Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Business Recorder editorial Oct 18, 2016

Do or die? Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan has revealed a change of date for the party’s sit-in in Islamabad from the original October 30 to November 2. Imran Khan put forward a rather lame explanation that the date had been changed in deference to the wishes of prominent lawyer and a leader of the party Hamid Khan who had conveyed the concern of the lawyers’ fraternity regarding the Supreme Court Bar Association elections on October 31. But the more plausible explanation appears to be the PTI’s revised thinking that the original date of October 30 falls on a Sunday and the weekly off day may dilute the impact of the PTI’s threatened shutdown of the federal capital. Imran Khan reiterated his stance that the sit-in and lockdown would continue until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif either resigns or submits himself to accountability in the light of the Panama papers revelations. The question is, if the first option is not acceptable to the government, how is the second one to be exercised? It would be useful to recall that the government’s initial response to Panamagate was to approach the Chief Justice of Pakistan to conduct an inquiry into the matter under the 1956 Inquiries Act. The honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan threw the ball back into the government’s court by characterising any inquiry under the 1956 law as ‘toothless’, and asked the government to enact a new law to empower any commission of inquiry to be constituted for the purpose. The roadblock has been the lack of consensus between the treasury and opposition benches on the Terms of Reference (ToRs) of the inquiry. Whereas the opposition wanted central focus on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (and his family), the government objected that the prime minister’s name had not figured in the Panama leaks, therefore he should not be the main focus of the inquiry. Instead, the bill drafted by the government widened the scope of the inquiry tremendously to include matters such as written off bank loans, etc. In the opposition’s view, this would so widen the scope as to take the focus away from the Panamagate issue and lengthen the inquiry to a point where it would be rendered endless and therefore useless. Many meetings between the government and opposition negotiators later, no meeting of minds has emerged. The opposition has introduced its own bill along the lines it prefers. There the matter stands at present. PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi in a television show the other day suggested that if the government were to cooperate in passing the opposition’s bill, thereby starting the process of inquiry, the dire consequences feared from an attempt to lockdown the federal capital and keep it paralysed indefinitely could be avoided. Without reading too much into it, this could be viewed as a proffered ‘carrot’, in contrast with the bloodcurdling ‘stick’ Imran Khan continues to beat the government with. There are real concerns that if the government decides to pre-empt the sit-in by arresting the PTI leader/s or prevent entry into Islamabad or tries to uproot the sit-in, in all three scenarios the prospect of violence (and perhaps bloodshed) looms large. The fallout from an all out confrontation between the PTI and the government may produce uncertain and far reaching results. Hence the need for cooler heads. The best option that presents itself in the present scenario is for both sides to return to a dialogue in and through parliament to settle on a bill that satisfies both substantially enough to make compromise and consensus possible. If and when the bill is agreed and passed, it will set in motion the Panamagate accountability process, rendering the need for street agitation superfluous and unnecessary. Such a development would also answer Imran Khan’s continuing castigation of institutions of the state for failing to address the issue meaningfully. If such a positive turn can be brought about, it would be good for the country as well as the still precarious democratic system.

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