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February 19, 2016

Accountability and the Sharifs…a laughing matter


February 19, 2016

Islamabad diary

The Sharifs have been in this game longer than anyone else. And they know accountability like the back of their hands. Many accusations have been hurled at them over the years. Nothing ever sticks to them. They called Ronald Reagan the Teflon president. Nothing ever stuck to him. You could say the same of the Sharifovs: about their financial exploits suspicions galore but nothing concrete emerges.

So they are either innocents unjustly picked on or skilful artists whose art and ingenuity should command admiration. And let’s not forget that they are the longest-running and by far the luckiest political combo in Pakistan’s history. No one has been atop the greasy pole as long as they have. They have been ousted from power by presidential decree and toppled in a military coup. But call it their luck or the power of their stars that they have always staged a comeback.

Muhammad Ali thrice world heavyweight champion; Muhammad Nawaz Sharif thrice prime minister of Pakistan. They stand in a league of their own.

What may be behind the PM’s outburst the other day against the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is hard to say. It is being said that some big-time seths, some of Pakistan’s heaviest, have complained to the PM about NAB sleuthing and snooping and that it was on their account that the PM put NAB on the mat. Even if this explanation is accepted it remains an extraordinary way of going about this business.

The NAB chairman, Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, is well known to the PM. There could have been other ways of communicating the same message to him. Choosing the forum of a public meeting to do so is strange to say the least. Inevitably, even if that was not the PM’s intention, it fuels speculation that maybe the real reason for the outburst lies elsewhere: perhaps in the Sharif family’s own matters which are still pending with NAB.

Over the years, as mentioned above, the Sharifs have been accused of many things. Proper references were made out against them in the Musharraf era. But the Chaudhry-led judiciary was kind to the Sharifs and provided them relief in multiple ways. And when Zardari was president the PPP government was just not interested in following up those cases, because that would have brought the focus on their own exploits. Not surprisingly most of those references died a natural death. Only two remained, minor in nature and scope, and about these NAB has to make up its mind one way or the other before the end of March.

So was the PM speaking on his own behalf when he lashed out at NAB in Bahawalpur or was he speaking on behalf of the NAB-plagued seths? Your guess is as good as mine.

There may be many things wrong with NAB’s working and it has been accused, with or without justification, of becoming an agency of extortion. What needs to be done is to improve its working and strengthen its role as an independent, autonomous anti-corruption body free from government influence and interference. The Central Bureau of Investigation in India could be the model. It has investigated and continues to investigate high-profile cases, many involving hot-shot politicians.

But in Pakistan our political elite wants to have nothing to do with accountability. No one wants it, not the PPP, not the PML-N. Any kind of lawful check or restraint just does not suit the Pakistani way of doing things.

NAB is also said to be looking into such cherished PML-N projects as the Rawalpindi Metro and the Orange Line railway in Lahore. The Lahore Development Authority – a body dear to the Punjab CM’s heart – sometime back launched with much fanfare an LDA city project which now seems to have vanished into thin air without a trace. NAB is said to be looking into that shining project too. Does anyone think the Khadim-e-Aala – the name the Punjab CM gives himself without the least semblance of a smile – would be amused? This could also explain the PM’s ire.

The NAB chairman was always considered close to the PML-N. So as that Urdu saying goes, our cat and meowing at us? Qamar Zaman Chaudhry was picked to head NAB precisely because of his safe or loyalist credentials. But something changed after his appointment. News reports appeared at the time that he had been summoned to the holy of holies, General Headquarters, where a stack of files were said to have been shown to him. After this vitamin injection NAB seemed to acquire fresh vigour and life.

There remained, however, the problem of geography. Accountability became a hot topic in Sindh leading to that famous outburst from Rais Zardari wherein, in a tone of admonishment addressed of all people to the army chief, he said that you are here only for three years, we are here forever. Therefore take heed and do not cause us trouble – hamein tang na karein – or we will strike brick with brick – eent se eent baja den ge. That was the measure of his desperation.

What may be happening behind the scenes we do not know. Certainly the PM knows more than us. Is it the case that NAB was about to take a turn and bring Punjab within its sights? The PM is not a man who easily loses his cool. But here he seemed to be under some kind of stress…something playing on his nerves. Or he wouldn’t have come out in this manner.

Apart from the two cases against the PM – pertaining to 1) the construction of the road to Raiwind; and 2) appointments in FIA – there is supposedly a smoking gun relating to the finance minister, Ishaq Dar. When in NAB custody in Musharraf’s time he gave a longish statement confessing to money laundering charges on behalf of the Sharifovs – the funds reportedly transferred to London in fake accounts which were then used for buying up the Park Lane properties, a series of flats in central London in possession of the family. That confessional statement may still be there, although Dar has tried to clarify it. Will something come of it? Can something come of it? Even if nothing happens it remains a source of embarrassment unless finally disposed of.

The PM has put NAB in a quandary. If NAB goes ahead with the Sharif cases and the one regarding Ishaq Dar there is sure to be a firestorm with potentially serious consequences. That is, if something happens. But if NAB decides to close the cases for want of evidence or whatever, there will be an outcry across the country that NAB has succumbed to pressure. Either way it won’t look good for the government.

There are news stories suggesting that the government is thinking of amending the NAB law so as to make accountability a toothless process. That is sure to lead to more jeers and catcalls.

Accountability is a joke in Pakistan. No one takes it seriously. If it were up to the PML-N and the PPP they would gladly chuck it into the Arabian Sea. It doesn’t square with their notions of governance. We don’t know how serious the army is about the current phase of accountability. Is it pushing NAB to show some teeth and become more active? It’s hard to say for sure. But something certainly has upset the PM and it would be worth finding out what that may be.

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