Panama Papers verdict: Forget corruption optics, Nawaz Sharif paid price for challenging army's authority

In one stroke of the pen, Pakistan Supreme Court has sent the country hurtling down the path to political instability. The import of Friday's event will redefine parliamentary democracy in Pakistan for years to come. Five learned judges in a unanimous decision have removed an elected prime minister from the post even though he has not been convicted of any crime. This is as close to 'legal' coup d'état as possible.

 Panama Papers verdict: Forget corruption optics, Nawaz Sharif paid price for challenging armys authority

Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AFP

Reports say that Nawaz's brother Shehbaz Sharif will take over. That hardly matters. What we are seeing now is a total erosion of civilian authority in Pakistan and the germination of this deadly game lies in the fact that Nawaz Sharif made the cardinal error of trying to challenge the army's authority. This is the culmination of a chain of events which started when Nawaz asked the military in an extraordinary meeting to rein in the terrorists or face international opprobrium.

Nobody has forgotten the 'Dawn Leaks' aftermath. No one will say it publicly, of course. Political discourse right now in Pakistan is an unconvincing show of probity. But a country where members of both civilian government and military establishment are equally corrupt yet the law is invoked selectively against elected politicians while generals charged with even treason are allowed to fly abroad, the lines between political and legal remain blurred and obscure.

Despite the hype surrounding the Panama Papers case, the charges against Sharif and his entire clan (daughter Maryam, sons Hussain, Hasan and even son-in-law Captain Safdar) are yet to be conclusively proved. The Supreme Court, while deposing the PM, has simultaneously asked the country's National Accountability Bureau to further probe the case and ordered pronouncement of judgement within a month.

If levelling of charges is reason enough to depose the head of an elected government, it signifies a further erosion of civilian authority in Pakistan in respect of not just the military establishment but also the judiciary. In fact, enough murmurs are rising about powerful generals, whose formidable presence marked the entire length of the high-profile case, having worked behind the scenes to influence the court decision. If true, it suggests a dangerous collusion of power between Pakistan's military-judicial establishment and further shrinking of civilian administration. Judicial coup is nothing new in Pakistan.

Rights activists like Asma Jahangir suggest that such a military-judicial collusion may exist. Speaking to Deutsche Welle, she posed: "how has the judiciary become so independent all of a sudden? Maybe it is not a relevant question, but it is something that people will be asking… You can't see this Panama Papers case in isolation. There is a history of opposition demonstrations (by Imran Khan's party) behind it and it is apparent that the strings are being moved from somewhere", hinting at military involvement.

The army in Pakistan is perceived as the "keeper of its border and conscience" and generals are painted as testosterone-fuelled macho protagonists of truth and power who are above the humdrum of legal or judicial scrutiny. Today's verdict will further centralise the power in their hands.

For the political establishment, these are uncertain times. Sharif's daughter, groomed to take up his role, is putting up a brave face but Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is likely to witness internal dissent. Its grip over Punjab province may loosen if there are snap elections.

Among rivals who are licking their chops, Imran Khan, who has been sniping at Sharif and his family's heels for a number of years, has emerged as the earliest political beneficiary. Speaking to the media after the verdict, he could hardly contain his excitement. "What the JIT did in 60 days could not have been done even in the West… With this investigation, it is quite clear that we have the capability to put a check on corruption. The Supreme Court has proven that today… Everyone will be held accountable now. This is the beginning," he was quoted, as saying by Geo TV.

Yet few would be convinced by his moral posturing. The sad truth is when it comes to probity in public life there is little to choose between Nawaz, the man who has been deposed as prime minister on Friday, or Imran, who is now positioning himself as the champion of morality. Earlier this year, Khan's residence in Islamabad's tony Bani Gala area was one among 122 constructions declared "illegal" by the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration.

Questions were raised on the money trail surrounding Khan's property and the Supreme Court had issued a notice against the cricketer-turned-politician when his counsel informed the court that Imran’s former wife Jemima had "gifted the land to him verbally."

Amid this murky situation, any claims of probity in public life are unlikely to cut much ice. But Friday's verdict carries deeper portends for the future of Pakistan as a parliamentary democracy where its executive and civil administration has frequently been undermined by the all-powerful military which had ruled the country for almost half of its 69-year-old existence.

The developments also go against India's interests. Nawaz was perceived as a 'dove' by Rawalpindi generals and Islamist hardliners. He had tried to normalise relationship with India and had bet on improving trade relations and bringing Pakistan's economy back on track. These developments generated deep suspicion among Rawalpindi khakis who suspected that Sharif is trying to undermine their authority and end their rent-seeking opportunities. The 'Dawn Leak' didn't help matters.

These were "unpardonable sins" in the army's lexicon and the generals, who have traditionally decided the country's fate and policy direction, have wrested back the control. Game over.

Updated Date: Jul 28, 2017 19:49:36 IST