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Haunted by a distant past

April 16, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THERE was a joke doing the rounds on social media wherein it was said that a Pakistan offshore account holders’ convention was being organised this week at one of London’s most expensive addresses, One Hyde Park.

The obvious reference was to reports or, let’s say, suggestions that two of the country’s top politicians (or their immediate family members) have bought properties in the exclusive development on Knightsbridge with unmatched views of Hyde Park; the first a while ago, and the second rather recently.

Former president Asif Ali Zardari was already in London and now Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has flown in for medical treatment for what the PML-N says is a worrying heart ailment. This journey came on the heels of the Panama Papers’ controversy.

Against the backdrop of officially propagated ‘piety’, many of Gen Zia’s colleagues in khaki acquired much wealth.

At a time when a lot of well-meaning democrats in Pakistan are likening any attempt to question the amassing of wealth by some of our politicians, particularly during their stints in office, to the undermining of the democratic order and an invitation to military rule, I’d like to share my two bits worth too.

Wealth acquired via dodgy means whether through bribes for various favours while in office or via the patronage of those in power is equally repugnant. This can’t be truer for a country steeped in poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and illiteracy.

Betrayal of the electoral promises and violation of the oath as an elected public office holder is something hardly to be forgiven for. Yes, of course elected representatives must be held to a higher standard than a usurper and their coterie that have no legitimacy to start with.

Having said that let me share how early in life I was exposed to stories of corruption. The first story goes to the period of my childhood where the memory is often hazy and one remembers only a few sketchy bits from here and there.

It was in 1963/64 that my father was posted as deputy director general, defence purchase/procurement. The officer he replaced had only served in that capacity for six months before facing a court of inquiry. The findings were so damning he took premature retirement.

No further action was taken even though it had been established a defence supplier had been invited, among others, to the lieutenant colonel’s wedding anniversary and presented his wife with a diamond-studded jewellery set. The disgraced officer was later to emerge as a wealthy politician and even a provincial minister.

This, of course, was the period when patronage of the military ruler Ayub Khan enabled several families close to him in the military and civil bureaucracy with hitherto no demonstrable entrepreneurial skills to emerge as successful, thriving industrialists. The field marshal’s own son left what was said to be promising military career to seek alternative livelihood as a successful industrialist-businessman. His grand homes in Karachi’s DHA and on one of Islam­abad’s most exclusive hills were said to be the envy of billionaires. Eventually, he also chose a political career.

When the baton changed hands from the military to the civilian leadership following the 1971 debacle, there were many allegations levelled against the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but none of these related to corruption in any way. The latter-day PPP presents a tragic contrast.

When Ziaul Haq, the military ruler who deposed Bhutto in a coup, carried out a systematic vilification campaign on state-run TV and in the print media against the former leader, one hardly ever heard of a charge of corruption or abuse of power to gain personal riches against him.

Zia’s own tenure was a different story altogether. Against the backdrop of officially propagated ‘piety’, many of his colleagues in khaki acquired so much wealth that it continues to come into play, for example, in politics to this day.

The names of the junta members who became dollar-term millionaires are too numerous to recount. Let me say some of them became so arrogant that they even let go off one virtue the forces are known for: camaraderie.

I remember one of my father’s friends, a former brigadier, telling us of a junior officer who had served under him and fallen on hard times following retirement. My father’s friend took him to the then quarter master general (one of Zia’s blue-eyed boys) who had also served under the retired brigadier.

“I couldn’t believe my ears when he said he’d help Mike [nickname] by registering him as a supplier and giving him orders but wanted his 10pc in advance as a matter of ‘principle’ that he couldn’t waive even for a former colleague.”

This was the culture under Pakistan’s famous Islamist military ruler.

It was in Zia’s tenure that the quest for a civilian alternative to PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was on. Zia’s Punjab strongman Lt-Gen Ghulam Jilani is on record as having said he handpicked Nawaz Sharif as a promising candidate. He was made provincial finance minister in 1981 and rose rapidly in political stature and wealth as the dictatorship patronised him.

Then Zia’s brainchild, the partyless election of 1985, meant that state largesse was the only means of keeping disparate individual legislators behind the chosen leaders. This corruption and patronage became so embedded in the country’s defence and political establishments that even post-Zia, dozens of senior politicians and generals have been cited in innumerable cases.

No government was an exception. It is true only a handful have been convicted, such is the flawed investigation machinery and the sophistication of the operations such as ‘offshore’ companies that protect the crooked rich.

There is no doubt the Sharifs earned their democratic credentials in their travails following their ouster from power in a military-led coup and now lead a popular party but currently their distant past seems to be haunting them. Will it be their undoing? In a land known for its endless ‘deal-making’ ability I seriously doubt it.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2016