Yousuf Raza Gilani could have broken two records in Pakistan. First, of being the country's longest serving prime minister (with the supreme court disqualifying him from the parliament from April 26, Liaqat Ali Khan's record stays, having been PM for 36 days more). Second, of being the first of 14 prime ministers to complete a full term in office.
With the order dismissing the prime minister, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has robbed not only Gilani of those records, but also Pakistan of a chance of political normalcy. Chaudhry himself will go down in history as the judge who got rid of not one but two of Pakistan's top leaders of the past decade - the other being the former president, Pervez Musharraf. Ironically, both were targeted for protecting President Asif Ali Zardari - Musharraf for offering him amnesty under the National Reconciliation Ordinance and Gilani for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen the case against the president.
It is the timing chosen by Chaudhry that is perhaps most surprising. His judgment on Tuesday merely clarifies the one pronounced on April 26 by fellow judges. If the supreme court wanted Gilani to go, surely it could have said so plainly at that time? The curious part of the judgment is the directive to the president, essentially telling Zardari to sack Gilani for standing by him, and to replace Gilani with a prime minister who would reopen corruption cases against him.
Many are also questioning the speed with which Chaudhry took up the petitions against Gilani - they were filed on June 7 and disposed of within a fortnight. During this fortnight, Chaudhry himself had come under the scanner after his son Arsalan was accused of blackmail and extortion by the real estate developer, Malik Riaz Hussain. Respected lawyer Asma Jehangir, once Chaudhry's biggest backer in his fight against Musharraf told the BBC, "When the court becomes a dictator, the situation could get worse than under a (military) dictatorship".
Chaudhry's past may hold some clues for those confused by his judgment. Given the bitterness with Musharraf at the end, many forget that in 1999, Chaudhry was one of the few judges to back the general's coup. He was elevated from the Baloch high court when 11 supreme court judges resigned in protest against Musharraf. A few months later, he validated the coup under the "doctrine of necessity". In 2005, he was part of the five-judge bench that dismissed all constitutional challenges to Musharraf.
Yet just two years later, he spearheaded the campaign that eventually forced Musharraf out, riding on a wave of pro-democracy protests that only gained strength each time Musharraf retaliated with draconian measures. Crowds greeted Chaudhry in every Pakistani city, but his main support came from the "black coats", as lawyers, particularly of the Lahore Bar Association (LBA), are referred to.
Black coats are a politicised, radicalised group, often seen in clashes against the police. In 2007, they braved bullets and lathis in the pro-democracy movement to back Chaudhry, but were also known to assault any lawyer or judge who did not. Last year, they were seen lifting the assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer on their shoulders and showering him with rose petals in full public view outside court. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, black coats around the country wore black armbands and held prayers of mourning. When the US announced a reward for Hafiz Saeed's arrest, the LBA's official statement called "Obama a terrorist, not Saeed". But the radical Islamism cuts deeper. Earlier this year, the LBA banned the sale of drinks and products made by companies owned by minorities like the Shias. This triggered some protests but no action from the judiciary. Chaudhry has remained silent on many of these controversial acts, and has stayed their hero. When Arsalan was accused of extortion, the black coats were protesting again, banning the entry of Hussain's lawyer in court, and shouting that old slogan, "Chief, tairay janasarbeshumar beshumar (Chief, you have countless followers)." They accused the PPP government of conspiracy, and the PPP now accuses Chaudhry of having disqualified Gilani as an "act of revenge".
Discrediting Chaudhry for disqualifying Gilani does not take away from the real problems of the PPP - it heads a government whose popularity is rock bottom, seen as the most corrupt and inept regime in Pakistan thus far. Even so, Chaudhry may have done better by allowing the people of Pakistan to decide at the elections instead, gifting them the first ever full tenure of a democratically elected prime minister in Pakistan.