The Pakistan Supreme Court has handed a double-edged breather to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It has dismissed a plea from his political opponents that he should be disqualified for not speaking the truth to the country’s parliament and its people about his family investments in offshore companies, but also ordered that the Sharif family’s offshore holdings should be investigated by a Joint Investigation Team.
The JIT is to have both military and civilian representatives, and has been given 60 days to finish its task, with weekly reports to the court. The five judge bench, led by the chief justice, was itself split 3-2 on the verdict. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who headed the bench, was one of the two judges who wanted Sharif to be disqualified, and his damning remarks against the prime minister in his dissenting note, make it difficult for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) to claim complete victory.
In passing the investigation on to the JIT, the court has ensured that even as it avoided taking the extreme step of unseating a prime minister and plunging the country into uncertainty, a sword still hangs over Sharif, and the issue remains politically alive in the year before the next parliamentary elections, due in May 2018.
The main petitioner in the case before the court was Imran Khan’s Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf. The PTI has been determined on Sharif’s removal from office from the time of his election back in 2013, alleging first that the PML(N) had rigged the entire election, then grabbing the opportunity provided by the Panama Papers leaks, through which details of the Sharif family’s offshore accounts first came into the public domain.
The Pakistan Army, under the-then Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, appeared to be supporting the campaign against Prime Minister Sharif but the new chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, has been careful not to take sides. But there can be no denying that the details of the Sharif family’s wealth, discussed in open court during the long-drawn out hearing, and the contradictory explanations that Sharif’s lawyers came up with, have all weakened the PML(N).
Whatever the JIT throws up, it can be expected that the allegations of corruption against the Sharif family will dominate the run-up to the next elections. This also means that for the present, India-Pakistan relations, which have recently nosedived over the Kulbhushan Jadhav issue, are not set to improve any time soon.
Though New Delhi has been the one to lay down the red lines and demand compliance on the issue of terrorism as a precondition for talks over the last 16 months, Sharif’s oft-stated interest in making peace with India was always seen as a silver lining in the bilateral vacuum. Sharif and the PML(N) are bound to be less interested in ties with India and more preoccupied now on how to overcome the cloud of corruption that continues to hang over him.