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Incumbency is the real enemy

Updated December 18, 2018


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE corruption drive just doesn’t stop picking up steam. After Shahbaz Sharif, it was the turn of Saad Rafique to be arrested, which hardly came as a surprise to anyone. At the same time, reports emerged that inquiries had begun against a few PML-N leaders whose voices we continue to hear, such as Rana Sanaullah and Marriyum Aurangzeb.

The winter doesn’t promise to be any more promising for the PPP. Already contending with the fake accounts case, Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari are now also being questioned for land acquired near Islamabad — NAB alleges that the forest land was illegally allotted to a company owned by them.

While there is some condemnation of this no-holds-barred campaign to hold accountable those who have governed and misgoverned us in the past 10 years, so far it seems that the loudest noises are coming from those in favour of the drive.

Such is our obsession with ‘corruption’ that federal ministers in the PTI cabinet have no qualms about criticising their own leader, Imran Khan, for giving the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee to Shahbaz Sharif. The decade-long parliamentary tradition as well as the need to run a smooth house seems to have no truck with them; perhaps they realise that their shor sharaba (noise) about giving the PAC to corrupt leaders will win them brownie points with the core support base of the PTI and that Khan will understand their need to play to the gallery. After all, he too has been doing the same. Why else would ministers Fawad Chaudhry and Amir Kiani have publicly criticised the decision with no apparent reaction from the prime minister?

Will the PM have to make a similar choice as Musharraf did between growth and accountability?

But corruption can dominate the political scene for just so long and governments can beat this horse for just so long. As with any other issue, this one cannot win over hearts and minds endlessly.

We have seen all this not too long ago under Pervez Musharraf. He too came to power at a time when civilian governments had been deemed to misgovern Pakistan for a good 10 years and the populace in general was tired of their excesses. If the PPP’s second tenure had been marked by serious allegations of corruption, the PML-N’s second tenure was characterised by picking up fights left, right and centre (a bit similar to their rule post-2013) — Mian Sahib had locked horns with the military, the judiciary and the press while his economic decisions had upset the business community, and civil society was worried sick thanks to his effort to declare himself amirul momineen.

As a result, when Musharraf sent the politicos home and promised accountability, there was not just relief but also hope that this would help fix our problems in the long run. And initially, there was not a peep, as politicians and rich businessmen were thrown behind bars indefinitely on the vaguest of charges. For example, industrialists were picked up abruptly because their businesses or industries had defaulted on loans. The military government issued a list of 300 ‘defaulters’ who were on their radar.

But the drive didn’t last long and neither did the detentions. The general had also promised economic growth, and it wasn’t long before it was pointed out to him that he could either pursue the ‘corrupt’ or prosperity. And Musharraf chose the latter. NAB was forced to slow down — Musharraf’s first choice to head it — a military man, of course — quit because of this decision, while another, Shahid Aziz, also from the armed forces has spoken in detail about how he was given the position on the condition that he would not pursue old cases. Aziz was appointed in 2005 and removed in 2007 when Musharraf was pursuing a deal with the exiled leadership of the PPP.

Apart from economic growth, by 2007 Musharraf also faced a crisis of legitimacy. And his unpopularity re-energised support for the PPP and PML-N. After eight years of military rule, the civilians didn’t seem so corrupt or incompetent to the people of Pakistan, the army and to the international community.

Politics in Pakistan has come full circle since 1999; these days, the politicians are seen as the incompetent and corrupt lot while the military has resurrected itself. And the PTI is acceptable despite being a political party because it has not been part of any government till now. It is still associated with hope.

But how long will the present mood last? Will Khan too have to make a similar choice as Musharraf did between growth and accountability? The PML-N seems to think so.

Every chance that the PML-N’s former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gets, he reminds us that bureaucrats are scared and that this hampers governance. He said this even when he was prime minister. Khan himself is aware of this — his earlier speeches to bureaucrats in Lahore and Islamabad were primarily efforts to reassure them. In one address, he went so far as to say that he had told the NAB chairman to ensure that no bureaucrat was harassed.

So far, there is little news that NAB has targeted the business community — directly, though they do get caught in the net once business deals involving the government are investigated.

And all of this will slowly be questioned if the economy continues to falter.

This, in turn, will also force the state to weigh the pros and cons of running a no-holds-barred accountability drive and make adjustments accordingly. NAB, the FIA and even the judiciary might have to slow down.

But this may not automatically ensure relief for the PML-N and PPP. It might be longer before their leadership can breathe freely. Their resurrection will take place once the PTI’s sheen has worn off. Tough economic decisions and mistakes as well as the always-present civil-military friction will add to this process of sullying.

For no political party can deliver everything forever, even in the best of circumstances. And the PTI faces a rather challenging environment. Incumbency, at the end of the day, is the harshest opponent for those in power and the best friend of the rivals — just ask Musharraf and Modi.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2018