The report presented by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has been seen as a definitive indictment — not just of the Prime Minister and his family, but that of the entire political elite. Other voices have urged caution, emphasising the perception that such accountability is selective.
It would be useful to examine how new this chapter truly is for Pakistan.
Most certainly, the issue of graft and corruption has never been so hotly debated in urban Pakistan. Sure enough, it was always a factor in the background, shaping middle-class perceptions of the political elite. But it was perhaps never quite the potent political storm that it currently is — no doubt fueled by electronic and social media as new platforms of expression.
That Pakistani media and institutions have taken such sharp notice of the Panama leaks and their implications for the current administration is heartening in and of itself. It has been accepted for far too long that achieving political or administrative authority entitles the officeholders to an almost unchecked exercise of power. And always, one of the first manifestations of such power is wholesale graft, carried out systematically and ruthlessly.
Investigating how the rulers are able to amass such fortunes should certainly be the cornerstone of any democracy. Steps taken to hold voracious political elites accountable, therefore, should not be seen in conspiratorial terms as attacks on democracy. They ought to be the lifeblood of Pakistani democracy.
Viewed from another perspective, however, current developments also represent a continuity in Pakistani history: that of selective accountability. It would be naïve to suggest that Pakistan’s political elites have never been held accountable by unelected institutions before. A glance at our seventy-odd years as an independent country reveals that some elites, generally those who were elected, have in various ways been held accountable. Other elites — often those who are unelected, or those who enjoyed the support of unelected power centres — have been spared such sharp scrutiny.
The problem with the current process is very simple. Throughout Pakistani history, it would be difficult to name a civilian ruler who was not, at some point, subjected to some form of ‘accountability’ — resulting either in their ouster from power, exile or death. It would be equally difficult to name a single unelected ruler who was ever called to account for administrative, legal or military disasters. As long as such a situation persists, it would be difficult to dismiss the complaints of the current PML-N government — no matter how crudely some of its members express those concerns!
In such circumstances when we are told that the current proceedings against the Prime Minister and his family will produce a culture of accountability across the board, to the student of Pakistani history it can, understandably, sound like cruel humour. Unfortunately, the lesson which most Pakistanis — especially the political elites — will take away from this whole process is certainly not that engaging in corruption is a bad idea. Instead, one fears that the conclusion taken home will be very different: that if you do engage in graft, you must ensure that you ingratiate yourself with certain other power centres, who are answerable to neither voters nor judges.
So, one fears that the lesson for elected civilian politicians might be: “play along, or else”. In such a situation, one cannot help but wonder if this whole process of accountability is a departure from our past. Could it be more a continuation of weaponised, selective accountability?
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même,” they say. The more things change, the more they stay the same!*
Daily Times, July 14, 2017