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March 2, 2020

Failed accountability?

Opinion

March 2, 2020

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is finally out on bail after more than seven months in jail. There was more bad news for the PM and his party.

Ahsan Iqbal, the PML-N’s secretary general, was also released on orders of the Islamabad High Court on the same day. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal are among the top leaders of the PML-N, and their release is a serious setback for the PTI.

Having failed to deliver on the economic and governance fronts, the anti-corruption tirade was the only thing left for the ruling party to keep its support base satisfied. Slowly but surely, that anti-corruption campaign seems to be fizzling out as one political leader after another is set free by the courts for lack of credible evidence. Not only has the PM’s credibility suffered in this entire process but the anti-corruption watchdog NAB has also come under extreme criticism for its incompetence and partiality.

Coming back to Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, it is worth recalling the entire episode. During the entire period that he was kept in solitary confinement, Shahid Khaqan was a model of courage, steadfastness and bravery. Never once did he display any weakness despite the treatment meted out to the former prime minister. Indeed he never sought any particular relief from the authorities – something that he could demand as a former PM. He wanted to embarrass the authorities by not seeking bail, and consistently demanded that a reference be filed against him and trial be initiated.

But there was no case. Because he had done no wrong. On the contrary, he delivered a world-class LNG terminal, so desperately needed by Pakistan, that subsequently enabled the country to overcome its energy shortages.

By not seeking bail for several months, Shahid Khaqan proved his innocence and surely embarrassed the ruling party and NAB.

It’s not just Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who has set such high standards during the period of his incarnation. Ahsan Iqbal was arrested on flimsy grounds with the objective to discredit and demoralise the senior politician. Like Shahid Khaqan, Ahsan Iqbal never wavered in his resolve to face the challenge of being kept behind bars. One only saw a smiling and courageous Ahsan Iqbal during the hearings in the courts. It was the NAB officials who seemed to be nervous and weak during those hearings. In the end, NAB never accused Ahsan Iqbal of any corruption or wrongdoing.

There are several other such examples of the way political opponents have been targeted in the process of trying to achieve political objectives.

Maryam Nawaz is another case in point. She started her mass campaign around June last year. In this campaign, she went around several cities and towns of Punjab – Faisalabad, Sahiwal, Pakpattan, Sargodha and others. The crowds that she drew were unprecedented. Wherever she went, it looked like the entire city or town had come out to see her. Setting out from Lahore around lunch time, she would reach most places and address her final rally around 2 or 3 or even 4 in the morning.

That people waited hours, and in spite of early morning rallies, showed how much love they had for her and the party. It was unprecedented: no media coverage was allowed; not even the normal TV tickers were allowed. No banners were allowed in any city. Most important, there was no occasion for her to be there and yet the absolute passion.

Sure enough, seeing her soaring popularity, she was arrested in the first week of August 2019. She was arrested in a new sugar mills case and remained behind bars for more than two months. Unfortunately, her name was also placed on the ECL. It’s been almost seven months ; yet no case and no reference. After seven months there’s a legitimate question - if there was no reference, why was she arrested? And if there is no reference even after 7sevenmonths, why is she being denied travel abroad ?

These three cases have been given only as an example. There are others who still suffer as a result of such persecution. Political leaders such as Hamza Shahbaz and Saad Rafique and others are still behind bars. They have shown courage and not once displayed any weakness in the face of challenging circumstances. Surely with the passage of time, their innocence will be proved and they will be out.

The opposition has faced this kind of brutality in the last 18 months and it seems the worst is over. More worrying is the damage caused to the entire accountability process which has been tarnished beyond repair. It has also badly exposed the anti-corruption narrative of Imran Khan and his party. Rather than coming to terms with reality, the PM continues to believe that using the corruption narrative will help ease the pressure on his government. In fact, his own government ministers and people around him are facing embarrassing questions. The recent wheat and sugar crises are a case in point.

Several other cases pointing to conflict of interest or corrupt practices have been highlighted by the media and the opposition. If the PM is seriously concerned about corruption in Pakistan, he should come clean by initiating action against those cabinet ministers or party people who have been accused of serious wrongdoing – unlike his recent past wherein he has looked the other way with scandals such as the Peshawar BRT, the scam about the medicine prices and several other cases. In fact, talking against corruption and then blocking the investigations in the BRT and foreign funding cases is as contradictory as it can get.

The superior judiciary has consistently expressed concern with the ongoing accountability process. Enough time has passed and simply getting political opponents arrested or cases initiated is no solution. The PM must start delivering on the economic front and significantly improve his governance.

Sure there should be zero tolerance for corruption but political victimisation will no longer work to protect the failures on the economic side. As PM, Imran Khan’s primary job is to ensure good governance and outstanding economic delivery. As for the accountability process, it is high time he left that to NAB.

The writer is former governor Sindh and former minister for privatisation.