Sharif vs Sharif

Sharif vs Sharif
Panama Leaks is still leaking and raising discomfort levels all round. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is particularly vulnerable, even though his adult businessmen sons, and not he, are beneficial owners of off-shore companies that have invested in UK properties where they are both resident/domiciled. In the rough and tumble of Pakistan, this issue has been progressively transformed from a legal one to a moral one and now a political one in which the demand for the prime minister’s resignation is simply not going away.

With hindsight, it appears that the PM was badly advised to address the nation on a personal issue regarding the business practices of his children. Instead of dispelling doubts and pre-empting adverse fallout, the speech has only served to fan the flames and inflate it into a mega-issue. With hindsight too, it seems that the two media interviews given by Hassan and Hussain Nawaz Sharif a couple of weeks before the dirt hit the fan have rebounded on the Sharifs.

Mr Sharif’s pledge to establish a commission of inquiry of retired judges has also failed to fly. If he had quickly laid down non-controversial terms of reference and asked the chief justice of Pakistan to set up such a commission, his critics would not have had a field day lambasting him.

Imran Khan is leading the pack. He sees this as a God given opportunity to dislodge Mr Sharif. The PPP is making the right noises because there is no other popular choice, but Aitzaz Ahsan is playing the bad cop to Khurshid Shah’s good cop and Asif Zardari is wisely silent. Who knows how many offshore companies are stocked in the PPP’s larder and when that will be flung open?

Those who have stashed away illegal wealth in such companies are the real culprits who should be brought to book. But in the nasty current mood of the country, even those who have got an off-shore company for doing legal business with tax-paid earnings remitted abroad through normal banking channels are also morally culpable for investing abroad instead of in their own country. Of course, this position is wrong because it flies against the very notion of legal capital mobility in search of competitive returns that is the lynch pin of the modern global economy. But no one is listening. The bloodlust of the middle classes against the very rich won’t be quenched by legal niceties.

For Imran Khan, it is now or never. He has been prime minister in-waiting for 20 years, having missed the bus many times, and is now desperately looking for short cuts to get to the prime minister’s house in Islamabad. But he is beset with two problems. First, his party is in disarray and facing a crisis of credibility. The membership of the PTI has fallen from 8 million to 2 million. The crowds have thinned. The rage has gone. The central leaders are at each other’s throats and three definite political groupings are jockeying for top positions in the hierarchy. The election commissioners have resigned and intra-party polls have been indefinitely postponed. And Imran is sounding like a scratchy long-playing record of yesteryear. He has got to instill purpose and energy into the PTI so that it once again looks and feels like a credible challenger for power.

Second, Imran senses that if the Sharifs complete their term in 2017, and local election results are a sign of the times, they will most likely win the next elections and consolidate power for another five years. That will put paid to all his political ambitions by sowing the seeds of gradual despair and dissolution in the PTI. Therefore the best way to avoid this fate is to gird his loins and launch another movement to heave out Nawaz Sharif. Consequently, a rally in an Islamabad park is planned for April 24, followed by a long march on the Raiwind estate of the Sharifs.

The government has vowed to stop both protests in their tracks. So a degree of resistance and violence may be expected. But this can only benefit the PTI by providing it with a badge of martyrdom.

Pundits are eagerly looking out for tell tale signs of the end of the Sharif regime. Are the other parties banding together behind Imran? What are the plans of Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, that off-shore asset of the “establishment” who likes to be billed as the angel of death? Are the perennial opening batsmen of the military, the Chaudhries of Gujrat, getting overly frisky again? Is the civil-military balance stable or are the frustrations and tensions increasing?

The answers are pending two bigger questions. First, is Raheel Sharif getting ready for retirement or is he spreading his wings? Second, should push come to shove, will Nawaz Sharif throw in the towel rather than risk defiance of the other Sharif?

Right now, someone should tell Imran Khan that one Sharif is not ready to quit and the other Sharif is not ready to take over.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.