Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Business Recorder Editorial May 17, 2016

A damp squib Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif took some coaxing and nudging by the opposition to put in one of his rare appearances in parliament on Monday, May 16. The occasion and circumstances too were exceptional, arousing a great deal of anticipation since he was expected to present a policy statement on the floor of the house on the ongoing Panama Papers controversy. As it turned out, however, the 'grand' occasion petered out like a damp squib. First and foremost, Nawaz Sharif's address to the National Assembly (he did not pay any heed to Senate Opposition Leader Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan's pleas to grace the upper house too with his presence) seemed part reiteration, part an extension of his two addresses to the country on television since the Panama leaks put the spotlight on his and his family's offshore companies and wealth. Nawaz Sharif droned on once again about his family's business history, their rise and fall, travails and triumphs, a tale neither full of sound and fury nor meaning to the assembled audience inside the house and the millions glued to their television sets throughout the country. The opposition having agreed beforehand with the treasury and Speaker not to disrupt the house proceedings, sat in stony silence through this familiar retelling of the rise and rise of the Sharif business empire. When he had finished, the PM presented a set of documents related to his and his family's business and tax affairs to the Speaker and then sat back, seemingly pleased with his performance. However, as luck would have it, both the PM and the treasury benches were in for a rude shock. Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah seemed to capture the mood of his colleagues on his side of the aisles by making a brief but pithy statement. He said that they had come expecting to hear the PM's answers to the seven questions they had posed regarding the PM and his family's business affairs in the light of the Panama leaks revelations, but were disappointed to note that they had not heard any mention of, let alone answers to, their simple and straightforward seven questions. By taking the house and the country on a long detour of the Sharif family's business history, their simple seven questions had now been transformed into 70. Khursheed Shah said he would not like to waste the time of the house any further after the PM's (off the track) tour de force and would stage a walkout with all his opposition colleagues. This posture overtook even Imran Khan's desire to deliver a broadside against the PM, for which he seemed to have come armed with a sheaf of documents. However, this was not to be, partly perhaps because in time-honoured style, the state television (the only channel allowed to cover parliament's proceedings) blacked out Imran's initial remarks, partly perhaps because he was advised to adhere to the opposition's collective decision to register their protest at the PM's ignoring their seven queries by walking out. All was not lost in this regard though. Outside parliament, the opposition, including Imran Khan, whaled into the PM for 'evading' their pertinent questions. Imran Khan brandished his own and Nawaz Sharif's purported London properties documents to try and establish that Nawaz Sharif had lied about the dates and other details of the Sharifs' London flats. The opposition announced they would meet Tuesday (yesterday) at 10:00 am to chalk out their next steps. At the time of writing these lines, the opposition's three hour meeting ended with the revelation that the MQM, which had surprisingly joined the opposition walkout, opted out of the opposition meeting, if not the opposition ranks per se. The meeting decided to end the boycott of parliament at the request of the Speaker, but how they intend this return to play out vis-a-vis their Panama campaign remains to be seen. The opposition's tactics in and outside parliament caused surprise and even consternation, and not just amongst the government's ranks. There was also some criticism of the 'wasted' opportunity to confront the PM inside parliament on his revelations, amongst which the most intriguing perhaps was the saga of how the Sharifs had set up two steel mills in Dubai and Jeddah, eventually sold them and used the proceeds to buy the London flats. The assertion being that no money had been transferred from Pakistan for this purpose. What is still not clear however, is the source of the investments in Dubai and Jeddah. This could be counted amongst the 70 new questions Khursheed Shah says have arisen after the PM's address. As far as can be discerned, the impasse between the government and opposition continues. The gulf between them may well have widened in the wake of the PM's perceived 'evasion'. How this will play out from here is still up in the air, the return of the opposition to parliament notwithstanding. Unless sanity and maturity prevails between the two sides, the impasse could end up upsetting the applecart not only of the incumbent government, but also that of the democratic edifice as a whole. Before any such point is reached, both sides need to put their collective thinking caps on to find a credible investigative process and platform to sort out the Panama Papers mess and avoid the pitfalls of a systemic breakdown.

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