Tuesday May 24, 2022

Real game-changer: Panama, not CPEC

By Ayaz Amir
January 24, 2017

Islamabad diary

Since when did bricks and mortar, up and down motorways, and a few power stations thrown in, change the fate of nations? What industrial revolution did the South Korean-built Lahore-Islamabad motorway usher in? What industrial zones has it helped create?

Pakistan’s problem is not motorways or orange line trains. If only eradicating moral decay and social backwardness was that simple. Its problem is the rediscovery of national purpose, something only possible if the right hands are on the steering wheel.

Pakistan would not have been possible without Jinnah. The Bolshevik Revolution would not have happened without Lenin. Cuba could not have stood up to the United States without Castro. The regeneration of Pakistani society is impossible without the right leadership – leadership not morally tainted and endowed, if we are lucky, with courage, understanding and vision.

Pakistan can build a hundred motorways. It can have bullet trains, an entire series of them, from the Himalayas to the sea. But if its leaders are more interested in stashing ill-gotten wealth overseas than in attending to the welfare and uplift of the people to whom they owe their elevation and prosperity, the country is going nowhere.

First things first…the national stables have to be cleaned. There is too much muck in them. And the nation is told lies and fed on lies and the funny thing is that stupefied by this avalanche of lies it ends up half-believing them. The rich get richer, the power elites become fatter, some more offshore accounts are opened. Life is good for the privileged classes, indeed couldn’t be better, while the masses, bless them, waiting for their reward from the heavens, stay where they are. No amount of motorways is going to change this equation.

Thus the Panama revelations are a chance, an opportunity to turn things around and make a fresh start. The revelations could have led to nothing. The breakup of Pakistan led to nothing. Did any heads roll because of that? Was there a grand calling of accounts, as should have transpired? The country was broken in two, like a dry stick, but we went on as if nothing had happened. We did not even shed too many tears. No black ram was slaughtered at the altar of any temple to propitiate the displeasure of the powers above. The Panama case too could have been a brief light across the skies before vanishing and leaving not a trace behind.

But it hasn’t happened that way. The case has acquired a life of its own and on each hearing more uncomfortable questions are put to the defendants for which no ready or convincing answers are forthcoming.

We must also bear in mind that the times have changed. If this had been 1998 instead of 2017 and if such a case were being heard, it would have come as no surprise if the drama of storming the Supreme Court was re-enacted. But the ruling party, despite its numbers in parliament, is not as powerful as it then was. It could get away with such a thing then. Anything of the sort is impossible now because a) there is Imran Khan and his party to contend with, something which did not exist then and b) the powers that be, call them the ‘establishment’, would not suffer the like adventurism. After Zarb-e-Azb and the tenure of Gen Raheel Sharif the politicians have suffered a loss of power and confidence.

They may be up to their old tricks on the financial front but in dealing with opponents and a judiciary finding its voice and raising its head their power is not what in happier times it used to be.

We are thus seeing something quite new and unprecedented: the Sharifs in power, the levers of power ostensibly at their beck and command, but having to suffer the grilling attendant upon this case in silence, their fury locked up inside and finding no vent for expression. It is possible to imagine how galling this must be.

In 1998 the Sharifs were successful in sowing dissension amongst the apex judges and we know how this feat was managed. Folklore and legend have it that briefcases were involved. Ah, the power of briefcases…what wonders can they not perform? That remedy, alas, is no longer available. Pakistan has moved on, not perhaps in other respects but at least in this that the crudity and naked use of muscle charactering its old politics, the storming of the Supreme Court being one instance of this, is no longer tenable. Even military intervention has become more sophisticated.

The Sharifs are now trying to storm the Supreme Court with the help of some of Pakistan’s most expensive lawyers but so far nothing seems to be working, the grilling and the uncomfortable questions not abating. Let’s see where this camel comes to rest. But the air is rich with possibilities and this is what makes the Panama revelations and the case arising from them so tantalising.

There is an interesting article by Faisal Siddiqui, a lawyer, in another newspaper. It explains how over the years the Sharifs have been able to use the courts to escape accountability and win their legal battles. And he asks: “But are the Sharifs’ legal games coming to an end in the present era of an independent judiciary, and great public expectations for both the equal application of the law against the rulers and administering not merely formal but substantial legal justice?” This is well put.

I wish I knew the answer to this question but the mere fact that such a question is being asked – especially when we recall that the Sharifs have managed to escape so much: the storming of the Supreme Court, the money for election expenses taken from the ISI in the 1990 elections when Nawaz Sharif became prime minister for the first time, the Model Town massacre, which was the closest Lahore in recent times has come to a massacre, and so much else – makes this one of the most important cases in Pakistan’s history.

Can Pakistan make a fresh start? The nation is being fed a steady diet of myths in the name of the CPEC. If we are to make full use of the possibilities that the CPEC with luck should open up, we will have to reconfigure ourselves as a nation. We can’t remain socially and educationally stunted and we can’t have morally-tainted leaders at the helm and still hope for a miraculous transformation of Pakistan merely on the strength of 46 billion dollars worth of infrastructure, with some projects of questionable utility in this package – such as the Sahiwal coal power plant. Whose harebrained idea was it to site this plant among some of Punjab’s most fertile acres?

There is hope on one side and cynicism on the other, born of our national experience. More than anything to do with the CPEC what wins in this battle, hope or cynicism, will have a deep bearing on Pakistan’s future.