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Sharif wins Round 1 as Imran trails: What next?

Published : Apr 24, 2017, 1:18 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2017, 1:18 am IST

The whole damn episode, instead of bringing him down, may have bullet-proofed him electorally.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)
 Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

The predictable has happened, but now comes the unpredictable part: What next? Forget the law, let’s get to the politics of it. At least the timeline is clear.

Thirty days to the month of switching off followed by Eid. Sixty days to a report that can’t be done. In between an election-year budget session.

Already, an early start to summer — usually four or five months long, this year threatening an agonising six. In a year, a general election and before that, in 10 months or so, a senate election. Busy like hell. So, who’d you rather be: Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan? Get out your crystal ball and let’s indulge in Pakistan’s favourite sport: politics.

Start with Mr Sharif, the clear winner this week. Winner because he still has his job; winner because Maryam has emerged unscathed; and winner because his fate is in his own hands now. But winner mostly because this will have gone down well with the base — and possibly, ominously, beyond. Forget the silliness of a 2-3 split and the faux-literary opening paragraphs. In the world of politics, a very different accounting applies.

And this is it: Mr Sharif had no clue Panama would happen; he couldn’t have anticipated the scrutiny; he didn’t really want this probe; the Isloo lockdown threat and a CJP looking to legacy on his way out made the hearings happen.

The hearings were held in a hostile environment, daily political screeds outside and withering remarks inside; the N-League looked shaken and Mr Sharif’s lawyers uncertain. Then came a long, rumour-filled and conspiracy-fuelled wait for a verdict; Mr Sharif was going, going, gone. And yet, here he is, still among us, still PM.

The whole damn episode, instead of bringing him down, may have bullet-proofed him electorally. Because politically there are really only two options. Either Mr Sharif is clean or he’s got the establishment on his side. And either of those options may as well be electoral gold for him. If you’re thinking you’ll eat your hat if Mr Sharif is clean, save yourself a perfectly decent hat. Clean electorally is the chap who isn’t stupid or unfortunate enough to get caught.

With the N-League base, Mr Sharif  stands vindicated. Nothing, not the combined hostility of the Opposition, media and possibly the judiciary, was able to prove a single thing against him. The flip side of believing the judicial process is flawed, is believing that the judicial process can be rigged.

For the N-League base, surely, Mr Sharif surviving by the narrowest of margins is him surviving the most vicious of attacks. If your enemies can’t slay you, even when they gang up, there’s a leader worth supporting. The base is secure.

More ominous is the potential effect beyond. The core of the PTI is the anti-corruption, urban cohort. If the census/constituency demarcation process delivers on time, the PTI core’s electoral footprint will grow. The court may have just handed Mr Sharif a tool to prise away a part of the PTI’s core.

Think of it this way. In 2013, if you hated Asif Ali Zardari and Mr Sharif’s corruption and felt Mr Khan may deliver, you’d have voted PTI.

The next time round, if after the greatest scrutiny in the history of politics, nothing is proven against Mr Sharif; if the N-League has delivered reasonably on its 2013 electoral promises; and if you have been tired of Mr Khan’s single-issue politics — would you maybe give him another look?

That’s all Mr Sharif needs — a second look. And just maybe — and surely inadvertently — the court itself has buttressed the case for some PTI voters giving Mr Sharif a second look with this business of bringing the boys in. If he survives the JIT, it would be the triple crown. First, the international dimension, the Panama Papers, ended up proving nothing. Now, the Supreme Court itself, after months and months of the most intense scrutiny, has found nothing.

Next, if an investigation that ropes in the boys themselves ends up proving nothing definitive — by God, who the hell wouldn’t want to be Mr Sharif?

And if you go with the other option, that Mr Sharif has somehow brought the judicial-military establishment onto his side, that he’s done some backroom deal, then nothing like it. Vote for a popular, results-delivering, three-term Punjabi Prime Minister who knows how to work with or prevail over the system?

The N-League may as well start printing ballots now. But then there’s that year-long timeline ahead. And that’s why we had the spectacle of twin celebrations this week.

The PTI may be a one-trick pony — go Nawaz, go — but it’s a trick that’s allowed it to fight the N-League to a draw. The PTI today is essentially where the PTI was four years ago: second, behind the N-League. A distant second maybe, but still second and arguably within striking distance if the stars align and the N-League stumbles. And both could still happen.

There’s a funny thing about the five-year parliamentary system we’ve settled on: it feels out of sync with our politics. The last time round, the fifth year had a touch of superfluousness to it; of political capital spent, ideas expired and a desultory wait for the political executioner. Four years is enough, five a bit too much.

Mr Khan and the PTI will know that. Mr Sharif and the PML-N will fear it. Not for nothing is politics the national sport.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, imran khan, panama leak, asif ali zardari