AS the Panama Papers ricochet around the world, triggering political crises in countries far and wide and engulfing politicians in scandal, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N have been unable to suppress the outcry in Pakistan.

In this age of leaks in the era of digital journalism and social media, mere denials appear to be no longer an option — the torrent of accusations overwhelming whatever weak denials and exculpatory evidence is offered.

Ostensibly bowing to this post-modern political crises, rooted in the oldest of sins — corruption — Prime Minister Sharif has announced that a judicial commission will be formed to investigate the allegations of financial chicanery and corruption by his family.

While a welcome step, in financial matters the devil is usually in the details, and the prime minister left a great deal unexplained about the scope and powers of the judicial commission.

A quick and immediate contrast can be made with the judicial commission formed to investigate the allegations of electoral fraud in the 2013 general election. In that case there was a validated overall election result that was subsequently challenged on various grounds by the PTI.

There the onus was on the PTI and other allegedly aggrieved parties to furnish reasonable proof for a general election, which had been validated by the Election Commission of Pakistan, to be declared null and void. In the case of the Panama Papers, the documentary trail has come as a bolt from the blue.

The accusers are not partisan political actors inside Pakistan; their allegations are made on the basis of leaked internal documents of a global firm that nobody, not even the Sharifs, are denying as fake.

So, for any commission, judicial or otherwise, to conduct a meaningful inquiry it would have to be proactive and have wide powers of investigation and subpoena. Inside Pakistan, the commission should have the authority to investigate the finances and assets of the Sharif family.

Outside Pakistan, the Sharif family members residing abroad should volunteer to assist the commission in any way the latter deems necessary. Pakistan deserves a prime minister whose personal finances are beyond reproach.

Yet, the matter goes far beyond one individual and one family. Across Pakistan, public servants and the politically connected elite routinely flout tax laws. In some cases, the crimes are almost seen as a badge of honour — to be able to live extravagantly and pay next to nothing to national coffers is seen as a sign of success. That culture must change.

As the national response to the Panama Papers have underlined and as the PTI’s success with the electorate first proved, Pakistanis are tired of business as usual when it comes to politics and their leaders.

The cynical politics of old is being challenged by an aspirational, rule-of-law politics of a new generation. Pakistan’s leaders must catch up with the desires of its people or risk being cast aside.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2016



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