The feeling in the air


The feeling in the air

Ayaz Amir

Is the wheel about to turn? Is the nation, which has known its share of turmoil and turbulence, once again on the cusp of change? People—by which I mean the political class and the TV chat show-watching public—are expectant, waiting for something. I have been these past two or three days in Lahore and every time you meet someone the question is the same: what is going to happen?

The reference of course is to the verdict in the Panama case. What is it going to be and what is it going to spell for the longest-ruling dynasty in Pakistani politics? Let not the Najam Sethis and the PML-N darbaris fool themselves or the public at large. The PSL final—some would call it the PSL tamasha—was a passing phenomenon, here today, gone tomorrow. It generated some excitement and a good deal of media nonsense. Some of the articles in pro-PML-N newspapers have to be read to be believed—describing the match in terms usually reserved for the decisive battles of history.

We have been assured that as a result of the match national unity stands further strengthened and terrorism has suffered a body-blow. Or that Pakistan has won and terrorism defeated—much drivel on these lines.

Hardly had the lights dimmed in Qaddafi Stadium when insurgents from across the Durand Line attacked three military posts in Mohmand Agency leading to the deaths of five soldiers. The ISPR in a statement said the attack was repulsed and 15 terrorists were killed. Five military deaths is not a small matter. Furthermore, a captain and a soldier were killed in Swabi in an exchange of gunfire with insurgents or terrorists, whatever we call them. The insurgent threat has been pushed back. It hasn’t gone away and it will take more than a hyped-up cricket match for it to be vanquished and eliminated.

The larger question over the national scene is posed by the Panama case. It has triggered all kinds of speculation because serious issues of corruption and misstatements are involved and if the verdict goes against the prime minister and his family, who are at the centre of this case, the country could be in for anything.

The verdict…only the angels would know what it’s going to be. But the ruling family is worried and the ruling party is on tenterhooks. Five judges and it’s almost as if they hold the country’s future in the palms of their hands.

This is a unique moment in Pakistan’s history. Judges previously have delivered momentous judgments. Martial laws have been endorsed, not once but repeatedly, and a prime minister, remember, was once sent to the gallows. Dismissed prime ministers from Sindh—Muhammad Khan Junejo and Benazir Bhutto—could get no succour from the courts. But a prime minister from Punjab—Nawaz Sharif—was restored to his office after being dismissed through presidential decree…similar circumstances but different outcomes, prompting critics and cynics to level charges of double standards.

From Justice Munir who first articulated the ‘doctrine of necessity’ to Chief Justice Anwar-ul-haq who upheld Bhutto’s death sentence, to Chief Justice Irshad Hasan Khan who validated Gen Musharraf’s coup d’etat, and even bestowed upon him the right to amend the constitution, the higher judiciary bowed to expediency or collaborated with the powers that be. The apex court showed a remarkable sense of independence when it came to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry’s restoration. But that was it. In other major decisions it tilted towards the demands or requirements of the executive power.

This time it is different. The Khosa bench hearing the Panama case is its own master, answerable only to its own sense of right and wrong. Whichever way it goes it will do soon on its own volition, guided by its own understanding of the law and the requirements of justice.

The PML-N would have pressured it if it could. After all, this is the same party that stormed the Supreme Court and forced Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, who has just died, to wrap his robes around him and scurry off from his court in a state bordering on panic. But the PML-N today is a weakened party and not the same thing that it was in 1998 when that memorable assault on the Supreme Court took place. It is thus not in its power to try anything like the same antic. The army would not allow it and other political forces, like Imran Khan’s PTI, would also be in the way.

So the PML-N even as it fears or suspects the worst is left to mutter empty threats—as those sounded by ministers like Saad Rafique and Rana Sanaullah—and grind its teeth. Other remedies which it would have liked, like bending the judges to its will, are not available to it.

Be it remembered that throughout his long political innings, the longest in Pakistan’s history, Nawaz Sharif has always found favour and indulgence from the courts. Cases and allegations that would have felled and destroyed other politicians have left him and his family unscathed.

No PPP prime minister could have escaped the Asghar Khan case—involving substantial sums of money distributed by the ISI during the 1990 elections to a host of politicians including Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. It would have been hard for any other political figure to survive the Model Town massacre—14 dead and scores injured by police firing. Which politician would have survived Ishaq Dar’s money-laundering confessions? The Sharifs have proved to be the great untouchables of Pakistani politics.

Until now, that is…for this is the first time in their long, chequered history when Nawaz Sharif and his immediate family, both sons and the daughter, are implicated in a potentially damaging case before a bench of the apex court and they are helpless, bereft of ideas and remedies.

The defence offered by the Sharif family through their lawyers, in the form of the Qatari letters and nothing else, has provoked laughter across the land, the phrase ‘Qatari letters’ turning into a national joke. Anyone at a loss for an answer regarding anything—a tax matter or any other financial matter—is tempted to say that he will bring a letter from Qatar or Bahrain or some other desert emirate.

But the importance of this case far transcends the fortunes of the Sharif family. It is not just they on trial. In a way the nation or rather the whole concept of Pakistani justice is on trial. Thus any verdict, anything, is likely to set off a chain of repercussions, good or bad, uplifting or downright cynical.

One casualty is already clear: the Sharif reputation. There were always things hurled at the Sharifs but they could shrug them off as unproven allegations. The Panama hearings have nailed specific things down—undisclosed properties and funds hidden overseas, and allegations of money-laundering for which, from the Sharif side, there have been no satisfactory answers.

Even if they survive the storm it won’t be the same for them again. Such stains as they have received are not washed away in a hurry.

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