The ten-pointer ten days before tense elections tells a tale of troubling trials and tribulations for the troika that is facing the most trying of tests. Here goes:
1. Nawaz Sharif has gone to jail but refused to roll over and play dead. That’s rather inconvenient. It rearranges the scheme of things. But it also opens up a number of interesting possibilities that can shape the outcome of the elections on July 25th. Friday’s (July 13th) events signified one important facet of the unfolding saga: the final chapter in the fascinating and tumultuous story of Nawaz Sharif has commenced. The next ten days will help decide if the story ends in a blaze of glory or the ignominy of defeat.
2. If the Caretaker government in Punjab wanted glory for the Sharifs, it did a fantastic job on Friday. These geniuses in Punjab appeared less caretakers and more caregivers for the PML-N as their bumbling, clumsy and myopic planning gave the PML-N an event they could only dream of. Had one of these Einsteins in the government looked hard at the situation, he would have — and probably should have — reached this conclusion:
— Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz were courting arrest, not evading arrest. It was a voluntary act of submission, which implied there was no element of resistance or intransigence. If this wasn’t enough, they were walking into custody in a location that’s a ‘no-media zone’. The prospects of them holding an impromptu press conference or speech to an assembled crowd were non-existent. The high-profile event would have had no profile.
— The crowd converging on the airport was not coming for a protest or a dharna but to ‘receive’ their leader who everyone knew would not be allowed to come outside to be ‘received’. Had the PML-N cadre not been blocked and stopped, it would have reached the airport and just made a nuisance of itself for the residents of the area, motorists of the Ring Road and people coming and going from the airport. At some point, the crowd would have dispersed after some speeches. That’s it.
3. Instead, the Caretakers gifted Sharifs and their party an event tailor-made for cameras. From morning till midnight, the PML-N ruled the airwaves. In this brief span of a day, the election turned into a Nawaz affair — the kind in which every Pakistani is given two choices: 1. Do you like Nawaz? 2. Do you not like Nawaz?
4. And so it transpires that the election is now a match: Nawaz XI vs World XI. Nawaz XI is captained by Shehbaz Sharif and World XI by Imran Khan. A fundamental shift in dynamics has led to this strange reversal of roles with Nawaz as the challenger and Imran promising ‘change through status quo’. Friday’s events brought this shift into greater focus. The PTI was quick to recognise it and sent its spokesman Fawad Chaudhry to salvage the situation. He tried. The Caretakers are inexperienced, he said, and should not have blocked the PML-N from going to the airport. Fawad put up a brave face. It was however a bit late. The damage had been done.
5. Nawaz’s party may yet lose the election. But the PTI and weak legal judgments are both turning out to be an obstacle between Sharifs and an electoral rout. By continuing to focus more on trashing the Sharifs and less on elevating itself, the PTI is helping to make this election all about Nawaz. This will not have an adverse effect on the core PTI voter but may push the neutral or undecided voter to the other side. If Imran’s logic is seen to be something like this: “I am better than Nawaz because I am not Nawaz”, then he’s clearly batting on a spinning wicket in the nervous nineties.
6. Judge Bashir’s judgment also contains a silver lining for Nawaz and his daughter: its weak logic. In fact, at points it defies logic by leaning heavily on assumption instead of evidence. Famed lawyer Babar Sattar has surgically operated upon the judgment in his column this week and he points out one lethal flaw which may be exploited with relish by Nawaz’s lawyers in the High Court appeal: the judgment says Nawaz’s children were very young when they were living in the London flats so they could not have paid for them. Therefore their father must be the owner. And by this logic he could not justify where he got the money to own the flats. That’s quite a leap of logic. If the High Court decided to overturn the judgment, this flaw would be one of the many cited as the reason.
7. Away from this legal battle, the political one has taken a sharp bend after Nawaz and Maryam walked into jail. Unless something totally unexpected were to happen, it would be safe to say that the father and daughter will be in jail when the nation goes to vote on July 25th. The jail narrative can cut both ways: sympathy for the father and daughter or contempt for a powerful family finally having faced the law.
8. Between this sympathy and contempt lies an endless ocean of nuanced complexity — the kind in which a powerful institution is faced off against a well-entrenched dynasty whose past is soiled by a dodgy money trail. It is a nuance that encapsulates the eternal riddle of Pakistani politics: how to reconcile the genuine institutional ethos of the military with the deeply flawed and yet publicly legitimate credentials of political parties. Attempts at political engineering are a direct by-product of the failure to reconcile this duality within the Pakistani system.
9. If Nawaz and his party are trounced in the upcoming elections, the riddle will solve itself for the time being.
10. If Nawaz and his party are not trounced, the riddle will become cloaked further in mystery and wrapped in an enigma.
The torrid train of events tearing through these ten days is taking a lot of tired people for a ride.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2018.