The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision in the Panama Papers case. I should have put celebrating in inverted commas, but I didn’t to give the reader not just a sense of deep irony but also of how the prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, has survived, in a technical sense, by the skin of his teeth.
But the injury is grave, no matter how one looks at it and no matter how some would like to spin it.
This is what the Supreme Court has done: Two judges have convicted Nawaz Sharif. Yes, convicted. As per their judgments, the prime minister stands disqualified for not being sadiq and ameen. The other three judges on the bench, whose decisions are being celebrated, stopped short of convicting Sharif but have indicted him nonetheless. There’s enough here to warrant a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe this matter in 60 days, updating the court every 15 days on its progress.
If the PMLN thinks a conviction from two judges and an indictment from the other three is cause for celebration, you can imagine, dear reader, how grave the situation might be for the Sharifs.
But wait, we have to contend with the legal minds. Some of them will say that dissent is not the operative part of the judgment. In other words, the decision of the two dissenting judges doesn’t legally count. Technically, they are right. But only technically. From every other angle they are wrong. That makes this view reductive. It’s like a lesser team getting lucky in a few overs on a rainy day and winning on the basis of Duckworth-Lewis. It’s a win but… you get my drift.
What about the majority view, the three judges who didn’t disqualify the prime minister? Did they give Sharif a clean chit? Did they say the P.M. and his children mounted a clear defense against the allegations they face? No. In fact, they have raised multiple questions, and investigating those questions is what the JIT is all about. Put another way, they have said: we do not believe that the P.M. can or should be disqualified at this stage, though he has been unable to mount a full defense and we believe there’s enough to merit further investigations. The probe could either clear the P.M. or cause the Supreme Court’s implementation bench to consider otherwise.
There’s another view too, apropos of the JIT: it is neither here nor there. How can officers of Grade-19 or -20 or -21 investigate the powerful P.M. and his children? Ironically, this view tells us precisely what is wrong with this state, why it is important to change that and, more importantly, why the Sharifs may not be the best sociopolitical conduit for that change, thrive as they do (and having thrived in the past) on the back of a system of patronage where institutions can play no effective role.
On the political side this view has been pushed by former president Asif Ali Zardari. He should know.
But the bigger injury in this whole affair has been to the Sharifs’ political narrative. From the ’90s onward, the family has presented itself—in contrast to Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari—as clean and hardworking sons of the soil, honest businessmen and politicians, a family that doesn’t stash its wealth abroad. And it worked, coupled with pork-barrel infrastructure development schemes. That has been put to rest. They are now squarely in the company of the PPP family without even the advantage of Oxford and Cambridge.
The real question remains: will it impact the hustings? The cynics say no. Recent by-poll results show the PMLN leading. A recent survey of Lahore’s three constituencies indicates that corruption is not the top issue and the PMLN still leads, though at least 30 percent of the electorate is a floating vote that could be picked up by rivals if they are smart. The PMLN has mastered the patronage game. There’s still too much of the old world left among the voters, and the common man himself is either corrupt or caught in the vortex of the system’s binding structures. For the opposition, notably the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, itself relying on ‘electables,’ it will be difficult, if not impossible, to break the PMLN’s stranglehold.
But things can and do change. As Adam Gopnik argued in a recent New Yorker article: “whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place.” It takes time, sure. We are also almost always more concerned about the immediate than the longer trajectory, sure. But change (as also war) comes slowly and imperceptibly.
For now, the Sharifs might survive even the JIT. They might even win the next elections. But this judgment has put paid to their narrative. To me that’s a graver injury. If the PMLN wants to celebrate that, sure: be my guest.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider