BY ARIF NIZAMI
The apex court in assertive mode
After a gap of two weeks the media circus around Panamagate hearing by the apex court is likely to resume on Wednesday.
Justice Azmat Saeed was part of the five-member bench hearing the Panamagate case against the prime minister and his family. He had a cardiac issue on 1 February. But now, contrary to speculations, he is going to be back on the saddle.
The Supreme Court is ostensibly in an assertive mode — contrary to the negative vibes from the PTI chief at the time of Justice Saqib Nisar assuming the office of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) on 31 December. Nisar, who while associated with senior lawyer Khalid Anwar, did some legal work for the Sharifs.
Nonetheless, he does not owe his job to them. After the landmark judges case of 1996, heard by CJP Sajid Ali Shah, the senior most judge of the apex court has the legitimate expectancy to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as well as the senior most in the High Courts. The law is such that Justice Jawed Khawaja being the senior most at the time headed the apex court only for a few weeks.
In a landmark judgment the Supreme Court has halted cane crushing at Sharif–owned sugar mills in district Rahim Yar Khan until the High Court decides the matter, while giving its verdict on a petition filed by Jahangir Tareen, the biggest sugar manufacturer of the country. He is secretary general of the PTI, whose leadership has been perennially skeptical about independence of institutions under the Sharif rule.
Justice Saqib Nisar observed that the Punjab chief minister, by amending the 2006 order in 2015 that forbade relocation or setting up new sugar mills in the area, seemed to be for the benefit of the ruling family. Justice Umer Ata Bandial went a step further by declaring that the development constituted a conflict of interest.
All this does not auger well for the ruling family. The Panamagate hearing is coming to its logical conclusion. Come March a decision, one way or the other, is expected. As the soothsayer warned Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “beware the ides of March”. They should keep their fingers crossed with a sense of foreboding.
Meanwhile, the prime minister is busy cutting ribbons much to the chagrin of his rival Imran Khan. The other day I was with him at the Bhikki Power Plant near Sheikhupura. He seemed to be in a relaxed mood. But he was not as gung-ho as he used to be.
The narrative of the PML-N in the wake of Panamagate is twofold. On one side it is claimed that the government is making great strides in economic development and those who want its ouster are somehow against progress and welfare of the people.
On the other hand the PML-N ministers, buttressed by likes of Daniyal Aziz and Talal Chaudhry, paint Imran Khan and his stalwarts as villains even attacking them in an extremely personal manner. Their strategy seems to be to put the PTI on the defensive by attempting to damage its brand.
Secretary General Jahangir Tareen is especially singled out for scathing criticism. Even at the highest level at the PML-N it is alleged that he got his loans written off and hence has no moral high ground to take pot shots at the Sharifs. The fact however is that he has the financial clout and the gravitas to confront the PML-N leadership. There is also a perception amongst the PML-N circles that he is the chief strategist having links with some important persons and institutions.
The prime minister at Bhikki taunted his nemesis that if he does not cut ribbons of projects he had initiated what else is he supposed to do? Of course the credit goes to the Sharifs for completing some power projects in record time.
Admittedly, load shedding has perceptibly decreased owing to additional capacity and better power management, a great achievement indeed.
But this does not change the ground realities. Rana Sanaullah, in panic mode, claimed that the people will fiercely resist if the government is ousted through undemocratic means. According to him even if the Supreme Court disqualifies a popularly elected prime minster it will be deemed to be undemocratic.
This is perverse logic. The Rana is no spring chicken. He has been in politics long enough to know the score. The provincial law minister knows better than most that if the apex court disqualifies Sharif he will have no option but to quit.
Admittedly Sharif is not Yousaf Raza Gilani, who was forced to leave office after refusing to write a letter to the Swiss authorities on the orders of the apex court headed by the then CJP IfthikharChaudhry. Unlike Gilani, who was a nominee of his boss Asif Ali Zardari, Sharif is a popularly elected leader in his own right.
Nobody knows better than him that once state institutions move against him he cannot realistically remain in power. Nor is there any likelihood that there will be an outpouring of support for the Sharifs on the streets.
The prime minister’s legal team claims that his name does not fare anywhere in the Panama leaks. They contend that he is not directly responsible for business practices and deeds of his children all of whom are adults and perhaps rightly so.
The Court might let him off on such technical grounds if allegations of money laundering are not proved against him beyond a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless it is also quite possible that Sharif is found guilty and sent packing.
But is there a plan B in place for such an eventuality? If there is one the Sharif family – in the absence of a democratic culture in our political parties — is keeping it close to their chests.
Heavens will not fall if the prime minister is made to go. He would still be running his party that will remain in power until the next general elections to be held within a year or even earlier under the circumstances.
Different names are being bandied about for the top slot. Some have even named the prime minister’s bright and mostly politically correct daughter Maryam Safdar as the next PML-N nominee for premiership. But despite ostensibly being the heir apparent, after being named in Panama leaks it is highly unlikely.
Possibly such an eventuality might not arise where Sharif has to look for a stopgap arrangement as prime minister who is a member of the National Assembly (MNA). But perhaps if it does Shahbaz Sharif, his younger brother, could be the obvious choice.
However it cannot be automatic. The younger Sharif will have to be elected as MNA in order to be prime minister. And of course there should be a consensus amongst the Sharif family on his nomination, hitherto reportedly lacking.