Past witches, present hunters

Zeeshan Haider
August 26, 2019

Corruption is undoubtedly one of the major challenges faced by the country and needs to be tackled head on as it hampers economic development and progress.

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Corruption is undoubtedly one of the major challenges faced by the country and needs to be tackled head on as it hampers economic development and progress.

Successive governments in Pakistan have launched accountability drives with the same promise but at the end every campaign failed to effectively check this malice as most of these drives were politically motivated or even if started with good intension they ended up turning into witch-hunt political opponents.

In the 1990s, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) alternated in power twice each and they spent much of the time in witch-hunting each other in the name of accountability.

After seizing power in 1999, the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf made accountability the main policy plank of his government.

The Qaumi Ehtesab Bureau (National Accountability Bureau) set up under the second government of Nawaz Sharif was replaced by more powerful National Accountability Bureau (NAB) under the chairmanship of a serving three-star general.

The accountability campaign that was meant to stem corrupt practices was turned into a political witch-hunting squad and the NAB was ruthlessly used to force the opposition politicians to switch their loyalties in order to form a pro-Musharraf coalition.

The NAB at the time also was accused to harassing top businessmen of the country, many of which had left the country while some were even thinking to shift their businesses out of Pakistan.

This trend forced the Musharraf regime to mend its ways. The head of the NAB was replaced and his successors were asked to go soft on businessmen as strong-arm tactics led to a slowdown in the economy.

Ironically, the accountability process, which was launched with big pomp and show, was later literally reduced to a rhetorical campaign as the former dictator made political deals with those who he had accused of corruption.

Musharraf, who had vowed to neither allow neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif to return to power, himself issued National Reconciliation Ordinance quashing all corruption cases against the PPP leaders and eventually also allowed Sharif to return to the country.

Interestingly, the present government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also made corruption as the main plank of its election campaign. Imran Khan, the party chairman and the current Prime Minister, has launched a vigorous campaign across the country accusing his opponents i.e., Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, of massive corruption during their respective rules in the country.

The disqualification of Sharif in the infamous Panama Papers case gave his electioneering a shot in the arm.

Though the government says the NAB is working independently and it has no control over it, its leadership, outside and inside the parliament, has continuously kept their political opponents under pressure over the corruption issue.

The top leadership as well as several senior leaders of the two main opposition parties is behind the bars facing inquiries and investigations in a wide range of cases from fake bank accounts to alleged corruption in housing schemes and matters relating to Liquefied Natural Gas deal.

The way the accountability process is being run has raised questions whether the country is repeating what it had done earlier in the name of combating corruption.

The opposition claims that the accountability process being carried out under the present government is more of a victimisation and vilification campaign targeting opposition leaders alone.

The situation took an interesting turn earlier this month when the federal cabinet mulled ways to rein in NAB after complaints from the business community.

There are widespread campaigns that the businessmen are facing harassment at the hands of accountability sleuths and it has virtually brought the economic activity to a grinding halt.

Prime Minister’s special assistant on information, Firdous Ashiq Awan, herself admitted the businessmen were fearful of the NAB tactics and were neither investing their money nor were they depositing it in the banks.

And this scare is not just confined to the local businessmen as foreign investors too are reluctant to bring in their capital to Pakistan, while bureaucrats also have stopped giving approval to business deals.

Corruption needs to be tackled effectively but the government as well as relevant institutions should ensure that a genuine and credible system of accountability should be put in place to check graft.

The parliament should play a key role in framing laws that tackle the corrupt practices effectively.

The political parties as well as business community have had long-held reservations over the accountability process as well as the NAB laws. The government needs to take opposition as well as representatives of the trade bodies in this regard.

The government and opposition need to rise above their petty political interests and make proper use of parliamentary forum to evolve a strong and effective accountability process in the country.

A credible system of accountability is a must to promote good governance in the country. If political parties and the parliament play their due part in addressing the real problems faced by the people and the country -and corruption, of course, is one- then it would not only enhance people’s trust in them but also pave the way for the provision of good governance in the country.

The accountability should be across the board and spare none of holy cows under any circumstances.

The accountability drive should cover the entire ruling elite of the country without any exception. That is the only way that would boost the credibility of the accountability process. Otherwise any half-hearted drive would meet the same fate.

Pakistan is right now facing a litany of challenges on domestic as well as external fronts. The vulnerable economic situation and growing threat from India in the wake of its oppressive move to alter the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir have become the two main challenges for the country.

To effectively deal with these challenges, the government needs to reduce polarisation and tensions on other fronts.

The government leaders are right to say the accountability process can’t be wrapped up or slowed down in the wake of the grave challenges faced by the country but the government should redouble its efforts to make this process more broad-based and credible.

—The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad

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