Finally, the Court spoke and gave its decision on the much publicised Panama leaks case. Needless to say, the decision was eagerly awaited by the government, the opposition and the public, with the media spicing up the atmosphere. While the 3-2 decision cleared the PM, it came with a dissenting note from two of the honourable judges of the special bench. What was noteworthy was that the two justices found the PM culpable and not worthy to hold office any more. For many, this observation says a lot. For others – in the PML-N camp – this observation has no bearing on the decision; legally the latter is correct.
Thus, another round of controversy – on the political aspects of the decision if not the legal ones – begins. Interestingly, both the government and the PTI accepted the court’s decision. While it is easy for the government to do so, it is a bitter pill for the PTI to swallow. It takes exception to the directive of a JIT that could ask the PM and his sons to appear before it. Other opposition parties have joined this chorus of dissension, asking for the PM’s resignation. As usual, the PTI has gone further and outlined a strategy of protest.
The decision had brought the opposition together but divided the nation. It is also not yet clear how united the opposition is and for how long. Pertinently, the court has raised 13 questions that need to be addressed in the JIT: all these are germane to the case and important in seeking the whole truth. Thus for many, the PM has a two-month respite and his name can really be cleared in the JIT’s decision. Naysayers are not so hopeful.
Once again, the Sharif family and its legal team are in a tight spot and need to be prepared to answer 13 major and a greater number of auxiliary questions to get off the hook. Some of the questions are of a very elementary nature, dealing with sound judgement and routine/normal procedures. However, there is also an ethical dimension attached to the whole issue that unfortunately is being ignored by the Sharifs and their party stalwarts.
The case is rather tenuously linked to Article 62 of the constitution that in turn rather tenuously links politics with morality. That “… he is honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law” is a condition to be elected. While this seems to be a slippery slope, many a politician have managed to pass on. Even if one ignores the “honest and ameen” provisions of the constitution, a wilful act to hide facts amounts to deception.
It is often pointed out that morality has no place in politics in general. This is not actually so. Our constitution contains a moralist dimension, appended to qualifications for a member of parliament. How does this aspect hold in the court of law? The case heard and decided by the honourable bench of the Supreme Court had two major dimensions: the money trail leading to the London flats owned by a Sharif family member and the presentation and defence of that ‘trail’ (transaction of money abroad). In this regard, it was not the authenticity of the Qatari letter that was in question but its credibility (or admissibility). Is the plea of millions of dollars as gift to a parent plausible? And is the defence of Sharif as the PM forthright and transparent? The case thus remains open.
The second round will continue during and after the JIT proceedings – this has all the elements of a pre-election campaign. Most parties have switched to election mode, but the ruling party does not seem to be in the mood.
The PM is not obligated to resign in the light of the Supreme Court’s verdict. But he certainly has a choice of calling early elections. This can quell the political bickering, animosity as well as the uncertainty that is growing. If the ruling party thinks getting a clean chit from the JIT would mean an easy ride, they are mistaken.
Continuing in office after a divided verdict may be politically expedient but remains ethically questionable and that is how the whole episode will go down in history.
The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.