Panama, the Supreme Court and the future of Pakistan

The fickleness of our intellectuals is so steadfast that it deserves a gold medal

Panama, the Supreme Court and the future of Pakistan

Do you recall the magical scene in movies where the lost protagonist keeps ending up at the same place? The Pakistani nation is somewhat like that, going in circles. Nothing illustrates this circular movement better than the Panama tragi-comedy that has brought us back to square one. Déjà vu all over again.

Let me begin with a startling personal hypothesis. Most of the hundreds of educated Pakistanis I have spoken to either favour democracy or flare up and rip it into pieces. So, instead of the faux democracy-dictatorship dichotomy, I ask you to consider three politically stable countries: The US, Saudi Arabia and China. Why are these three countries, so different in their political order, so stable? I hypothesise that in every one of these, the governing elite enjoys a long-term stake. In the US, the political parties have a long-term stake. In Saudi Arabia, the ruling monarchy has a long-term stake. In China, the communist party has a long-term stake.

Now allow me to commandeer the easy metaphor of rented or owned property. Have you lived in a rented house? The minute you hear of anyone living in a rented house you can assume he will be unwilling to make long-term investments in that place. This is because he knows he will eventually move out and has no long-term stake in that temporary abode. But house owners behave differently. They ensure that the house is taken care of and worry when even minor damage occurs.

Building on the above metaphor to solve Pakistan’s perennial political dilemma, I will need to make one more startling personal assertion. If Pakistan is handed over to the armed forces to govern, but with the proviso that the lease is at least for one hundred years, I bet Pakistan will progress. If Pakistan is given to civilians for one hundred years, I again bet it will also progress. But if every ten years, governance must be rotated, and if the governing elite knows this beforehand, then that “rational actor” will be forced into worrying about the money needed to make a comeback once the Establishment changes signal from red to green.

Back to Panama. The Supreme Court is about to give its verdict. According to thousands of print and electronic analyses, the verdict can range from opening up a case against Dar to offering some remarks on Nawaz Sharif that can be interpreted either way, allowing both PML-N and PTI to claim victory, to more damaging observations against the Sharif family. And in case these remarks are strongly critical of Nawaz Sharif, the latter may opt for early elections. Of course, the stock market of Pakistan will crash, the economic development projects including our prized CPEC will slow down, and political instability will make a triumphant return like the proverbial villain in Bollywood movies. The TV anchors and the PTI will start clamouring for the third umpire.

Will the third umpire help? Let’s pull back the curtains of history to the 1950s when West Pakistan was worried about the transfer of power to the Bengalis if elections were held based on one man one vote. The answer was Martial Law. However, we eventually lost East Pakistan. In the 1970s we successfully got rid of the People’s Party for the time being. The price we paid through President Zia’s extremism-promoting culture, though, was outrageously exorbitant. We tried it a third-time post-Kargil. The results were equally dismal.

Do Pakistani opinion makers understand this? Rauf Klasra, my favourite writer in his recent column, when faced with his friend’s argument that banning Nawaz Sharif would cause problems for Pakistan, noted, “I looked at my friend in sheer amazement”. Sigh. Ayaz Amir, whom I admire for his flexible erudition — he has the confidence to publicly criticize Hafiz Saeed on TV one day only to write a column strongly in his favor the very next day, the cryptic Haroon-ur-Rasheed, even the imperturbable Nasim Zehra — almost everyone is urging the judges to “just do it”.

The funny thing is that the minute the political order changes, every single one of these analysts and anchors switches sides and starts screaming at the top of their voices in favour of democracy. Have we not seen this before in the late 1960s or as late as during the restoration campaign of former Chief Justice Iftikhar, during which Aitzaz Ahsan expertly manoeuvred the former’s SUV through the roads and politics of Pakistan?

The fickleness of our intellectuals is so steadfast that it deserves a gold medal. When I was serving as a diplomat in China, my life was made miserable every time I returned to Pakistan by roughly every interlocutor I met who would castigate our Embassy for “sleeping” while the Chinese were awarding every other country contracts. Now that we have CPEC, the same armchair experts make references to the East India Company. We invite foreigners to strike a defiant note against terrorism, but when we find they are dark-skinned we accuse them of coming from “Africa”. Sigh!

The Supreme Court will decide as it thinks fit. Since everyone has an opinion, I will also give mine: Given the heavy politicisation of Panama and due to the fact that every second TV anchor and column writer is addressing the Supreme Court to do what he thinks should be done the best solution would be to declare this a mistrial.

Pakistan possesses everything it needs to become great. The problems it faces, corruption, lack of education and health facilities, slow economic progress, can be ultimately traced back to our constant shifting between alternate forms of governance. The media now thrives on this alternation as they need crises to earn a living. But the people of Pakistan need political stability and economic progress.

Here is my third hypothesis: Corruption will not go away by banning or damaging Nawaz Sharif. He is old and unwell and may actually welcome the idea. Corruption will go away only when our home has a long-term owner. Otherwise, we will keep mimicking the movie scene. Back to square one. Déjà vu all over again.


The writer was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford where he obtained a First Class in French literature and modern history. He writes for the Daily Times