Death or impending death has a strong scent that attracts vultures to hover above, waiting for the creature to finally die before they can plunge on the carcass biting bits and pieces of the body away. This is a scene that hunters must be familiar with but is now pretty visible in Pakistan’s political landscape — political competitors sharpening their teeth and claws, some beginning to attack and others waiting for the current government to collapse even further, before they can also dig in. Some are using the government’s eclipse to streamline their own barter arrangements with the permanent power brokers of the state. Not to forget explanations by the government that has revealed more than it could hide, thus damaging it more. The information revealed so far through Panama leaks has built pressure on the moral authority of the prime minister to continue in office. The more action that is taken abroad against foreign leaders, the louder will be the din within Pakistan against Nawaz Sharif. Some have already started to whisper about the possibility of an internal political arrangement within the PML-N that may leave some room for ‘men on horseback’ not to ride on to Constitution Avenue. The political hunters and vultures would like to see a real carcass because they also understand that if they allow Nawaz Sharif to get up, they would then be unable to repulse him in the 2018 elections. The glimmer of hope that people saw in parts of the country (excluding Sindh and Balochistan) in the form of the PTI seems less obvious today. It’s the lack of a better option and Sharif’s ability to develop greater infrastructure projects compared to others that will bring him more votes in the future.
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This is not to suggest that people are not bothered about corruption. However, they also have the sense that the anti-corruption debate, just like the one on counter-terrorism, will get used to removing some actors while keeping others. The anti-corruption debate will, in fact, be used to right-size and rationalise the political power base in the country and nothing more. I am reminded of conversations that people used to have when the renowned metallurgist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was brought on television where he admitted to selling technology and know-how. There was much talk of his corruption then to which ordinary people’s reaction would be that he is not the only one engaging in financial mismanagement, which in itself is not a good thing. However, in the minds of ordinary people, he had given the nation what many others hadn’t.
There is no doubt about the fact that the lack of accountability makes a political government vulnerable. Any leader involved in misappropriation will most likely have to watch his or her back or face some threat from which they traditionally save themselves through greater political bargaining. Such behaviour then also encourages and allows for institutional corruption of the most powerful organisations, which is hidden under the garb of law and rules. Anything that gets approved (even through force) becomes legal while other kinds of appropriation remain illegal. A system of selective accountability will never work. The present fracas has the potential of damaging the country’s political system more than the benefits that may accrue.
This does not mean that the problem of corruption should be allowed to hang endlessly. There is a need for stakeholders to get together and respond to people’s needs for better accountability. Corruption ultimately damages ordinary people. Historically, anti-corruption rhetoric has been used for political targeting. Both the PPP and PML-N governments targeted each other and settled scores under the guise of fighting corruption. The situation did not change with the military taking over in 1999. The prime anti-corruption institution, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which was established then to remove corruption, eventually fell by the wayside within months of its inception. General (retd) Musharraf and his team soon realised that it needed partners in politics and investors in the country due to which it couldn’t allow General Amjad to go around nabbing people. From arms dealers to telecommunication companies, the original NAB list was quite potent but had to be ignored because many of those related with these cases and some of the accused got absorbed in the government. Some of these people remain very close to the deep state, which means that nothing is likely to happen to them despite there being announcements of jihad against corruption.
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It will indeed be very sad if this opportunity is not used to introspect and correct things on a sustainable scale. Let us not forget that there are hundreds of Pakistanis mentioned in the Panama leaks, including a serving judge, and no one wants to talk about that. This does not mean that a sitting prime minister cannot be admonished for lack of accountability. But it is important not to just stop at removing a government, but to ensure the strengthening of the accountability mechanism. To start with, NAB and the Auditor-General’s department should be made independent, professional and more accountable. Even the PPP government tried to weaken the NAB ordinance, which needs immediate strengthening. It should be made independent of the government and accountable to parliament. Currently, NAB has limited capacity to carry out its work. The organisation inducted over a hundred people under the previous government that were then trained by the existing pool of poorly trained human resources. There is a need for capacity building. Similarly, the Auditor-General’s department, which is the prime caretaker of public funds, has had the misfortune of having very weak institutional support. Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is responsible for appointing an auditor-general who was morally and financially not above board. Sadly, even the PTI leadership, which was approached in this case, did not show any interest. Furthermore, there is great need for capacity-building of such organisations and ensuring that all departments respond accordingly. No one should be exempt from accountability because the narrative is built to say so. The Panama leaks are a sad affair. However, it also offers an opportunity to review institutional mechanisms and capacity building. Let this not just be a dinner for the vultures.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2016.
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