The presentation to the Supreme Court of a letter purportedly by a Qatari prince to the Sharif family has ended up raising more questions than it has answered, but what counts is how the letter is treated by the Court. Though not relevant to this, an apparently closely associated issue is the turmoil in the legal teams of both parties, the accusing PTI and the accused Sharif family.
First came the replacement of Salman Aslam Butt by Akram Sheikh by the Sharif family, which was accompanied by the presentation of the letter to the Court. This was followed by Hamid Khan’s stepping down from the PTI legal team. This had followed the attacks launched on him on the social media for his performance before the Court the day after the letter was presented, because he had been subject to certain strictures in remarks by members of the Bench over his reading into the record certain speeches of Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif which seemed in contradiction to the letter.
On the face of it, the issues surrounding the admissibility of the letter seemed to depend on the readiness of the writer to appear before the Court and allow himself to be subjected to cross-examination. One of the main difficulties posed by the letter is that it makes it seem that the original transaction involving the Park Lane flats, whereby they passed into the ownership of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s sons, involved Mian Nawaz’s father, and the father of the letter’s writer, both deceased, and thus beyond the power of any court, even the Supreme Court, to command their presence.
However, while the presentation of the letter by one side forced it to change its lawyer, perhaps because the original lawyer felt unhappy about presenting it, it also forced the other side to do so as well, because the lawyer either did not feel he could follow his client’s instructions about how to proceed, or because he did not want to be subjected to further criticism on the social media. It must be conceded that some of that criticism showed woeful ignorance of how any court, including the Supreme Court, goes about its business. Unless evidence is made available, no court, least of all the Supreme Court, can find anyone guilty. While the skill of the lawyer is important, it actually does not count for as much as is sometimes thought. A lawyer can only argue that the court follow his interpretation of the evidence; he cannot argue that it not require evidence. The view in PTI circles, that Imran Khan’s say-so should be enough to establish that Mian Nawaz is corrupt may have convinced Hamid Khan as a PTI stalwart, but it could not convince him as a lawyer.
That the Sharif family has found it necessary to produce evidence, indeed engage counsel, shows the success of the PTI. However, that success cannot be regarded as complete till the aim of giving Imran Khan the executive authority is achieved. The Panamagate case is a goal towards this end. It is possible that Hamid Khan withdrew from the case because he realised that it would be lost. The letter from the Qatari prince might not be of impeccable evidentiary value, but still it is better than the nothing that the other side has put forward.
The aim is not so much the removal of Mian Nawaz from office as to ensure that he is disqualified from contesting future elections. The Qatari letter provides a defence against this, placing the Park Lane flats outside the knowledge of the Prime Minister. The flats are said to have been initially the ownership of the partnership formed by Mian Sharif and Sheikh Jassem bin Jaber Al-Thani, and to have been in the use of the Sharif family, even before their transfer to the Prime Minister’s sons on the winding up of the partnership.
However, while the Prime Minister’s family may have rallied around and provided evidence that he did not provide the money that bought the London flats from the proceeds of corruption, it could not rid him of the general feeling that those who went into politics were corrupt. That is perhaps because the defence involves the claim of having old money. It should be noted that this is the same defence that is proffered by the PPP to accusations of corruption made against any of the Bhuttos: that they inherited wealth. That is true, but the subtext is that only the very rich can get into politics. Therefore, if the less-than-very rich wish to get into politics, they should first make a lot of money, and then take the plunge.
This goes to the heart of democratic politics: it needs money to contest elections. That money can either come from personal coffers, or be the fruits of corruption. In a minority of countries, access to campaign contributions comes from being loyal to a party. In those countries, being out of office is not as serious a hardship as in countries like Pakistan. In such countries, the need to be in office causes defections and floor-crossings. Back in 1988, Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister after an 11-year hiatus, is said to have tolerated corruption because there was no other way to get the money to fight succeeding elections. Indeed, one reason why the ‘Pajero Group’ is supposed to have come into existence in the PPP is because it felt the need to have ‘electables’ on its side. ‘Electables’ are those who can contest an election without support (that is, money) from their party. The entry of ‘electables’ into the PTI has coincided with the disaffection of original party workers. Original party workers are those who cannot contest elections, just as much as party chief Imran Khan cannot become Prime Minister (not having ‘electables’ on his side). PPP (and PTI) workers seek a party which can put up ordinary people, who can either fight an election on a shoestring budget, or who can rely on party funds for elections.
The problem with such money is that it then tends to be diverted. A culture develops of viewing election expenses as an investment to be recouped. The road to corruption is opened. Public office is viewed as opportunity to recoup election expenses, not as one for public service. The voting public perceives this, and assumes (with bright, but not absolute, chances of being right) that anyone entering politics is corrupt.
This perception dovetails with a military view. The military gets a middle-class existence, with fewer opportunities for corruption. The military sees politicians as corrupt, something which the PTI shares, and which is at the root of the current case. The Sharifs are particularly upsetting because they are wealthy independent of politics. The Qatari prince’s letter and the lawyers’ switcheroos are on the surface; whatever the result of the case, envy lies at its root. It should not be forgotten that the case coincides with the impending retirement of the Chief of Army Staff, whose entire tenure was plagued by calls for him to take over, with the PTI being suspected of merely being a front organisation for this. If the Prime Minister gets off, despite the gnashing of teeth by the PTI, he will still have to fend off the challenge from the new COAS, a challenge he might wish to avoid, but which others will be only too willing to make.