Obsessed with corru...
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Obsessed with corruption

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August 27, 2019
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IF corruption is our national obsession, accountability is an unending controversy. After a year of shouting about thieves and NROs, the government has taken a U-turn and announced its intentions to amend the NAB law. Ostensibly, it is because of the Supreme Court judgement, which had suggested changes to the law some time ago. But in reality, the government has, finally, realised that an unrelenting accountability ‘campaign’ hinders rather than assists the goal of a flourishing and growing economy.

Hence, the law ministry seems to be contemplating reducing the jurisdiction of NAB to investigate matters, transactions and individuals where public money is not involved, as well as giving powers of bail to the relevant courts; there is also some talk of setting up a committee answerable to parliament to supervise the cases investigating bureaucrats.

However, just the announcement of the intent to amend the law has caused a storm in a teacup.

The opposition is up in arms (its only job apparently is to oppose), as well as the press, for the obsession with corruption has addled our brains, and any effort to stop NAB by the government has to be prompted by ill intentions such as saving one of their own. What else could explain any act of sanity by this government? But surely, anyone who has witnessed the madness of the past year — with its multitude of inquiries, investigations and random arrests — would appreciate the need for change.

There is a consensus that anyone who is a little better than comfortable has made money illegally.

In a private discussion, a journalist argued that the problem lay in the origins of NAB. Born of controversial circumstances, he argued, the law needs to be scrapped and replaced with a new one which is drafted and finalised with consensus. I differ. The real problem is not the law: it lies first in how our elites view corruption and accountability; and second in that our investigative institutions are not as effective as the powers controlling them.

Take the second point. In the good old days of the PPP, when NAB was kept on a tight leash, the accountability campaign was led by the judiciary and other institutions. For example, the ephedrine case was an ANF operation, while the Haj scandal was handled by the FIA after it was directed to do so by the courts. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Later, under the PML-N, the JIT was discovered, which produced evidence damning enough to pronounce an immediate verdict. In other words, even if NAB were to be reformed or disbanded, other organisations and means would come into use to malign and indict.

This happens because our elites realise corruption is entrenched in the system and are quite comfortable with using accountability for political purposes — as was the case under Musharraf and then especially since Panama, though the PPP tenure also had its share of controversies. Documents are leaked, with mind-boggling frequency, and a feverish pace of journalism is required to keep up with the leaks. As a result, ‘corruption’ turns into a national obsession. It now seems there is a national consensus that anyone who is a little better than comfortable has to have made money illegally. Grey issues of morality and ethics, such as owning property abroad or a conflict of interest, turn into obvious cases of wrongdoing.

But all this is simply used to give legitimacy to a campaign being run for reasons far different than stemming corruption. Running parallel with this opinion-shaping is the freedom provided to weak institutions. If accountability is to be used as a tool, then organisations such as NAB have to be allowed to investigate, question and ferret through documents to find wrongdoing. And ill-equipped organisations become trigger-happy rather than prudent. Everything is questioned, everyone is viewed with suspicion, and along with the ‘targeted’ few, some become collateral damage — be it unsuspecting individuals working in the public sector or those in the private sector.

As a result, politicians as well as those working with them are thrown behind bars for months in the hope of a confession. This is exactly what is happening with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and others who are in NAB custody, leading even the biggest cheerleaders of accountability to agree that the watchdog’s arrest powers need to be less arbitrary. The justice system, at this point, is less interested in protecting the accused and more focused on proving him/her guilty.

But this campaign is finally stopped for other considerations — the economy. A besieged government worried about the macroeconomic situation is eventually compelled to put an abrupt end to accountability. Musharraf did it and now it seems the PTI is at a similar crossroads.

Unfortunately, once this stage arrives, there is no time for a long-term view and realising the need to strengthen and equip institutions to catch wrongdoing without making the entire process controversial. Instead, the entire campaign is stopped, except the one against the political figures.

But even the halt does not undo the damage already done — scaring away investors, sending the message that investing in Pakistan is an unstable and unworthy effort, for no one can guarantee that contracts will not be questioned and renegotiated or cancelled altogether under the very public and salacious glare of the media.

Here it is important to note that those of us who question the accountability processes are not defending corruption, but simply arguing that if we are serious about eliminating the latter, we need a process that is impartial and focused on convictions, instead of a flawed campaign which ends up maligning people. The latter either bulldozes ahead or screeches to a halt. And in neither extreme is it effective.

But there is yet another aspect of this intemperate accountability: the very government that promised to bring back the best Pakistani brains to help the state is in the process of scaring them away. For the treatment being meted out to the likes of Imranul Haq or Adnan Gilani — considering that there is so far nothing but media reports against them (both perhaps have been collateral damage of the ‘nail-Shahid-Khaqan-Abbasi’ campaign) — will not encourage any of Pakistan’s best brains in the private sector to return to serve the country. Has anyone in the government bothered to point this out to the prime minister?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2019