Lahore to Panama

Published April 17, 2016
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE immortal Ardeshir Cowasjee would have summed it up thus: “Saala sab chor hai.” And, if he were feeling a bit more expansive, Ardeshir may have added that you can’t teach shame to the shameless.

The beauty of the Panama Papers is that they need no explanation. They speak for themselves and they do so at a visceral, universal level. Scions of the inexplicably rich ruling family of Pakistan do dodgy things to shield the family wealth.

That’s it. You don’t need to know anything else.

Rage can be a useful thing and the Sharifs are finding out just how dangerous it can be. But it’s not just the Panama Papers. Twice in the last month, Nawaz has suffered grievous blows.

Maybe not in the electoral sense, but when the two events combine to leave you serving at the pleasure of Raheel and at the mercy of indignant Pakistanis, your political capital stands eviscerated.

Irresistible as the Panama leaks are, it may be the earlier mistake that could eventually be more damaging to Nawaz’s fortunes.

After the Lahore park blast, Nawaz had a choice: co-opt or be sidelined. He chose to defy, thinking that Punjab was the one encroachment he could not countenance.

But defiance is pointless when you don’t really know how to and don’t have the tools to defend. Weeks later, there they are, the boys fighting in Punjab — aerially pounding some no-name thugs and normalising the hitherto unthinkable.

From here, it’s only a matter of time. Nawaz may be able to effect a blocking manoeuvre here or there, but the inevitable is set to happen — Punjab will be cleansed by the boys on their terms, at their pleasure, on their schedule and with their priorities.

Fortress Nawaz — Punjab, the land from which had sprung a seeming permanent majority for the N-League — stands penetrated.

Look closer and the danger is greater still. Word has it that Raheel looks more determined and more in a hurry than ever. He wants this done.

Rage can be a useful thing and the Sharifs are finding out just how dangerous it can be.

The script is this, TTP, the sectarians and the anti-state lot will be eradicated. Anywhere and everywhere they are found. But the fate of the anti-India lot will depend on what India does.

If India addresses the boys’ concerns, then Project Wrap-up — deactivating the good jihadis — can begin to be contemplated. If India doesn’t, then, well, figure it out for yourself.

And it’s not just Raheel. Everyone around him is reading from the same script. So if Raheel goes or Raheel stays, the mission will remain the same.

The only uncertainty if Raheel exits is the relentless energy he’s brought to the job — will a successor be able to match the punishing pace and schedule of Raheel?

So while the Lahore park attack is already beginning to recede in public memory, its systemic effects are only just beginning to show.

Which brings us back to this Panama business.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of the Sharif family empire. It is precisely the obvious and great wealth that made Nawaz the poster child of Punjab.

Son of the soil who amassed a fortune through business and politics — the poor are in awe of Nawaz, the middle class aspire to be him and the rich are envious of him.

Where once sugar-mill owners were political rock stars and now Malik Riaz and his real-estate gazillions are the gold standard, for a generation and more of Punjab, Nawaz has been their greatest son.

Yet, the family has always been oddly defensive about its wealth. A faux-modesty and pretend-humility that rankles.

Pakistan likes its plutocrats to behave like what they are — above the rest of us. Not in a sneering way, but in a commanding way.

Rob us blind if you like, but then don’t try and pretend you’re still one of us. Benazir figured that out, as has Asif. Possibly because she also had an iconic global presence and he a thick skin. Either way, you can’t imagine BB or Asif staying up at night wondering what folk thought of their stolen wealth.

But the Sharifs — they seem desperate to be liked.

And the only thing worse than how much they want to be liked is how gormless they are in trying to project the image of being one of us.

The Panama Papers have legs here in Pakistan partly because of the global ripples. In this age of social media and exploding smartphone ownership in Pakistan, folk are plugged into what’s going on elsewhere in the world.

But the Panama Papers also have legs because of the bizarre Sharif response. A prime ministerial address to the nation in double-quick time to talk about stuff that happened to the family businesses decades ago?

Whoever thought that was a good idea ought to be sacked. But then — how do you sack yourself?

Between the Lahore park blast and the Panama Papers, we now have a prime minister with shattered political legitimacy, a security-policy role that is virtually non-existent and yet with likely enough electoral support to win another election.

It may really be the worst of all worlds — a winner who doesn’t look like a winner, feel like a winner or sound like a winner.

Psephologists and political scientists may be able to explain why. But who will answer the simple question — by God, what have we done to deserve this?

Maybe if Ardeshir had been around, he would have told us. Or at least he would have made us smile.

Saala sab chor hai.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2016



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