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A long and mostly lonely battle for reordering Pakistan

Nirupama Subramanian

For Mubashir Hasan — anti-NRO petitioner and a former Bhutto aide — the struggle for a just Pakistan is not over yet.

As the ruling Pakistan People’s Party scrambles to deal with the fall-out of the Supreme Court verdict annulling and voiding the National Reconciliaiton Ordinance, it can be no consolation to it or to President Zardari that the main petitioner in the case was none other than an old political associate of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and a co-founder of the party back in 1967.

Many in Pakistan are celebrating the verdict as the beginning of the country’s “moral renaissance”. The NRO was widely seen as legitimising corruption because it let off many charged with siphoning national wealth into their own pockets.

The Supreme Court has now reinstituted all those cases, as a result of which President Asif Ali Zardari, the most important of the NRO beneficiaries, now faces an uncertain future.

While Mr. Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution, accountability courts have reopened old cases of corruption against several important government functionaries including ministers, many of them from his close circle of confidantes.

There is jubilation that a crackdown has been ordered on the brazen looting and plundering of the exchequer that went unchecked all these years.

But the 88-year-old Mubashir Hasan, whose petition against the NRO became a cause celebre in the country with the verdict setting off political tremors, believes the judgment will bring about no fundamental changes in Pakistan.

Over nearly five decades, Dr. Hasan has waged a long and mostly lonely battle for reordering Pakistan as a just society in which power truly rests with the people.

The Columbia University doctorate-holder dropped a lucrative career as a civil engineer in the 1960s to join forces with Bhutto, when the erstwhile lieutenant of General Ayub Khan started forming the Pakistan People’s Party. He believed that this new political entity could really change the face of the country for the better. Hopes were really high when the PPP took office in December 1971.

“Only later we discovered that we are in the Assembly, we are ministers, we are in the government, but we have no power. The power was in the hands of those who stay permanently, the combine of military-civilian services, and it remains there,” Dr. Hasan said in a recent conversation with The Hindu.

He recalled that one of the top functionaries against whom corruption cases were restored after the verdict, a former bureaucrat and a close confidante of Mr. Zardari, was someone he had suspended when he was the Finance Minister in Bhutto’s cabinet all those years back. The Bhutto government was ousted but the official remained, and faced little difficulty in making his way up the bureaucracy.

This is why, said Dr. Hasan, who was finance minister in Bhutto’s cabinet, he is not as excited about the judgment as the rest of Pakistan, even though he seemed not to mind the attention after years of trying to project his cause from the margins of public life.

When reporters surrounded the tall and lanky Dr. Hasan in the courtroom at breaks during the hearings, he was ready with the right quote and a charming smile; after winning the case, he took congratulatory telephone calls from all corners of the country and abroad, from friends and strangers alike.

“The people of Pakistan are extremely happy, so I’m happy too. But since I know the reality, I do not entertain the hope that this will stop the state of Pakistan from falling apart,” he said.

This, according to him, is not a drastic or dramatic overstatement. What is corruption, he asked, if not the falling apart of the state, where a person in public office tasked with holding the monies of the nation is looting it.

The judgment may delay the process, but Pakistan was destined to perish unless it underwent a radical reconstruction, he predicted, prescribing that the only thing that can stop it “is a genuine democracy in which power is transferred to the people”.

Taking a side-swipe, he said this was true for India and Bangladesh too, except that Pakistan’s condition was far worse.

“The present system of government in Pakistan, before the judgment and after the judgment, is incapable of taking the state forward under the rule of law,” he said.

Dr. Hasan, who parted ways with the PPP when Benazir Bhutto took charge of it after her father’s hanging, is seen as one of the few good men left in Pakistan, reputed both for his personal and political integrity and razor-sharp intellect. In a political culture — pervasive through South Asia — where even a few months in power is seen as enough opportunity to amass wealth, he does not own a house, and still drives an old Volkswagen Beetle.

Now a member of a tiny PPP faction, called PPP-Shaheed Bhutto, led by Ghinwa Bhutto, the widow of Benazir’s brother Murtaza, he is also a big votary of peaceful and friendly relations between his country and India.

Some months ago, Dr. Hasan released a 120-page booklet that he co-authored with 16 other “like-minded” people who call themselves the “Independent Planning Commission of Pakistan”.

The booklet, called “Making Pakistan a Tenable State”, calls for the forging of a new social contract between the State and the citizens for the transfer of power from the former to the latter. The test of a “genuine democracy”, according to its prescription, is simple: it is one in which the power to detain a citizen in custody, to determine whether someone is innocent or guilty of an alleged crime rests with the citizen. In other words, a state in which the police of an area work under the control of a local elected council, as in many western democracies.

There are fears, however, that despite being a staunch democrat, Dr. Hasan may have unwittingly placed whatever democracy Pakistan has at risk through the NRO case. Concerns have been expressed that the verdict has put Pakistan back on the slippery slope to military rule, as it has weakened the political leadership of the country and eroded its authority to rule.

But Dr. Hasan said such fears were akin to trying to prevent a doctor from amputating the legs of a man suffering from gangrene. The judgement gave the patient a “slight chance”, he said, “to reconstruct or perish”.

He reminded those who point a finger at him for becoming part of “a conspiracy” against Mr. Zardari and the present government, that his petition was filed in October 2007, days after the NRO was promulgated as part of a power-sharing arrangement between Benazir Bhutto and the former president, Pervez Musharraf, brokered by the US and Britain..

“I filed this case as the ordinance was promulgated. At that time, Zardari was not even in the picture. It was against the deal reached by the US, Benazir and Musharraf,” he said. “It was an evil deal and it was against the constitution.”

The real national reconciliation in Pakistan was the 1973 Constitution, Dr. Hasan argued. The process for framing it, in which he played a key role, started in the demoralized atmosphere in the aftermath of the 1971 break-up with East Pakistan and it brought together all disaffected sections of the West Pakistan polity.

Fittingly enough, one of the two lawyers who argued his petition against the NRO in the Supreme Court was his old cabinet colleague, Hafiz Peerzada, the law minister in Bhutto’s government and the chief framer of the Constitution. The verdict itself came on December 16, the anniversary of the day East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh.

But for Dr. Hasan, the struggle will continue. Unfailingly, every Thursday, at 11.30 am, this spry old man rallies a small bunch of Shaheed Bhutto activists in Lahore for a demonstration in one part of city or another, asking the rich to pay their taxes, urging an end to the exploitation of workers, or as he said, “awakening the people”. Next Thursday will be no different.

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