WITH both vying for the same space and the same slice of the electorate, the PML-N and the PTI were always going to find ways to attack each other. On Wednesday, it was Khwaja Asif’s turn to fire the latest PML-N salvo against the PTI chief, Imran Khan. Armed with a sheaf of documents and a series of seemingly hard-hitting accusations against the fund managers of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, Mr Asif tried to poke a hole in Imran Khan’s self-styled reputation as a clean politician with no financial skeletons in his closet. PTI supporters reacted with outrage to Khwaja Asif’s allegations and dismissed them as an ugly attempt to drag a charitable institution into disrepute. There is an inconvenient truth, however, for the PTI: the Shaukat Khanum hospital is a central plank of Imran Khan’s political platform.
With a non-existent record of public service in government, Mr Khan has long held the hospital he set up as an example of why he is qualified to run Pakistan. In Mr Khan’s telling, Shaukat Khanum hospital is a symbol of his commitment to the people’s welfare and his resolve to handle large finances transparently and professionally. So if his political opponents probe into the affairs of Shaukat Khanum and find something amiss, it is unrealistic to expect them to keep their suspicions or allegations out of the public arena. How are funds for the hospital raised, does the fund-raising comply with Pakistani and the relevant foreign laws, and are the funds invested in a way that is both legal and ethical given their purpose are all questions that Shaukat Khanum’s administrators ought to answer in full. Particularly since the PTI routinely accuses every other party of financial malfeasance and corruption, the party should set the bar higher for transparency and openness. It is worth noting that to date the PTI has provided no meaningful information about who has sponsored and paid for the massive rallies the party has held in all four provinces of the country.
Nevertheless, Khwaja Asif’s fulminations against the PTI should also be treated with caution — not because the allegations are necessarily false but because there is a risk that as the elections draw nearer, political opponents will descend into an ugly free-for-all that could damage the democratic project itself. The PPP has long been a victim of dirty tricks, as has Imran Khan himself owing to his colourful past. The PML-N — no shrinking violets there, clearly — can also suffer similar attacks. Perhaps party leaders need to informally declare certain areas off limits for criticism; or else, perhaps the ECP could have a role to play?