Panama Cat is out of the bag! PM Nawaz gave his ‘Commission of Enquiry’ that will or can investigate everyone ‘rich’ in Pakistan except himself. This is called a ‘potential sixer’. Will this be caught at the boundary or will cross over into the pavilion will depend upon how his opposition and media reacts.
Whatever happened in Pakistan since the appearance of ‘Panama Paper’s is less about the ‘Panama Papers’ and more about the nature of Pakistani politics and its fault lines, Pakistani society, its power dynamics and the levels of ignorance and illiteracy in which several communities of Pakistanis live or suffer. For any student of international politics and sociology the ‘mad house’ which Pakistani politics has thrown up in the last three weeks should be a ‘fertile petri-dish’ to study the politics of a people; in this case: Pakistanis.
With PM Nawaz Sharif’s speech, on 22nd April, his third address to the nation, since 5th April, the whole issue of ‘Panama Files’ has become so murky, so different, so ‘Pakistanized’ – like Harry Potter turned into Maula Jut – that its important to first define what the original issue was and what questions it raised.
Panama Files and its disclosures – at-least in the context of Pakistan – was never really about Off-shore accounts. Businessmen, companies, banks, corporations and even ordinary citizens world over have always maintained ‘Offshore’ accounts for various reasons. It is not about taxes either. Businessmen are in the business of making money and have every right of reducing their tax liability and as long as ‘national’ or ‘international laws’ permit them ‘safe heavens’ to do that, they are within their right to do so – as long as they can prove the origin of funds, source of earnings and that taxes were initially paid, if due.
The whole talk, endless gibberish, of 200 plus Pakistani businessmen, bankers, corporate leaders, media tycoons or rich people keeping ‘off-shore accounts’ was meaningless. It only testifies to the level of ignorance and maliciousness in Pakistani media and politics that this charge has been repeated again and again – and even ‘ministers’ in responsible positions have talked off the ‘accountability of all’ as if suddenly we have turned against ‘capitalism’ or are about to start a war between ‘good and evil’ a kind of Pakistani sequel of the ‘Lord of Rings’. Perhaps the ‘objective’ was to spread the debate so afar as to make it ‘irrelevant’ and open the net so wide that it cannot capture any one.
Amongst the 200 plus names, that initially surfaced in first week of April, the only names that raise alarm bells are about 14-15 politically exposed persons or persons intimately connected with the top political families – like JP (Javaid Pasha) known to be a London based frontman for Mr. Zardari – and two judges of Lahore High Court. Judges were perhaps even more important, but to this day neither media, nor political parties have really raised this issue. And surprisingly ‘Supreme Court of Pakistan’ or ‘Bar Associations’ have also not demanded an explanation from these two ‘odd names’ in a list, where they should never have been. Their appearance there has raised serious questions and have tarnished the image of whole judiciary – but neither they have felt nor their ‘professional bodies’ have demanded an explanation.
Why politically exposed persons, Judges and top civil servants are important? Because those in the positions of leadership or decision making in a country – be it Prime Minister, Chief Minister or Ministers or those who adjudicate matters of conflict between warring parties like the judges or those who implement policy decisions like the top civil servants – represent a ‘Clear and Present Conflict of Interest’. They take or influence major decisions of economic policy, structural development, tax imposition and concessions, of foreign investments, mega projects like CPEC, motorways, metros, train-lines and privatizations like PIA or Steel Mills etc. Their decisions can make or break the fortunes of businessmen and corporations. And within this endless, intricate and interdependent process of decision making they get countless opportunities of enriching themselves and their families and their cronies and their political supporters. And that is why the rate of accumulation of their assets, their financial transactions, their accounts and their lifestyles need a ‘microscopic scrutiny’.
And that is why British PM, David Cameron immediately published all his personal and inherited assets, his accounts, his transactions, rental income he and his wife, Samantha, get. And that is why the American President is transparent to the last dollar. In a $ 16 trillion economy, US President’s accumulated total worth is only around $8-9 million and David Cameron, twice elected British PM is only worth £ 3 million or so. And all that can be accounted for; in case of Obama his books and salary, in case of Cameron his inheritance. Why it is important? because from the days of Aristotle, from the very origins of Greek democratic thought, the basic principle of political science is that top leaders and executives of a nation should not be its businessmen or traders, for the simple reason that they will represent a, “Conflict of Interest” so big, so enormous, so humungous, so multi-dimensional, so uncontrollable that nothing in terms of checks will constrain them and nation’s best interests will be compromised at the altar of private profiteering and empowerment. So wherever businessmen are in politics, contradicting the ancient Greek philosophy- as in America – their scrutiny assumes a relentless merciless ‘witch-hunt’. Many not much familiar with the thrust of American political system have wondered: “why no significant American names in Panama leaks?”. Answer is: aspirants of political office in America have to make disclosures at so many steps, are scrutinized and grilled so hard, and so many times during the progress of their multi-ladder career- like the game of snakes and ladders- that thinking of the pleasures of ‘anonymous existence in a Panama File’ is simply not available to them. That is why the twice elected American President, in a $16 trillion economy is worth only $8-9 million.
Unfortunately the conflict of interest is written large, literally inscribed, etched onto the stony, rugged, bruised face of Pakistani politics. It is part of its soul – if one is left. And those who support the ‘Sharif family’ despite full understanding of the nature of allegations and the obvious questions that arose, materialized, resurfaced after the Panama leaks have a logic: Why only Sharifs? Who in the ‘political hamam’ of the post-1985 Pakistan holds the towel? This is a question to which there is no answer. And this is what that has been repeated by PMNL leaders, supporters in media and ‘social media teams’ when they shouted, cried hoarse and pointed fingers towards literally everyone who matters in Pakistani power-politics.
And then there are those who see, who hear, who who smell army, military establishment, martial law lurking behind every movement of earth, behind every change of season, behind every bird that chirps and every child that smiles. Specter of troops jumping over the Ptv fence may not become a reality again, but paranoid fears of columns marching, issues of military dominated polity and so on lurk in many minds. So while ‘Panama Files’ was an international development, something that rocked the ‘western consciousness’ and injected itself into the Pakistani body politics, like an antigen from outside and like an ‘antigen’ it has over the past three weeks manifested itself into a quintessential Pakistani ‘reaction’. So Panama Files has metamorphosed itself into: CIA conspiracy against China Pakistan Economic Corridor, Plan to destroy Pakistani Economy, and Civil Military Divide. These were the messages which PM Nawaz effectively carried in his speech on 22nd; he hardly talked about ‘Panama leaks’, or the questions of ‘Conflict of Interest’; he instead talked of those who removed him from power, who brought 17th Amendment and in an ‘Oscar winning performance’ he talked of those who forcibly exiled him to Saudi Arabia. While we may endlessly ridicule him through the lens of ‘western or middle class logic’; he knew perfectly well that he was talking to his audience across the villages of Punjab, and planting his ideas into their minds. Through his ‘double, triple speak’ he attempted to conflate, international conspiracies by CIA, military adventurism by his Generals and Imran Khan’s grab for power and his associations with the dictators. Under the circumstances, it was a good well written, well rehearsed, tele-prompted speech – short on substance but strong on political rhetoric.
Coming back to legend of political corruption. Yes! One can argue that Imran Khan of PTI has no such record, he is different but then perhaps because of this ‘difference’ he is alone and will remain isolated in the arena. And ‘one man’ however popular he may be, provides no solution, no panacea, to a system that is all interconnected, inter-dependent. For instance with JP Pasha and Rehman Malik in Panama Files, what do we expect Zardari and PPP to do? And there are questions, serious questions about Imran’s overall ability to understand and push Pakistani politics. These limitations have once again been exposed in the ‘Pakistan’s Panama Crisis’.
When Nawaz Sharif first offered to set up a commission under a retired justice on 5th April, he knew of the political implications of Panama Files for the past several weeks. ICIJ had been sending questionaries, Pakistani journalists were shared details and all that. After all, his son, Hussain Nawaz, appeared purposefully, in a tv program, on 7th March, to spill the beans, to offer a plausible defense, to disclose that offshore accounts and the Avon field properties were held since 2006. This was a defense, Sharif family, had been thinking, contemplating in advance over the years. They understood the changing international climate post 9/11. The only mistake they did, a real time blunder, was to put ‘Maryam Nawaz’s name’ on these Offshore accounts in 2006. My sources in PMLN reveal that this happened because Hussain has two wives and they wanted to secure financil hold as families do. Otherwise Maryam Nawaz had nothing to do with these properties or accounts. But it was a blunder from Nawaz, because amongst his children the only one with a political future is Maryam. She is like Benazir for ZA Bhutto. Like Bhutto, in 1970’s, Nawaz has groomed Maryam to be the heir apparent. And if the Pakistani politics continues on its present track, the only one amongst the second generation of ‘dynastic politics’ with a credible promise and appeal is Maryam. So Nawaz, at some level, must have regretted this blunder and will do everything to undo this. But as of now, children are defending him, and he has set up a Commission apparently to exonerate them.
Nawaz may not be a ‘Professor Barack Obama’ worried about global problems or environmental issues, but within Pakistan he has been a ‘third time Prime Minister’; this is not ‘someone’s gift’ on platter, he instinctively understands his turf, Pakistan’s body politic, and he understands its key players and he knew who will have the audacity to challenge him and what will be his adversary’s game plan or demands. So when he first made his ‘televised address to the nation’ on 5th April, when Panama Files officially hit the fan, he had done his homework, he had time to think and he had his plan ready. As expected, when he offered ‘Commission under a retired Judge’ others reacted, lead by the ‘audacious’ Mr. Imran Khan who, falling into the trap, demanded a ‘Commission under Chief Justice’. How will a Commission under a ‘Chief Justice’ necessarily make the difference is beyond me. Most lawyers, financial experts and accountants I have talked to, fail to see how a ‘Commission’ any commission would have resolved this.
Now since Imran Khan has got his ‘Commission’ and PPP as expected is forcing him to accept that, and he has limited options to wriggle out of this ‘100 Year Commission’ like the ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Garcia, which all have loved but few have finished reading or understood; it remains to be seen that what Mr. Khan will do. Will he reject that? Most sane option would have been to reject this ‘Commission’ but now Mr. Khan may not have been left with the political capital to outrightly reject this Commission. So he will propose changes and amendments. But will he will be able to get a structure, a configuration of the Commission that can force Nawaz Sharif and JP Pasha – Mr. Zardari’s alleged front man – named in the Panama Files to deposit details of their assets?. Probably not. Without restricting the Commission to ‘politicians’ named in Panama Files and without obtaining full disclosure from all those ‘politicians’ any Commission would only be wasting public money and time. Lets see what Mr. Khan now comes up with. After all its 20th Yom-e-Tasees of his political baby, PTI. Journey of Political maturity.