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‘You are human, Mian Sahib’

Updated July 31, 2017

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As the PML-N licks its near-fatal wound it must also be asking whether it could rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the Supreme Court’s verdict against Nawaz Sharif, his children, son-in-law and one of his closest confidantes.

One of the first hints of Mr Sharif’s oncoming travails came in the news conference addressed by Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on the eve of the Supreme Court judgement, where the then interior minister seemed keen to explain how he’d been completely sidelined in what he called the consultative process.

Quoting the Roman emperors’ (and generals’) tradition of having slaves whisper ‘you are a mere mortal’ or words to that effect in their ears during moments of glory in particular, Nisar Ali Khan said he was perhaps the only one telling Nawaz Sharif: ‘You are human, Mian Sahib’.

The former prime minister had extremely poor counsel ever since the Panama Papers were leaked to journalists.

He said this must have led to his sidelining in the ‘consultative’ process for the past several weeks as those having access to the then prime minister had blocked him out so he could not speak the truth to him which, according to Chaudhry Nisar, Nawaz Sharif himself appreciated.

One can disagree with Chaudhry Nisar all one wants, and I, for one, do across a range of issues. But it must also be acknowledged that he has been a key lieutenant of the PML-N leader from the day in the late 1980s that Nawaz Sharif rebelled against Muhammad Khan Junejo and removed him from the party leadership at the behest of Gen Ziaul Haq.

Although Nisar Ali Khan was careful to reiterate a number of times that the prime minister was a decent man with whom he had no issues, he lashed out at those in the inner circle, including ministers, who had poisoned Nawaz Sharif’s ears against him.

While he refrained from naming the ministers or (any of the) others it was not difficult to speculate he may have been referring to the prime minister’s daughter who was after all responsible for giving direction to the PML-N social media team and some of the ministers whose stance didn’t sit well with Nisar Ali Khan as ‘this was not the PML-N’s language’.

Nawaz Sharif had extremely poor counsel ever since the Panama Papers were leaked to journalists who started sifting through the mounds of data to find information that was relevant and useful to them.

When the journalists’ organisation ICIJ reportedly contacted the Sharif family to get their version on the leaked information that they owned a number of flats in one of London’s most expensive residential areas, the family did not respond to the queries.

This lethargic, even lackadaisical, response could only have been rooted in either a sense of being indestructible or a total and complete lack of understanding of the challenge the scandal could pose to Nawaz Sharif and his family.

The Sharifs did not seek proper legal counsel at that stage. Instead came two out-of-the-blue interviews by Nawaz Sharif’s elder son, who told anchors on Pakistani news TV channels that the flats were theirs and offered a long explanation of how they came to own them.

Watching the interviews (available online) a few times made me realise that these were not based on legal advice but merely a clumsy attempt to pre-empt the publication of the Panama Papers that were obtained by hacking the database of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Once the information became public and a huge international story, the ramifications started to be felt in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation and also parliament and offered himself for accountability.

If he had stuck to doing just that perhaps it could have been better but, taken together, all the family’s statements often sounded contradictory. It appeared stories were being made up or new facts were emerging as they went along.

Even as the Supreme Court took up the petitions of notably Imran Khan, Sirajul Haq and Sheikh Rasheed there was no single defence team lined up to fight Nawaz Sharif’s corner. There was a musical chairs of sorts for defence lawyers.

Therefore, it was ironic that the court found a technicality to disqualify Mr Sharif from being a member of parliament and barred him from holding the office of prime minister.

The Sharifs’ party may have been formed under the patronage of Zia and the Hameed Guls of this world, and their fortunes may have grown exponentially during the period the Sharif brothers were happy to play second fiddle to the military ruler. But they have built the PML-N into a formidable political machine today. The coming months will tell how formidable exactly.

If they are able to hold the party together in one of its toughest hours and ensure a smooth passing of the baton to whosoever is going to be the interim prime minister till Shahbaz Sharif can win a National Assembly by-election possibly on the seat falling vacant with his elder brother’s disqualification and assume office, all will not be lost.

Of course, how his successor runs Punjab and whether he/she can have the same kind of stranglehold on the administrative machinery as Shahbaz Sharif did would dictate the future course of elections in that all-important province.

If the verdict is seen as something with a deeper meaning and other parties such as PTI and/or PML-Q are able to effect desertions from among PML-N legislators as a result then a totally different scenario could emerge. I am not a betting man. But I will say any rumours of the PML-N’s demise at this stage are highly exaggerated and premature.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2017