Shahbaz Sharif’s belated awakening
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has belatedly woken up to the perils of partisan, politically motivated accountability. This ‘awakening’ has only occurred after the Sharifs have had this kind of process visited on them of late. Starting with the Panama case that set in motion the disqualification and elimination from the electoral field of elder brother and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and currently winding its way through the thicket of cases under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) or in the anti-corruption courts, the accountability process once again is focused primarily on the incumbent PML-N and in particular the Sharif family. Addressing this phenomenon, Shahbaz Sharif used the occasion of a welfare ceremony in Lahore on May 1, 2018 to dilate on the fact that NAB seemed to be working proactively in Punjab and the Supreme Court too was engaged in taking ‘notice’ of everything with great attention. While in principle welcoming the scrutiny, Shahbaz Sharif defended his record in office over the last decade and presented himself for full accountability if even a single penny’s corruption could be proved against him. He called into question the ‘holier than thou’ attitude of those who had loans worth billions waived and were drenched in corruption but were pointing fingers of accusation at others and advising the country on honesty. He in turn advised the state institutions to give attention to the recovery of looted money. Double standards would not work, he cautioned, water and fire cannot combine and if these institutions had taken on the responsibility to eliminate corruption, then this should be carried out without discrimination.
There is no denying the track record of partisan accountability in our history. Successive governments have used accountability as a weapon to do down their political rivals. PML-N governments are also included in this list of suspects. No one can forget the Ehtesab Bureau and its chief, Saif-ur-Rehman’s efforts against the PPP in the late 1990s. The chief ‘prosecutor’ of these cases against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari himself wept on television many years later while confessing to his shenanigans. A similar pattern persists to date. That is not to say that there were not grounds for proceeding against one party or the other (and state officials) suspected of wrongdoing when in power. Only that the dreadful pattern shows incumbents virtually exclusively tilting against rivals no longer in power to try and knock them out of the political race. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, naturally the PML-N is railing against being targeted in this manner. What Shahbaz Sharif and other PML-N leaders under the accountability cosh are perhaps forgetting is their own role in the distant and recent past along these lines. It may be recalled that while in exile, Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto signed a Charter of Democracy in London vowing to, amongst other things, eschew such underhanded tactics in future. Implied in that Charter was a commitment to creating an objective, fair, non-partisan accountability process. As usual, in the hurly-burly of the re-entry into electoral politics upon return from exile and after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, all those pious intentions were forgotten and the country saw the PML-N in opposition joining hands with the judiciary and establishment against the PPP and after coming into power going to further lengths in this regard. The inherent flaw in this kind of partisan, politically motivated accountability is that even genuine cases cannot be brought to closure without charges of victimisation being bandied about by those on the receiving end and gaining traction in the public mind. If the PML-N is by now worried about what is in store for it at the hands of a proactive judiciary, allegedly with the full support of the establishment, this may not be a bad moment to reflect on accountability regimes (the present one is a legacy of Musharraf, which Nawaz Sharif of late has lamented not doing away with when he had the chance) that can temporarily be used against rivals for political purposes but have a disconcerting habit of returning time and again to hoist their authors with their own petard.