Lengthening Shadows By Farhatullah Babar

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Is Imran Khan fighting a losing political battle? This is the question being asked after Nawaz Sharif left for London on his own terms, leaving the prime minister in a quandary that seems to be biting his soul.

Khan had painstakingly spun his political career around the single slogan of no tolerance for corruption, “NRO over my dead body.” Vowing never to spare the ‘corrupt,’ he promised to make them disgorge the ‘looted wealth,’ no matter what the cost. “I am a fighter, have fought all my life and never give in,” he claimed all along, emphasising that ‘corrupt’ will not escape the country.

The ‘corrupt’ Nawaz, however, not only escaped to London but also refused to submit indemnity bonds worth Rs7 billion to earn it. That bond was needed also as face-saving for Imran Khan, but Sharif publicly scoffed at the suggestion of giving even a symbolic face saving. With vengeance, Nawaz Sharif seemed to be making a political statement: No NRO to Imran.

After resisting, initially the prime minister relented and agreed to let him go on ‘humanitarian grounds.’ But the humanitarian facade did not last long, as suddenly he was confronted with backlash.

The permission to let Nawaz go was seen by many, even in his own party, as betrayal of the cause of fighting corruption. Backtracking on the ‘humanitarian’ narrative, the prime minister suddenly chose to cast doubt on the judicial system for permitting Nawaz to go abroad.

At a public ceremony in Abbottabad, Imran Khan talked on duality in the justice system that treated preferentially the rich and the powerful. Unprecedentedly, he publicly asked both the incumbent and CJP-in-waiting to restore public trust in the judiciary and even offered his support for it.

Alas, for Imran Khan, this salvo against the judiciary misfired when CJP Asif Saeed Khosa publicly dismissed the taunt over two judicial systems. “Don’t hurl taunts at us for favouring the powerful,” the CJP retorted in a rare public rejoinder. Permission to Sharif was granted by the prime minister himself and that the judiciary had only set modalities in this regard, the CJP said.

Puffing and fuming, Khan then changed tracks and cast doubt on the medics’ reports on the basis of which he had earlier given permission on humanitarian grounds. At a public event in his hometown Mianwali, he said that he was shocked to see the way Sharif had climbed the staircase of the aircraft. “After seeing him going up the plane’s stairs, I once again went through the medical reports which said he had a heart condition, malfunctioning kidneys and is a diabetic.” He ridiculed medical reports that claimed Nawaz suffered from 15 complicated ailments and was on the verge of death.

But the more he tried to convince sceptics that he neither wanted to let him out of jail, nor had he relented on his commitment to fighting corruption, the more it eluded him. A question that soon arose was: If Imran really did not want Nawaz to go abroad, then who did it? ISPR’s nauseating ‘same page’ statement just when the question was being asked only further compounded the woes.

It seemed like an admission that an unwilling government indeed had been asked to endorse the decision taken by backseat drivers placing both on the ‘same page.’ It also meant that Imran Khan was not a free agent and was beholden to the mystifying entities that helped bring him to power.

The chance to own the decision, declare it to be responsible, humane and in national interest and also dispel the impression that it had been taken by some others was irretrievably lost to the government. This must have made the prime minister twist and turn. As shadows lengthened, the prime minister made two swift and thoughtless moves for damage control. He first appointed a recently retired army general as chief executive of CPEC Authority, and then moved the judiciary to defer the treason case verdict put off against General Musharraf.

The shadows, however, seem to lengthen not only for Imran but also for those who may have arm-twisted him into taking the decision. People no longer believe the ‘same page’ mantra which has long overrun its course. With each passing day the manoeuvres by backseat drivers controlling the state vehicle become self-evident.

Even opponents of Imran acknowledge that the mysterious media censorship, banning of specific newspapers and shutting some TV broadcasts in selected parts of the country, or the mysterious phone calls to media outlets are not the doings of the government. The Faizabad dharna case verdict of Supreme Court has served to reinforce such perceptions. Asma Jehangir’s petition in the apex court questioning scores of channels owned by ISPR may reveal more than what meets the eye when it is finally heard and decided.

Punjab is the bastion of political and military power. ANP Rahbar late Abdul Wali was once asked whether he foresaw that the games played with the Constitution and mandate of the people will ever come to an end. “Yes, it will happen when the people of Punjab will rise against it,” Wali Khan cryptically remarked, adding that he hoped for the day. Is it that the powers behind Nawaz’s departure have sensed the dangers of keeping a three time Punjabi prime minister caged for too long that could make the prediction of Wali Khan come true?

The shadows are lengthening, not only for Imran Khan but also for those who are on the same page with him. Not only Imran Khan but some others may be fighting a battle that cannot be won.

The writer is a former senator