The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.
Normally temperatures are inversely related to political activity. The hotter it gets, the cooler the action becomes. To be out on the roads campaigning under a blistering sun and pulling the crowds out in scorching heat is not recommended.
However, this season may turn out to be freakish. All political parties have to push their agendas in peak summer time. Some have to do it on account of circumstances and some by design, but they have all committed themselves to goals that they cannot take a break from just because the mercury is rising to insane levels.
There is too much at stake for them all to sit back and wait for the weather to turn before they start their power games again. The burning fire of the Panama leaks has boiled the political pot to a point where it can actually trigger a meltdown of the existing political arrangement. All parties know this and they want to make the most of it. However, within both camps, the government and the opposition, there are complex dynamics at work that need to be factored in to understand where this season’s sizzling politics can lead to.
The opposition’s backbone is still the PTI. It is a party that has kept the street alive and in an agitational mood. Its leader has shown no sign of getting off his main track of disrupting the central government at all cost. After the formation of the ToR committee, the PTI is now uniquely placed. Unlike the dharna days, it is equally potent both inside and outside parliament. It is at once a force within and a force without. It can squeeze the government on the negotiating table as well as keep it preoccupied with its endless public meetings.
This dual role makes the PTI a real challenge for the federal government because it cannot be isolated by the stakeholders of the democratic order (as happened when it besieged parliament) nor can it be stopped from constantly attacking the government as incompetent and corrupt. But there is little clarity on the path the PTI wants to take in order to reach its goal of toppling the Sharif government. The ToRs, regardless of how smartly they are designed and how minutely they test the Sharif family’s financial record, are paper instruments.
For all the noise and fury that is heard and witnessed in political gatherings, probing fictional or factual deeds of financial fraud requires time – years. International cooperation is required in this case and the basic data on which forensics can be performed is still to be found. More importantly, the PTI’s own house hardly smells of roses when it comes to allegations of tax fudging, hidden assets and money made through questionable means. Any probe by the commission under strict ToRs will hurt the PTI’s heavy hitters as much it would hit the N-League.
Logically, this should cool the party’s enthusiasm for a genuine probe in such matters. But that is not happening because Imran Khan believes that the moment the commission starts to question the Sharif family, it will be all about the ruling family and not about anybody else. Even a slight suggestion of hidden wealth, incomplete documents, or new and awkward facts coming out would be enough to twist the knife in the Sharif government. He believes that once that happens nobody would even remember who else was tainted by the Panama leaks or offshore companies scam.
The other reason the PTI continues to push for a probe through a commission is the power struggle within. The PTI’s mover and shakers like Jehangir Khan Tareen and Aleem Khan have been badly damaged by their own alleged scams. While they look invincible standing behind Imran Khan, their politics and business will be severely affected by a commission probe. This works out fine for someone like Shah Mehmood Qureshi who has been squeezed and at times even bulldozed by the PTI’s billionaires club. He would be the last person to stand in the way of a commission probe moving towards those who hold the entire party in the palm of their hands. Partly for this reason the billionaires want to keep the party out on the streets because it creates that hyped-up environment in which the finer questions about their own record are lost and the focus shifts to the prime target – the Sharif family.
It is this group within the PTI that is all for a radical solution: let the army step in to push the Sharifs out and then use backend contacts with the brass and get down to the business of forming a new government through elections or any other means. There is not much clarity within the party over the actual advantages to the party of an army-facilitated exit of the Sharifs. For now the focus is exclusively on battering the Sharifs to a pulp and ensuring that they are politically damaged beyond rehabilitation.
The PPP camp is somewhat similar to the PTI camp when it comes to the commission probe. There is a realisation that any genuine investigation will get the party’s many stalwarts fried. However, the PPP under Bilawal Bhutto has taken such an absolute stand on the issue that scaling back from it in any form would further hurt their already terrible political reputation. Bilawal wants to attack the Sharifs on corruption to regain some ground in Punjab. He imagines, like Imran Khan, that if the Sharifs get tied up in the Panama leaks, the PPP would become secondary news. His advisers, however, are not keen on letting the situation become so bad that the army has to be welcomed.
For others within the PPP, a commission probing corruption across the board may be their party’s best chance of getting rid of the corrupt cabal that holds their party hostage. If the commission takes down the corrupt elements within their party, so be it. They cannot do this on their own; might as well unleash a probe that does it for them. This group believes that through this process the party can hope to build a new cadre of leaders. Now this is a long shot, and one that would be resisted by those who understand that they won’t escape any movement to nab financial corruption and transfer of assets abroad. More than them, it is Asif Ali Zardari who will make sure that the process to form an empowered commission remains mired in procedural matters, culminating in findings that are more semantics than substance.
For the Sharif government, these dynamics in the opposition camp offer both solace and anxiety. The commission probe suits it because the process of its formation, work and findings can take long enough. The Sharifs can even plan an early election if the situation turns ugly for the party. The party’s electoral fortunes continue to be strong even when it is struggling with a vast range of problems.
There are some within the PML-N who think that the commission’s probe of the Sharif family is fraught with dangers because its proceedings will deeply damage the party irrespective of whether in the final round the findings are in their favour or not. But there is a general consensus in the party that there is no alternative to this crisis getting defused other than the formation of the commission.
The Sharifs’ point of anxiety relates to street agitation that they believe is being used to create an environment in which they are adjudged guilty before the commission is even formed. Imran Khan’s use of video clips in his public meeting in Faisalabad is a next-level charge that the Sharifs think is coming from the PTI and its powerful backers in order to corner them. They have no effective answer to this challenge.
They are the government. They are the incumbents. Every dart thrown at them lands on the head. Their counter-strategy so far has been to ridicule Imran Khan and bring his own contradictions to the fore. This will continue and become more intense. That, however, does not get them off the hook. Their primary aim is to minimise damage to themselves and at the same time let the pressure fizzle out. But this does not change much for them. For now the political temperature for the Sharifs is far more than any pyrometer may be able to measure. It can become unbearable in the weeks ahead.