It is a race to the finish line of political suicide. The slower of the two will win. In one lane is the prime minister along with his kitchen cabinet and family cheerleaders. In the other there is Imran Khan and his team chanting Imi-knows-best. Nawaz Sharif’s method to reach the end-point is slow, self-poisoning. Imran Khan has chosen the spectacular way of planting landmines for himself on every step of the way and walking on them with great gusto.
Consider Nawaz Sharif’s situation. A close reading of the Panama leaks judgment shows that the prime minister’s real travails are about to begin. The wish-list of a ‘due process’, proper investigation, opportunity to be examined and heard has been granted by the bench. But the opportunity will have its costs. The parameters of the Joint Investigation Team are clearly laid out. There is no ambiguity about how the JIT will function, what will be the mechanism to ensure its transparency and optimal efficiency. The Implementation Bench will keep a hawk-eye on how the investigators will gather information and reach conclusive findings.
This marks a tough road for the Sharifs. There are yawning gaps in the narrative they have so far presented before the public and the bench on Panama leaks. There is no money trail of a convincing sort that the Sharifs have produced. Many millions of dollars are unaccounted for. The ownership of the London flats is up in the air. The timelines of supposed money transfers do not match. Generous handouts from friends in Qatar and Saudi Arab are questionable claims without credible record.
The Sharifs survived Panama leaks bench’s final judgment not because of the pithiness of their narrative but because a majority of the honourable judges was not convinced about the scope of the Supreme Court’s powers under 184 (3), nor did they want to arrogate to themselves the right to dismiss and disqualify elected representatives on the basis of disputed facts.
As Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan eloquently put it: We for an individual case would not dispense with due process and thereby undo, obliterate and annihilate our jurisprudence which we built up in centuries in our sweat, in our toil, in our blood.
But in a trial or in an investigative scrutiny the present stand of the Sharifs regarding the history of their fabulous fortunes will get shot in the face. This means that they will have to come up with new, solid, undeniable, verifiable evidentiary trail to ensure that the Implementation Bench does not send the findings of the JIT to the court of law. Moreover the Panama leaks verdict leaves the scope open for the possibility of the court taking action even on preliminary JIT reports: …“Upon receipt of the reports, periodic or final of the JIT…the matter of disqualification of respondent No. 1 (the prime minister) shall be considered and appropriate orders, in this behalf, be passed, if so required.”
The Sharif camp says that it taking the matter very seriously. This is ironic. This claim itself implies that they have not taken the case “very seriously” so far. The Sharif family has also been scapegoating on the score using flimsy grounds such as weak legal representation by their team to explain why the bench did not accept their story on face value and why the dissenting opinions found it fanciful. It is not the lawyers’ fault. It is their fault. Lawyers work like doctors. They act on what you tell them.
What more can the Sharifs do now that they could not do in a year? What evidence will they bring forward that they could not in a year? So far the prime minister’s handling of this most embarrassing and critical case of his career has been chaotic and lazy. He poisoned his own plate by casually speaking on the floor of the house and allowing his son to make strange and contradictory claims before the media.
With this record in mind, it is fair to assume that the Sharif family’s performance in Panama II will not be any better than it has been in the first phase. There is a real chance that the Sharifs might make a royal mess of “the due process” and create a wonderful legal disaster for themselves. (There are other instances of slow self-poisoning including shoddy handling of the Dawn leaks, arrival of “friend” Sajjan Jindal from India at the peak of hostilities between the two countries, contemptuous negligence of party leaders other than favourite ones etc., but these are points for another article.)
This should be music to the ears of Imran Khan except that the man himself is totally occupied with walking on self-laid landmines. Look at his performance in last week alone and the conclusion is inescapable that he plays his strongest cards against himself. He got useful and rare advice from the Honourable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan Justice Saqib Nisar on self-preservation and political sagacity. He was told to realise his central position and desist from making a mountain out of small, routine matters – in this case dissenting opinions. But barely had these words been spoken and Mr Khan appeared on several television shows claiming that the Sharifs must have offered many billions to the honourable judges on the Panama leaks bench.
Of course he qualified the allegation by praising the judges for their imagined resistance to the imagined bribe but the undertone (to which he seems oblivious) is anathema to any independent judge. To be made part of a baseless controversy of being approached by a party in petition with billions itself is scandalous.
On top of it Mr Khan continues to insist that the dissenting notes are more popular than the bench’s verdict. In one TV show he claimed that there are five judgments by five judges, three saying one thing and two saying another. The clueless host kept nodding in agreement not pointing out that there is one verdict with two dissenting opinions that have no legal effect. By selecting some judges for praise and suggesting through shoulder shrugs, sly smirks and incomplete sentences that the others could have done better is the most effective way to rub the judges on the wrong side.
This is not all. After the mind-blowing allegation of being offered Rs10b bribe by Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan’s winding down has been tragic and comical. From Nawaz Sharif to Shahbaz Sharif to Hamza Shahbaz Sharif to a common friend to the friend of a common friend, to casually laughing off the matter, protecting the name of the alleged messenger who made the alleged bribe offer, Imran has cut a sorry figure.
His after-the-statement-U-turn coverup effort too has Disaster written all over it. He has been generously quoting the instance in which Shahbaz Sharif offered a BMW as a gift to the then chief of Army Staff, General Asif Nawaz Janjua (there is more to this story than this anecdote). His effort is to show that the Sharifs bribe everybody: judges, journalists, generals. Does he even realise the implications of this mantra in today’s Pakistan? Does he understand that, by implication, through these selective citations he is making every institution and its head a potential bribe-receiving suspect?
His effort to show the Sharifs in devilish colours has started to take leave from political sanity. Instead of damaging them, it has started to show him to be so desperate that he can say anything, anytime about anyone to anyone without pausing even for a second for serious reflection about its consequences. Just when he should be working on reinforcing his credibility in the backdrop of the questionable credibility of his opponents, he is soaking himself in damning controversies. That his supporters still worship him is small consolation. He was supposed to widen his appeal in the aftermath of the Panama leaks rather than only relishing his original constituency. He is far from that goal at present. He is sitting on a heap of mines that grows bigger every time he opens his mouth.
This makes the national political scene a mortifying contest of self-flagellation. The one surviving self-inflicted wounds will make it to the finish line. What a sorry sight.