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Here we go again

Updated July 15, 2017

When Nawaz Sharif and his cronies brandished photographs of Rockwood Estate — known in Pakistan as ‘Surrey Palace’ — back in 1995, Benazir Bhutto denied knowledge and ownership of the property.

But as more details emerged, it became clear that Asif Zardari had indeed bought the 350-acre (141 hectares) estate. He sold it in 2005 for £4 million, but must be kicking himself because it is now expected to fetch £10m.

I recall writing at the time that by being party to the purchase, Ms Bhutto had lost the moral authority to govern. I made it clear that this was not because of the corruption implicit in the deal, but because the prime minister of a poor country should not acquire property abroad for obscene sums.

Either way, one party is going to feel aggrieved.

Soon after that scandal, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP-led government was dismissed, leaving the door open for Nawaz Sharif to have a second crack at running the country. A couple of years later, he was toppled by Musharraf through a military coup. Now, it seems that his third innings may be coming to an end, even though his team may have another year to go.

Examine: Is this the end of the Sharif era?

But Nawaz Sharif is not known for sticking to high moral principles. He is a fighter, and I suspect he’ll hang on by his fingertips until they are prised open, and he’s dragged out of the prime minister’s house. Throughout his political career, he has shown no awareness of the concept of conflict of interest; as a result, his family’s business interests have flourished.

We have been aware of the Sharif family’s ownership of the Mayfair flats for over 20 years, so the JIT has told us nothing new about them. But the convoluted money trail continues to mystify with the Qatari sheikh’s account of handing over bags full of cash as return on business investments.

It is here that the JIT report is weakest: by not going the extra mile and interviewing Qatar’s ex-prime minister, members have opened themselves up to the charge of bias. While they were willing to talk to him in the Pakistani embassy, they refused to conduct the interview at his residence, or make a simple Skype call.

This glaring flaw in their investigation has given Nawaz Sharif’s supporters plenty of ammunition to strengthen their case. They argue that the Qatari’s role was central to the money trail, and by rejecting his claim of making large cash payments, the JIT had basically undermined the ruling family’s case.

For those expecting an early end to this drama, my advice is not to hold their breath: this will run and run. For starters, I’m sure the government’s legal team will question each accusation made in the JIT report. Then, if the Supreme Court bench reaches a negative verdict against Nawaz Sharif, he could appeal to the full bench.

All this will take time. Before we know it, we’ll be in full election mode, unless Nawaz Sharif calls early polls. And let’s not forget that he commands massive support in the key province of Punjab. Whether his many voters will abandon him because of the Panamagate case remains to be seen.

After years of seeing their mandate trampled under the military jackboot, the public is now getting used to the spectacle of the higher judiciary deposing elected leaders. Thus, many buy into conspiracy theories involving foreign powers and domestic cabals.

Another factor that goes in Nawaz Sharif’s favour is the common perception that all politicians make money. But people are concerned that these leaders should undertake development projects, and provide decent governance.

The Sharif brothers tick both boxes. They have spent billions on projects that, to many of us, make little economic sense. But — thanks to CPEC — there is a palpable sense among voters in Punjab that the country is progressing. And according to the British aid agency, DFID, Punjab has been highly effective in utilising foreign assistance to improve education and health standards.

What is clear is that the country has never been as polarised and divided as it is today. The vitriol and anger in both PML-N and PTI add up to a volatile mix that can blow up when the Supreme Court verdict arrives. Already, the ruling party has rejected the JIT findings. Imagine the reaction from the PTI if the Supreme Court were now to let off Nawaz Sharif with a slap on the wrist.

Either way, one party is going to feel aggrieved. Nawaz Sharif already nurses a grudge for the way he was treated by the army when Musharraf staged his coup. Now, he feels he has been cornered by the judiciary, and many of his inner circle have expressed their bitterness at the way only civilian politicians are subjected to accountability, while generals and judges go scot free.

I fear this poison will infect our body politic for years to come.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2017