The PML(N) narrative of a popular Prime Minister ousted by the military through a compliant Supreme Court needs amendment, with the disqualification of Pakistan Tehreek Insaf Secretary-General Jahangir Tareen by the Supreme Court and its dismissal of the National Accountability Bureau’s application for the reference of the Hudaibia Paper Mills reference, though its refusal to disqualify PTI Chairman Imran Khan in the first case left something of that narrative intact.
While it might have been posited by PML(N) hardliners that the decision disqualifying Mian Nawaz Sharif as MNA, and thus as Prime Minister, had been instigated by the military, which wanted a means of getting rid of him, while not having to take over itself, the ouster of Tareen showed that this was not the case. Meanwhile, the dismissal of the charges against Imran would support the original narrative, as it meant that Imran, who led the campaign against the Sharifs, remained in the field, exonerated of any wrongdoing. As Imran, in this view, was merely the tool of the military, his preservation was the result of the need to keep him in the run, while Tareen’s disqualification was meant to burnish the image of the judiciary, and make the decision against Mian Nawaz show that he was indeed corrupt, and not just a victim.
This narrative does not take account of the possibility that the decisions are merely based on the provisions of the law. It must not be forgotten that financial crime is an abstruse area of law, at the intersection of the criminal and the commercial law. Proving financial crime has usually been difficult. It is easy enough to say that the guilty should be strung up, but it is one thing to punish someone who has committed a blatant crime, like murder or robbery, and another to punish someone who has a position of power for misusing it. The crook may well be beetle-browed and shifty-eyed, the elected leader prosperous-looking and well-fed.
The PTI has been particularly damaged, because it had initially enjoyed, and even fostered, a clean image. It tried to paint its Panamagate campaign as one against corruption rather than against the Prime Minister. It has tried to portray itself as fighting against corruption, not trying to bring down the Prime Minister so that he could be replaced by Imran Khan. That its Secretary-General has been disqualified is a grievous blow to this clean image. The PTI has also found itself having to act as sneakily to disguise the change. First, it has refused to join the PML (N) in its criticism of the judiciary. By refusing to criticize the military as the author of its misfortune, it merely runs the risk of not joining the two mainstream parties in their anti-military narrative, stronger in the PPP rather than the PML(N). The ability of the military to take over reflects its continued political role, also the fact that when it is pointed out that it has a political role, the pointer-out is almost casually labelled as anti-national and unpatriotic. The PTI has previously been careful to avoid becoming seen as in any way opposed to the armed forces.
Another important dimension of these decisions is who benefits. It has been assumed that the disqualification of Tareen will somehow meet with the approval of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the electable who is the current PTI Vice-Chairman. Qureshi had resigned from the Gilani government as Foreign Minister to join the PTI. Qureshi has been mentioned as a potential Prime Minister, especially if Imran was disqualified. He had been one of those named for that slot in the Musharraf era, though nothing seems to have come of the plan. Qureshi has a history of coming to more challenging assignments as time goes on. He was first an ordinary MPA, but when he entered the Punjab Cabinet in 1988, it was as Finance Minister. At the federal level, when he became an MNA, he was inducted into Benazir Bhutto’s team as minister of state or agricultural development, but became Foreign Minister in 2008, when the PPP returned to office. He left that prestigious portfolio, the National Assembly, and the PPP, to join the PTI. Perhaps his benefit is not so much because his becoming Prime Minister, something that will not happen now that Imran has not been disqualified. Further making this improbable, is the possibility that the PTI will not form the government, because the decision spoils some of the cleanliness of its image.
Shah Mehmood might benefit from two things; first, there is now a vacancy that he might hope to fill. The office of secretary-general has not yet fallen vacant, now that Imran has asked Tareen to continue. Tareen had resigned, even though the recent amendment to the law allows him to continue. The amendment was made to accommodate Mian Nawaz Sharif, and let him continue as PML(N) President even though ousted as MNA, and thus as PM. The PTI had been vociferous in criticizing the amendment, and the use to which it had been put, and thus would further its impression of impropriety if it took advantage of this impression. Another potential benefit is the elimination, or at least diminution, of Tareen from South Punjab politics. Shah Mahmood had no other real rival in that area, over which he has a strong influence as the gaddi nashin of Bahauddin Zikriya. It is that position which has given him a following in Sindh, which he had used in the hope (vain so far) that it would translate into votes for the PTI there.
While Shah Mahmood may have gained from the first case, it is Mian Shehbaz Sharif who has gained from the second. The Hudaibia Paper Mills case was the only one which implicated Mian Shehbaz. He is not involved in any of the cases which have led to Mian Nawaz’s disqualification, and which have seen him charged in an accountability court along with his sons, daughter and son-in-law. The only member of his immediate family not facing a criminal charge, his wife, is at the moment fighting for her life against cancer. Mian Shehbaz has been passed over for the Prime Ministership as well as the party presidency. The present decision in no way opens the prospect of Mian Nawaz returning to electoral politics, but it does keep Mian Shehbaz in the field. It is another matter that there have already been strong rumours of tension between the brothers, and between their children, over the perception that the younger might replace the elder, because he is more acceptable to the establishment.
There is another prospect still to be faced in both cases, that of the review petitions. The PTI is quite clear that it will file a review petition seeking Tareen’s exoneration. Indeed, his resignation has not been accepted, merely kept pending until the review petition has been decided. Similarly, NAB is considering a review petition to allow it to re-open the Hudaibia Paper Mills case. However, legal experts give neither petition much chance of success. In that case, the present decisions will stand, and while the PTI will have to do without Jehangir Tareen’s services (and Imran having to make do without his plane), the PML(N) will continue to benefit from Mian Shehbaz’s.