Prosecution or persecution?

PML-N supporters try to break a police cordon outside the residence of Hamza Shehbaz on Saturday. ONLINE

At Penpoint


  • The raid on Hamza Shehbaz was politically necessary


It would be cold comfort to Punjab Assembly Opposition Leader Hamza Shehbaz to learn that the raid by NAB to arrest him was politically necessary for the PTI, but that was the case, and it should be realised that arrests are to be made in the near future.

It must be realised that any ceasing of these arrests will be seen as a faltering of what is supposed to be the PTI’s hallmark: the drive against corruption. The PTI finds itself trapped by its very own success. The simplistic message promoted by Imran Khan won such mass support precisely because it was simplistic: end corruption by punishing previous corruption, and everything would correct itself.

It is true that corruption leads to bad decision-making, because it means that the decision follows the money rather than the public welfare. However, the quality of decision-making has clearly not improved, because the economy is still in difficulty, and the constant devaluations of the rupee have failed to bring about much improvement. It is this economic difficulty that has made it so essential to the PTI to have a distraction for the public, to convince it that the government has not failed, but that corruption has caused more damage than was thought.

Is it too much to expect politicians and bureaucrats in a corrupt system to avoid corruption? Or is it better to opt for a different system?

One of the major moves against corruption was the end of giving development funds to MNAs and MPAs. The process is that the works designated by the member are executed by a contractor, and it is that award of contract where the member makes money, by getting the contract awarded to someone who he has chosen– for a consideration. That doling out of development funds has made a comeback for MPAs, perhaps because the stymieing of the pay raise had meant that MPAs saw no profit in becoming members.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that opposition politicians like Hamza are being targeted in the name of corruption. Politicians alone do not commit corruption. They need accomplices. So far, very few accomplices have been brought forward. Accomplices need to include some engineers, because they are the ones who sign off on a defective project. Building a defective project, and having it certified as correct allows contractors to charge for proper work, and to pay heavy bribes all round out of the illicit profits. More than generalist bureaucrats, it is engineers who enable corruption. However, there is no sign that they are being singled out in any way.

The perception exists that all politicians are corrupt. The perception also exists that the justice system is deeply flawed, and is used merely as a tool of persecution. So, what happens when the present justice system is used against politicians? The defence has been offered, from the time of EBDO (through which Ayub Khan’s Martial Law disqualified a whole generation of pre-1958 politicians), that ‘everyone’s doing it’, and it is seen as an example of political persecution when the justice system is used against them.

The PTI came to office on the plea that politicians had corrupted the justice system, and that the justice system would become honest if political interference ceased. There are two issues with this. First, the justice system consists of certain professions, the judiciary, the lawyers and the police. As part of their professionalisation, certain individuals have risen to the top. They rose in the time of the bad old corrupt system, and if political interference ceased, they would attempt to impose their personal wishes on the system. For example, a lawyer may not want justice to prevail, but his client to get off. Also, he might not mind justice prevailing, but he would prefer the party to have engaged him rather than someone else.

Another problem the PTI faced was that it had to bring electables on board. Imran Khan wanted the electables so that he would win the election and become Prime Minister. The electables were at ease with this. So long as they could get their pound of flesh. That meant local control (at the level of thana katchery) as well as access to resources (development funds). Previous control and access had made them electables, and they need these if they are to remain electable.

The point at which Imran found he needed electables should have told him the problem was with the system, rather than with some of the personnel. The problem was almost bound to be inescapable, if one was to take power by means of elections. Is it too much to expect politicians and bureaucrats in a corrupt system to avoid it? Or is it better to opt for a different system? The PTI leadership had apparently decided to operate within the system. The system had been corrupted, and thus the elements that participated in it were willing to accept that corruption.

One reason why democratic politics is corrupt is that there are campaigns to be run, elections to be fought, both of which cost money, and thus money has to be raised. Once that is the case, then legislators are beholden to whoever contributes the most to an electoral campaign. Once a lot of money begins to circulate, then some gets siphoned off. Besides, what to do about dual-use expenses? Candidates’ clothes, for instance. A candidate can argue that he needs to look well-dressed all the time, and thus put clothing expenses to campaign funding. But what about when he is not campaigning? What if he wears clothes bought from campaign funds? The judiciary decides, based on the law. And the law is passed by the affected parties…

There is a view that the raiding party did not want to make the arrest, that the entire episode was meant to scare Hamza. That view assumes the coercive power of the state, and that NAB is being used as an executive tool, and is not an independent investigation and prosecution agency, as the government claims it wants it to be, and which it has made it. Whether it is independent of the government or not, the claim that it is, gives it a certain independence.

It is a state institution, which meant that while Hamza may have got a certain satisfaction in resisting arrest, he was left with few options. One was to present himself to NAB. Another was to flee. The third was to approach the judiciary. He chose the last, though he has to appear before NAB when summoned. There is also swirling the question of government-opposition relations, though it should be noted that Hamza’s party is not the only one affected, and that NAB is looming too large in that relationship. The debate should be about details of policy, not niceties of criminal justice.