LAST Thursday, Imran Khan cut a frustrated figure in the National Assembly as he spoke about the government’s brazenly apathetic response towards the Panama Papers.
Five months on since the prime minister’s children were first publicised as owners of offshore companies, no concrete steps have been taken to investigate the source and legality of their funds. The ruling party is dragging its feet in the discussions to establish an investigation commission, and insists on casting a net so wide that pulling it all together would take years.
Khan’s frustrations are understandable and, regardless of what one thinks about his broader politics, eminently easy to sympathise with. He’s on the streets trying to intensify political pressure, but so far it hasn’t really worked. The rally in Lahore was too familiar for people and the media to get excited over. The one in Karachi was a complete failure. At some point he plans to hold a sit-in outside Raiwind, when the prime minister will likely be in New York for the UN General Assembly session.
Barring some remarkable mobilisation, an event outside a palatial estate in the underpopulated southern fringe of Lahore will contribute little by way of pressure. From a tactical point of view, his casual supporters, those on the fence, and the generally anti-Sharif segment of the electorate are suffering from what might be called protest fatigue.
The failure to heap enough pressure to force the government into some sort of action is, therefore, a tactical failure. And that is precisely how it should be read. What it is not by any stretch is a moral failure.
Far too much of the critical analysis of Khan’s politics ends up, advertently or otherwise, diluting a question of strategy within the abstract moral question of what ‘should’ be done.
Five months on, no concrete steps have been taken to investigate the source of the PM’s children’s funds.
Some don’t see offshore companies as a problem in the first place. Others are happy to ignore these ‘minor indiscretions’ for the sake of continuity at the helm, and to ensure minimum disruption to PML-N’s development vision. A few acknowledge the serious nature of the revelations but are wary of the impact that rock-the-boat protests may have on the civil-military equation.
While I am partially sympathetic to the last position in particular, I think it is based on an incorrect diagnosis of the problem. Accountability managed by civilians, and sanctioned by a sitting government, would enhance the legitimacy of a civilian-led state to a considerable extent. It would create both cultural and institutional barriers to military encroachments in political space. The goading of all those who contribute to public discourse should be towards the government to take concrete action, rather than towards Imran to stay pliant. The signalling so far on that front, however, is painfully weak.
With each passing day and each ineffective protest, the government becomes more emboldened in its foot-dragging. Last week, the speaker of the National Assembly pointedly chose to admit petitions against the PTI leadership, while reluctant to do the same for petitions against the prime minister. This was followed by some talk of banning discussion on the Panama Papers from the Assembly floor and committees altogether.
If these early steps foreshadow future actions, then political schisms and instability are bound to increase. There are several likely scenarios that may emerge from the current impasse. The first is that protest fatigue, electorate indifference, and the thinning out of party resources will knock the PTI back into its shell, signalling a temporary victory for the PML-N. Given that five months have elapsed since the issue first came out, this appears to have already begun.
A victory for the government in this manner, however, is an unequivocal loss for the state’s institutional development. Placing some modicum of accountability on the rear-most burner will increase political bitterness in the present, and can only serve as a precedent for the unchecked discretionary authority of majority governments in the future.
A second scenario would be if joint opposition protests and back-channel bargaining pressurises the government into an agreeable set of ToRs, and a relatively quick, surface-level investigation. The conclusion could be a clean chit, which the government would be eager to showcase, or it could be a rap on the knuckles in the shape of the disqualification of the prime minister’s son-in-law for asset concealment.
While this may seem sub-optimal from an accountability point of view, it would be strategically acceptable to all parties. The opposition can score a moral victory off the fact that it compelled an investigation. The government can gain points for exhibiting magnanimity.
Finally, the third and most dangerous scenario would be if the government continues its intransigence in the face of consistent public pressure. This may lead to a situation similar to the one witnessed in the summer of 2014, where the military is ultimately invoked as an arbitrator to resolve a political dispute. The resulting outcome would be regressive for Pakistan’s institutional development; it would likely be damaging to both political parties; and it would further delegitimise the constitutionally ordained hierarchy of the state itself.
As things stand, the government’s control over most investigative institutions, and their reciprocal deference to the executive, is enough to ensure complete compliance. No one is going to take independent action, and thus the opposition as a whole, and Imran Khan in particular, have nothing to pin their hopes on. Bitterness and dysfunctionality will continue to deface the political sphere.
The only way out of a growing crisis, and a successful resolution to the pressing issue of polarisation, rests on the government ceding some space off its own accord. This could be in the shape of a mutually agreeable investigation commission or in the form of enhanced autonomy for investigative bodies. Continued petulance and defiance at this stage will only lead to trouble later.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn September 12th, 2016