Whack-a-mole

Published August 9, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

TO begin with, a cliché much favoured by journalists, NAB has been ‘nabbed’.

Perhaps with as much alacrity as all the parties had displayed to give an extension to the army chief one winter, the PDM made changes to the NAB law. So far, the only other matter they have been this energised about are the media talks against the PTI and its leader.

But, while the utility of the pressers is far from clear, the lightning action on the NAB laws needs little explanation. The PDM makes no bones about it and neither does anyone else. The accountability bureau is bad news for them and they are in a position to press the delete button.

The changes have been well-documented in news stories and range from reducing the period of remand to 14 days, to making evidence from foreign states inadmissible, to excluding the decisions of federal and provincial cabinets as well as bodies such as Ecnec from the domain of NAB. The number of people affected has also been defined and changes have been made to exclude relatives from benami ownership.

There are stories galore explaining the changes in detail and how they affect the ongoing cases. No wonder the wide sweeping changes have earned considerable criticism for the PDM. But will they truly benefit from their efficiency?

Like our other power brokers, our politicians also refuse to learn from history. They think their problems cropped up because of NAB, like Alia Bhatt’s character in her latest film who thinks her husband’s abuse stems from his drinking habits and not his nasty, true self.

During the Musharraf period, they thought the problem could be handled by putting their own man in charge of NAB. The mukmuka (settlement) agreed upon was to allow the leader of the opposition and the government to jointly find the right person. After all, they had been responsible for most of the cases against each other earlier. So if they both agreed on the person, they thought, all would be well.

The stories of our accountability issues are like magical realism tales.

It worked for a while. NAB rarely gave any trouble to the PPP when it was in power; one of their chosen heads thought NAB should do more to prevent corruption than catch it, to keep himself busy. And the head chosen by the PML-N refused to open the Hudaibya case when the Supreme Court asked about it during the Panama trial.

But politics and power stands still for no one. And accountability in Pakistan charts new paths if the old and tested ones are blocked. If NAB was taking sleeping pills in those post-2008 days, the courts were there to keep the PPP wide awake and more — the Anti-Narcotics Force was involved in the ephedrine case; and at times the courts were petitioned to do so in cases such as rental power projects.

By the time the PML-N rolled in, the organisation woke up from its slumber in Sindh at least — someone should ask Asim Hussain and Sharjeel Memon about accountability in those pre-PTI days. But they may not say much, thanks to their newfound friendship with the Noonies. And for the PML-N, Panama came along as well as an iqama and the Black’s Law Dictionary.

Now the PTI is being investigated for foreign funding. So what if the party says the ECP’s decision is not final or it was about prohibited funding or a declaration is not a bayan-i-halfi (affidavit). The details, as in the case of Panama, are only of relevance to the ones in the firing line.

Read: NAB law changes may ‘favour’ PML-N leaders

In our homeland, the finer points of the law or process rarely stand in the way of the grand sweep of events and the pakkar dhakkar (arrests). Those feverishly making changes to the NAB law seem to think reducing the remand period to 14 days will help, forgetting that the earlier law didn’t allow for Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to be kept behind bars for six months. It was the trial court judge who kept allowing an extension in the former prime minister’s remand. Was this because the judge was convinced by NAB’s reasoning for the need of an extension? One can only assume.

Counting on the law to keep you safe only goes so far, as they all should know. And it is hard to say when and which organisation or its head will turn against a politician or a party.

The stories of our accountability matters are like magical realism tales where systems see guilt or innocence through special glasses, prison doors lock or open from afar, and the health of men is dependent on international borders and not medicines. The law books are as irrelevant as the American vice president, though we all like to pretend otherwise. The lawyers have to make a good living after all.

Even politicians’ blatant efforts to appoint people themselves are as successful as parents who think their children will be happier with their (parents’) choice of spouse. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi never fails to tell us of his mistake in appointing Javed Iqbal as the head of NAB, but says little about who made the recommendation and why his government agreed. And why would the PPP have been comfortable with the person who didn’t spare them either? Both parties were driven by objectives other than finding the right person for the job. The PML-N was hoping to woo the PPP and the PPP. And now Imran Khan is resorting to similar rona dhona (complaining) about the chief election commissioner’s appointment.

For all this, it is worth asking if the PDM will actually achieve what it wants from the changes to NAB, except in the here and now. Its only other net gain has been to cement the perception it removed the PTI government to save its own skin. Whether they will be able to breathe easy for long is another matter altogether.

The accountability saga is a game of whack-a-mole. The political class will rarely be able to beat them down as fast as the moles jump up. They better be prepared to wield the mallet for some time to come.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2022

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