The Panama leaks case is limping towards the end point. And just as well. This issue is dead elsewhere in the world. Countries whose leaders’ names were mentioned in the cache of information about offshore companies have moved on to more pressing matters of national life. Hopefully, we, too, will be done with it now that the major part of the proceedings is over.
Letting it linger further serves little purpose. It saps energies that could be used to focus on resolving challenges, such as reforming the electoral system and curbing the systematic abuse of national resources. There are millions of people out there who are crying for justice, the basic facilities of life and protection from the oppression of an unjust system that destroys their dignity at every step of the way. They need attention. They need relief. An entire nation cannot be held hostage to the dispiriting fuss and bother of accusations and counter-accusations.
It is critical that the honourable bench hearing the proceedings does not deflect the matter to a probe commission – which, if done, will be most unfortunate and purposeless. The honourable bench has to apply its collective wisdom and form a concrete and clear opinion on the matter at hand. There is no remedy without side-effects, and, in this case too, any verdict will have consequences. But that result is inevitable.
A verdict that is delivered now or one from the pen of a probe commission later cannot change what is to follow. In fact, keeping it pending for a detailed probe will cause more distortion in the political landscape and allow extraneous influences to shape the course of investigation. The present bench is already in the middle of it. It has dived deep into the heart of the charges of corruption, tax evasion and the accumulation of assets against the sitting prime minister. His past and present generations are all being frisked. The bench has demanded documents, confronted silly lines of reasoning, put down bugbears and reflected deeply into the many layers exposed by the money trail emerging from the evidence that has come forth.
A lot of work has already been done. No other forum will be in a position to handle the burden of proof or that of its absence against a sitting prime minister. If there is a body that is qualified and geared towards writing the final words about this controversy, it is this bench and this bench only.
Yet, the last leg of this marathon hearing will be the hardest. The case has unfolded like a live thriller with a real-life cast. It has been marked by highs and lows in the PML-N and PTI camps. It has been covered with the gripping frenzy excited reporters bring to screens through nervous energy and an undying desire to make a smashing story out of an observation they did not understand in the first place. Court proceedings have been followed by endless tit-for-tat media talks where drivel and trivia is generally paraded as evidence of the victory of one and the defeat of the other. There has been much character assassination and name-calling in the name of the right of reply. The unruly scenes in parliament last week only show how the environment has been poisoned because of this.
While the bench is hearing a legal case, denying its deep political roots will be false pretence. All political agendas are out in the open now. The government wants to survive this storm. It has its back against the wall: its core strength, the Sharif family, is in the dock. When family laundry is washed in the open, lasting damage to reputations and political credibility is guaranteed. The legend created about corruption and billions has drowned the history of family business and, more recently, neutralised the effects of expensive, look-at-me development projects being inaugurated by the prime minister left, right and centre.
It has to be said that the Sharifs have taken a sharp and wide wound on their political chest in the shape of the case proceedings. Their goal is to be able to live and walk again. At the least, a verdict that does not outright blame the family for involvement in shady deals and rip-offs of public money is what they are hoping to get. They might be able to cover the remaining grey area of doubt through political manoeuvring which includes the possibility of calling an early election next year. Through electoral endorsement, they may want to live down the ghost of the Panama leaks.
For Imran Khan, the Panama leaks are the last mega hope of getting a political bypass to the PM House. With all other arteries being effectively blocked by the PML-N’s hold over all layers of the representative system, starting from the local bodies, Khan is left with little space to drill his way up.
He wants the system to be rebooted. This explains his suggestion after last Thursday’s showdown in parliament to shut down the house because it is useless. But the rebooting he wants must be preceded by the booting out of the Sharifs, without which his chances of getting the holy grail of the prime minister’s office would remain slim. He has already bet twice on the jackboot to do the booting of the Sharifs and lost on both occasions. He is now counting on the judiciary to remove them from his pathway to power. Therefore, he would settle for nothing less than a verdict tailor-made for the achievement of his political aims.
Behind him stands the big money and business interests of Jehangir Khan Tareen and Aleem Khan. Another term for the Sharifs could choke the former’s business empires. These are huge financial stakes and add an extra layer of energy with which Imran Khan has pursued his goal of getting the Sharifs knocked out.
The PPP wants political space in Punjab. Faced with almost terminal-stage organisational paralysis – evident from its first blundering attempt at reviving the party through a march from Lahore to Faisalabad – the party wants the Sharifs’ monopolistic control to weaken in Punjab for it to find breathing space.
The JI, too, has limited political goals which are, however, no less important for its role in national politics. Sirajul Haq has failed in so many respects on the political front that he has made his under-achieving predecessor Munawar Hasan look like a superb commander. Ideologically confused about where to take the Jamaat – whether to follow the Taliban or the Erdogan route – Sirajul Haq has ended up making his party a shadow of its past where it always played a larger-than-life role. The duplicity of sitting with stalwarts of financial controversy in KP and, at the same time, passionately pleading the case against corruption in Islamabad has damaged the JI’s credentials further. Sirajul Haq’s political redemption lies in being associated with something amazing, something with national impact. The Sharifs’ fall from power is precisely that opening.
All this delineates the framework within which the honourable bench has to now bring this matter to a close. It is an environment loaded with hate and expectations, division and agendas. The bench is surrounded by deafening bluster. It is face to face with charging, frothing-at-the-mouth bullies out to impair its judgement. But judgement is what it must deliver. Fair, square, away from populism and close to the fundamentals of constitutionalism.
It can neither be swayed by the apprehensions of the Sharifs nor the ambitious of Mr Khan. It is neither there to redeem the JI nor to help Shaikh Rasheed claim the status of a sage and a seer of tomorrow. It is certainly not supposed to play to the gallery and get the judiciary’s ratings up in the drawing rooms. It must look at the evidence, assess its quality, see which way it is tilting and then declare its mind. The sooner it does this, the better. The clearer its approach is, the better.