Politics, at its core, is the art of gaining and retaining power. Frequently visualised as the cunning move of a Machiavellian King, made across the shifting sands of a human chessboard, politics has a singular objective: victory. And in in pursuit of this objective, the political rumble is devoid (for the most part) of the ephemeral notions of morality and truth. If that is too harsh an assessment, at least this much can be accepted: when political objectives collide with morality and truth, the later are made to bend (if not yield) in order to serve the ends of political power.
And this, in short, is the reality of the political drama surrounding Panama Leaks in Pakistan today.
To put this in context, however, a cursory glance at our recent political history is necessary. Over the past few decades, political power, in Pakistan, has been shared between the military, the civilian ruling junta, and the judiciary (factoring in the Iftikhar Chaudhry years). And each of them has made their share of untrue promises and disingenuous moral commitments, in order to attain and then retain political power.Each time that khaki footsteps have knocked at the doors of political power, with that familiar “Merey aziz hum-watano…” speech, they have promised a minimalist intrusion of democracy, a short time-frame for elections, and wide-spread accountability among the powerful elite. And every time, what started off as seemingly earnest promises of a surgical strike to eliminate democratic hurdles, soon disintegrated into unshakable grips of a military empire. With power achieved, through whatever illegal means necessary, military leaders dispensed with the inconvenience of truth and morality. The politics of power no longer required truth to factor into the equation. The truth of power was simple: hold on to it, at the cost of all else.
Then there was that time when a great movement of the Black-Coats achieved the impossible: they challenged a military ruler and won. The people of Pakistan shook off their khaki shadow, and turned their expectant gaze towards a man in robes, who wore the Constitution on his sleeves. This was our moment, a lot of us though. Authoritarianism had met its just end; now is the time for law, justice, morality and (wait for it…) truth! While the honourable Judge was not the Prime Minister, he was no less. In fact, he was much more, as demonstrated from his summary dismissal of the Prime Minister. The promises made in that great movement were euphoric. Riasat ho gi Maa’a ke jaisi, we believed, har shehri se pyaar kare gi… But while we did not realise it back then, this was politics, not constitutionalism. It was necessary to make such promises, for the sake of power, even if there was no intention of keeping them. And soon, the king in robes amassed the same kind of authoritative power for which his predecessor, in khakis, had been challenged. And somewhere in this metamorphosis, the oasis of truth disappeared behind the sands of power politics again.
Cometh civilian democratic parties. And with them, a sense that these political leaders, while being inept, even incompetent, are answerable to the public will. That it is imperative for them to speak (some measure of) truth, and abide by the basic tenets of public morality in order to have some remote possibility of succeeding at the ballot. There was reason to believe that these governments would stand by their commitment of reviving the economy, of fixing the power-sector shortage, of reducing unemployment and inflation, and (importantly) of bringing back the looted money that has been parked in secret places outside of Pakistan. How could they not fulfill some measure of these promises? Do they not know that the people, the electorate, in today’s media age, watch every move and recount every misstep? And yet, over the past eight years, the Zardari government (with its millions parked in Swiss accounts and Surrey Palaces) and the Sharif family (with Panama Leaks being the tip of its iceberg) have been able to renege on their promises, avoiding truth every step of the way, in pursuit of that age-old objective of power. And why should they not? This is politics, after all. And the people of this country seem to be showing no indication of ever choosing truth over politics.
Turning to the situation at hand. Is Nawaz Sharif telling the truth about his family’s assets, or at least his knowledge thereof? Maybe, maybe not. Is Chaudhry Nisar speaking the truth about the king’s family? Maybe. But is it possible that the Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Safdar, Hussain Nawaz, Hassan Nawaz, and Chaudhry Nisar are all telling the truth. Certainly not! Just by virtue of the inconsistencies in their statement, some of them, and perhaps all of them, are telling all the lies necessary to hide the king’s wealth and wrongdoing. And this, for all intents and purposes, is how politics works (at least in Pakistan).The opposition political parties, most of who are no better in terms of the skeletons in their closet, will drum up the requisite noise to overthrow the king. Our media will play it up, along partisan lines, for its own ratings and sensationalism. But at the end of it all, even if it is proven that Nawaz Sharif and his family lied about their companies in Panama, it will not compel the king or his fellow politicians to come clean with the nation about the entirety of their assets (looted wealth?). The justifications being rendered – about Nawaz Sharif’s father being a rich businessman, or Zardari making legitimate money through partnership with Malik Riaz, or even Imran Khan making his millions through county cricket – might provide a quasi-plausible justification to their supporters; enough for our political drama to continue spinning on its access, and for loyalists to defend their masters on daily talk-shows. But none of it will be the entire truth. Because the ‘entire truth’ finds no space in the political equation. And this – the ongoing Panama Leaks saga – is an episode of political drama, not a barren exercise in search for truth.
It is possible that, in the coming days, our opposition political parties and the government come to some form of a consensus in terms of the terms of reference for an inquiry into the matter. It is even possible, thereafter, that an Inquiry Commission of the Supreme Court deliberates and concludes on the evidence presented. Speaking truth to power is not the same as speaking law to politics. But search for and deriving half-truths, through our instruments of law, will still not cleanse our system of its corruption. Even if the same topples the incumbent government, it will not infuse a sense of accountability in the political junta, across the board. Because speaking law to politics is not the same as speaking truth to power.
It is time that our nation accepts this reality. And through acceptance, arrive at a decision: do we want to continue seeing this musical chair of corrupt governance – be it PML-N, PPP, PTI or even our robed and khaki saviours? Or do we, instead, want to unshackle from this tainted legacy, and not only dethrone the king, but also torch this political culture where power is the only currency of truth?