It will keep on getting worse.
As events unfold at breakneck speed, a number of possibilities are emerging from within contours of the smouldering post-JIT report political landscape. Here’s a preview:
1. The JIT report is devastating for the Sharifs whichever way you look at it. The details, specifics, data, documents, and good old white collar sleuthing has produced the kind of evidence that looks damning to the core. In the court of public opinion the report has decimated the Sharif case and soiled their image more than anything else in the past. The lousy defence by PML-N loyalists has added insult to injury.
2. In the Supreme Court can the report have a similar shock-and-awe effect? Tomorrow when the court resumes its hearing it may provide the Sharifs’ lawyers an opportunity to refute the contents of the report. This will be an uphill task if ever there was one. In places the report has gaps and holes and loose ends and a first reading does suggest that a solid lawyer can punch some holes in it. But the lawyers will need to do two things: first, dissect the specific evidence in the report and thereby convince the court the material in the report does not hold to legal scrutiny; second, provide the court with counter evidence that conclusively proves that the assets of the Sharifs actually do reconcile with their known sources of income.
3. The court will have three options at its disposal as per legal experts: a) disqualify the prime minister based on the evidence in the report, b) exonerate him citing insufficient proof in the report c) send a reference to a NAB court to hold a trial in which the defence and prosecution lawyers present their arguments, cross-question relevant people and bring forth all evidence at their disposal to back up their case. The trial may take months or longer and the Sharifs will have to present themselves at the hearings.
4. The prime minister has the following options available to him: a) Step down on moral grounds immediately and nominate a successor b) Let the Supreme Court decide his fate c) Step down if the court sends the matter for trial and return as PM if verdict goes in his favour d) Stay as PM even if the case goes for trial (as per legal experts SC cannot ‘suspend’ him if he is on trial. The last option will mean a sitting prime minister is forced to be present at every hearing in court and this prospect does not sound practical from any perspective.
5. Although it is impossible to predict which option the PM will choose, insiders believe the most likely one is: he will prefer to let the SC decide his fate rather than taking a decision on his own. His party colleagues say this option will allow him enough political space to cry foul and appeal to his base. But two possibilities could act as a spoiler: a) JIT evidence holds solidly in court (and more could pour in, too) thereby reducing political space for the PM to cry conspiracy and b) if the case is sent to trial, he may have no choice but to step down on his own.
6. The key turning point as of now is what kind of legal defence the Sharifs’ lawyers can put up in court in the next few days. The strength of this defence will determine the public perception about the JIT report as well as the political narrative that PML-N will want to build from here on. This defence will aim to raise enough doubts about the report for the benefit of doubt to accrue to the Sharifs.
7. How will the PM ‘fight out” this crisis? He may have the following options: a) refuse to budge an inch until he is forced out by the court (legally that is the only way he can be removed since the opposition does not have the numbers to vote him out). If the opposition resorts to street power to pressure him to resign, it may end up uniting the PML-N in the face of a common threat; it may also invite intervention if things get out of control; b) if removed, or even if he steps down, he can hit the streets through rallies and jalsas across the country to stitch together the ‘political martyrdom’ narrative. This barnstorming may also be aimed at securing his core political base and projecting strength through defiance; c) call snap elections in a bid to reclaim the initiative and catch the Opposition off guard. This will be a gamble he may opt for if he feels his back is pinned to the wall.
8. If the PM does leave office he may opt for a successor who can contribute to the performance narrative that PMLN wants to build; a narrative based on ending loadshedding, delivering on mega projects and showcasing an economy on the mend. Sharif will want someone as PM who is seen to be a doer and who can continue the momentum the PMLN government believes it has generated in term of efficiency and delivery.
9. The PM will also need to flesh out the ‘conspiracy’ claim for it to find more traction than it already has. Will that be a prudent course of action? Some PML-N leaders believe even a ‘fight’ will need to be tempered in tone and scope, because the winner-takes-all formula doesn’t work in an arena where ultimately power has to be negotiated. Therefore, even if the PM does hold forth on the conspiracy at some stage, chances are the claims will remain vague.
10. And finally, if the JIT report holds out and the evidence is accepted by the court it will set a remarkable precedent in terms of investigating a money trail. This type of investigation should then be institutionalised and its scope enlarged to go after all and sundry. This then would be a change we can all be proud of.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2017.