Accountability should strengthen democracy | Talat Masood

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The state of suspense about the outcome of Panama Leaks will soon be over. For the last few months, government machinery has been practically paralysed and the media’s interest bordering on frenzy has kept a major segment of society glued to television screens.

Imran Khan, his party, and the media justifiably can take satisfaction that their unrelenting campaign raised awareness against corruption. More importantly, it raised serious questions about the sources of wealth of the Sharif family — a criterion that people expect in the future will be equally applied across to all political leaders and top functionaries of state institutions, including the media and Imran as well. Clearly, providence had a major role as Panama Leaks acted as a catalyst and basis for serious investigation.

The political cleansing process has, however, just begun. How it will unfold will very much depend on several factors. It would be relevant and in some ways fascinating to analyse what this iconic judgment means for Pakistan’s present and future.
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Certain broad deductions can be drawn from what has already happened. People are looking forward to Pakistan’s accountability evolution wherein no one would be immune from the process of accountability, not even the prime minister, leaders of opposition parties or chief ministers of provinces. They also expect that the ambit of accountability does not remain restricted to politicians but be equally and forcefully applied to all major institutions whether it be the judiciary, military, bureaucracy or media houses. Hiding behind the cover of exceptionalism and in-house accountability should soon be discarded for the greater good of the country and institutions. The principle is simple: greater transparency leads to enhanced accountability and builds confidence of the public that tax money is being properly utilised by all state institutions. After all, if the rest of the democratic countries can follow the principle of equal yardstick of accountability, there is no valid reason for adopting a unique system.

Can this system of accountability be sustained? It is feared that it may remain selective and was merely meant to dislodge the present government. In the past, we have had several instances where the sword of accountability was used to remove democratically-elected governments and install military regimes or favoured political parties. General Ayub was the first to use the bogey of corruption and inefficiency of civilian government to stage a coup. General Yahya, Zia and Musharraf used the same or similar methodology to usurp power.

Another valid question that needs to be addressed is whether this development will lead to further unbalance of the power structure in favour of the military and judiciary. As one can see, it is already happening and will continue unless parliament assumes its responsibility of dealing with cases of corruption and misappropriation of its members.

Even if one were to assume that Nawaz Sharif is convicted, it would not necessarily be the end of his career or that of his party. If history is any guide politicians removed by the judiciary and the military have made a comeback politically with greater force and popularity. A classic example is of elder Bhutto, who still lives on despite his judicial murder. Further, people wonder about the criterion that is being applied to Nawaz: will the same be applied to others? Are we getting into a position that will bog Pakistan in a judicial minefield?

All normal etiquette and basic manners are being flouted in this race for the power grab. What sort of standards is the government and opposition setting for the younger generation of politicians and the broad masses? The hypocrisy of Pakistani politics exposes the character of some of these leaders. There are quite a few who have no qualms in changing party loyalties not on any basis of principles, but rather sheer expediency. Expecting that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will gain from the current crisis, a horde of defectors from other parties wait in the wings. It is amusing that it is only now that they have discovered the shortcomings in their original parties.

To be honest, rising up to the standards of Articles 62 and 63 for a majority of politicians would be difficult. If these articles were invoked on our institutions and important segments of society, then many political leaders would not be able to retain their positions. Furthermore, this criterion is not as simple as it appears and would largely depend on who is interpreting it and how broadly one wants to apply. Rising up to such high standards in a morally bankrupt country is akin to saying that we are aiming at a puritan society, a caliphate in the making. Applying this criterion is creating confusion in an already disorganised society.

On the other extreme, the argument that the case against the PM should not be pursued because most politicians, including Imran, have committed crimes is also not correct. If this logic is accepted, Pakistan will be a lawless country. As it is, Pakistan ranks very low among the international community in law enforcement. Accountability has to be across the board and not individual-specific.

If the PM is absolved of all charges, we could breathe a sigh of relief that his position has been vindicated. If he is found guilty, then the law should take its course.

The Supreme Court’s decision to appoint the JIT to investigate the sources of prime minister’s declared wealth showed that normal agencies are not considered either sufficiently competent or trustworthy to be relied upon. This is a clear reflection of the bankruptcy of our system that regular state institutions can no longer be relied upon. This is a sad state of affairs and would need a serious effort by the government to reform and revitalise state institutions.

It is difficult to accept the logic that democracy will suffer a serious setback if the PM is removed upon being found guilty by the court. Taking cover behind the fragility of Pakistan’s institutions will be tantamount to giving licence to leaders to commit corruption and get away.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2017.