Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court (SC) in the Panama case under the Representation of the People Act 1976 for failing to declare his chairmanship of an offshore company belonging to his son, particularly that he did not declare the salary receivable, but not drawn, for this post. This, according to the SC, attracted the provisions of Article 62(1)(f), meaning he was not saadiq and ameen (truthful and honest). The verdict implies that the mountain of charges of Nawaz Sharif and his family living beyond their known sources of income, owning offshore companies and properties abroad that could not be justified through a legitimate money trail (implying money laundering), could not be proved through clinching evidence, despite the backbreaking (and controversial) efforts of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up by the SC to investigate the matter. Some commentators have likened the reliance on a relatively minor misdemeanour to arrive at the disqualification to making a mountain out of a molehill. The charges referred to above have been ordered by the SC to be investigated and cases instituted against Nawaz Sharif and his near and dear ones by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). A great deal of comment, complimentary and critical, has already appeared on the media regarding the verdict. From the tone and tenor of the protagonists, it would not be unrealistic to expect this to continue, rendering the SC verdict itself potentially controversial, rather than the ‘historic’ judgement promised by the SC when the case was still ongoing. Briefly, it would not be inaccurate to describe the verdict welcoming party as the opposition and the naysayers and critics as the PML-N and its allies, with a sprinkling of a divided legal community and civil society thrown in for good measure. The whole case and the two verdicts, April 2017 and now July 2017, the composition and manner of investigation by the JIT, the formation and functioning of the (three) benches of the SC and the final grounds for disqualification have all engendered a great deal of controversy and to and fro for the last year or so. The distraction has brought the business of governance virtually to a halt. For a country beset with serious security, economic and political problems, this was a hiatus scarcely affordable.
Nevertheless, now that the marathon case has run its course and the final verdict has been accepted with as much grace as the PML-N could muster, it would not be inappropriate to glance at another potential fallout of the case. If the chorus of cries across the political and social divide for across the board accountability and putting the high, mighty and wealthy in the dock for corruption and like misdemeanours is taken note of, it may be an appropriate moment to caution those who are celebrating the case’s outcome as their victory that the verdict may turn out to be a double edged sword. Cases of a similar type are in the courts and before the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) regarding sources of income and wealth against Imran Khan, Jahangir Tareen and other Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leaders. The party’s ranks have expressed concerns that the principle laid down by the SC in the Panama case may come back to haunt them. The closed cases against former president Asif Ali Zardari could potentially be reopened if the demand for across the board accountability acquires more momentum. In short, controversial or not, the provisions of Articles 62 and 63 could come back to haunt the political class entire. Imran Khan, who has led the charge against Nawaz Sharif and his family since the 2013 election, could conceivably end up being hoist by his own petard if he is unable to satisfy the SC and the ECP regarding his own money trail for the London flat he owned and other property matters. Whether, as he claims, everything is kosher in his cupboard or not, the Panama case verdict could well end up opening a Pandora’s box of such cases against the members of the political class. If that were indeed to transpire, it will become increasingly difficult to retain as an exception the traditional self-accountability of powerful state institutions, particularly the judiciary and the military. That would indeed be a change.