It had all the makings of a landmark judicial case: a serving prime minister and his family accused of corruption; the petitioners representing an array of political opposition; the hearings initiated by a chief justice of Pakistan, who intervened to prevent a potentially catastrophic political confrontation in Islamabad; and an evidentiary trail rooted in the explosive Panama Papers, which caused ripples across the globe.
In the end, and in a split decision, the court has found that it does not have enough evidence to give the opposition what it wants, but it does have enough doubts to demand a joint investigation team probe Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family.
The verdict was immediately hailed by the government as a victory; and, perhaps half-heartedly, used by the PTI to demand yet again that the prime minister temporarily step aside. Both reactions were predictable.
In the hours after a lengthy judgement is delivered, a full examination of its contents is unlikely; the days ahead will yield more details and informed opinion, supportive and critical of the judgement. Yet, there is an anomaly that can be immediately identified and that perhaps the court has not thought through the implications of.
The JIT itself is effectively a dead end. The record of JITs in other politically charged matters make it clear that no great surprises ought to be expected. But the inclusion of military-run intelligence agencies in a probe against a serving prime minister in matters of finance and the law is remarkable — and a precedent that should not be established.
It is not a question of who the prime minister is or civilians being above the law. There is absolutely no doubt that as prime minister, Mr Sharif must be held to a greater level of scrutiny than the average citizen. What is concerning about the composition of the JIT, especially with the inclusion of a Military Intelligence representative, is the signal it sends about the lack of institutional trust.
Civilian matters should be probed, adjudicated and resolved in the civilian domain. And if the court has little faith in civilian institutions, as it indicated in its verdict, it could have put its trust in a judicial commission.
At the heart of the Panama Papers petitions lay a simple idea — that long-standing political families in the country use the system to enhance their personal wealth. Credit for pushing that simple idea — both intuitive and with decades of circumstantial evidence to support it — all the way to the Supreme Court and against a serving prime minister must go to Imran Khan and his PTI.
Mr Khan’s tactics, especially a threatened lockdown of Islamabad, were often unwarranted and occasionally indefensible, but corruption is an undeniable facet of political life in Pakistan and must be seriously addressed.
Mr Sharif may still have his job and his family has not been convicted of any wrongdoing as yet, but it is troubling that the family appears to regard financial probity as a matter of politics — that somehow continuing political support and the backing of the electorate in the last general election means that it has nothing to answer for. At best, Mr Sharif will emerge from this episode with a tainted legacy.
If change — institution-strengthening, transparency-building, probity-enhancing change — is to come, all sides must consider their role in the present state of affairs.
The Supreme Court was unable to quell the political shenanigans the hearings attracted and mishandled public expectations with unnecessary statements from the bench. The PML-N has behaved like corruption is a figment of the public and the opposition’s imagination instead of a governance-sapping national malaise, which it is.
The opposition has peddled rumour and allegation as fact and, in the case of the PTI, is yet to develop a political vision that goes beyond the prime minister’s ouster. Meanwhile, institutions have continued to wither and parliament is in the doldrums, a neglected body from where great democratic ideas and institutional changes ought to spring.
Perhaps in the glare of the verdict, the country’s institutions and leadership will find a way to address the public’s very real and urgent demand for a cleaner political process.
Mr Sharif is a legitimately elected prime minister; what he and his family have failed to prove so far is that their wealth has been legitimately acquired.