Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Muslim League that is identified by his name, the only Pakistani politician to be elected prime minister thrice, has been sent to prison for seven years. He may have to face trial on some more charges. His successor as his party’s head, brother Shahbaz Sharif, also is in the dock and he too is unlikely to enjoy freedom for any appreciable period.
Asif Ali Zardari, the de facto head of the Pakistan People’s Party, the former president who got rid of the last military dictator, is in hot waters. There is every possibility of him being nabbed soon. The young PPP head, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, also has been mentioned in the dossier prepared on his father’s wheeling dealing. He may have to answer for decisions probably somebody else took on his behalf.
What is the future of PML-N and PPP, the two mainstream and national parties that have been in power in the post-Ziaul Haq Pakistan? Are they finished forever or will they survive to be able to fight for another day?
The charges of devious ways of amassing wealth against the PML-N and PPP leaderships are mind-boggling. They are heavy enough to sink the sturdiest of ships. Both parties are threatening to fight out of trouble with the help of the people but to a considerable extent, the future of both parties and their leaders will depend on how the people view National Accountability Bureau’s contribution to the fight against corruption in high places.
At the moment the country’s population, or at least a vast majority, approves of the NAB’s labours. They are not unaware though of the faultlines under the ongoing accountability process.
To begin with, quite a few flaws in the NAB law have been identified. Its chairman enjoys sweeping powers of an order no mortal human being can be trusted with. The Supreme Court cannot see any justification for allowing corrupt people to escape punishment by paying bargain money. The practice of allowing NAB to detain suspects till they consider confession a better option than torture has been assailed for years by independent observers. The NAB has displayed little interest in preventing corruption on which the relevant international convention lays considerable emphasis. A strong movement for changing the law and bringing it into harmony with due process is already gaining strength.
Even more important is the fact that NAB is perceived to be selective in targeting corrupt politicians and other functionaries. This was confirmed soon after NAB was established, when its first Chairman, General Mohammad Amjad, highly reputed for his commitment to even-handed justice, chose to resign instead of ignoring the misdeeds of General Musharraf’s favourite henchmen. With his departure, the whole process of accountability was derailed.
NAB has not been able to dispel public perception of selectivity in its operations which can easily be ascertained. The evidence of corruption is lying buried in files that are in the possession of the government and services that have a monopoly over information. NAB gets actionable evidence in three ways. First, somebody files a complaint against a corrupt person and provides evidence sufficient to justify inquiry and reference to an accountability court. Secondly, NAB somehow gets access to a file on a corrupt person lying somewhere in a government office. And, thirdly, a joint investigation team set up under superior judiciary’s orders acquires capacity to delve into public records at home and abroad, and present NAB with material sufficient to justify prosecution.
This net is not comprehensive enough to remove the label of selectivity and partisanship from NAB operations. The stark fact is that the choice of persons to be nabbed is made by one government agency or another. (What should be done to give NAB the image of an impartial dispenser of even-handed justice is a different matter.)
The Pakistani society is highly sensitive to the scent of corruption. The common citizens can forgive inefficiency and errant nonsense but not corruption, because the corrupt are seen as robbers of what belongs to the starving and sick have-nots. Paradoxically, however, the people tolerate a high threshold of corruption. They do not come down hard on thieves who commit larceny in state interest. As General Zia used to tell his captive audience his Islam allowed Muslims to get away with lying for public good.
The common people also have a soft corner for politicians jo baant ker khatey hain (who give the needy a share in the loot). Do we not remember a politician who gave several hundred thousand rupees as a wedding present to the leader of an employees union in a key establishment? Many years ago Lahore’s noble citizens defended a leading gangster in a court on the ground that he provided for the marriage of poor girls. The political leaders now falling down from high pedestals could also hope to be forgiven after some time.
Furthermore, the political leaders being swept away with the NAB broom belong to the small elite that have always commanded the political, economic, and bureaucratic heights. Personal ambitions cause rifts in the elite phalanx but even dissidents and antagonists belonging to the elite’s sub-tribes are not deprived of their privileged identity that is how we see politicians coming to power wearing different party labels. The elite also remains united against the less privileged and disadvantaged people.
The members of the elite are there in all the parties in contention at present — PML-N, PPP and PTI. The present ruling party has a small number of fresh entrants to the elite. They can easily be identified because they are doing most of the talking while the senior members of the elite don’t welcome controversy out of fear of being found out as graduates from one or more schools of Pakistan politics run by Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari. Since expulsions from the elite are not for all times, today’s discards may be welcome tomorrow to return to the flock, even to lead it.
The obvious hurdle to NAB victims’ rehabilitation is that they cannot command the process. Their parties are in no position to dictate anything and they know it. If they had the people behind them they would not have come to this pass. Their parties may become smaller, for there are not many political activists left who can stay in the opposition for long. The temptation to pick some crumbs from the ruling party’s dining table is not easy to resist.
In fact the leaderships of the mainstream parties are themselves responsible for their decline. They have made no attempt to grow out of dynastic politics. Their leaders are like banyan trees under whose shadow no healthy plant can strike roots. They are usually so confident of their wisdom pack that they do not admit knowledgeable workers into their councils. The only fact that can give them some comfort is that PTI does not seem to be in a hurry to prove its credentials as a democratic, collectively led political party. Thus, even if the politicians now being ousted can win back public esteem their parties will take time before acquiring the strength to secure their restoration.
Those who wish to defend their fallen heroes may go on doing whatever they can to shorten their tribulations but they will do well to concentrate on rebuilding their parties under new, dynamic and untainted leaders.
Meanwhile, the net result of the NAB drive against certain politicians and their followers, right or wrong, is that the parties opposed to PTI will lose their clout and Pakistan will rapidly move towards becoming a one-party state with all its inevitable consequences. This might be good for PTI but not for democracy. Buoyed by signs of opposition’s rout, the ruling party could recede further into a mould of infallibility, the space for dissent could shrink further and the people might not be able to stem the tide of intolerance.
Imran Khan gave an idea of the possible script when he invited a few journalists to tell them that an early general election was possible. The hostile public reaction persuaded the PTI not to push the idea further. Some of the party leaders though have gone to the extent of ruling out a snap election. But the logic of the grand plan that is no secret now suggests that every effort will be made to establish a highly centralised rule. One is not sure that it will be an unintended result of the campaign against individual corruption while blinking at institutions’ waywardness.