Pakistani prime ministers have to be a hardy lot. At any time, they may find themselves incarcerated in prison, unceremoniously thrown out of office, or even killed as in the case of two members of the Bhutto family. According to their detractors however, the booty is well worth the risk.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is no exception. After once having escaped the noose by a hair’s breadth, he is now accused of not only disproportionate assets worth millions — that too in pound sterling, not rupees — as well as lying to the Parliament during his address to them. Three constitutional petitions essentially propelled by Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf forms the basis of the case. Simply put, it is charged that the prime minister was not ‘Ameen (honest)’ — a requirement of Article 62(1) (f) of the Pakistani Constitution for an MP. The clause would probably disqualify more than half of the parliament, but that’s another story.
A reading of the 549-page judgment is indicative of the extreme scepticism of the court regarding the innocence of the Head of State and his family. Details of suspicious money movements abound, as do revelations of the activities of offshore companies. The court is however is equally harsh on State institutions. For one, the judges wonder how the Income Tax Department was able to give a clean chit to the person who paid “a few thousands” as tax between 1981 and 1991, when he was receiving “gifts worth Rs 200 crore” from his son at intervals. The Chairman National Accountability Bureau is charged with being “partial and partisan”.
Other State institutions are lambasted as being “disinclined, disinterested, and unwilling” to remedy the plunder, since they are headed by handpicked officers. In the end however, the court was forced to rule 3-2 in favour of the prime minister, for a simple reason. In spite of more than 35 court hearings, no one can really prove who owns four mansions on Park Lane, London, which as everyone knows, is about as exclusive as it gets. These properties and two offshore companies are the main focus of the case, the judges having decided that to consider all of the various assets owned by the family would be nigh on impossible.
Even as Sharif went out to the cheering crowds and fawning sychophants, his manner hardly indicated any sign of relief or happiness. Indeed, the next two months are likely to be an edge-of-the-seat affair. While the court has directed the setting up of a Joint Investigative Team, perforce made up of the very same institutions that have been castigated as being indifferent to the point of criminality, it has added one officer from the Inter-Services Intelligence and one officer from Military Intelligence, to be nominated by their respective heads. The JIT is to give its findings in 60 days.
That the “angry old man” of Pakistani politics Imran Khan, who started this whole mess, is very affable to the deep state is generally acknowledged. His ambitions — and as we have seen, old men are deeply ambitious — may also have prompted him to launch this petition against his erstwhile friend and colleague. The deep state is also unhappy with Sharif as apparent from their props in the Urdu press who have accused the prime minister of kowtowing to India. The radical Right is even more incensed, following the prime minister’s recent plea that religion should not be used to incite terror. All told, the prime minister is without friends, barring possibly the Pakistan Peoples Party which is also trembling in the wings, being another accused in “Panamagate”.
The crux of the case is now whether the military establishment wants Sharif out of the chair or not. Left to itself, the JIC will meander into nothingness, unless it is prodded into actual investigation. The military can hardly prop up Imran, since his party is far from having anything like a national presence relative to the two major parties with just 33 seats in the 342-member National Assembly. Cobbling together a mess of allies will be no easy task.
Traditional “pro-establishment” parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur), have between them a mere 13 seats. Other Independents, or even the Muttahida Quami Movement, now under serious threat from divisions, could be roped in. The end result would be a prime minister perpetually rocking in his chair. Ideal, one would say, for the establishment. The alternative is the usual tried and tested policy, where a prime minister remains on a ‘drip’ with the strength of the dextrose decided by the establishment.
In such a situation, Sharif has the option of either resigning in good grace, or continuing with the army breathing down his neck. For an “Ameen“, the choice would be obvious.
The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat