The scene is darker than night and blacker than Vantablack. The opposition rubs its hands in glee and smacks its lips. The government is beleaguered but defiant. A cold shiver runs down those who desperately want out from the fiendish politics of the nineties.
Back then, it was the PPP and the PML-N. Now it is the PTI and the PML-N. Much is similar to what it was then. Corruption is again centre stage, an anti-graft campaign is at full throttle against the prime minister, political instability is reaching its climax and the government is weary of even its own silhouette. A final showdown is anticipated as the JIT’s final report is now only a few days away.
Eleven million documents were leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing a list of the high and mighty and their offshore accounts for allegedly less than benign purposes. More than 300 Pakistanis were also named, including members of the first family. This made the Panama leaks significant and hard to ignore.
The opposition led by Imran Khan got a new lease of life to oust PM Nawaz Sharif after the abortive anti-rigging dharnas. Another round of public posturing ensued. The government proposed a judicial commission after much vilification, which was first rejected and then accepted by the Supreme Court. A battle of TORs ensued, with Nawaz Sharif’s accountability centre stage and above everyone else. The result was rigid pontification and little else. It was obvious that the issue had political connotations right from the start.
As the Supreme Court started its proceedings, another round of melodrama ensued with two parallel courts in session, one inside the apex court and the other outside in press-conferences and talk shows. The PTI fared far better in this rat race as it only had to rub the PM’s nose in the ground each time it had the chance. Television debates on Panama revolved around what the PTI had to say rather than what the government pleaded. By the time a 3-2 split decision was arrived at, the supporters of both parties had already made up their minds. No wonder both PML-N and the PTI celebrated the verdict. A JIT (Joint Investigation Team) was announced amidst much furore.
The JIT has had, to put it mildly, more than its fair share of hiccups. It started on grounds as firm as jelly as the opposition led by the PTI lamented what it perceived as the JIT’s inability to function independently of government influence. Then there were the long waits and the infamous WhatsApp call and the leaked picture of Hussain Nawaz and allegations of mistreatment and the summoning of almost every member of Nawaz Sharif’s family except Kalsoom Nawaz. Some have even dared to suspect in these visuals traces of malintent and implied communiqués to jump ship or face the consequences.
The JIT responded by voicing its own concerns that government departments are supposedly obfuscating the investigation by non-cooperation and tampering with documents. The JIT is finding it hard to maintain its image of impartiality but, true to form, the PTI has taken a U-turn and now has its back, apparently to defend rule of law.
So, what have the Panama proceedings achieved so far? To summarise, when the PTI suspected the JIT, the PML-N had the JIT’s back. Now that the PML-N doubts the JIT, the PTI has voiced it public support. The JIT has expressed lack of confidence on government institutions while they refute those objections. The public has little trust in both government institutions and the JIT, while the judiciary is squashed somewhere in between. It is obvious no one trusts anyone. If anything, the Panama case has only further publicised and exacerbated our institutional and political fault-lines.
The proverbial common man’s fears are real. He is tired of seeing the same faces deliver the same results. Democracy is sham to him because despite cajoling himself into accepting its fruits, his stomach still goes empty. He is ready to be patient and bide his time but the excitement and promise of a quick fix excites him more. The middle class has a peculiar demand. It dreamily wishes a system to check all corruption. It refuses self-reform and wants the system to correct not an errant few but a whole society of aberrant individuals. See the problem with our wishful thinking?
Any system pushed beyond its intended purpose and resources will eventually collapse. Contrary to popular belief, we do have a system in our country but it’s broken because society is such. The crime rate in Japan or Europe is far less than at home not just because they have better institutions but because their society plays a far greater role in checking corruption than we do.
Accountability should be viewed as an on-going process rather than an event. Processes mature over time with positive intent, meticulous oversight, feedback and correction; and they are especially susceptible to intermittent and abrupt change. Panama was a difficult case right from the outset and the opposition parties, most notably the PTI, have only added to the travails by again setting the expectation that the goal is to dislodge Nawaz Sharif and not reforming the system. Sensational optics have once again triumphed.
The writer is a freelance columnist and professional services consultant based in Islamabad. He tweets raj_omer.