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A ruling and a country split

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif survives. The Supreme Court has asked him and some of his family members to appear before a joint investigation team (JIT) to clear allegations of illegal transfer of money abroad. The debate the Panama Papers case had brought to the fore is going to continue as the JIT takes shape in the coming few days.

One big question, again: how much trust can the Supreme Court put in the state organisations without whose help a conclusive, trustworthy investigation cannot be completed? Indeed, the 3-2 judgement which provides Mr Sharif the legal justification to remain in the seat does single out the National Accountability Bureau’s failure to probe as the reason necessitating the setting up of the JIT under the apex court.

It was a legal battle and legal justification was all that the prime minister was looking for. The moral part, for whatever it is worth in cut-throat politics, had already been taken out of the equation when Mr Sharif silently refused to oblige those who had been saying that it was in the interest of justice that he step aside while the Supreme Court heard the Panama case against him. The advice offered in the name of morality was unlikely to get results then. It is unlikelier to have any effect on the PML-N leadership now when it has the 3-2 number in its favour.

Does the Panama ruling live up to its original promise, that it will offer something to everyone?

There will be many who would want, and with reason, to interpret Thursday’s long-awaited decision as a victory of sorts for Imran Khan and other petitioners in the Panama case. Those who had for long argued that the onus of proving their innocence was on the Sharif family would claim vindication of their argument in the wake of the court decision which underscores one point with certainty: Mr Sharif and his sons have so far been unable to prove their innocence.

But the point remains: Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif is still the prime minister and this is what matters. The entire PML-N brigade that wanted to mark its presence outside the Supreme Court building yesterday is intent upon reminding its opponents of this.

The issues which are still there can be managed easily, the PML-N would want to believe, apparently confident that it has been able to build up a solid front to thwart the challenge represented chiefly by Imran Khan. This coalition has come about with time and its gradual strengthening has been aided by a variety of factors. For example, one major source that sustains Mr Sharif is the theory that this country cannot live without the Chinese economic initiative.

Some would say that it could well continue without Mr Sharif as the leader to guarantee its success. The PML-N, the PML-Nawaz to be exact, does not want anyone to get any fancy ideas here. This is precisely why there was so much extra emphasis on the individual that is Mr Nawaz Sharif in the run-up to the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday.

But does the Panama ruling live up to its original promise, that it will offer something to everyone? Whereas Mr Sharif definitely secures the advantage of having more time in the saddle to try and quell the challenge to his throne, for the PTI’s good the 3-2 decision does highlight the deep split in the country. Two judges are absolutely sure that Panama has enough in it to de-notify the prime minister, three other justices are asking for more evidence before they can decide. In fact, it is not too bad for the PTI.

The PTI chief may appear to have suffered a blow at this stage. The real issue which made it an Imran Khan-Nawaz Sharif duel is going to be there, and Mr Khan could now try to use the split decision to reconfirm there is a big chunk of Pakistan which is not just displeased with how this country has been ruled over the past many decades. It is a significant chunk which is fed up. It is not simply unhappy with those who have ruled over this country in the decades that can easily be recalled. If there was always angry disapproval for politicians across the divide in the past today’s sentiment goes much beyond, to a point where this sentiment becomes hatred.

The next general election will most likely resolve the dispute arising out of the 2013 general polls. False claims of popularity made four or five years ago will be most difficult to assert in the aftermath of fresh evidence of how Pakistanis currently rank parties and their leaders.

The argument whether or not the 2013 vote was rigged would be an academic discussion, maybe a source of some belated satisfaction for those who still had one leg in the past. Much more significantly for the health of the system, it must find a way of listening to the voice of these angry, hateful critics — listening to them short of a case in the court that is.

The Panama debate, after the earlier, quite staggering Imran Khan campaign to dislodge the Sharif government, highlighted a heavy, impossible-to-please bunch of righteous souls marching with their chins high and gaze fixed on the target. They were up against what was, what inherently had to be, the defence put up by the status quo. They have been repeatedly denied and ridiculed which is dangerous because not all of what they demand is unfair.

Some of this sentiment — in fact a lot of this energy, this madness—must find its way to the core of the system for the political clash to be of use to Pakistanis at large. If this doesn’t happen, the chasm is going to widen and disenchantment will grow and spread faster than those focused narrowly on a stint in power and performance in a couple of general elections would care to acknowledge.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Asha’ar Rehman, "A ruling and a country split," Dawn. 2017-04-21.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political crisis , Political parties , Political leaders , Political corruption , Supreme court , Joint investigation team , Panama Papers case , Trustworthy investigation , National Accountability Bureau , Apex court , Legal battle , Cut-throat politics , PML-N leadership , Panama ruling. PML-N brigade , Chinese economic initiative , PTI chief , Real issue , Politicians across , Academic discussion , Righteous souls , Political clash , General elections , Imran Khan , Nawaz Sharif , PTI , PML-N