It was all going so well for PML-N. The opposition was relatively at bay barring a few bills in the National Assembly. The boots are being given the required space and relations have remained and currently are mostly cordial. Important bi-elections and mayoral elections were won. The IMF program has wrapped up just in time and according to plan, the illusion of an improved economy will act as another pedestal going into election year 2018.
No one was expecting, however, that the collective efforts of some 400 journalists to decipher 11.5 million leaked confidential documents periodically released to a German Newspaper would stir up a global storm. The documents reveal that over 214,000 offshore companies registered by a Panamanian law firm, are either directly owned by existing/ex heads of state or by their close relatives.
The storm hit home a week ago and our PM has been in hot waters ever since. The ‘beneficial ownership’ of multiple offshore companies and the subsequent holding of assets such as London Park Lane apartments within those companies by the PM’s three children has been met with an uproar from both the opposition and the general public.
The morning of the leaks, Hussain Nawaz, in a nonchalant and anticipatory style came on a local news channel and not only confirmed the ownership of the companies but also quite accurately defined the purpose of the off shore holdings as ‘necessary to avoid unnecessary taxes’.
What followed came as no surprise. After a forced hiatus from his preferred style of politics, Imran Khan got the ammo he required to once again demand that the PM resigns. Aitezaz Ahsan from the PPP also immediately demanded the same.
The papers reveal the names of many other heads of state as well. The PM of Iceland and a Spanish Minister have had to resign after their names appeared as owners of the companies in the documents. The only saving grace in the case of our PM, it appears, is the fact that he is not the owner or beneficiary of the companies named.
If it were even remotely established through these documents that Nawaz Sharif was the beneficial owner of any of the companies named, the resignation demand would have stuck. David Cameron is also hiding behind the same technicality. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have the luxury of not attending Parliament sessions to avoid ‘facing the music’.
Following his son’s lead, the PM chose a more potent forum to reiterate his family’s stance: an address to the nation. It started with a sob story of how the family business had suffered multiple setbacks owing to the treatment meted out to them during the Bhutto years of the 70’s.
He then stressed on the legality of the whole situation to end with the offering of a Judicial Commission under a retired judge. While it was certainly ill advised to use such a national platform to defend the family business, it was premature to offer a self-serving inquiry that no one would accept. The address simply was not necessary, at least not so soon.
As expected, the opposition cried foul and vowed to reject any commission under a retired judge. Only a commission where a sitting judge would be the head and ‘forensic experts’ would run it would be accepted. Anything short of that would necessitate street agitation.
The pickle that the Sharif family finds itself in will be hard to get out of by resorting to the same old half-baked overtures. What is even more obvious is that the Sharif camp is having a tough time finding an applicable defence. When you’ve got millions stashed abroad under your family name, questioning the placements of excess funds of a charitable cancer hospital, the only of its kind in the country, is deplorable.
Proving that a single speech in the National Assembly can pack a much more robust punch than a hundred dharna speeches atop a container, Imran Khan articulately laid out the opposition’s demands. Unfortunately though, not only was Nawaz Sharif absent from the NA session, the whole session was blacked out from the media so that the general public could not see.
The usual suspects then got into the quintessential battle of who barks the loudest. While Khwaja Asif resorted to his natural style of below the belt uncouth jibes at IK in the assembly. Daniyal Aziz, still in anticipation of a ministry reportedly tried to get maximum airtime to do the only thing he does well on talk shows: ‘let me talk and then no one talk – or else’. At one point he had to be taken off line on one of the channels.
Sooner than later the plot thickened. Nawaz Sharif’s health deteriorated and he had to jet off to London for treatment. Only his wife and personal servants accompanied him. At home the helm has been left to Ishaq Dar, who had to cancel a trip to Washington. Maryam Nawaz stayed back as well as the sole political entity from Nawaz Sharif’s immediate family he could entrust such a role.
The presence of Asif Ali Zardari in London and the haste with which Nawaz Sharif left for medical treatment was bound to raise some eyebrows. The PPP, through a tweet from Bilawal Bhutto Zardari laid rest to rumors of any meeting between the two.
It may have initially seemed like the PPP had joined PTI’s new bandwagon fully. After intervention from the top leadership however, it seems they won’t be going full force against the PML-N. Instead they will support the PTI on selective issues, meaning they will not join any possible street agitation, just the fair inquiry under the CJP and forensic experts bit.
The terms of reference (TOR) for the commission in accordance with the PM’s address to the nation have been finalized. The judge will be retired and the forensic experts will most likely be local. This decision in itself only adds to the obvious question, if you have nothing to hide then why try so hard to hide it?
The legality of the whole matter might be a grey area for now. The only thing that might stick and lead to a snap election or, at least, a change of guard within the ruling party, will be the revelation of the source of funds, the amount of tax paid on those funds and the mechanism of transfer used to send funds abroad for the purpose of investment and purchase of properties.
The moral argument which arises from all this is much more relevant as of now. The fact that the existence of the companies’ and ownership of the flats was only admitted by Hussain Nawaz while being denied by Maryam Nawaz and completely ignored by Hassan Nawaz raises significant questions.
All that, however, will depend on what is found after the probe is completed. One can only hope that this commission does not meet the same fate as the one set up to probe the Modeltown incident. The cat is out of the bag and this time around the vicissitude will simply not subside by ‘letting it run its course’. This one’s gonna stick.