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Cleaning the Augean stables

April 24, 2018


IN a widely lauded move, the PTI has named and shamed its parliamentarians whom it accuses of having sold their vote in the Senate election.

In a live press conference (there is no other kind in Pakistan, it seems), Khan not just announced the names of those who he said had taken money but added that they had all been issued show-cause notices; the party would wait for their response. The parliamentarians have denied the accusations (could there have been any other reaction) and are about to go on the offensive. They held a press conference on Monday in Peshawar and moved an adjournment motion in the provincial assembly.

Nonetheless, there was a burst of applause for Khan and his efforts for a ‘clean Pakistan’.

But as always, the fear is that the PTI has taken a seemingly brave step without having thought it through; remember the intra-party elections and how that tabdeeli ended.

The fear is that the PTI has taken a seemingly brave step without having thought it through.

But first things first, for once, the PTI isn’t the first to have taken such drastic steps. Back in the Musharraf days, both the ANP and the JUI-F had taken such ‘brave’ steps. The ANP expelled three of its MPAs for having sold its tickets (the announcement was made in a press conference) and the JUI-F four. But it’s hard to tell what their radical steps achieved because 15 years later, the PTI named and shamed a far larger number of misguided parliamentarians.

Undoubtedly, the talk of money having exchanged hands for votes is rife in Peshawar. Those who keep a close eye on the politics of the city say most of these parliamentarians had been open about their intentions and actions.

But more than this, it’s the dynamics of politics in KP which allowed the PTI to take this step — many of these parliamentarians were already alienated from the party (and had formed a forward bloc a couple of years ago and were at odds with the chief minister over development funds); some have already left or are planning to leave the party before the coming election (Javed Nasim is a case in point); and most importantly, the PTI is in a particularly strong position in the province and will be able to choose from a wide variety of electables (which had already indicated to many of those show-caused that they would not be able to get the party ticket, come the election).

In other words, few feel the party will suffer much for its ‘principled’ stand.

For once, the party’s bravery is seen to be in sync with realpolitik rather than ill-considered passion — but only as far as its electoral politics within the province is concerned.

In the larger context, the PTI and the rest of the parties which have been moaning and groaning about the Senate election have achieved little except hurting themselves. From the prime minister to Imran Khan to others (except for the PPP obviously), each party has questioned the credibility of the Senate election and accused its political ilk of having taken money in exchange for votes.

In doing so, none of the politicians or the media huffing and puffing about the alleged corruption in the election have stopped to point out that the senators are under no obligation to vote along party lines in the Senate election. Senators enjoy the freedom to vote as they wish — this, of course, is not the same as voting after having accepted money, but such an allegation should be proven beyond doubt instead of simply being levelled and accepted as fact.

The second, more serious concern about the PTI’s and others’ habit of hurling allegations at their own is that it feeds into the larger campaign of painting all politicians and parliamentarians as corrupt and morally bankrupt.

An old practice, it gains pace during our bouts of democracy. Stories of corruption are rife as investigative journalism thrives, churning out story after story of kickbacks, shady deals and violation of rules. If the ’90s had brought us SSG-Cotecna, the polo ground case and Hudaibya, the post-2008 era brought us Ajab Corruption ki Ghazab Kahani, LNG and ephedrine and Ahad Cheema!

In a polity such as ours, where the military is always waiting in the proverbial wings, as a credible alternative to civilian rule, the authenticity of these corruption stories aside, the cumulative effect is to delegitimise politicians and democracy. It is no coincidence that each time a government was sacked in the 1990s, corruption was cited as a reason. And once this perception has been created, there is considerably less noise when civilians are replaced with military governments — seen to be ‘cleaner’ and ‘leaner’ enterprises.

Corruption was one reason Musharraf was welcomed in ’99. And it took eight years (and murmurings about the Steel Mills privatisation, the Gwadar port agreement with the Singapore port authority and more) for the Pakistanis to welcome the return of Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and democracy.

Indeed, in 2008, the pendulum had swung the other way but 10 years later, we seem to have gone back to the ’90s. The incompetence and corruption of the politicians consumes us, especially as now we have dozens of television channels beaming this story across the country. The Supreme Court’s interventions, the Panama fiasco and the overdrive of NAB — everyone gets the message about the corruption of politicians.

Sadly, now the politicians have joined this chorus — the prime minister speaks of the new chairman Senate with disdain and the PTI throws out its parliamentarians, citing morality.

If the parties were actually concerned about the integrity of the election, they would have reached a consensus on reforming the method of election to curb the use of money? Found a long-term solution to the problem than creating sound bites?

But that would require more sense than this lot (including the prime minister and Khan) appears to have. They think bravery and morality is about lending their voices to the campaign against themselves and patting themselves on the back. We have not put the ’90s behind us.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2018