After a month of offensive-defense tactics, the PMLN has finally succeeded in defusing the Panamaleaks bomb. The government is not looking as bad and the opposition not as good as when the crisis erupted. There are three main reasons for this twist in the tale.
First, the government has swiftly pre-empted every opposition move to put it on the mat. In this way it has bought time to create the space in which to confront the challenge. When the opposition demanded a judicial commission the government proposed one with retired judges. When the opposition rejected retired judges, the government requested the Chief Justice of Pakistan to appoint serving judges. When the opposition demanded that the services of FBR and FIA be put at the disposal of the proposed commission, the government readily agreed. When the opposition rejected the government’s Terms of Reference (TOR), the government agreed to sit and hammer out a consensus. When the opposition demanded that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should answer the opposition’s seven-point questionnaire, Mr Sharif came to parliament and duly presented his answer. When the opposition demanded parliamentary time to rebut the prime minister’s response, the government agreed. When the opposition walked out of parliament without confronting the prime minister, the government cajoled it back to parliament the next day and set up a government-opposition committee to design consensus TORs and laws for the proposed commission. Now we can sit back and watch the two sides slug it out before a final agreement is reached.
Second, the disunity in the opposition has served the government’s purpose. The PTI wants to throw out both Nawaz Sharif and the PMLN government asap. At best it wants a military intervention that brings it into power via a back door. At worst it wants new general elections immediately. Therefore it is amenable to conspiracy and violent protest to achieve its objectives. The PPP, too, would love to see the back of Nawaz Sharif so that the PMLN is rendered relatively headless, thereby enhancing the PPP’s prospects in the next general elections. But it will have no truck with any sort of military intervention and it is in no mood for early elections. The MQM will wait and see which way the wind blows while the JUI and the Baloch parties will side with Nawaz Sharif. This puts the PTI out on a limb and compels it to follow rather than lead the opposition, thereby diluting the possibility of overnight radical change in Islamabad.
Third, Nawaz Sharif’s chief protagonist, Imran Khan, has fallen from the pedestal that he graced whilst thundering against corrupt off-shore company wallahs. It is now established that his was the original sin in setting up an offshore company in 1980 for “evading British taxes”. The fact that he didn’t inform the Election Commission in 2013 of its existence compounds the moral offence into a criminal one. Worse, it transpires that several of his financial backers and political lieutenants, like Jehangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, are also guilty of the moral offence of association with off-shore companies and accounts. This has taken the wind out of Khan’s sails and put him on the defensive. Indeed, any commission of inquiry is bound to investigate his accounts no less than those of Nawaz Sharif.
What eventually comes of Pananaleaks will depend on the TOR agreed upon between the government and opposition, what sort of law is promulgated and what sort of commission is set up. This should take at least a couple of months to materialise if an irrevocable breaking point is not reached earlier. The TOR is likely to reflect a broad consensus in which not just off-shore company wallahs but also a host of tax evaders, money launderers, loan-defaulters and loan write-off wallahs will be brought into the net. Certainly this is going to be the government’s strategy to hit at the opposition benches that may escape the net of off-shore companies. Its sole purpose will be to claim the high moral ground of putting an end to all forms of corruption while making it impossible for any commission of inquiry to come to any decisive and quick findings due to the complex nature of every money trail under investigation. One stumbling block at the outset will be the nature of the law attracted to the proposed commission. The government is likely to prefer it to be adversarial, like the law of the land, in which one is innocent until proven guilty, so that convictions are rare and unhurried. But the PTI will seek an inquisitorial commission like NAB so that the onus of innocence is on the accused and justice is swift and summary.
The government and its allies are united while the opposition is split. Even within the PPP, there are good cops and bad cops. Unless the PMLN blunders into another pit of ignominy or outrage, which provokes the third umpire, the likelihood is that it will weather the Panamaleaks storm like it did the dharna of yore.