When General Raheel Sharif recently called for “across the board accountability”, political pundits saw it as a veiled threat to the civilian government that is struggling to come up with a response over the Panama Leaks. Many thought that the military might back Imran Khan’s agitation against the government or something along those lines. What no one expected was the fact that the statement was partly referring to accountability within the military itself — a move that allowed General Raheel to nearly checkmate the government into making its own mends.
The events of the last 24 hours, with the army dismissing its sitting lieutenant general, a major general and several brigadiers, are a nightmare scenario for the civilian government, especially at this juncture when controversy over the Panama Leaks is gripping the country. Also, to give the momentum more strength, the fact that two former corps commanders were reprimanded for corruption leaves the civilian government not just vulnerable but defenceless against accusations of ‘not willing’ to be held accountable. With the timing of the army’s decision to suspend its officers when the Panama Leaks controversy is in full swing, the move is more than just about accountability. The army may have just pushed a litmus test over the civilian political leadership of Pakistan, which has, for way too long, been neck-deep in corruption and catering to vested interests.
So, any move by the prime minister has to take into consideration the perception of the civilian political leadership. In that context, the prime minister really has three options only. The first is to stop all delays and immediately start the inquiry into the Panama affair on the media and open itself to accountability. This may help pacify some people, but had this option been taken as soon as the Panama Leaks had come to light, things would have been different now. However, with the military displaying its ability to punish senior officers, the government starting an inquiry at this late a stage may mean nothing.
The second option is to respond to this latest development with the prime minister taking a truly momentous decision — coming out as the bigger and better man and stepping down until the investigation is complete, and getting re-instated with fresh moral authority that will not only wash away the stains of corruption from the political leadership once and for all, but also create favourable public opinion. While this option may sound absurd to the government, it may be the need of the hour, given that such desperate times require unconventional approaches to certify legitimacy and stability. This entire fiasco has become more about the ‘perception’ of being accountable than actually being accountable.
The third option may be the least favourable one, but one which is the favourite of the PML-N in its crisis management approach i.e., do nothing and let the storm pass. That may have worked during the dharna against election rigging and numerous other scenarios, but the Panama Leaks aren’t just about the accountability of the civilian political leadership. They are more about the moral authority and legitimacy of democratic ideas throughout the world. And in Pakistan, it is more about the civil-military balance and continuation of democracy. Not doing anything in the past two weeks gave the military the space to take the moral lead.
Given, however, that political parties have the tendency to think in terms of the next elections, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Panama Leaks will have little impact on the next elections. It appears that the controversy hasn’t disrupted or brought about any change in rural Pakistan. To that end, the PML-N is comfortable that whether there is accountability or not, it is likely going to sweep the next elections.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2016.
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