Accountability woes

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And the Aleem fallout

How logic is turned on its head to suit its narrative of the day has become the hallmark of the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government. Appointed as head of the PAC (public accounts committee)- a statutory organ of the National Assembly- only a few weeks back, now the federal cabinet wants the incarcerated leader of the opposition Shahbaz Sharif to resign from this post on ‘moral grounds’.

This comes in the immediate aftermath of senior minister Aleem Khan’s sudden arrest by NAB (National Accountability Bureau). According to the accountability watchdog this was necessitated owing to charges against the since resigned senior minister for ‘allegedly’ owning assets beyond his known sources of income.

The arrest is being viewed as a balancing act, meant to further accelerate the ongoing clampdown on opposition figures. It is no coincidence that after Aleem’s arrest, NAB has decided to ramp up investigation against PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari in the fake accounts cases against him and his associates.

At the same time now it seems in a bit of a hurry to indict Shahbaz Sharif in the Ashiana Housing Scheme case. An angry accountability court judge Najam ul Hassan during the last hearing expressed his displeasure over the opposition leader’s absence from the court for indictment.

Conspiracy theories abound, eyebrows have been raised at the rather cautious charge sheet issued against Aleem. It copiously uses the words “alleged” or “allegedly”, while enumerating charges against the PTI leader.

Does this mean the NAB wants to deliberately give the impression that the former senior minister was arrested barely on the basis of allegations against him rather than concrete evidence? According to some, this would facilitate his bail application whenever required from the relevant high court.

Nonetheless Aleem’s arrest brings into sharp focus the kind of methods being used by NAB in the name of accountability. A retired judge of the apex court heads it. But ultimately who really calls the shots is anybody’s guess.

Not long ago an aspirant for the top slot in the province, Aleem Khan’s arrest naturally has political ramifications as well. Other candidates for the coveted post of chief minister of Punjab waiting in the wings will be somewhat relieved with the prospect of lesser competition.

Judging by the current ground realities Aleem had been sidelined long ago. The post of a senior minister is just a sop. Faisal Saleh Hayat was senior minister in Punjab under chief minister Manzoor Wattoo when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister.

Apart from enjoying some additional protocol, he was bereft of any powers. Under the rules of business there is only one chief executive no matter how inconsequential he is.

Other candidates for the coveted post of chief minister of Punjab waiting in the wings will be somewhat relieved with the prospect of lesser competition.

By appointing Usman Buzdar a relative political novice from Dera Ghazi Khan, the PTI supremo simply followed his model in the KP, so that he remained the sole arbiter running the province through remote control from the centre.

There has been talk of making the accountability process more transparent, across the board and less arbitrary. The ruling party washes its hands off doing so on the basis of the logic that when the PPP and the PML-N were in power they failed to do so, why should the present government now stick its neck out?

In fact the PTI wants NAB to have more teeth. The prime minister on several occasions has expressed displeasure over its working.

He feels it is not doing enough to prosecute the corrupt. He has been on record boasting that had he been in charge of the accountability watchdog at least 50 corrupt politicians would have been behind bars long ago.

However the law minister Fargoh Nasim claims that behind the scenes discussions are taking place with the opposition to amend the NAB law. Judging by the perennially aggressive mood of the ruling party and in the absence of a Modus vivendi with the opposition such efforts for the time being are unlikely to bear fruit.

When Shahbaz Sharif was appointed as head of the public accounts committee (PAC), the maverick Sheikh Rashid was the lone wolf amongst the federal cabinet members vociferously opposing it. Suddenly in the immediate aftermath of Aleem Khan’s ‘principled resignation’ as senior minister, the entire cabinet is in unison demanding Sharif’s resignation.

After all what his changed in the interregnum, surely just the prime minister’s mind? Hence the PAC that symbolizes the oversight of the parliament has been rendered toothless with one stroke of pen. The ruling party members of the committee will almost certainly absent themselves from the body.

Sharif’s proponents are theoretically right. He is innocent till proven otherwise. But as per NAB’s convoluted law one is guilty as soon as charged not when and if convicted. This is the accountability mantra of the PTI as well.

Perhaps in this backdrop the opposition should consider nominating another MNA from its ranks to head the PAC. This is unlikely to happen though as the opposition will consider this as tantamount to giving the ruling party veto power over matters strictly parliamentary.

The PTI wants to head the PAC in the Sindh Assembly, being the largest opposition party. But perversely as the ruling party in KP, it wants to keep the slot for itself.

Information minister Fawad Chaudhry after the federal cabinet meeting on Thursday true to his style came out with another gem. According to him: “three important institutions – the judiciary, the army and the government – are working independently under a remarkable relationship,” which he claimed would continue in the near future. Interestingly the parliament, the bedrock of democracy, was conspicuously missing from the list of state institutions ostensibly working in unison according to the minister.

Only a day earlier the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment handed a stinging denouement of the manner in which state institutions were functioning. It reiterated, “the sacrosanct principles the state, government, various agencies and institutions should follow in order to be fair and evenhanded towards all it its citizens. “

The detailed judgment earmarked specific incidents starting from the Faizabad dharna in November 2017 by the TLP (Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan) hatemongers that paralyzed the federal capital for three weeks. The role played by different agencies in the sordid affair and their collective attempts to gag the media have also been mentioned in detail. The judgment underscores the urgent need for all institutions to work within their (constitutionally) mandated spheres.

Perhaps the federal minister’s remarks are an indirect but polite rebuttal of the judgment. But it will be in the fitness of things that the political government takes a hard look at the judgment and makes a concerted effort to implement it in letter and spirit.