Another fine mess

17 Jun 2017


THE tagline in the old Laurel and Hardy movies was “another fine mess”, and was uttered whenever things went wrong for the comic duo, as they often did.

I can imagine some judges in the Supreme Court muttering this to Imran Khan as the joint investigation team charade continues to unfold. Earlier, I had predicted that the apex court would not want to get its hands dirty by taking on the Panamagate case as it was not an investigative body, and would not wish to appear to take sides in such a deeply divisive and politicised matter.

I was wrong. As Imran Khan’s PTI mounted pressure by threatening to storm the capital, the Supreme Court decided to put its misgivings behind it, and hear the case. This just goes to show that the threat of violence does pay off in Pakistani politics. We were reminded yet again about the impotence of the state in defending its key institutions from the challenge posed by irresponsible politicians.

The JIT finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

Now, as the JIT becomes tarnished and engulfed by accusations of carrying out an inquisition, should we surprised by the venom being spewed by and at the team set up by the bench? From WhatsApp directives allegedly conveyed by the court’s registrar to the heads of bodies nominated to the JIT to propose specific members, to allegations of tampering, this is truly “another fine mess”.

My purpose here is not to criticise the JIT, but to point out that by the nature of the inquiry, and the tight time limit of two months imposed by the Supreme Court, it finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Placed in a pressure cooker, it is passing on this stress to those it interrogates.

Accused by Nawaz Sharif supporters of bullying witnesses, and releasing Hussain Nawaz’s photograph, the JIT has hit back with charges of its own. In a blistering report to the Supreme Court, it has alleged that government departments were altering records, a charge denied by the finance minister.

In a way, you have to feel sorry for the civilian members of the JIT. Wajid Zia, the team leader, is said to be in line for promotion from grade 21 to grade 22, the pinnacle of a civil service career. If Nawaz Sharif gets off with little more than a slap on the wrist, Zia can say goodbye to his promotion.

And while the two retired brigadiers on the team don’t have any skin in the game, and will therefore get off unscathed no matter which way the cookie crumbles, their civilian colleagues are not as fortunately placed.

With all this mud-slinging going on, it is inevitable that some of it should stick to the Supreme Court. This is a danger I had feared: after all, you can’t hire an investigator and then remain with clean hands when he is accused of strong-arm methods. This is specially so when the civilian members of the JIT were handpicked by the court.

So where do we go from here? Already, the JIT has said it will be unable to complete its inquiry within the stipulated two months.

Even after it does, it is likely to be patchy, given the problems inherent in seeking information in different jurisdictions. And, as Nawaz Sharif stated after his appearance before the JIT, he has submitted records relating to a period before his birth.

Sifting through documents pertaining to the financial transactions of three generations of the Sharif clan would occupy a forensic team for months, if not years. Even studying the JIT report — whenever it is submitted — will take the honourable bench weeks before they can reach a conclusion. We will then be very close to the 2018 election.

Unseating an elected prime minister at this juncture will be seen as a political act, embroi­ling the Supreme Court in yet more controversy. All this was avoidable; but here are the chat show addicts, utterly absorbed by the minutiae of the unfolding drama.

Speaking personally, I am bored stiff by the Panama-related events I read about and watch, just to stay in the loop. After all, you’d have to be either very gullible, or a Nawaz Sharif fan, to think he is innocent of any of the charges levelled against him. We have known about his London Knightsbridge flats for over two decades, so no surprises there. We also have a pretty good idea about how the House of Sharif flourished after Nawaz Sharif was appointed Punjab’s finance minister under Zia.

So the only question now is how creatively the prime minister has covered his tracks, and whether the bench will find the documents presented to it sufficiently compelling to rule against the Sharif family. Whatever the outcome, this is “another fine mess”.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2017