A dark comedy


By Zahid Hussain

THE promised multitudes may not have turned up at the two opposition rallies in Lahore and Rawalpindi recently, yet the second instalment of Panama politics is no less exciting. Although the Sharif government appears more assured this time, the finale is still unpredictable. So many ‘weird’ characters being involved in the play make it a dark comedy.

With the Imran-Qadri duo threatening to storm Raiwind, the Sharif family residence, and other opposition parties bucking them up from the sidelines, the situation appears extremely ominous. There is also a concerted campaign to drag the military into the fray; Tahirul Qadri and Sheikh Rasheed have openly called for COAS Gen Raheel Sharif to intervene. Some commentators have also joined the chorus in this act of sedition.

The government’s own obstinacy over the Panama scandal inquiry has not helped to defuse the situation either. It was a fatal mistake for Nawaz Sharif and his party to believe that the issue would wither away with the passage of time. The scandal has come back to haunt the prime minister and it is not going to go away by tough posturing. What is most worrying is that a stalemate could pave the way for the extra-constitutional intervention being desperately sought by some unscrupulous elements.

There has been a tangible hardening in the government’s position on the demand for a judicial inquiry into the Panama Papers, which includes the names of the prime minister’s family. The main point of contention is the opposition’s demand that the prime minister be the first subject of an investigation.

In this battle of glibness, democracy suffers as everyone’s patriotism is called into question.

In fact, the government has deliberately dragged its feet over negotiating the terms of reference for the proposed inquiry with the opposition. One obvious motive was to divide and exhaust the opposition. But the major reason, perhaps, was the fear that it would be hard for Nawaz Sharif and his family to come out clean in any impartial investigation.

Sharif’s illness, and divisions among various opposition parties over the issue of street agitation, allowed the government to break the opposition’s momentum — or so it was thought. But it may not take much time for the opposition to seize the initiative again. Although he has maintained a brave posture, the pressure mounting on Sharif is already apparent.

There is a strong suspicion in the government’s ranks that the return of Qadri is part of a well-orchestrated plan to destabilise the elected administration. Qadri’s provocative speeches and statements lend credence to their apprehensions. Despite having returned to Canada after the failure of the dharna of 2014, leaving his followers in the lurch, his support base has remained intact. He still has the capacity to rally his followers.

Over the past few months, the government has followed a policy of aggressive defence against the opposition, particularly Imran Khan, by deflecting attacks against it with counter charges — making the political scene messier. Not that this kind of situation has not occurred in Pakistani politics before, but it has hit a new low.

Both the opposition and the government are responsible for encouraging the growing obscenity in the country’s politics. TV talk shows have become a major political battleground for the two sides. Another worrisome development is that media groups have become a party in the confrontation. It is appalling to see some anchor persons pleading for the return of military rule.

In this no-holds-barred battle of glibness, everyone’s patriotism is being called into question. While Qadri has declared the prime minister an Indian agent and a security threat, government supporters have produced a video of the cleric getting VVIP reception by the Gujrat state government in 2012 — then headed by Narenda Modi.

Other political leaders have also not been spared. Nothing could be more bizarre than challenging the patriotism of national leaders. But this kind of slandering is not new in Pakistani politics. In the words of Alexander Dumas: “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.”

What has made this situation all the more dangerous is that the credibility of most state institutions, particularly the investigation agencies, has been made questionable — leaving behind a huge trust vacuum. In any other country, these agencies would have acted on their own initiative after the Panama leaks. But it certainly does not happen in this country. Similarly, with a PML-N majority, parliament has not been able to play a more positive role in resolving the crisis — thus putting at stake the entire political system.

The partisan decision of the National Assembly speaker to send the reference against Imran Khan to the Election Commission of Pakistan, while being unwilling to send those against the prime minister has further inflamed the situation by providing justification for the opposition to resort to street agitation. It could further unite currently disparate anti-government forces.

There is no indication of the government budging from its hard-line position on the Panama Papers investigation starting with the prime minister and his family. One major reason for this inflexibility is the illusion of invincibility that is based on its strong power base in Punjab. Successes in recent by-elections for various National Assembly and provincial assemblies’ seats have further inflated its confidence.

For sure, the Sharif government has been wary of the military tilting the power balance. But with the transition in army leadership coming to a close, those concerns appear to have diminished. However, what Sharif fails to understand is that the political fracas has already provided greater political space to the military. A change of leadership will certainly not alter this emerging power dynamic where the military assumes the role of arbiter.

One must not take irresponsible calls for military intervention lightly. The ball is surely in Sharif’s court and it is up to him what course he chooses. The only way to defuse the situation and strengthen Pakistan’s democratic process is to fulfil his promise to clear his name in the Panama scandal.

The writer is an author and journalist.