason civilian leadership has been unable to address these issues (with any deliberate zeal) is because the judicio-military enterprise has not allowed them to. And that, in the long-run, the only sustainable way for our democratic framework to gain strength is for us all to have patience with the political leadership.

Fair enough.

On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that nature abhors a vacuum. Since the political leadership has not stepped up to address these basic issues, it is a necessity of the hour that other institutions step in to stem the rot. That the honorable Supreme Court (and the military) cannot simply watch, as mute bystanders, while the people of Pakistan slowly suffocate, waiting for political leadership to mature. That the people of Pakistan need clean water, and they need it yesterday. They need authentic medication, and they need it now. They need hospitals, schools and security. And if the political leadership – stuck somewhere between Surrey Palace and Avenfied Apartments – will not rise to the challenge, the State (institutions) must. It is argued that this is no longer a matter of constitutional restraint. It is an issue of constitutional imperative. If you see fire, and can put it out, you do not wait for the fire department to arrive. If you see a man drowning, and can save him, you do not wait for the lifeguard to arrive first.

The upcoming elections, and the foreseeable political future, will be about picking a side between these competing narratives. And whatever choice majority of the people make (at the polls) will decide the literal as well as existential fate of Pakistan in the years to come.

This is a crucial (election) year for Pakistan. It will either witness the end of a political era (of those who stumbled upon political power, under General Zia, during the 1980s). Or it will give birth to a new breed of political culture that thrives on swearing loyalty to the King.

Either way, we should all say a prayer for Pakistan. A prayer that – no matter who comes out victorious in the ongoing constitutional mud-fight – on the next 23rd of March, the people of Pakistan have clean drinking water, uninterrupted electricity, good education, and quality healthcare services. Ameen.


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.