Taking sides

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PAKISTANI politicians could never become Roman Catholic priests. They refuse to take a vow of poverty.

One has only to turn the leaves of Pakistan’s ledgers kept since 1947 to see how almost every ruler — whether elected, nominated or self-appointed — has in time blurred the distinction between state ownership and private possession. Most of them have decided that when possession is nine-tenths of the law, why bother with the remaining 10 per cent, with the technicality of legal ownership?

The situation now is so chronic that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that, should Pakistan be headed by an honest leader, determined to cleanse the country of corruption, he would be hounded out of office soon enough for incompetence or unforgivable negligence.

Historians often tout Mahatma Gandhi as an example of a politician impervious to fiscal temptations. Gandhi never held political office. He could espouse poverty. He had the wealth of the Birlas to support him. They ensured he had sufficient means to remain poor.

Our politicians have taken care not to be crossed by Gandhi’s shadow. For them, politics is more than being awarded a ticket to contest an election. It is securing the winning ticket to a national lottery, whose lucrative jackpot is firmly within their grasp. They are surprised therefore when other ticketholders (especially those in the opposition) have the audacity to question the source of their windfall wealth.

Politics is more than a game of thrones.

Their appetite appears to be insatiable, their stomachs unbound. One family which had modest beginnings derived from cinema ticket sales in Karachi now has palatial residences (including a French chateau) scattered across the globe. Another clan from Gujrat has gradually eased out every neighbour in a leafy avenue in Lahore’s Gulberg until there are no more houses left to acquire. And a dynasty whose income poured in a modest trickle from the cradle in a steel foundry in Lahore admits to more real estate in London than many a hereditary English duke.

Today’s Pakistan stands divided not along sectarian lines, not between argumentative political factions, not between the overrich haves and the envious have-nots, but between those optimists who believe in the imminence of a redeemer and those pessimists whose patron saint is Doubting Thomas. Each sees his glass of expectations either half full or half empty.

On Monday the 10th, the joint investigation team (JIT) appointed by the three-member bench of the Supreme Court submitted its final report. It was delivered in sealed cartons, wheeled into the Supreme Court premises, like some funerary cortege. The analogy holds. To Imran Khan and his PTI party, the JIT report represents the political requiem of the prime minister and his family. To the PML-N, the JIT recommendations read at best like a badly worded FIR, at worst like a death warrant with escape tunnels.

The bench of the Supreme Court will meet on the 17th to review the report and will take a decision in their own time. The three judges will be a week behind the rest of Pakistan. Almost everyone in the country has already passed judgement on the case — one way or the other. Will the bench follow the course of the law or the sway of justice?

Clearing away the stale detritus of opinions and analyses, it is clear that the prime minister now has three options. He can fight the JIT report, false tooth by rusty nail. Or he can step aside and allow a trusted nominee (Khawaja Asif?) to reign while he rules from behind the throne. Or he can induce his replacement to call for a premature general election.

If Nawaz Sharif consults the British prime minister, Theresa May would advise him against precipitating a snap election. She called hers in haste; she repents at leisure. If Nawaz Sharif was to consult the US president, Donald Trump would tell him to seek help from the Russians. If Nawaz Sharif was to ask the Russian president, Vladimir Putin would guide him on how to hack the electoral system and ensure the desired result.

To the average Pakistani, politics is not about policies or probity or even personalities. They care little about who occupies that corner seat in the front row in the National Assembly. They know that whoever does will show as scant respect for it as previous incumbents have done. Politics is more than a game of thrones. It is about the nation’s unassuaged needs — education, jobs, income opportunities, energy, water, transport, health, old age, order and justice, private rights and public wrongs.

An unfortunate accident has located parliament, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and the Supreme Court of Pakistan next to each other, on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad. Opposite them, stand the head offices of the FBR, NAB and SECP. If only they could all have been on the same side.