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December 10, 2016

Back to the streets again?


December 10, 2016

Should we be stashing our water bottles, buying rations of tinned food and stocking up on fuel? Looks like it may be dharna time again. One result of the Supreme Court’s hearing into the Panama Papers leaks was that it forestalled politics of the street but it was always a temporary diversion for Imran Khan.

The perennial strategy of the PTI is to grandstand and grandstand it has. Following normal court procedures, where it is incumbent on the party making the allegations to prove those allegations, is too passé for the PTI. The party’s strategy appears to treat the Supreme Court as a participant at one of its rallies and chant its usual slogans. The strategy has not worked.

For one brief moment, it looked like the PTI had figured out that it now had to play a different sport when it changed its legal team. That turned out not to be the case. Now the Supreme Court has grown so frustrated, it has decided not to forgo its winter holidays and will reconvene in January.

For Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, there is the added bonus that he is retiring on December 31 and will not have to hear any more of PTI’s rallying cries disguised as a legal strategy. The Supreme Court also said it may form a commission to sort out the facts, something which should have pleased the PTI since it had been demanding a commission from the very beginning.

But the only word in the PTI’s vocabulary is ‘no’. Imran Khan has already announced that the party will boycott any commission. A boycott can be a powerful tool when the cause is just. But the PTI has cheapened it, using it to posture when it cannot make its case. It also allows the government to look reasonable by comparison, since Nawaz Sharif’s legal team has said it will accept a commission.

The PTI should realise that the Supreme Court is actually doing it a favour. Judges are more like referees than sleuths. They weigh the evidence provided by both sides and reach a verdict, with the benefit of the doubt always going to the accused. A commission has the power to investigate. The PTI has been unable to provide evidence; if that evidence exists, the commission could help them unearth it.

The boycott shows that the PTI never expected to win. It was taken by surprise when the PML-N disrupted its Islamabad shutdown and needed breathing space. When the Supreme Court took up the Panama Papers case, it allowed Imran to declare victory even though he must have known it was just a pause between dharna threats.

The PTI’s legal strategy resembled that of a student trying to bluff their way through an exam. They just threw everything they had at the Supreme Court without regard to relevance. Of the 700 pages of ‘evidence’ submitted by the PTI, were newspaper articles and an entire book by a dodgy reporter. Perhaps the PTI hoped the Supreme Court would get so busy reading, it would buy the party time. Like all its other cunning plans, this too did not work.

What’s so frustrating about the PTI’s strategy – if one can call what it’s doing a strategy – is that there is a case to be made against Nawaz Sharif. In our hearts, we all know that the prime minister has enriched himself. The Sharif family’s defence is filled with evasions and likely yarns. The sudden revelation that the Qatari prince handed the flats to Hassan Sharif as part of an earlier settlement made by Abbaji is a classic sign of the defence’s desperation. For a new fact to emerge at this stage does not pass the smell test.

The Sharifs’ story on the London properties has changed over the years. Back in 1999, when Nawaz Sharif was ousted by Musharraf, his son Hassan Sharif gave an interview to the BBC’s Tim Sebastian and played the role of the poor, ignorant student. He said the rent for the Hyde Park flat he was living in came from Pakistan. But he left himself enough wiggle room by claiming not to know who owns the flat or who pays his rent, even though it would be absurd for Hassan not to know who was transferring the rent money to his account.

After the Panama Papers leaks, Hassan changed his tune. Suddenly he went from a befuddled student to a business maven. He accepted that he was behind the offshore companies – even though he had told Tim Sebastian that he knew nothing about Neilsen Enterprises Limited and Nescoll Limited – and wants us to believe that he earned the money for the flats himself.

But once again, it is not the PTI’s job to prove that the Sharifs have lied or changed their story in public – if lying in speeches was a crime, every politician would be serving a life sentence. On the contrary, it must conclusively prove that the original source of the wealth was never declared and that Nawaz Sharif did not pay tax on it. This requires more forensic work than just cutting stories from a newspaper and gluing them to your scrapbook.

The commission proposed by the Supreme Court would be ideal for doing what the PTI should have done. It can hire investigators and bring in the FBR. It can essentially make the PTI’s case for it. But Imran is, of course, opposed to the commission. This is because he either sees a gremlin under every bed or thinks the martyr pose is good politics.

Recall how before his 2014 dharna, the rigging conspiracy he spouted was large enough to include the PML-N, the Election Commission of Pakistan, the Supreme Court, Najam Sethi, Geo News and probably the Pakistan cricket team too. Imran’s knack for invective even led to Iftikhar Chaudhry filing a defamation suit against him where the PTI chief’s lawyers came up with the novel defence that his words at rallies should not be taken seriously. That is the PTI in a nutshell. It never does anything but waste a lot of words in doing nothing.

Imran has only one goal: to become the prime minister of Pakistan. There are two ways of going about that. One – let’s call it the Bhutto way – is to build a political party, contest elections and win over voters. The other – this is the route the Sharifs took – is to be the golden child of a military dictator. Imran’s third way is to hold dharnas and announce boycotts. That will not do the trick.

It is enough to make one think the PTI never expected to win the case. And that is why we should be fearful of what’s next. If the PTI does boycott the commission and continues boycotting parliament and refuses to accept the legitimacy of the government, then it has boxed itself into a corner. That means it is dharna time again.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]


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