This working week saw Pakistan embroiled in a potential institutional face off, guised in constitutional layout. The averted crisis beckons evaluation but having surmounted the imminent danger the mind wanders into the realm of political science. Recently, Mian Nawaz Sharif reached London and there is a burning question tantalizing every politically aware Pakistani’s mind; has PM Imran Khan granted his arch (political) nemesis a NRO? Prayers for his good health aside analysts watched Sharif depart; seemingly triumphant, all prim and proper, swanking a monarchical airlift, heavenly grapes in sight and what not! Whereas Khan simultaneously took time off, rejuvenated and re-gathered his thoughts and came back the next Monday with the same authoritative rhetoric; yelling at the top of his lungs that he ‘will never grant anyone who looted Pakistan a NRO (as is his promise to God), irrespective of dire odds or unification of any/all stake holders against him’. In his book Sharif tops that list of sinners so the message is blunt; ‘over my dead body does Sharif go scot free!’ Now then, what can we logically deduce from such drastically divergent and perplexing viewpoints of two political heavy-weights at the same juncture in our state’s political evolution? Has Khan buckled under pressure and now playing to the gallery? Has Sharif bested the system and somehow obtained a NRO by bypassing Khan? Alternatively, does Khan’s war chant supplemented with that mesmerizing glaring determination in his eyes every time he enchants his followers (with the slogan) still hold true? For only God knows ultimate truths, us mere mortals can only meticulously assess what politically transpires.

To analyse Khan’s narrative one must determine the context of his drumbeating; “Main NRO nahi doonga!” - Vague terminology that needs conceptual elaboration. The term NRO literally/legally refers to National Reconciliation Ordinance; a historically controversial legal measure promulgated on 7th October 2007, by the then President (General Musharraf) to let off and appease selected political players in (corruption) cases in order to regain dwindling legitimacy in guise of national political reconciliation. This ill-conceived measure offended against the basic dictates of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan as it manifestly discriminated in dispensation of the law and was rightly struck down by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on 16th December 2009 leading to a political whirlwind in the country. With that said, one must appreciate that Khan’s usage of the abbreviation is purely symbolic and political in nature. Generically, he means to assert that he will not let ‘the corrupt’ off the hook, not let them sail into the sunset dodging accountability, for gaining political mileage. He will not even bend over backwards in face of steep adversity compounded upon him by corrupt mafias and adversaries (within and without) just to cling to power. He is personally invested in this anti-corruption drive; he just won’t budge from his purpose let alone undertake clever compromises subverting it.

Having contextualised the anti-NRO narrative, we can methodically evaluate whether Sharif’s boastful thumbs up while boarding the royal aircraft is tantamount to Khan accepting a ‘political bargain (NRO)’ or is there more to it than meets the naked eye? In my experience, over-simplistic superficial interpretation of events and narratives is often a grave folly. Sharif’s exit is admittedly a hard pill to swallow, a noticeable set-back for Khan’s supporters but while this battle might have been lost the (political) war is on-going. Khan is resilient, trained to vanquish obstacles, his life experiences equip and validate that the best in him emerges under pressure and when the stakes are sky high. Politically, the stakes have never been higher for the ‘cornered tiger and his merry men/women nor the nation at large’. The Sharif vs. Khan Equation, its consequences and legacy are intricately intertwined with Pakistan’s fate and trajectory. Demonstrably, Khan has not accepted Sharif’s departure as the final outcome of this historic struggle nor given silent acquiescence to any political ploy or offered political settlement. The stalemate continues and before this is over one of them will forever perish into the annals of history discredited and disgruntled.

Analyse past this ‘temporary health-based arrangement’ and certain ‘undeniable facts’ will dawn upon you. Soon the ‘questions of law’ surrounding this ‘conditional one time interim-relief’ shall be heard by the honourable courts, after the ‘time-bound relief’ has run its course Sharif brothers have ‘undertaken’ to ‘head back or prove’ that elder Sharif’s ailments are of a nature that cannot allow for his safe travel to Pakistan. This will be heavily contested and politicised. Khan ‘did not overtly contest bad health threatening Sharif’s life’, nor should anyone, for politics needs to be above (at least) that nasty threshold. However he intends to ‘vigorously question motives’ as this drags on, relentlessly follow-up and over-discuss the absence from the political arena to make it impossible for Sharif to roam around freely in London nor stay away indefinitely or more than is essentially indispensible for his health.

Meanwhile, Maryam (the political heir to the Sharif dynasty) is still bound up in legal troubles. The pressure is momentarily off but will soon recommence. Though constrained, one salient element goes in Khan’s favour; unlike Hassan, Hussain, Dar etc. Nawaz Sharif is the patron-in-chief of PML-N and for the party to remain politically viable he will have to return and face the music. This (unlike last time) will not be a grape eating self-exile term till the political environment is conducive for him or his heir to return and serve as the PM. This will be starkly different. The Pakistani community there is already hawkishly documenting Sharif’s every breath. He must lay low, one wrong move and this whole cover is blown to shreds. Sadly, this absenteeism seems a lot like ‘imprisonment in exile’ for Sharif even if the medical results hold up in court back home.

Whether the totality of components running the Pakistani state eventually lean towards political settlements stemming from necessity or dismantling hegemonic oligarchies, it is naïve to underestimate Khan or Sharif or propose winners (as yet) as categorical final decisions have not yet been taken by most stakeholders. Surely, Khan is not willing to pardon and lay off the scent. Sharif’s momentary exit was just one episode of this saga. Khan’s opponents that would instead get rid of him to end this struggle via measures such as Maulana’s March or the PTI’s foreign funding case will realise that they will have to brick by brick, chop away at his massive political capital. Assuredly then, there is no possibility of a NRO for the convict (as yet). Also, the minus one narrative falls flat as the Cabinet stands steadfast behind their leader. This has always been the Khan led onslaught against corruption and dynastic politics. Win or lose this game isn’t over by a long shot!