It can now be seen on their faces, the concern stemming from the Panama case hearings in the Supreme Court. As the hearings lengthen and probing questions are asked – questions for which some of the best legal brains in the country have found no ready answers – the earlier brashness and cockiness have disappeared.
Committed N-Leaguers still say that Nawaz Sharif would emerge from this ordeal with his electoral support enhanced. Sceptics would put this down more as an expression of faith – what we call emaan – than anything to do with reality. But even when this confidence is sounded it comes laced with apprehension about what the future may have in store for their embattled leader.
The N-League’s animus since Oct 12, 1999, was towards the army, never the judiciary. So it faces a novel situation as it stares into the judicial unknown. The hearings have developed a momentum of their own and their lordships, much to the PML-N’s ill-disguised chagrin, are conducting themselves in an independent manner. Throughout its long history in politics the PML-N has been used to, let’s say, a ‘friendly’ if not openly collaborative judiciary. Facing an independent bench is a new experience for its leaders, and it is showing.
This is one reason for the shuffling and reshuffling of lawyers. In the past before indulgent benches, lawyers with a long history of association with the Sharifs – Akram Sheikh, Salman Butt, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, the present attorney general who was for long a family lawyer – were considered sufficient to meet the ends of justice or expediency. And before indulgent benches these eagles delivered handsomely. But before a slightly different kind of bench the same lawyers were found to be inadequate…which explains their less-than-glorious retreat from the scene of battle.
Another problem for the ruling clan, and again novel in its dimensions, is that it cannot blame its present predicament on the usual suspects: ISI, the ‘establishment’, or some group within the army. In this whole affair the army has no bias unless the army, importing stealth technology from Boeing or Lockheed, has mastered the art of stealth intervention. This is a matter which has fallen from the skies, manufactured by no shadowy outfit. And the ruling family, much as one may sympathise with it, is finding it difficult to handle this phenomenon.
The 2014 dharnas which came near to toppling the government were blamed, as we can recall, on a section of the army high command, the whole of the ISI and the two supposed cat’s-paws: Imran Khan and Allama Tahirul Qadri. Whom can you blame the Panama Papers for?
But hardcore N-Leaguers still feel there is a conspiracy afoot but unlike the past this conspiracy they place firmly within the party. Some important figures in the party, they feel, instead of coming unabashedly to the aid of the beleaguered family are not only hedging their bets but are actively involved in making things more difficult and complicated for the family.
Why, they ask, are some powerful ministers completely mum about what the ruling family is going through, saying not a word and not coming to its defence? The task of defending the ruling family has fallen on the shoulders of the Young Turks who take their inspiration from the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, the figure seen in many circles as being groomed for the party’s succession. You can see them before the cameras every day, eyes flashing and voices rising.
One of the Turks, Muhammad Zubair – though not quite qualifying for the adjective ‘young’ – has been rewarded with the governorship of Sindh. The others can be forgiven for wondering when their turn comes for similar recognition.
This was supposed to be a year of steady sailing, mega-projects being unveiled and loadshedding brought down, before victory in the coming elections, which everyone in the N-League takes for granted. It is turning out so differently: the party’s complacency coming apart on the rocks of the Panama hearings…and the end still not in sight.
This is how the unexpected comes about. Gen Musharraf in his wildest nightmares could not have foreseen anything like the lawyers’ movement. On March 8, 2007, he was all joy and triumph, celebrating International Women’s Day in the Presidency, Begum Sehba Musharraf on one side of him, fetching Sumaira Malik – minister, quite appropriately, of women’s development – on the other. And the very next day, March 9, came about the incident with CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry which ignited the lawyers’ movement.
Gen Zia after dismissing Junejo thought he had secured his future. Then came the fatal air crash over Bahawalpur which some still trace to an international conspiracy. Bhutto thought he had the 1977 elections all taken care of and then he overplayed his hand giving birth to the fatal PNA movement, which paved the way for Zia’s martial law. Field Marshal Ayub Khan was celebrating his Decade of Development in October 1968 just when the movement against him started, leading to his ouster several months later.
I am not saying that something similar is on the cards. Let us not play Cassandra. But from the N-League’s point of view some of the signs to be seen are ominous: the day-to-day hearings, the nightly dissections of the ruling family’s financial dealings on every TV channel across the media landscape, the probing questions from the bench about financial trails which seem to exist only in the realm of Qatari imagination. Where is all this leading to? No one can tell, the unpredictability of it the most unnerving part.
This atmosphere is leading to unmistakable signs of paranoia, such as the scepticism being voiced about key N-League ministers. Whose game are they playing when they attack the Supreme Court bench hearing the Panama case, as Saad Rafique did recently at a workers’ convention? Whose purpose is served when the interior minister on a regular basis takes on the PPP when the PPP should be the least of the N-League’s concerns?
Nisar Ali Khan played a similar role during the dharnas, adding to Nawaz Sharif’s problems when out of the blue he attacked the PPP’s Aitzaz Ahsan…this at a time when the PPP casting all reservations aside was coming to the N-League’s defence.
According to some claiming to be in the know, in the siege mentality now prevailing in the PM’s house, questions about ministerial loyalty that could not be voiced before are not only heard now but heard attentively. Nawaz Sharif is not an impulsive man and does not come to judgement quickly. But they say that he is missing nothing.
Tailpiece: Just when one might have thought that nothing worse could happen comes news, leaked no doubt, of the gift of a prize horse to the amir of Qatar flown to that magic emirate aboard an official aircraft. Has the PM’s staff taken leave of their senses? Did this caper have to come about at this time? And I was just reading about the letter Andaleeb Abbas of the PTI has written to the PM’s office asking for details about the official expenditure on the PM’s private estate at Jati Umra which has been notified as a ‘camp office’. Verily, when troubles come they come not as single spies but whole battalions.