Khan’s imperfect storm, and oaks


The government has managed to swallow the Panama Leaks scandal down and not choke on it or spit it out




Imran Khan does not have support of enough people in the country to force the Nawaz government out. That in itself is surprising because even if you take everything else Khan accuses Sharif of being — a corrupt tyrant who came by his set through cheating and is unfit to rule — with a grain of salt, Panama Leaks are still very damning. In other countries, people in power have lost their jobs over this, we hear. At the very least, they had to face stern questions. The rest have launched probes full of biting teeth and stinging tentacles, whatever that means. But there were a lot of people in the streets in those countries clamouring over it too, we hear. Six per cent of the people of Iceland. Six per cent! Even if Khan manages to bring out 100,000 supporters, which is highly doubtful, and even if we account for the very small size of Iceland’s population, the relative percentage would still be piddly. It would be lost in the fractions. While one in every 17 showed up to demand the prime minister’s resignation, the corresponding figure for Pakistan will be one in every 1,900, if 100,000 people do indeed show up.

But numbers are hardly the only way to force a desirable outcome. (Well, at least one armed force in recent memory believed that and let’s just say it was ‘instructive’, as in the lesson that Erdogan is teaching to the plotters and sympathisers since then. As a side note, despite the recent displays of chumminess between the Turkish and Pakistani state officials, it is painfully clear that Pakistan is not Turkey and neither is Sharif Erdogan, either in strength of public support or in the tyranny of his ways, and we all know this second one is not because of a lack of inclination. Wouldn’t you agree, what with his rumoured bid to become Ameerul Mo’mineen in the late 90’s and actual legislation that he passed to stifle dissent within his own party? But we do have to keep proportions in mind and it is obvious that we got the better end of that deal. Besides, it was the terrible 90’s, right? ‘PM is a changed man,’ we’re told so often. And why is Turkey not Pakistan? Because the makeup and relationship of the two armed forces with their corresponding societies is just different. Turkish armed forces — more than the general bent of the society — are largely secular; ours are not. The two forces are also viewed differently by the two societies. Whether the first has anything to do with the second is arguable.)

But despite that long, and in retrospect, rather unnecessary interjection, the point remains that Khan’s only hope is that numbers are not the only thing that are required to do the trick. What if there is a way to spike the ground? They already have a charismatic face and that goes a long way, one hopes. What if they also had conditions that supported their cause and might squeeze the government further?

The best possible outcome for Khan at this stage would have been to have better numbers in the street, but in that he failed — very surprisingly or highly predictably is a matter of opinion.

The fact is that he could not get other major parties to sign on to have a go in the streets along with him. The only one that really mattered here, the PPP, decided not to take their relationship with the PTI that far. The rest of that boat was full of holes too, we later discovered. The PPP says it is restricting its opposition to the government to the ‘available forums’ before they take the extreme action of what Khan proposes every Wednesday.

But given the fact that the government has an unassailable majority in the National Assembly, and so the PPP can hope to achieve very little that really stings the government there, it is obvious they have decided not to go all in at this particular moment. But even though they have been careful in saying they reserve the right to do that later and even granting the fact that they can create some uncomfortable moments for the government in the Senate, it is clear that the PTI only has one partner with significant popular support on the street with them. And he of the Qadri diaspora — ha, diaspora — well, he is nothing less than an angel, he is a challenge in his own right which the government will underestimate only at great physical risk.

He has a righteous cause — the Model Town Massacre. His support is extremely loyal. And, above all, he has a mouth that makes magic. Others are eloquent, Qadri is a conjurer.

He is so effective at times, that he can even outwit himself. Like the time when he told us he wanted elections in the country postponed ‘until the system of exploitation has been banished from the society’ and ‘until the weak have been given their due share’, but forgetting to ask himself that if those goals were ever achieved — in four months or 40 years — and we got everything we wanted, why would we ever hold elections again? Why would we need democracy at all?

Or maybe I missed his point already. He was never selling us democracy at all. This was not an update to the democracy app but installation of a new one. An iQadri. And maybe he was hoping that after we were satisfied with our experience, we’d keep using iQadri and uninstall and delete democracy for good. But he wants us to come to that conclusion all by ourselves. Oh that is so sweet! I’m liking iQadri already. Four stars.

So far — and at least this part of the game — has been a major win for the government. They have been remarkable in eroding broad support for the opposition by questioning the credibility of the available information at every turn and creating doubts about the moral high ground of their opponents. They have muddied the waters at times and willfully misled the people at others but they have held onto their base. All the by-elections and general elections before and since the surfacing of Panama Papers paint only picture — that of an opposition in tatters. It has quite splendidly split the opposition into those that want it grave bodily harm right now, and those who are saying they would rather wait and see if the other can take you down on his own and then join in the feast. Or maybe Zardari is just not willing to let Nawaz Sharif go yet. They were friends once and may well be again, no? We never know how Zardari’s games work, do we? Well, we all know how they end, right? With PPP in Sindh and nowhere else.

And the government, for its part, has managed to swallow the Panama Leaks scandal down and not choke on it or spit it out. That phase was immediately following the Leaks. Imran Khan tried; the PPP, separately and much more meekly also tried but the PML-N government was well hunkered down and did not look shaky at all.

This now, is the second stage and the challenge now is for the government to digest the scandal without falling ill or throwing up. The challenge for the opposition, or at least the PTI? To make sure that that happens.

But street agitation alone is not the only way for the PTI to spike the serving and to induce discomfort for the government. Already, with Qadri’s help, Imran has something resembling trouble brewing in the street. But there are other, major and obvious centres of power in the country. They are army, parliament and judiciary, and one more, I think I’m forgetting, yes media. In some cases, the bureaucracy may also start acting against the government, but since that is not happening here, that point is moot.

In parliament, besides creating moderate amount of pressure and mildly irritating headlines of censure, the opposition benches can hardly accomplish anything concrete. But at least here, Imran does have support of the opposition parties.

Both the government and the opposition have announced they are bringing their own bills in the parliament ‘to address the issue’. For the opposition parties, that means a Panama Leaks enquiry bill which can give at least some power to the enquiring body so the PM has to face at least one or two hard questions. The government, however, insists that any basis for legislation has to be The Pakistan Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1956, which has the best track record for enquiry that any criminal could ask for. Seriously. It has created some of the most toothless commissions in the country’s history — the ones where the commissions’ reports don’t get published without the government’s consent. It is like a grown man wrestling a puppy. Except the grown man here can also have the puppy’s legs bound if he so desires. And if the puppy still seems like it might bare its teeth, well, the grown man also have the option to shoot it.

So, the opposition wants to bring in a new bill while the government wants to amend the 1956 one. Both these options, however, are little more than cosmetics. The government has a majority in the National Assembly, so that is where it will present its amendments. The opposition has numbers in the Senate, so that is where they will table the bill. And round and round it will go.

Khan is also not alone in the courts. Courts carry a reasonably powerful bite that is at par with the parliament’s, maybe even stronger. One unfavourable decision here could change many minds.

All the opposition parties, and then some, it appears, have chosen to cast their lines in all sorts of courts, NAB, ECP, Supreme Court, whatever is available, sometimes all at once, and for all manner of reason. What this shows is that even though this is a long shot — considering the fact that the changes that the opposition parties wanted to bring into the law to make it more effective against such cases have not happened yet — the opposition still recognises that this is a useful platform and they are happy to see if the courts are up for a party.

Even though we realise that sometimes the decision of one judge is just that — the decision of one judge, and is not reflective of the overall view of the judiciary towards the government — but that is not how it appears on our TV screens, and that is why courts are so important. Note how Imran Khan, despite having had some bad experiences here, has never really shied away from returning.

Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Perhaps, Khan has learnt something of value after all. That when faced with an opponent who will throw anything at you, bad or ugly, sane or stupid, you better come prepared. So, even if Khan doesn’t really hope to suddenly get something just at the most opportune time, the cosmetics of it still matter. Because where there is cosmetics, there is more room for spin. It is the spin that will let you say that you’re grabbing your opponent by the scruff of their neck and dragging them to the court to get justice for the downtrodden, and it is the same spin that will then let your opponent say it is a ludicrous attempt to malign the character of their upright leader who is ever busy trying to assuage the suffering of the downtrodden. Whatever its utility, it wouldn’t hurt to ask, and also, not using it would be ceding it to the government, who could easily say you never wanted justice for the downtrodden because you never went to the courts. And that prospect of your opponent saying that has power because the courts have legitimacy, at least in public perception.

Just two days ago, the PML-N government, as if obsessively trying to make sure they have ticked all their boxes, also went ahead and filed a disqualification reference in the National Assembly against Imran Khan — it couldn’t hurt to ask, right? And at least it makes for a good headline.

Then comes the media, which, in this country acts as a stakeholder not just because it believes it is a custodian of public good, but also because it thinks it is a player in its politics. There are no impartial observers here, perhaps with the glowing exception of Dawn, which, while it may have influence in policy does not really influence the sentiment of the nation to the extent that some of its other rivals, especially in broadcast media do. Geo, especially packs a huge punch and it has chosen to stay in the government’s corner. The rest are hardly presenting a united front either. Switch between the headlines of Geo and ARY and you will wonder if they are even telling the same day’s headlines. Switch between Samaa and any other news channel and you will have the same experience. For a lot of the time, it appears that Geo is the only heavy hitter standing by the government, and whatever you think of Geo, it seems that that is enough. At least for now.

That leaves us with the army. Army is like Superman to the rest of the power centres’ batmans and spider mans and whatever Jeremy Renner is in that awesome Avengers movie. It is immune from the rest of the power centres’… well, powers while it has power over everyone else. That is why, while everyone strains to get a word in, the army can take over the conversation with nothing more than a tweet. And with the dreaded November inching closer, how much it will like to take part, or not, in the conversation is up to their sweet will, really. Let’s get one thing out of the way first, wherever you stand on Gen Raheel Sharif’s extension, if he is simply retired come December, we’ll all remember it as a wasted opportunity. Other than the extension issue, which, both the government and the army have chosen to play pretty cagey with, there isn’t much Imran Khan can offer to them by way of improvement on Nawaz Sharif either in terms of their mutual relations or in terms of backing the fight against terrorism. Therefore, for the army, a radical change in direction would be very surprising.

But since this centre of power is as far away from the government’s lock and key as possible, the government will simply have to make sure it does not give the army any major motivation to put them through the wringer in this crucial hour. And since there is very little Imran Khan can do to change the army’s mind all by his own, he has to settle for remaining on its good side and simply try to position for a better opportunity if one presents itself. As for the army, I guess it pays to be the biggest and most unassailable power centre in the country. I mean when you’re that powerful, everybody is falling over each other trying to please you, and you barely even have to move.

And as if on cue, days before the official start of the protest movement, reports started emerging that banners were once again going up calling on Gen Raheel Sharif to ‘just stop talking the talk of leaving and take over already’, just to put the thing onto the table I guess, in case someone forgot.

And that brings us to now. Khan has wrought what he could and Sharif has prepared what he could. Smart money will say this is not a perfect storm yet. Smart money will say Khan hasn’t brought enough. Not only is this not enough, it may also be the last big push the government faces during this term. Next year, they will have completed four years of their term and with only one year remaining, they will be able to tell their opponents: Can’t you wait just one more year? Must you become prime minister right this second?

For the government, that will be victory, right? Panama Leaks was a sin, and they will get away with it. They will get away with it this month. And maybe next year. And maybe even in next elections. That is what victory looks like, right? This is what getting away with sin looks like, right?


Because sins are sins. Avoiding punishment is hard, but avoiding consequence. That is even harder. Already, the PPP has started trying to assert itself as ‘not the only corrupt party in town’, though it is not helped when reports of their sole remaining provincial government’s mismanagement and corruption come to light so often.

But whether by punishment, consequence or even by just a law of averages, down the road, a time has to come when the PML-N won’t be so ascendant as today and the opposition won’t be as tattered. That is when Panama Leaks will be available to the opposition as a tool once more. That will be the third part of the digestive process that all sins must go through. And the goal now? Avoid long term damage to the body.

Whether this particular sin will do lasting damage to PML-N or only significant damage will depend on one thing and, unfortunately, here is that one thing: Sins of the rest of our leaders.

Whether the parties that are in opposition now will able to wield this weapon more effectively then will depend on how weighed down they are by their own sins at that particular time. In other words, the same thing that is happening today.

So, while the opposition stages protests in the streets or down at the parliament, all the while wondering why there aren’t more people on the ground for such an obviously righteous cause, they must ponder over their own sins too, and while they’re at it, make one note: Less corruption next time.

And if indeed a time does come when the PML-N is the one on the mat, and the opposition is hitting it with a Panama Leaks-shaped bat and there are enquiries into Panama Leaks starting 10, 15 years down the road — whenever the party is down enough on its luck, or whenever it’s just convenient enough, as the cycle repeats itself again and again, while the downtrodden continue to lose and lose — we must remember to do one thing at that moment, no matter how we feel about the PML-N government right now: We will take joy in that moment, that this too, in whatever small measure and in however questionable a manner, got answered for. And you know why that would be appropriate? Because that would be our sin.

Sure, sin can be forced upon you by a sinful leader, but are you certain that the leaders aren’t completely justified in saying you have some role in perpetuating the sins too? You aren’t out onto the streets now, are you? And, are you sure it’s not because you’re punishing the opposition parties for their past sins too? Do you think that is wise? Don’t the sins of our past, present and future look so much alike? And so do the ones of our leaders.

Oaks in acorns, acorns in oaks, right?

And yes, we can tell those leaders right back that actual sins are worse sins than the sins of not punishing those sins. And to that, they will say, if enough people commit even a small sin, it can become at par, if not bigger than the big sin. How would you respond to that question?