The morning of July the 28th will be long remembered as a real watershed in the history of Pakistan’s politics. After having kept the country’s Prime minister waiting for months on scaffold, the Supreme Court- country’s apex judicial body- has finally decided to disqualify him on account of corruption. Nawaz Sharif, one of the most powerful premiers ever, was just months away from completing his 5-year tenure to become the first elected Prime Minister ever in the country’s history to serve a complete term in office. The decision was largely hailed by the opposition parties and the people alike. Since the verdict was announced, the country’s atmosphere has been rife with sanguinity that the decision marks the beginning of accountability process for all and sundry, even the oligarchs.
But is it really that simple?
The ruling party has tried to dispel the impression that this move is yet another assault on the nascent democratic process which has been hardly allowed to strike root. Former cabinet colleagues and party loyalists have also recorded strong reservations against the entire investigation process and the judgement itself. The opposition parties, however, are contending amongst themselves to take credit for the decision. Each one of them claims that the movements led by their party culminated into PM’s disqualification. Nevertheless, it’s PTI, led by Nawaz’s arch rival Imran Khan, who bags the maximum credit in terms of popular opinion.
The whole episode started with Panama Papers leaks which stated the Prime Minister’s children held offshore companies and properties in London and British Virgin Islands. Petitions were filed in the apex court demanding probe into the matter which the court rubbished, calling the petition ‘frivolous’. Only two months later, as the momentum against the Premier started to build up, the court decided to take up the case. After listening to the arguments from both sides, the court, in April, decided to order a probe into the matter by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT). The JIT presented its report three months later, in July, and after a few final hearings, the verdict was announced.
Although a popular one, the verdict still raises serious questions regarding the efficacy of the judicial system.
The fact of the matter is that the court has not unseated the Prime Minister on account of corruption or money laundering. In fact those cases against the Prime Minister and his children have been transferred to National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which has been advised to file the references in an accountability court. The Premier is disqualified, however, on account of concealment of ‘assets’. The country’s law sanctions the declaration of sources of income and assets of persons who want to run for the parliament. But the law does not define what an ‘asset’ means. In Sharif’s case, the assets turned out to be his unwithdrawn salary of merely AED 10,000 which he had to receive from a Dubai-based company where he had served at a ceremonial post. To fetch this definition of an ‘asset’, the Judges made recourse to Black’s Law Dictionary which said ‘receivables’ also are tantamount to assets. The court even went further to define the terms ‘receivables’ and thus established that an unwithdrawn salary amounts to assets.
The Prime Minister was thus found guilty of concealment of assets, but perhaps the most damning thing about the verdict was that the court found the Premier not ‘honest’; Article 62 of the Constitution demands that the parliamentarians shall be ‘honest’ and ‘truthful’. This was the article which was ridiculed by the same court during the hearings of a petition in 2014, citing that ‘honest’ and truthful’ are vague terms and if they are applied in their stringent meanings they could lead to the disqualification of the entire Parliament. Even the PTI leader Imran Khan has said similar things in the past, but he won’t have scruples celebrating the same clause if it serves his own political ambitions.
The kind of love this nation has for conspiracy theories have encouraged some of the politicians and journalists to once again point the fingers towards the Army; the difference between the civilian and military’s outlook on Afghan and Indian policies being the rais onde Tre. It is a fact that the country has a long history of Army rule. It is also true that every putsch was backed by the supreme judiciary. But mere speculations cannot help reach the judiciary’s contention to pass such a stringent verdict.
It is too early to say how significant an impact this decision can cast on the voter base of the party, especially in the bellwether state of Punjab. It will depend largely on how successfully the ruling and the opposition parties can present their case in front of the people. Needless to say, the ruling party’s argument that this decision is a blow to democracy is a bit too overstretched to comprehend; in fact it can be a blow to dynastic politics. Having a majority in both the houses, the ruling party has enough choice to pick the Premier of its choosing, and the democracy can move forwards.
In run-up to the elections which are due next year, it is unlikely that there is a discontinuity in government policies; domestic and foreign. According to one argument, the Punjabi business interests have also grown too strong in recent years to let the ruling party change course abruptly. The military establishment might have a bargaining leverage in foreign policy if the incoming PM failed to assert himself. However, there is no significant change in the domestic policies expected in the foreseeable future.
Whether the judiciary has finally taken a decisive step to hold the political elite accountable or has it proved itself to be a media-courting agency, yet again, which could give in to public pressure? The answer to the question can perhaps be better sought once free trails in relation to graft and money laundering against the accused are conducted and the culprits are brought to the book.