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July 9, 2017

A court trial through the media


July 9, 2017

The Supreme Court justices are going to put a finale to the most publicly conducted trial in the history of Pakistan after the submission of the JIT report about investigations into the allegations of corruption against the Sharif family.

The court case against Asif Zardari as president was similarly related to the issue of corruption in the context of his account in a Swiss bank. It led to explosion in the media and of course to the disqualification of the then prime minister Gilani. Memogate was similarly a case rich with intense publicity against Zardari. More than a generation ago, Z A Bhutto’s trial attracted public attention in a similar way, though the media coverage had a much smaller circuit at that time.

Who is the producer of the public tragi-comedy surrounding the court case, followed by the JIT investigations? How is it that the centre-piece of the two-way display of anger from the PTI and PML-N – the issue of corruption – has almost disappeared from the media, except through the use of terms such as thief, dacoit and liar. While the daggers are drawn between the two sides, commentators on TV and social media point to a wider phenomenon in the form of a civil-military conflict that lies at the heart of the current political crisis.

Civil-military tension is the very stuff political instability in Pakistan has been made of over the last seven decades. The two wings of the state have in no way outgrown their mutual mistrust. Under the present dispensation, several cases of tension on that score led to breach of faith, highlighted by the Dawnleaks. Political analysts tend to point to the military establishment’s fatigue with the Sharif family. In this scenario, Nawaz Sharif’s prospects of winning the 2018 elections, as per surveys of public opinion recently carried out by researchers, are very disconcerting for the powers that be. As a defense analyst acknowledged, and sought to correct the impression, critics point to the peculiar composition of the JIT, with two military intelligence agencies MI and ISI being part of it, while the civilian agency IB being out of it. Is the military holding the civilians accountable for corruption, first ever under a civilian setup? It reminds one of the familiar sound beat from a typical post-coup scenario: first accountability, then elections.

But it is Imran Khan who speaks from the platform, appears on the TV screen and addresses public meetings against the Sharifs’ as-yet-unproven corruption. Is he then a proxy for the establishment, a question often repeated and even more often snubbed. While this is an irritant for the PTI leadership, there is almost a consensus on this issue among all political parties. Does it mean that, Imran Khan’s vociferous campaign against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif notwithstanding, analysts will continue to look at the current logjam as an expression of a civil-military crisis?

There are two contradictory patterns of public reaction. On the one hand, Imran Khan has failed to mobilise people against Nawaz Sharif throughout the length and breadth of the country by his rallies, sit-ins and public meetings in four years. Punjab continues to be a stronghold of the PML-N. The court remains the only route available for regime change in the absence of mass mobilisation. On the other hand, the impression that Imran enjoys the army’s support as an alternative to Nawaz Sharif in Punjab has started to sink in with fortune-seeking politicians, especially from the PPP. Indeed, the PPP leadership gives the impression that it has decided to forego the option of making a serious bid for power in Punjab – as well as in Pakistan as a whole – in 2018. As a defeatist posture, this could hit the party in Sindh in the next elections.

Why talk of politics when talking of a case in the court? Why did the judiciary not disallow politicians from going public in a bid to exert pressure on the judiciary or, more importantly, on the public at large in the perspective of the forthcoming elections? Is the current media trial outside the court tantamount to a travesty of justice? Is the political fallout of the buildup of an alternative to the incumbent government surrounding a court case tantamount to changing political loyalties and thus to pre-poll rigging? Has the judiciary inadvertently stepped into the role of a game changer?

Meanwhile, the silent majority has not come out in favour of one party or the other. The civil society is non-committal, if not unreflective. Except the PPP, which continues to take an anti-Nawaz Sharif line, other parliamentary parties have avoided a partisan rhetoric. However, a majority of legislators from the national and provincial assemblies see it all in the perspective of the degeneration of the democratic system of the government because of the perceived civil-military dichotomy.

But the resumption of the court trial after the submission of the JIT report is not far away. What are the possible scenarios in case of a negative verdict? A member of the Sharif family is expected to take over if the prime minister is disqualified to hold public office. If other family members from Pakistan meet the same fate, then the crisis deepens and one of the federal ministers can become the chief executive. Alternatively, one of the prime minister’s sons can opt to come to Pakistan and inherit the mantle of leadership of the PML-N. Decades ago, after Sanjay Gandhi’s death in India, Rajiv Gandhi – the career pilot – moved into dynastic politics and succeeded his mother as prime minister in 1984.

There can be mass desertions from the PML-N like the ones engineered by Musharraf in 2002 following his dirty referendum. But Nawaz Sharif was able to return to power with a large majority in 2013, thus being the only politician whose career survived incarceration at the hands of a military junta in Pakistan’s history. Those who were axed by the Ayub government including Iskandar Mirza Soharwardy, Feroz Khan Noon and a host of others, never made it back. Z A Bhutto did not survive Zia’s military coup in both body and soul. Nawaz’s survival record as a three-time prime minister is his greatest asset.

What if Imran Khan wins the 2018 elections – if the myth or reality of the national hero being the blue-eyed boy of the establishment does the trick? Would he like to be his own man within the framework of a military-dominated state, and thus create problems for the establishment? This happened in 1993 when Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Nawaz Sharif who was the army’s favourite in 1990, as confirmed by the Asghar Khan case.

What if the court finds Nawaz Sharif not guilty, despite the fait accompli in the opposite direction declared by Imran? Obviously, he will be a much-chastened politician, perhaps more alert to the need for keeping personal relations on the floor of parliament with MNAs from both the treasury and opposition benches. Of course, he’ll be charged of election rigging by the PTI in case he wins the elections.

Asif Ali Zardari was called a great survivor when he completed his five years of presidency. Will Nawaz Sharif be a great survivor in his own right?

The writer is a professor at LUMS.

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