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Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif face-off turns into an anti-climax: Pakistan SC restores order for now

Tilak Devasher | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:45 IST

In the end, it turned out to be an anti-climax.

The much awaited and talked about confrontation between Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), who had threatened a 'lockdown' of Islamabad on 2 November, and Nawaz Sharif's PMLN government, which was determined to prevent it, ultimately petered out.

Both bowed to the majesty of the law, in this case, the Supreme Court that moved swiftly to remove the basic cause of Imran Khan's agitation.

A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali agreed to form a commission to probe the Panama Papers leaks after both the PTI and the PMLN consented to it.

The court asked both parties to submit their Terms of Reference (ToRs) for the commission. In case the two parties did not come to a consensus on the ToRs, the court itself would decide the terms.

Moreover, the commission will report to the Supreme Court, and hold powers equal to it and its decision will be considered as the court's ruling and be binding upon all parties.

Significantly, the court ruled that hearings would be held on a daily basis.

Earlier, in May 2016, the Chief Justice Jamali had turned down the government's request to form a commission on the grounds that the scope of the government's proposed commission was too limited, the ToRs were too wide and it would take years to conclude proceedings.

The bones of contention

The Panama Papers had revealed that PM Sharif's children, Maryam, Hasan and Hussain, had acquired large properties abroad through a company called Mossack Fonseca.

Against the backdrop of the SC proceedings, Imran has decided to convert the 2 November 'lockdown' of Islamabad into a 'thanksgiving' celebration at the designated Parade Ground.

While some have termed this as another 'U-turn' by Imran, in reality, the SC decision has been god-sent for him.

For one thing, his objective of a 'lockdown' was either Nawaz's resignation or Nawaz subjecting himself for investigation, something that he had been avoiding for the past seven months.

With the SC stepping in, Nawaz now cannot escape investigation. Any attempt to dilly-dally on the ToRs will result in the SC formulating its own terms. No wonder Imran stated, "I am elated that the investigation into Nawaz Sharif's (alleged corruption) will begin day after tomorrow."

The SC decision apart, the reality was that the PTI was facing difficulties in mobilising a sizeable crowd. Its trial run on 28 October was poor. It was only Sheikh Rashid's dramatic antics of arriving at a rally on a motorcycle escaping the Punjab police, that saved Imran from embarrassment.

The government had acted decisively by imposing Section 144 in Islamabad and preventing PTI activists from entering Punjab, especially from the PTI stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). The portents seemed that the PTI show on 2 November would have been a damp squib. Thus the SC decision gave the PTI an opportunity to save face.

One more lifeline

For the government too, the decision was a lifeline since Nawaz was faced with the twin crises of Panamagate and Newsgate (the Dawn story of 6 October).

For one thing, faced with increasing pressure from the army on the Dawn story leaks, Nawaz will have one issue less to contend with, at least in the immediate term.

By the time the case actually gets going, he may well have seen the end of Army Chief General Raheel Sharif's tenure and have a new army chief in place who will take some time to settle in.

Small-time measures

However, this may be only a temporary relief. It was after all the Corps Commanders that had decreed the Dawn story as 'breech of national security' from the PM's Office.

What this implies is that the army is not going to relent on identifying the culprit whom they would like to court martial rather than have tried by civil courts. The new army chief, who ever it might be, will have to abide by this consensus.

In an attempt to satisfy the army, Nawaz has reluctantly sacked Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid. The sacrifice, however, may not be enough.

Rashid was asked to step down not because he was the source of the leak but because he was unable to prevent the story from being published.

Thus, the investigation team still has to probe the matter to identify those behind the leak. More heads are therefore likely to roll in the future with rumours that one bureaucrat may have turned approver.

In case of panic...crackdown

The government's handling of the situation was also ham-handed and showed panic. It started a crackdown on 27 October itself to pre-empt the collection of PTI activists in Islamabad by blocking bridges, impounding buses and vans, arresting PTI supporters.

For a while, it looked as if the government itself was determined to make Imran Khan's 'lockdown' a success by cutting off Punjab from the rest of the country and Islamabad from Punjab.

To prevent PTI supporters from KPK from coming to Islamabad, barricades were erected on the highways linking the province with Punjab. There was a serious confrontation between a procession led by KPK chief minster and the Punjab Police that tried to stop him from entering the province at Swabi.

The CM warned that if he and his supporters were stopped from reaching Imran Khan's residence, 'they would rebel, knock down everything and raise some other slogans'.

For a while, it seemed that the confrontation was not between the PMLN government and the PTI, but between Punjabis and Pathans that could have posed as a threat to the unity of the federation itself.

Calming of the crisis by the Supreme Court has thus come as a huge relief for the PMLN.

Defused, not resolved

Overall, the crisis has been defused but not resolved. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Imran Khan's rally on 2 November would be confined to a designated place and not be a 'lockdown' of Islamabad.

Despite being accused of 'U-turns', Imran is clearly the winner here for Nawaz now has to face a Supreme Court-appointed judicial commission on serious corruption charges against his family.

A point that will come up sooner or later is whether Nawaz can stay in office during the investigation. Moreover, Nawaz still has to contend with the aftermath of Newsgate and the impending investigation to identify the source of the leak.

Thus, despite the lifeline given by the Supreme Court to both Nawaz and Imran, for Nawaz the current crisis has not ended. He will continue to face bigger political uncertainties in the future than Imran Khan.

The author retired as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is being released shortly. He tweets as @tilakdevasher1.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 2 November 2016, 2:56 IST
Tilak Devasher @tilakdevasher1

Tilak Devasher retired as Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, to the Government of India. His book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss is releasing shortly.