The recent split judgment of the Pakistan Supreme Court, giving the country’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif breathing space by appointing a joint investigation team (JIT) to probe the Panama Papers’ claims of financial irregularities by him and his family, has changed the strategic scenario in the country.
The JIT comprises members of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), Military Intelligence (MI) and the ISI.
It has been granted two months to complete its probe and submit its findings. Whether it does so or seeks an extension, time would tell. However, it has set a precedent which would only harm the nation and the political leadership in the days ahead. It would alter the strategic balance in the country and severely affect civil-military interface and India-Pakistan relations.
It is known in Pakistan that the deep state, comprising the ISI and the army, are the main power base, the political leadership being mere pawns in their hands. Sharif had hoped that by appointing General Qamar Bajwa as the new army chief, superseding others, he would be in the driver’s seat, as it appeared that General Bajwa was a strong believer of democratic governance.
This now seems to change. Sharif and his government are already being sidelined by the deep state as events in recent times seem to indicate.
The announcement of the launch of the latest anti-terror operation, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, spread across the country including Punjab, was made by the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor, and not the government, which was only logical.
In a similar manner, the conduct of the military trial of Kulbhushan Jadhav, the supposed Indian spy, and the announcement of death sentence was done by the ISPR. In both cases, the government was left red-faced and struggled to handle the aftermath. Calls for consular access have been denied because the army is unwilling.
The Supreme Court order has only added fuel to the fire. The JIT has representatives of the ISI and MI as members. Officially, the head of the ISI is appointed by the Prime Minister on the recommendations of the army chief and is supposed to report directly to him. The reality is far from this.
The man you appointed now controls you and your government. Photo: Reuters
The Dawn newspaper of Pakistan officially commented that other than these two agencies (ISI and MI), all others report to the Prime Minister, hence possibly affecting the probe. The fact that two agencies report to the army chief implies that the final leverage would remain in his hands.
Nominating of a spy agency (ISI) which controls terror groups operating against India and Afghanistan, as also a military intelligence agency being part of a JIT investigating financial irregularities and purchase of properties abroad, beats all logic.
The probe is not on selling military secrets or terror funding or anti-national activities or spying, hence does not warrant involvement of military agencies. The only possible reason is the hold of the deep state in the country, as also its ability to influence the courts.
It should be remembered that setting up of military courts undermines belief and faith in their own judicial system and yet the Supreme Court maintained silence, without even challenging its formation.
This decision by the Supreme Court is a game-changer. Earlier, all other civilian agencies had refused to conduct the probe, stating that the investigation does not fall within their charter, except the ISI and MI, which were then not even remotely involved.
However, with this decision the army is clearly in the driver’s seat. It can directly influence the probe, move it in the manner in which it wishes to, embarrass the Prime Minister if it so desires, as also threaten the very survival of the government and the party.
It can delay the final submission stating it needs more time, hence hold all cards till the time is right. The Prime Minister and his government are now pawns in the hands of the army chief, who now controls all the cards and is the de facto head of state.
Thus, civil-military relations in Pakistan are now tilting clearly in favour of the army. This would thus impact India-Pakistan relations. While presently relations between the two nations are at their lowest ebb, there was hope that the two Prime Ministers could meet on the sidelines of the SCO summit about two months away in Russia.
There were thoughts that it could herald a small shift in relations. Sharif came to power promising improvement in ties with India. Every step that he wanted to take was shot in the back by the deep state.
With limited time left for fresh elections, this could possibly be his last chance. However, with this judgment nothing can be expected. He would be compelled to sing the army tune, independence of thought having vanished into thin air.
The Pakistan Supreme Court, in one short and swift judgment, has altered the balance of power in the country as also adversely affected international relations. In the ultimate count, it would be most humiliating for a Prime Minister to present himself before junior staff members whenever summoned.
The opposition may keep calling for his resignation, which he can very well turn down, but the humiliation would remain. The only one left smiling at the end of the day is the army chief, who holds all aces up his sleeve, threatening to release them whenever he desires.
For Nawaz Sharif, it is once again an irony of fate. The man you appointed now controls you and your government. This has always been Sharif’s waterloo. For India, there is no option but to continue challenging Pakistan in every sphere, as any small hope of any de-escalation seems to fade.