THE much-anticipated Supreme Court verdict on the Panama case promised closure. Instead, it has offered us an intermission. Erring on the side of caution, the majority has partially reserved its judgement – at least until a thorough investigation by a joint investigation committee. The minority, on the other hand, has ventured so far as to declare that even “a pedestrian in Pakistan Chowk, Dera Ghazi Khan” would have little difficulty in concluding that the prime minister is neither sadiq nor ameen, and that his dishonesty calls for his immediate disqualification.
By fate or intelligent design, both sides claim an equal share in victory. The government has hailed the ruling as a vindication, a court-sanctioned stamp of approval for Nawaz Sharif to continue his charge, while the opposition claims that the judgement has stained his moral character and thus demands his resignation. Justice, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Notwithstanding these opposing claims, the judgement is historic, for it has exposed, in no uncertain terms, the corruption, inefficiency and lack of transparency that plague this nation. Never before has a sitting prime minister been made the subject of such intense judicial scrutiny. Never before has the issue of corruption attracted such attention.
Can this case be a springboard for institutional reform?
The decision has castigated every public body that was called to answer before the Supreme Court. Justice Ijazul Ahsan, writing for the majority, stated that “the complete and utter apathy shown by state functionaries” over the Panama scandal was “shocking” and showed a “complete and utter lack of interest and a desire to sweep matters under the carpet”. Similarly, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, delivering his dissent, called the conduct of the NAB chairman “disturbing” and noted that his “neutrality and impartiality” in connection with the prime minister had been severely compromised.
As for Sharif himself, his narrative was ruthlessly dismantled by all five justices at every turn: the letter from Prince Al-Thani, the knight in shining armour in this entire chronicle, was rubbished as a fanciful attempt to blind the court; the gaping discrepancies between the financial history of the Sharif family were highlighted and the contradictory accounts of various members of the family found irreconcilable, with Justice Ahsan stating that “every possible effort [had been] made and conceivable device [had been] adopted to withhold and conceal information” from the court.
All in all, the judgement is a damning indictment, not only of the prime minister and his family, but also of the state institutions that have patently failed to discharge their statutory responsibilities. It remains to be seen whether we can use the verdict as a springboard to demand political and, more importantly, ‘institutional’ change.
The greatest cause of concern within this charade is the sheer insolence and lethargy with which our regulatory and accountability agencies have shrugged off their obligations. This inaction is symptomatic of a deeper systemic malaise — the lack of independence of state institutions. Be it the FBR, NAB or FIA, the leadership of these agencies is handpicked by the executive, typically for true-blooded loyalism. Any party, whilst making such appointments, would inadvertently choose the option most amenable to their manoeuvrings.
It is little wonder, then, that these public bodies appear so beholden to the rulers, or that each time they exercise their powers their actions are coloured as politically motivated witch-hunts. The function of regulation and accountability demands a significant degree of independence and liberation, without which they lose every iota of legitimacy.
The incompetence of these institutions, as is evident from the Panama crisis, necessitates their reform. Perhaps we could take a cue from the US, where the appointments of the heads of most regulatory, intelligence and accountability agencies is always subject to the consent and approval of the majority of the Senate.
Similarly, here at home, it is imperative that such public appointments be subjected to some form of parliamentary control, either through the National Assembly or the Senate, for unless state institutions become accountable to someone other than the ruling government, it is difficult to envisage a system where they are not susceptible to being coerced by vested interests.
At the moment, demands for Sharif’s resignation are resounding, from principled and opportunistic quarters alike. At stake is nothing less than the sanctity of the highest public office in the land. Although the law may not mandate that the prime minister vacate office, moral propriety does, even though it may find no such precedent in this country. But amidst the drums of war, it would serve us well to remember that politicians are merely figurines, and that the greater battle lies against the system itself.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2017