Finally, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has moved an accountability court to reopen cases of corruption pending against PML-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. These cases were set aside after a stay order was granted by the Lahore High Court following a petition filed by the Sharifs in October last year. There were three cases against them: one on Hudaibiya Paper Mills, one regarding assets beyond known sources of income, and one on the Ittefaq Foundry (wilful loan default). NAB got off the tail of the Sharifs in 2001 after they were packed off into exile. The Musharraf regime that replaced the PML-N government, sought to revive the cases in 2007 after the Sharifs returned to Pakistan against the former ruler’s wishes.
The farce of accountability that is carried out in Pakistan has over the years, deepened the country’s faultlines and defamed the principle of holding rulers accountable. Before returning to Pakistan, the Sharifs got together with PPP leader Benazir Bhutto to issue the Charter of Democracy in 2006, which was the beginning of a phase of reconciliation in Pakistan. It was based on a confession that the two parties had victimised each other in the past to the detriment of the state. Nawaz Sharif was open-minded about the way he had hounded the PPP leadership through his Ehtesab Bureau run by a person possessed with the demon of revenge rather than justice.
The ‘reconciliation’, alas, did not last, and, in fact, became a cuss-word in the media, which was unwisely critical of the ‘friendly opposition’, and this was taken to mean that the two mainstream parties should go back to the politics of vendetta — read accountability. The message was that the nation wanted war again, a pattern of voting based on hatred, and a revival of accountability under which the PPP chief Asif Ali Zardari had spent over a decade in jail without being definitively found guilty.
The Sharifs fell for the ruse of ‘long marches’ and rough language on a media hungry for ratings. The judiciary, not treated too well by the PPP, bounced back and started scrutinising its governance with a magnifying lens. The more the PPP faltered the more the PML-N sharpened the knives of its damning propaganda. In this atmosphere of resumed hostility, in May 2012, Adviser on Interior, Rehman Malik, then interior minister, fired his salvo, saying the Sharifs had defrauded the government of $32 million and must face a revival of investigation against them.
We seem to have gone right back to the dark days of a process that Pakistan is incapable of getting right. Look at what the PML-N says: “Malik had lodged cases through the Federal Investigation Agency during Benazir’s second tenure and had the 75-year-old Mian Muhammad Sharif and 16-year-old Hamza Shahbaz arrested”. An emotional Shahbaz Sharif swears that if found guilty, he would quit politics. The tormentors in the PPP say it is tit-for-tat accountability, but fear that the judiciary, the final arbiter, is with the PML-N, which means that this time, too, accountability is political and threatens to further politicise the process of law. Now we come to the crux of what is wrong with accountability in Pakistan: it becomes a part of dirty bipartisan politics and people seem to vote again and again for those accused of corruption.
The PML-N has done significant damage to the PPP’s chances of doing well at the polls. The media — the unofficial watchdog of public affairs — has done its job of taking the incumbent party down on the question of governance. People are predicting that the PPP will crash to its lowest vote in history. But what will happen to the PML-N after NAB gets going on the Sharifs? Even if the media is kind to the party after accusing the PPP of ill-will, the PML-N is bound to suffer. Who will catalyse this process through sharply hostile rhetoric? Not so much the PPP as the PTI. By setting NAB on the Sharifs, the PPP is actually helping Imran Khan as the ‘third presence’ in the next legislature.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2012.