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Much ado about Panama


June 7, 2017

We, Pakistanis, are masters of hitting the target but missing the point. Blowing up an isolated case that is symptomatic of a larger failure and making it a matter of life and death are part of our definition of progress. But while isolating and magnifying one case can offer you a deceptive closure, it seldom achieves anything lasting.

Let’s refresh our memory. When late Justice Nasim Hassan Shah, who was part of the eight-member Supreme Court bench that tried Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, conceded in an interview given decades later that the judges allowed their personal biases and atmospherics to impact their decision, he was stating the obvious. But then a petitioner from Bhutto’s party approached a Supreme Court bench to punish Justice Shah. Was it really about one man’s off-the-cuff remarks? Or do we simply need closure without proper introspection? I would hazard a guess that the latter was the case. This is where we make mountains out of molehills and shut our eyes when confronted by the real thing.

Similarly, when Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri launched their agitation campaign against the alleged rigging in the 2013 elections, many expected that the outcome would at least settle the issue of rigging allegations once and for all. But that did not happen because the agitators had the wrong expectations. Instead of seeking reforms in the election processes meant to make them more transparent, they were expecting to see the incumbent prime minister to be sent home. That did not happen. After an exhaustive inquiry, the proposals that could mould the future of our electoral politics were largely forgotten. Had we kept our eyes on the ball, perhaps we could have created the right environment to ensure no losing candidate could ever accuse the elections of being rigged again.

Now take a look at the Panama Papers controversy. When the story first broke, there were many questions that deserved to be asked. For instance, is it legal for a Pakistani citizen to open an offshore company without disclosing the details to his or her government? Do we have sufficient laws to investigate such companies? Do we know how to distinguish them from shell companies? How should any remedy work in the case of a dual citizen? Should a public officeholder be allowed to have such companies? Do we have enough agreements with foreign governments to help probe such cases? And then there was this fear in many hearts that such an important debate would either be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency or then that of populism. The latter case won and it has very effectively been made a discussion about one family – the ruling Sharif family.

But does it fix the actual problem of the politicians, the rich and the famous stashing money abroad? Does it answer the questions highlighted above? Absolutely not. Yes, it can certainly help you get rid of one man. But can it really? Remember the days when Nawaz Sharif was removed from power, then tried in the courts and finally exiled? Many at that time thought that his politics was over. But, somehow, he has managed to return to the country – and to power.

I was young when Benazir Bhutto’s first government was dismissed. We learnt that her government was corrupt and therefore had to go. But         within three years     she was back in power. And then after her tragic death her husband who had spent almost a decade behind bars ended up serving this country as president for five years.

So, what happens if you remove one man from power? Does it put an end to the corruption in this country? Forget about that. Does it even put an end to the politics of one family? Suffice it to say, past record is not encouraging. So, what’s the plan?

For a small man like me who never benefits from rampant corruption in this country, addressing the deeper roots of the malaise, building a legal infrastructure meant to effectively close the loopholes in the system would have been far more encouraging. But that didn’t happen. A corruption-free society – just like free, fair and transparent elections – would put an end to the theatrics that help us get excellent ratings on television.

How will we pontificate everyday sitting on your shiny new TV screens if the toothpowder we sell is taken away from us? So, no one is serious about fixing the real problem. Everyone just wants a token sacrifice of someone in power and then a return to the old ways. If that someone in power is someone you do not like then that’s just an added bonus.

This reminds me of Sherbaz Mazari’s        ‘A journey to disillusionment’. It is befitting for a country so given to talking a lot but meaning so little about corruption that such a book be out of print and totally unavailable from the market. In his memoirs, Mazari tells us how he was part of every democratic movement in the country. And when he was arrested by authorities he was offered deals that involved ownership of factories in return for his cooperation. He did not cooperate and therefore has rightly been forgotten. But his candid account helps you understand a thing or two about the genesis of corruption in this country. He who is most corrupt makes the loudest noise about it here. The average Joe just considers it a reality of life and gets on with his mundane business.

Don’t get me wrong. I have spent my entire life hoping for a day when corruption, nepotism, opportunism, authoritarianism, parochialism and obscurantism will not impede an honest and competent man’s progress and social mobility. But that day can come when we stop being short-sighted about our goals. It was our short-sightedness that brought to us the gifts of instability, terrorism, economic meltdown and international isolation. Today one politician will be removed and another one will be installed. And tomorrow the new politician will also become too big for his boots and then the cycle will repeat itself.

On this carousel of power, it will matter little if the loopholes in the system were ever closed. But don’t mind that. Now that the target is in sight, one can only pretend that no real point existed beyond this. Happy hunting, folks!


The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. Twitter: @FarrukhKPitafi



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