If they must go down, the PML-N and the Sharifs are not going down without a fight. They cannot afford to. The contours of this fight are becoming clear by the day and soon we will know what it will look like finally as the protagonists enter the final stage of the conflict. We are getting there faster than we had expected – for ‘fast’ is the keyword for all who have produced, performed in and managed the Panama drama. For those not in the habit of fooling themselves and others, the drama was never about the ‘corruption’ of the Sharifs but about their virtual expulsion from politics and the weakening of the PML-N to the extent that leaves it in no position to pose the perennial territorial problem in matters which matter. The trajectory of political and judicial events around the Panama issue would have been very different otherwise.
In any case, if the Sharifs are found licking their political and judicial wounds on the side of the electoral road, the much-anticipated defections to the opposition from the PML-N ranks and the hoped-for softening of the spine and disappearance of resistance from the rest of the PML-N are certainly prospects that the Panama producers are looking at. For this scenario to become a scene, the Sharifs have to be get going before the election time. The contrary scenario which sees the Sharifs making it to the election, however much wounded, will, in the final analysis, be sold as survival of the ‘fit’ against the ‘fast’. As Sheikh Rashid, the restless political raven, has put it: the Sharifs, then, will have won.
They will have won because Imran Khan and his PTI have so far lost on all ‘truly’ political counts. Twenty years – four of them in power in KP — have not proved enough for Imran and the PTI to build an organizational structure that can raise Imran’s calls for countrywide boycotts and protests of this or that kind above the level of silly spurs of the desperate moment each time a ‘political’ adventure of his has met with embarrassing failure. If embarrassment does not stick to him, it is not because of any political acumen on his part, nor is it about the unyielding tenacity that some in the media tend to attribute to him. The simple fact is that each time he has been bailed out of complete embarrassment by one or the other state institutions. The last such time was when Imran Khan was left high and dry – wondering in worry on the hills of Bani Gala, after his marchers from KP had almost dissipated into thin air and no political ferment in Punjab was witnessed in the first place to dissipate into anything. A ‘frivolous’ petition suddenly becoming a foremost attraction saved the day for him.
The PML-N’s strategy, therefore, had been to prolong the fight, to make it to election time and fight the election whose social and political dynamics Imran Khan would have failed to transform, ensuring another PML-N victory. That this was how things were going to pan out was the view of many commentators in the media. What could not have been taken into account then was the role the judiciary would come to play – so directly and aggressively – putting aside the reluctance previously on display to get embroiled in an affair so unabashedly political. This must be the answer to the prayers of not only a politically failed PTI but also those in the media and elsewhere who have assumed the role of apparently voluntary advisers to the military and the judiciary on how to effect and engineer political change, when the people cannot be counted upon to choose the bottle labelled Naya Pakistan.
In the beginning, the PML-N and the Sharifs played along, resting assured perhaps in the legalities of the matter. And where else would legalities matter if not in court where you are not a criminal unless absolutely proven otherwise and where the opposition’s logic of the cart before the horse is not supposed to work? The SC judgment though began with the Godfather cart and ended with the JIT horse — with a few Anti-PML-N Greeks placed rather mysteriously in it. The throats that gulped in sweets now let out loud lamentations to match those of Troy. Can they be ridiculed for the sweets of myopia? Yes, they can. But can they be lambasted for their laments? Much in the form of media reports and revelations has come to the fore since the formation of the JIT and remains unrebutted and unanswered.
An objective analysis of the situation – one that is not marred by hypocritical sermonizing on ethics and morality — cannot fail to recognize:
1) That the Panama affair is neither about corruption nor about law, but about power and the snatching of it from one so that the other can have a taste of it. Power, the theoretically electoral fruit, has to be snatched before the election.
2) That the other who is aching to taste it is a political failure and, since at least 2013, has had to be given scripts and provided with space to remain relevant. Despite all the meticulously created illusions, the other’s real forte has not been the storm and stress of street politics for change but the attempts at seducing some institutions and abusing and coercing others – for them to intervene to the benefit of that other. There comes a point in such an exercise when it is difficult to tell who is tempting who.
3) That this highly charged drama, involving all institutions openly and behind the scenes, is taking place against the wider background of institutional imbalance, divide and conflict over political space and authority for important policy decisions. The casualties in these conflicts have historically been civilian governments.
4) The ‘moral metaphysics’ of such conflicts has always consisted in self-righteous anti-corruption talk and slogans even as morally indefensible compromises and adjustments are made with all but one – the latest target of political and institutional offensive.
With these aspects duly recognized, and with battle-lines being drawn on this wide socio-political landscape, it is easy to see why each word spoken and every position taken comes to be seen as partisan. It has to be partisan.
None of their concerns over the formation and conduct of the JIT having been met clearly by the judiciary, and they having been given instead a cold shoulder with burning remarks, the PML-N and the Sharifs’ strategy to prolong the fight till the election appears irrelevant. The talk now is of the exceedingly hostile JIT report and a final judgment expected to be “adverse in the extreme”. The talk now is also of direct military intervention should matters become worse. This may be more a wish for some and not a real horse. But for others, anything is possible in our land of perilous possibilities. And the Sharifs have developed a distinctly unpleasant feeling that the horses they have been riding have turned out to be mere wishes. The final straw in the pre-final stage came with the JIT making an amazing mess of what the Sharifs saw as the strongest arm in their legal arsenal – the Qatari prince. Their imagination has got be on fire with all options, which may not be many, laid on the table. This of course assumes that no conference in the clouds is taking place between the gods eternal and the lesser, mortal souls in danger.
The prime minister’s resignation and the handing over of the reins to another may be his decision to make. But it is a silly idea when it comes from those who think they are suggesting a way out of the crisis for him. What possible solution this offers to the Sharifs’ problems and how such a step will help the PML-N in its constituencies during the election are questions that the pundits do not dwell on. If anything this will send the right kind of message, from the PTI’s/Imran Khan’s point of view that is, to the constituents and the second and third tiers of the PML-N leadership – that it is time to change loyalties and start defections, on matters of principle of course.
Will the PML-N and the Sharifs, then, wait for and fight till the final SC judgment? They appear to be doing exactly that, using whatever space the fig leaf separating the judiciary from the JIT leaves them with. The opposition, flexing its muscles for the final round, obviously sees no such leaf. If the SC lets the Sharifs ‘sufficiently’ off the hook with extremely ‘damaging’ comments, so be it. These comments are not going to hurt them in their established constituencies. They will have won the round and Imran will be faced once again with the task of raising another army of protesters to drive the Sharifs out and creating enough of a crisis in the streets, with his eyes once again fixed firmly on the umpire’s finger. But will/can the Sharifs now pin any hope on the judiciary not passing an extremely adverse judgment on Nawaz? If they can’t, the Sharifs will come directly into conflict with the judiciary with the JIT issue having done the stuff of Imran’s dreams. The PML-N and the Sharifs then will be fighting a battle of survival before and during the election. And in an environment where political and social patronage counts on many levels to win an election, a PML-N engaged in conflict with powerful institutions may not present an appealing sight for long, even with a convincing narrative of victimization. Such a narrative in fact could be counterproductive. The traditional PML-N vote bank is not known for its tendency to resist and persist in protest. To prove this assessment false is perhaps going to be the strongest challenge the PML-N may face.
That is also where things may start turning into their opposites for both the PML-N and the PTI. A political strife between institutions in the corridors of power till election time and Imran’s dharnas and marches outside may be to the advantage of Imran Khan because of the uncertainty that will follow. In view of the possibility of things turning into their opposites, is there a third possibility being contemplated somewhere within the PML-N? That of early elections before it is struck by any judgment? That will not take away the challenges it faces. Nothing now will. But that will certainly keep the political initiative somewhat in the PML-N’s hands and it will be seen as also creating a situation rather than as only reacting to situations. It will also throw a challenge to Imran Khan of the sort he has never been able to meet – that of actual political mobilization in the PML-N constituencies. If he is perceived as being helped or aided by the establishment, or parts of it, and the PML-N is politically and physically victimized, as it has been ‘institutionally’, it will develop a political capital that the PML-N, and the Sharifs, can invest in the campaign that approaches and in the politics beyond it. This is not going to be easy. This is exactly when a bearded charlatan may be called upon to bid the ghost of Model Town stalk the streets of Punjab and the judicial corridors. Who said it was going to be easy when your paths as civilian rulers diverge from those of the Khans and the Rasheeds and Khurshids of this country?