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A prisoner of the Sharifs

There is this Urdu couplet that comes to my mind whenever I hear Prime Minister Imran Khan holding forth on his favourite theme of corruption and accountability. Though I am not able to render Urdu poetry’s metaphoric allusions into English, let me just put it in plain words: “Don’t strive so hard to take me into custody / Lest you are seen as my prisoner”.

Yes, this would call for an explanation. The passion with which Imran Khan focuses on the corruption of Nawaz Sharif makes me feel that he has become, in a proverbial sense, a prisoner of Nawaz – or of the family, because Shahbaz Sharif has also been a pointed target in recent days.

Looking at it in a larger context, it is a fact that a crusade against corruption is the central plank of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). And in a country that has been ravaged by the corruption of its ruling elite, including politicians, this makes eminent sense. A charismatic leader capable of mobilising the youth in his pursuit of accountability and justice would be God’s gift to Pakistan.

And so it seemed to many when forces were being arranged in the political arena before the national elections of 2018. But something happened on the way when Imran Khan marched into the citadel of power. What was trumpeted as the herculean mission of cleansing the stables of corruption was gradually reduced to a partisan enterprise. A number of suspects were able to join the winning team.

We have convincing evidence this week that Imran Khan’s strategy to contend with corruption in high places has not been very fruitful. What has gone wrong? One inference clearly stands out. This government’s accountability process is very selective. And Imran Khan’s obsession with the Sharif family has certainly not helped.

Two developments have providentially juxtaposed to underline the dilemma of holding the corrupt accountable and retrieving from them the billions that they are supposed to have concealed in the country and abroad. (Remember the likes of Murad Saeed dangling before the nation the mouth-watering prospect of racking up billions of dollars from the hidden treasures of corrupt politicians such as the Sharifs?)

The PTI’s accountability czar Mirza Shahzad Akbar announced his resignation on Monday. As adviser to the prime minister on accountability and head of the Asset Recovery Unit, he had frantically pursued cases of corruption and money laundering against the leadership of the PML-N and also of the PPP. When he was appointed in July 2020, he had vowed to recover over Rs700 billion that he claimed were stashed in off-shore banks.

A much louder blast, verily a bombshell, was heard the next day when we learnt that the perception of corruption in Pakistan, as measured by Transparency International, had risen by a big margin – and this slide was marked for the third straight year. The irony of this trend would obviously be hard to digest for a regime that deems its battle against corruption as its divine obligation.

As they are wont to do, government ministers put their spin on Transparency International’s rankings. Their holier-than-thou stance has apparently been carefully cultivated. It is possible that Imran Khan has held more meetings of his spokespersons than of any other group of persons who report to him.

There are reports that he wants the focus to stay on the corruption of the opposition leaders, the Sharifs being his chosen adversaries. The passion he invests in attacking the corruption of, say, Nawaz and Shahbaz, is the highlight of his speeches on whatever occasion. And his ministers and spokespersons dutifully amplify their master’s voice. The tone and tenor of these pronouncements is generally angry and uncivil.

To be sure, corruption is a serious matter and a government is duty-bound to take measures to bring the culprits to book. But this has to be done in an objective and judicious manner. This is manifestly not happening. Nor would it ever be an easy task, given the existing state of affairs. After all, it is the same Transparency International, playing by the same rules, whose findings in the past were vigorously applauded by Imran Khan himself.

So, has the situation with reference to corruption really worsened to such an extent in Pakistan on the PTI’s watch? One understands why the prime minister was so disappointed by Shahzad Akbar’s performance. He would perhaps find some time to review his own approach to this formidable challenge.

Imran Khan’s fixation with the corruption of the Sharifs may have distracted him from many urgent assignments that fall to a prime minister’s lot in troubled times. For instance, it is difficult to be in agreement with the prime minister’s resolve to not engage with the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. In truth, it is a defiance of democratic norms. A big foul, if democracy is also a gentleman’s game.

Now, I have found an endorsement of what I am trying to say from a rather unlikely source. Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, who heads the PML-Q, is an old, seasoned politician who knows all about the virtues of expediency. His party is a vital part of the ruling coalition.

In a statement he made on Thursday, as reported in the press, he “chided the PTI government for spending more money on Nawaz Sharif’s case than it wanted to recover from him”. He also advised the PTI government to “get out of its sole dream to get Nawaz Sharif back and instead pay attention to the solution of public issues”.

There is more in this statement that provides grist to the rumour mill in the context of different versions that are being traded about the moves that are being made in Islamabad’s corridors of power. We have Sheikh Rashid to reassure us that the ‘same page’ is intact. Or is it?

Be that as it may, here is the Urdu couplet that I invoked at the outset. “Itni koshish to na kar meri aseeri key liye / Tu kahin mera giriftar na samjha jayey”.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin @hotmail.com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "A prisoner of the Sharifs," The News. 2022-01-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political arena , Transparency International , Corruption , Accountability , Politicians , PM Imran Khan , Chaudhry Shujaat Husain , Pakistan , PTI , PMLQ , PPP