The smoke screen

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Thicker than ever!

It’s a simple strategy: the best defense during a controversial scandal is a fierce offence. The PML-N’s brand of politics has not changed too much over the years. When it comes to answering tough questions that requires the first family to open up to inquiries, the first line of defense is, ‘they did it too – ask x y and z first- then us’.

The problem that Nawaz Sharif faces with the Panama leaks is the fact that the report that highlights his family’s wealth is not indigenous. Therefore, it is tough to deny or spin it. There will have to be answers, and the usual kind of answers will simply not do.

That is one of the reasons why the rationale being used to address these questions is falling flat on its face. The defense of ‘everyone does it’ is not suitable in this case or any other for that matter. Nawaz Sharif is the PM, he is the holder of the highest office in the country and he has to be first when it comes to a probe. It is that straightforward.

That, of course, is wishful thinking. Since the initial jolt and subsequent jaunt to London, it seems as if Nawaz Sharif, forced by habit, has decided to do it his way, be it the commission that will investigate the matter or the manner in which they will defend themselves before and during the investigation.

There seems to be a three-pronged approach to this strategy. The first being the use of state and private media, second is to push their own TOR’s without giving in to the opposition and lastly it seems they have decided to carry on with their election campaigning for the 2018 elections, something that had already started prior to the Panama leaks.

“The media group in question naturally blew this out of proportion. Not only was it taken out of context and misrepresented they made it a lead in their bilingual print publications. In doing so they falsely suggested that the PM’s name had been removed from the Panama Papers, online and otherwise.”

The most compelling and effective form of defense is being run through the tube. So far there have been two very similar addresses to the nation with the same sob story – cue the world’s smallest violin playing in the background. Using the national stage to address issues of a personal nature twice in a month is hardly becoming of a head of state.

One particular “privately owned” media group decided to give too much credence to a press release, than merited. The International Consortium Of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), the organization at the back of the Panama leaks episode apparently issued a press release saying that in one sentence of the brief referring to the PM’s children’s offshore companies, they erroneously included a line that suggested direct ownership by the PM.

The media group in question naturally blew this out of proportion. Not only was it taken out of context and misrepresented they made it a lead in their bilingual print publications. In doing so they falsely suggested that the PM’s name had been removed from the Panama Papers, online and otherwise.

 

A day later a full page advert was taken out in almost all publications, sponsored by the federal government and paid by tax payer money giving additional fuel to the government’s misleading campaign on the back of the ICIJ press release. The ICIJ has since also clarified their position. The government however has been successful in their attempt to beguile a certain segment of the general public.

As far as the commission is concerned, the government budged on the ‘retired judges only’ part to allow the chief justice to head the inquiry. A request letter has also been sent to the CJP to head the investigation. The TOR’s however are and will remain a bone of contention. There is no consensus between the opposition and the government to meet half way. The PML-N is sticking to its version.

One of the most potentially ponderous points in the TOR’s is the inclusion of all cases of money laundering and tax evasion into the inquiry. That is something that thickens the already thickset smoke screen that the Nawaz camp has so far produced.

The PM recently held a federal cabinet meeting after almost seven months – something that should be a weekly affair. The meeting seemed nothing more than an opportunity for the PM to have his bruised ego massaged by members of his cabinet, some of whom he was meeting after quite a while. What was decided was simple – ignore and carry on. The ‘Mansehra’ and ‘Kotli Sattiyaan’ outings were precisely that.

 

“The use of state machinery and taxpayer money to defend himself and his children is nothing new but it could have and should have been handled in at least a less blatant form of misuse of power.”

 

While the opposition is not letting go of any opportunity to make the league squirm, it is also relentlessly trying to garner maximum support from other opposition parties, most importantly the PPP. The PPP will however play this one very carefully. Zardari has not shown Nawaz Sharif even a fraction of the ‘love’ that he did back in the ‘Dharna´ days.

The reality is that any sort of premature election is not in favor of the PPP in the current scenario. They need all the prep time they can get to compete effectively in the 2018 elections, unlike the beating they took in 2013. While the PPP doesn’t really offer any significant street power to the PTI, it certainly provides tangible support in the assembly, something that if applied the right way, can be quite useful.

If the PML-N has decided to stick with the strategy of ‘my way of or the highway’ then it would suit them to implement it in a more orderly fashion. The use of state machinery and taxpayer money to defend himself and his children is nothing new but it could have and should have been handled in at least a less blatant form of misuse of power.

There will need to be some form of flexibility when it comes to the decision on the TOR’s. By asking the CJP to amend the suggested TOR’s as he sees fit, the government has absolved itself from further criticism over the issue and has also in a way obstructed the opposition from getting their reservations on the effectively addressed as well. Nonetheless, the TOR’s have to be precise and time bound.

 

 

The dynamics of the current episode are quite interesting and somewhat familiar. On one hand we have a leader who doesn’t want to lead rather just elongate his tenure. On the other hand there is a leader in waiting who doesn’t want to wait for his turn. Lastly and most importantly are the boots, looking on from the sidelines. A lack of political ambition from that end seems to be keeping a once upon a time inevitability, at bay.

Whatever happens, it has to be democratic in nature. The Sharif camp needs to re think their strategy, which currently is doing more harm than good. Delaying tactics, buck passing and reactionary blame games will only go so far. Still, it seems the PML-N has decided that the best way forward is to take this into election year 2018, bruised and battered but winning the race.