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Reminisce — it’s less painful

May 21, 2016


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

A DECISION by the PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to ask Senator Rehman Malik to inquire into the Panama Papers disclosures about the ruling Sharif family was met with predictable scepticism and derision on social media.

After Mr Rehman’s incredibly ludicrous quotes topped by one which attained immortality when he tried to explain away the scores of targeted killings in Karachi as interior minister by saying that many unhappy wives were hiring hitmen, leading to a spike in incidents, it became next to impossible to take him seriously.

It is equally true that interior minister Rehman Malik earned kudos for his courage in rushing to the sites of terrorist incidents and suicide bombings ignoring the risk of secondary explosions. He was also unequivocal in naming and condemning the Pakistani Taliban at a time when a galaxy of political stars such as PTI’s Imran Khan and PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan openly displayed a soft spot for the militants.

Overshadowing the obvious positives, Rehman Malik aroused suspicion also as he was the PPP government’s point-man in handling the MQM and its London-based leader Altaf Hussain with kid gloves during a period when the latter’s party was seen as one of the three key players in the Karachi’s law and order mess.

The question, however, is whether the PPP chairman’s decision to name the party’s former interior minister to lead the Panama Papers probe was derided because of the suggested factors or if people genuinely doubted his ability to do a good job or because he was also named in the Papers.

This latest episode took me back to 1997 when the second Benazir Bhutto-led government had been dismissed and Nawaz Sharif had been voted to power with a two-thirds majority. In elections that year, the PPP had turned in one of its most dismal ever electoral performances, winning only 17 seats of the 207 in the National Assembly.

This happened during a period when the ‘charter of democracy’ between the PPP and PML-N was still years away and senator Saifur Rehman, Nawaz Sharif’s close friend and confidante, was made the acco­u­­nt­ability czar and an aggressive campaign ensued.

There were non-stop tales of arrests, torture and confessions under torture. High on the list of those being hunted by Saifur Rehman’s men was Benazir Bhutto’s former director general of FIA and a top aide Rehman Malik.

High on the list of those being hunted by Saifur Rehman’s men was Benazir Bhutto’s former director general of FIA Rehman Malik.

But the former FIA boss managed to leave Pakistan via Peshawar airport and evaded arrest. A while later, he resurfaced in London and announced he would continue working for the PPP. Like other journalists, I also read the news and filed it away somewhere in my head.

One day my phone rang in the BBC office where I worked then. It was Rehman Malik on the other end saying ‘BB had suggested’ that he talk to me. I wasn’t surprised as I’d covered Ms Bhutto since the mid-1980s and she was my ‘beat’ later too, so she knew me.

What followed was the strangest request I have ever heard in my entire professional life. He asked me to broadcast his email and telephone contacts on air as he was expecting a lot of people to give him evidence about the Sharif government’s corruption.

After ascertaining he wasn’t joking, my obvious response was that BBC policy did not allow for an individual’s contact details to be broadcast (unless it was lifeline broadcasting to unite separated family members in conflict or calamity zones) and I offered my regrets. He wasn’t happy but politely thanked me and hung up.

A few months later, a rather damning major spread focusing on the Sharifs’ alleged corruption during their stints in power including dodgy money transfers abroad and property purchases in London was published in the Sunday Times.

It didn’t take me long to connect the story to its source whose former organisation (FIA) had apparently carried out a forensic probe into his boss’s chief political rival’s financial affairs. If I remember correctly one name figured in that probe.

Shaikh Saeed. It is a name that keeps popping up whenever one tries to research Sharif family’s financial affairs. It is said his name figures in setting up offshore companies, money transfers and even sale of the Sharif-owned steel mills in Saudi Arabia.

The gentleman in question is said to be a close friend and business partner, and is also said to have been Pakistan’s honorary consul general in Baltimore during one of Nawaz Sharif’s tenures as prime minister in the 1990s. PML-N critics term him the family’s ‘front man’.

Any commission tasked with a Panama Papers probe can start with ascertaining who this person is and what role, if any, he has played. Of course, he is to be presumed innocent till any charges are established in a court of law.

It was probably the Sunday Times story that angered and spurred Saifur Rehman into engaging a London-based firm that specialises in such investigations. It was this firm that came up with the only case against the PPP leadership which looked like it would stick.

Yes, the so-called Swiss case totalling some $60 million for which the PPP would end up sacrificing a prime minister after it came to power in the 2008 elections was dug up by this firm. You would be well within your rights to ask why I am reminiscing. What about the present?

Let me tell you why. We belong to a country where the son of one former four-star general was quoted chiding the son of another four-star general and all-powerful ruler for 11 years by saying: “What is he worth? 280 million dollars? That’s peanuts.”

Here, there is no category of the elite untainted by charges of financial wrongdoing. Isn’t it better then to reminisce and tell stories rather than raise hopes and feel like a fool again?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2016