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May 4, 2016

An imperfect solution


May 4, 2016

Having called each other rats, sworn to rip apart stomachs to extract corruption money including loan write-offs, implied preference for selective accountability, declared the PM ghaddar, claimed wringing the necks of Ahmadis, asked for dope and DNA tests, almost distinguished between good and bad corruption, hailed the army chief for action against corruption within army high ranks, promised some leg-breaking and much more, the nine-member opposition squad has now settled down to a calmer and wiser task: of crafting a credible response to the old debate reignited on the chronic problem of Pakistan’s corrupt ruling elite.

Initially the political storm that had erupted amounted to mostly the pot calling the kettle black. Like always, some in the media too positioned themselves along partisan lines. Subsequently with the moral and legal questions about corruption relentlessly raised in public spaces, including the media, everyone on Pakistan’s power scene realised the issue required a response. The army chief called for “across-the-board’ accountability and the army opted to showcase the ouster of several serving military men on corruption charges.

Additional news about retired generals was also out. Reportedly, two retired corps commanders were made to return huge amounts taken as commission from a builder. The historic but legally obligatory step of removing serving generals elevated the army chief’s already elevated public stature. Never learning from the past, scattered individuals still search for khaki support to muscle up for political bouts. While old habits may die hard, the old ways are now dead ways.

Meanwhile the government’s hype-active response to the Panama leaks continues. It vacillates between a ‘take-it’ or ‘leave-it’ call to the opposition and showing flexibility when stonewalled and isolated, engaging behind the scenes with some opposition members and also offering to review the opposition’s joint TORs.

The government knows it’s in a hard political place. And so a PM seldom seen in parliament or seen holding cabinet meetings, is unusually active and aggressive. He is landing in jalsa gahs addressing political rallies across the country, is on television addressing the nation, confidently advising the opposition to ‘wait till 2018 or even beyond that’. Facing the united opposition alone, the PM only has the politically seasoned Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Achakzai by his side.

The prime minister’s prime defence team is busy addressing and responding to the opposition’s press conferences via advertisements, battling the opposition on talk shows, and circulating information on the opposition including controversial loan write-offs etc. The government’s team will show flexibility on the TORs, the demand for the prime minister’s resignation will be rejected and the PM will not opt for early elections. The calculation behind the PM’s field politics is that popular support will favour him in case the battle is fought in the streets.

But that is unlikely. The opposition squad has politically astute men like Aitzaz Ahsan, Mushahid Hussain and Iftikhar Hussain. They will argue for a workable solution. If the commission is empowered via a new law and if the role of the state institutions that would play a key role in investigation – FIA, NAB, State Bank, FBR – can be relatively impartial and by the law, then a workable solution may be found.

The demand for the prime minister’s resignation has two dimensions –moral and credibility-related. Morally the prime minister stands in quicksand. But he is not alone. Pakistan’s entire power spectrum is peppered with people who started from humble backgrounds – whether a meter-reader, a man on the cycle, son of a cinema owner, the son of a middle grade police officer – but are now billionaires. There are also stories of rags to riches about some military generals too. There are names of judges, including a sitting judge, in the Panama Papers. Beyond those in positions of power there are endless who have benefited from Pakistan’s weak regulatory authorities.

The other critical dimension that justifies calling for his resignation is related to the credible working of the commission – that the state institutions will work impartially with the Panama Leaks Commission. The appointment of another PML-N PM will not automatically guarantee impartial working of the institutions. For this some more effective mechanism is required as well as a more empowered commission.

Clearly the commission must investigate the prime minister and his family first. He is the man who is in the driving seat and hence he must be the first to step to the front of the line and be investigated first. For a thorough investigation all the technical and legal requirements will obviously be included in the TORs.

What is the interest and the fear of the ordinary Pakistani as the government and the opposition work out an agreement on how to proceed with the Panama leaks inquiry? The interest is to ensure that those who wield power and influence don’t steal via tax evasion or exporting money that belongs to the state treasury. Ordinary Pakistanis are denied financial opportunities in the form of loans etc because powerful Pakistanis hijack resources. The staggering figures of corruption, of tax evasion, of Pakistanis living below the poverty line are all too well known.

What is the fear of an average Pakistani who is following the Panama leaks affair? Simply that the critical agenda of ending corruption may, like several times before, get subsumed in the power games that Pakistan’s ruling elite has always played. From Ziaul Haq to elected leaders, the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ corruption has been used by all – that is, my ally’s corruption is justified while my opponent’s is punishable. Bending and breaking rules to promote this kind of accountability has been integral to all power players in Pakistan.

Interestingly, how did the present government deal with the corruption cases of other politicians? The ‘best’ example has been that of the TDAP case against former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. It was an open and shut case. Yet political expediency stopped any proceedings. And now we see that the PML-N seeks an inquiry in the LPG quota scandal involving PPP senators. While it is long overdue, is it just the stick to bring opponents to heel?

Can we hope that the politicians will not battle so hard that the main focus of the Panama leaks inquiry gets buried under the political games that many decadent power-players – of all institutions – have played for decades ?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra



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