The Sharifs’ financial wizard is finally taking a break. After four-and-a-half years of being the most powerful cabinet member in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government, Ishaq Dar has at last quit as finance minister. But the decision was neither easy nor prompt. Dar had to face a damning court judgment in the wake of the Panama Papers, have non-bailable arrest warrants issued against him, as well as be declared an absconder by an accountability court trying him for accumulating wealth beyond known sources of income, in order to reach that very conclusion. He is now entitled to a three-month leave before he ceases to be a federal minister. Three long months. Much can change in that time. And it has already begun to.
Dar is the closest to the Sharifs. He is family. He has personally managed the Sharifs’ finances for nearly three decades. When Nawaz was the prime minister, Dar was his unannounced deputy. When Nawaz was ousted, Dar was his inside man in Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s cabinet — as the mega minister. He was PMLN’s one-window financial operation.
When funds needed to be channelled for development projects and electoral effect, it was Dar’s budgetary sleight of hand and administrative manoeuvring that made it possible. In his retracted confession in the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case, he admitted to opening bank accounts under fake identities to launder money on behalf of the Sharifs. This makes him the key that unlocks the door to the allegations of corruption against the Sharifs’, the family’s Achilles’ heel.
Many heads have rolled in the PMLN during its current stint in power. But some roll easier than others. Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah was sacked for a year in 2014 over the Model Town killings in Lahore.
Pervez Rasheed was let go without even a whimper after a report published by Dawn exposed a confrontation between the government and military in October last year. Nawaz’s advisor Tariq Fatemi was also removed from his post to appease the military when the latter turned up the heat on the same story. The latest casualty was law minister Zahid Hamid, who was forced to resign after days of protests from an enraged mob of clerics and agitators over a ‘clerical error’ in the wording of an oath taken by lawmakers.
The noose is getting tighter and the ring of fire closing in on itself. The party has few friends left. Religious leaders are upset, the Pakistan Peoples Party – a friendly opponent thus far – has vowed to bring down the PMLN and the establishment has its own set of ideas for what it wants the party to be. Nawaz has come to naught. And now: Dar’s departure. But will he return from his hospital bed in London?
Law will play a part. Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly vowed to face the courts and all accusations of corruption. He has left his ailing wife in London to come back to fight his battles, insisting he has been unfairly treated. Will his daughter’s father-in-law do the same?
Danger lies whichever way Dar chooses to tread. Come back and fight, risk disqualification, perhaps even more if the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case reaches a quick conclusion. Or stay in London to wait for the storm to subside and lose legitimacy in the public eye. Either way, he will lose political capital. So will the PMLN and the Sharifs.
This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.