The past week saw an unprecedented consensus being forged across the civil-military and political divides over the need for “across-the-board accountability”. Interestingly, it was the military that took the lead in bringing about this consensus, and political forces, including the PML-N, apparently fell in line.
But the questions that are now doing the rounds in the socio-political circles of the capital city are: Why has this consensus been forged now – after the army chief’s statement – and why not earlier; does this have anything to do with the Panama Papers leaks; are politicians serious in supporting the army chief call for accountability for all, or are they just playing to the galleries?
Speaking to officers and soldiers recently in Kohat, the army chief pointed out that corruption was the real issue that was “failing the country”, and said that the army would lend its full support to efforts made in this direction.
The reaction from political circles was immediate. PTI Chairman Imran Khan immediately came out and said that the army chief’s statement resonated with the people of Pakistan.
But then, this was to be expected. Indeed, Mr Khan had built his party and election campaign on the premise that there was a dire need for accountability of those who had been plundering the exchequer and stashing their wealth abroad. So when the army chief picked up on his pet issue, it was only logical that the PTI chief would feel a certain sense of vindication.
But the uncanny support that General Raheel Sharif’s call for accountability has received from the main opposition PPP, as well as the ruling PML-N, has certainly raised many eye brows.
PPP information secretary Qamar Zaman Kaira also appreciated the sentiment, saying there was a dire need to adopt a national approach to fighting corruption.
But it was only last July when PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, mincing no words, hit out at the military establishment for maligning his party leadership by accusing them of corruption.
“You are only here for three years, but we are here to stay forever, so be careful,” Mr Zardari had said, in an obvious reference to the three-year stint of the army chief.
Defence minister Khawaja Asif also welcomed the army chief’s and saying that the government fully supported him, gave an interesting analogy. “Nobody has reservations when the chief justice speaks. Similarly, nobody should have objections when army chief speaks, since he too is the head of an institution.”
This is the same PML-N government, which, angrily reacted last November when General Headquarters (GHQ) expressed concerns over the civilian implementation of the National Action Plan. In fact, the PM’s Office had pointed out at the time that NAP implementation was the responsibility of all institutions, a hint that the military also shared the burden and the blame for tardiness on NAP.
When asked what led to the change of heart on the part of the PPP leadership, a senior office-bearer told Dawn, “It is the need of the hour in the wake of the Panama Papers leak. The ruling party is on the defensive, hence, as an opposition, our response to the army chief’s remarks was natural.”
The PPP office-bearer admitted that the majority of party leaders from Sindh believed the party shouldn’t have embarked on an all-out anti-PML-N movement, unlike the Punjab chapter, which has been advocating the need for aggressive politics. “The PPP will highlight the Panama Papers issue to the point where it only hurts the PML-N, not the existing set up, which is what the PTI seems to be interested in doing,” the PPP leader said.
The government, on its part, feels that this isn’t the right time to get into a confrontation, which is what the PML-N is usually best known for.
“At the moment, we are only focused on getting the proposed judicial commission in place and getting past this controversy. With only two years left, even the slightest misstep can damage the party in the next general elections. This is why the party leadership does not want to get into any unnecessary conflicts, either with the establishment or the opposition parties,” a key member of the federal cabinet told Dawn.
As long as there is no threat to the government, as there appeared to be during the PTI-PAT sit-in, “we shouldn’t read too much into such statements and take them in our stride”, the cabinet member said.
A senior PTI leader also admitted that the Panama Papers were a godsend for Imran Khan and vindicated his oft-repeated claims that the Sharifs had funneled their wealth abroad. In addition, the leader conceded, this controversy had come as a blessing in disguise for the PTI, which had been plagued by intra-party rifts, allowing it to close ranks in an anti-government campaign.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2016