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Failed State, corrupt State

Prasenjit Chowdhury |

It is hardly surprising that the investigation into the Panama Papers described by Edward Snowden as “the biggest leak in the history of data journalism” has rocked the boat in Pakistan. It has been revealed that Nawaz Sharif, as Prime Minister, had used two companies in the British Virgin Islands~ Nescoll and Nielson ~ for dubious business deals, that he bought luxury homes through these companies in such places as London, and that the owner, at least till 2012, was Mariam Safdar, née Sharif, the daughter of Nawaz.

The former Prime Minister has been targeted ever since it was revealed that shell companies were owned by his
children, and that they owned property in London worth millions of pounds. Despite the furore and cries of “blue murder” one gets to hear about his disqualification from holding public office by Pakistan’s Supreme Court and not by the powerful military, and the point that his premiership has been cut short thrice, his disqualification should hardly occasion despair not least because corruption in Pakistan is endemic and institutional.

Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto faced multiple corruption cases. Both claimed that their trials were politically motivated.

While the charge may not be off the mark,  the two could never prove that they were above board. Sharif’s opulent estate at Raiwind near Lahore and Benazir’s ancestral home in Larkana in Sindh continue to be questioned by the
poorer sections in Pakistan, in the manner of Antilla, owned by Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries.

The dubious extent of the Sharif family’s foreign holdings has been part of the country’s urban legends. The revelation that the patriarch of Pakistan owned undeclared luxury flats in London’s Park Lane and that the deeds of the properties were in the name of offshore companies based in the British Virgin Islands sparked the uproar particularly because Sharif never denied that he possessed them.

Following Zia-ul-Haq’s suspected killing, the civilian prologue to General Musharraf ’s dispensation was mired in corruption indulged in by members of two political dynasties ~ the Bhutto and Sharif families. This corruption on a massive scale was marked by patronage and dubious activities of clients.

In 1990, at the height of the US economic sanctions on Pakistan (after it failed to show that it was not conducting a nuclear weapons programme), President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the PPP government on charges of
corruption and incompetence.

In 1996 President Farooq Leghari dismissed the PPP government again on of corruption, leading to a sweeping victory for the PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif.

In April 1999 Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, were convicted of corruption, with Ms Bhutto being exiled abroad and her husband spending several years in jail.

From 1999 to 2008, the Musharraf administration had introduced stern measures against corruption,and rolled back some of the Islamist laws passed by Zia and Sharif. In December 2009, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared illegal an amnesty passed by Musharraf, giving Zardari and other leading PPP figures immunity from prosecution for corruption. The General’s appetite for waging a crusade against corruption clearly fizzled out.

Now to be ‘fair’ to Musharraf’s anti-corruption drive and his post-coup enunciation that the elimination of Corruption was one of his top priorities the regime’s commitment to end corruption had disappeared by 2002. This was amply demonstrated by the case of Mansur-ulHaq. The judiciary managed to secure an undertaking that, in return for its retrospective validation of Musharraf ’s coup, judges would not be investigated for corruption.

As regards corruption in the army, Admiral Mansur-ul-Haq, chief of the navy between 1994 and 1997, was once rumoured to have taken kickbacks on defence contracts.

But the civilian government of the time ~ eager to conceal its own involvement in the scandal ~ took the stand that if the Admiral was formally charged, it would undermine the prestige of the armed forces. Though by May 2001, sufficient evidence had been gathered to secure Mansur-ul-Haq’s extradition from the United States so that he could face charges in the Pakistani courts, by the end of that year, the National Accountability Bureau struck a deal through
which he secured his freedom by promising to pay back $7.5 million to the state.

By the beginning of 2002, corruption cases against several politicians had been dropped. The military took the stand
that collecting evidence of white-collar crime is extremely difficult and time-consuming. But the real reason, as Owen Bennett Jones writes in his stunning exposé, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm has revealed, was that the military viewed corruption cases as useful levers with which they could control politicians.

The striking feature was the simple rule of thumb that as long as politicians do not transgress the line of ‘acceptable’ criticism of the military, their corruption cases would not be revived. The jury is still out on the question why Musharraf backtracked on his mission, but one domestic reason might be that he was overtaken by a phase of “judicial activism” in Pakistan that began in 2005 with the appointment of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

He had put up a brave fight not only against Musharraf ’s authoritarianism but also against the disappearance of Baloch nationalists and Islamist militants. Chaudhry targeted Zardari’s corruption, and forced Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to resign in 2012 because the latter did not want to initiate a proper investigation.

In October 2012 he chaired a three-member bench of the apex court, which gave an unprecedented judgment against former COAS general Aslam Beg and former Director General of the ISI (DGISI) Asad Durrani. Both were accused of having distributed money (Rs.60 million) to opponents of Benazir Bhutto to ensure her defeat in the 1990 elections.

Musharraf struck a “deal” in October 2007, under which the PPP agreed to support his re-election as President in return for a retraction of the corruption cases and the removal of the third-term ban on Benazir’s election as Prime Minister.

He agreed to rescind the corruption charges and enacted an amnesty law, the National Reconciliation Ordinance
(NRO), thus paving the way for Ms Bhutto’s return with the intention to secure a second presidential term by a controversial parliamentary vote with the PPP’s help.

The moral and strategic objective ~ that could well be his signature mission ~ was lost in the welter of short-term political gains, lending currency to the notion that if politicians adjust themselves with the military regime they can expect to have their cases dropped.

Way back in 1976 a Pakistani Lt. General, M Attiqur Rahman, in a devastating critique of the Pakistani army in Our Defence Cause: An Analysis of Pakistan’s Past and Future Military Role wrote how under Ayub Khan’s regime, army officers had been exposed to opportunities for making money and how the guilty went unpunished for fear that the morale of the army would suffer.

“In fact, to reform Pakistan radically along the lines of how Western states supposedly work,” Anatol Lieven in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country wrote, “It would require most of the population to send itself to gaol”. Corruption
in Pakistan is endemic and institutionalised, but India has no room for the moral high ground either.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)