Pakistan News

RED ZONE FILES: Judging the judge

Maryam Nawaz Sharif is getting good at naming names. In fact, she may be making a habit of it, much to the discomfort of those being named. If in doubt, ask retired judge Saqib Nisar.

On Wednesday, Maryam was on fire, but in an understated way. She didn’t raise her voice, but she raised the political and judicial temperature fairly high by putting the former chief justice in the dock. A reversal of roles if ever there was one, but one that was waiting to happen. A dam is bursting with allegations against a man who, ironically, spent much precious time, and judicial capital, fetishising a dam. That fetish may have been laid to rest, but the accusations of years past clearly have not. Saqib Nisar is now — metaphorically speaking — on the run.

But can he actually outrun what may be coming his way? The toxic fallout of the crisis that erupted with the publication of the Panama Papers five years ago continues to drizzle down like acid rain. The judicialisation of politics, and vice versa, has led to strange institutional entanglements that are hard to unknot. Perhaps even impossible. After Maryam’s presser on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan delivered an impassioned speech at the Kamyab Jawan programme and reminded us of the two extremes that are today defining the parameters of Pakistan’s political discourse. After informing the audience about his success as a cricketer and a philanthropist, the PM rubbished the Saqib Nisar Leaks and explained that this was all part of the strategy by the Sharifs to hide their corruption.




If it only were just that.

Beyond the partisan warring and political wrestling, there is a grudging acknowledgement on all sides that the events of the last five years do not pass the smell test. Much has happened in all arenas in this period that may not stand the pressure of scrutiny. History will not be kind to many who shaped these events. But while we may have to wait for history’s verdict, other more pressing matters have already begun to take a toll on institutions, individuals and reputations. As is usual in such affairs, timing is key.

Judge Saqib Nisar unfortunately is not in control of the timing. He may in fact become collateral damage in a fight that is increasing in ferocity with each passing day. In the end what he said in the audio leak, or what he did not say, will matter less than how his fall from grace fits into the larger pattern being painted across the political horizon. The judge, it appears now, may be judged in a court where evidence is what you believe it is. When public opinion turns judge, jury and executioner, it shows little mercy.

More so when such opinion is used as high octane fuel for scorching up a new political path. Increasingly within the Red Zone there is hushed talk of events overtaking predictions in the next few months. In fact, the mention of the next months is circulating with greater zest from both sides of the aisle. The opposition is increasingly confident that Saqib Nisar’s dam is not the only one that has started leaking.

But there is a difference between a leak and a rupture. The smarter ones within the PDM appreciate the difference, and don’t want it proven at their expense. This explains why the alliance meets and meets and can’t really make up its mind what to do next. It smells an opportunity, and feels an opportunity, but it cannot reach out and touch the opportunity. What if it’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors? The fear lurks deep within the dark crevices of the alliance’s neuro-space. Once bitten twice shy, thrice bitten….

And yet — yet again, there is this temptation to reach out for the forbidden fruit, to bet it all on the roulette wheel in a final flourish, to throw in all chips on the hand that may not hold all aces — ah, there’s this desperate gambler’s instinct that comes into play when you have nothing more to lose, except everything.

Between now and the late arrival of spring next year is where the game is, or at least that’s the word on the carpeted street inside the Red Zone. Beyond that, all bets are off. The interplay between the ruling coalition, the opposition coalition and the institutional coalition will begin to sway to a predictable rhythm if a certain calendar milestone is passed. The logic of the Red Zone can be breathtakingly simple in its complexity.

And so it all filters down to this: Can Imran Khan notify a powerful appointment next year before opposition’s moves can lead to him being de-notified? It is a battle of wits because the deck has been reshuffled and the best laid plans may yet have a shelf life.

This segues into the changing nature of the battle wherein people like Saqib Nisar — once strategic players — are being traded like mere pawns in a blood-soaked campaign that has become much larger than him, his ambitions, and definitely his legacy. The judge is in a cold, harsh and perhaps lonely place.

According to insiders, for now, however, the path ahead is uncertain and fraught with danger. The PDM may look confident but it is not, the government may look secure but it is not, and the establishment may look clear, but it is not. It’s a political traffic jam on D-Chowk and no traffic police in sight. All drivers are honking, and cursing and refusing to reverse their way out of the mess. We have been down this road before, and it ain’t been pretty. December promises to clear things. Except, not really. The entanglement will at some point be disentangled, and the knot will at some point be un-knotted, but till then the war will wage on its own momentum, and combatants will be felled by their own swords, and the leaders will rise and fall with their own choices — for such is the outcome of epic conflicts that have no heroes and no villains.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2021

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