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Diminishing returns

Imran Khan has launched a multi-pronged attack against the government using Panama Papers as proof of its cardinal sins. He has gone to the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and is now resorting to street agitation. His PTI is also supporting a bill tabled by the Peoples Party in the upper house regarding inquiry into what Panama Papers have revealed about Pakistanis and their wealth abroad. Imran Khan calls this a bell on government’s neck which will continue to haunt it. But, will the government be dislodged any time soon due to these allegations? My reply would be in the negative and I shall explain why.

It was in 2013 that for the first time the government of the country changed through elections after the previous one had completed its full term. What was even more important was the fact that the ruling party was defeated at the national level. This was a watershed in Pakistan’s political history. This positive development has taken out much of the air out of the balloon of street agitation politics. Next national elections are less than two years away and people are prepared to wait. This explains why people’s participation in recent rallies led by Imran Khan and Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri in Lahore and Rawalpindi was low.

Treasury and opposition benches have introduced competing bills in two houses of parliament regarding graft issue. Peoples Party, itself perceived to be corrupt, has introduced a bill in the Senate that is Panama specific. It calls for inquiry against all persons mentioned in Panama Papers but would prefer that the probe should begin from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family. Ruling party has introduced a more comprehensive bill in the lower house asking for investigation against those owning off-shore companies in Panama and elsewhere. It also wants the written off loans probed in addition to the kickbacks and commissions allegedly earned by some.

Chances of opposition bill getting through are slim because the government enjoys big majority in the National Assembly. The government bill too cannot have a smooth sailing in the Senate as opposition members have a slight edge there. The only way to have this bill passed is for the government to call a joint session of Parliament. The government may ultimately resort to this option, taking its own sweet time, just to ward off the pressure built by Imran Khan. The credit for turning corruption into an issue of national importance goes clearly to PTI and its leader.

Imran Khan may not be as articulate as the Canadian cleric but his attack is usually direct and candid. Addressing the rally in Lahore he posed the same four questions again: What was the source of funds that were transferred to Panama by the Sharif family? Which channel was used to remit the amount? Was income tax paid in Pakistan for these earnings ? Was this income declared in the statement of assets given to the Election Commission? Members of the Sharif family have given divergent statements on this subject which are all available with different TV channels.

Yet another reason why people of Pakistan have a diminished interest in street agitation is the fact that such activity can get out of control. In such situation, military intervention becomes imminent. Military governments invariably start accountability drives with great fanfare but ultimately have to strike a deal with one political party or the other. This hampers the accountability drive as some sort of a democratic façade is contrived to give legitimacy to the military rule. More importantly, this time around the military clearly wants to keep away from politics.

Recently, the Supreme Court registrar termed a PTI petition against Nawaz Sharif as frivolous. The Registrar is a government servant and not a judge and that is why his remarks are being roundly criticised. Imran Khan says he uses street politics as last resort. He alleges that accountability institutions are not doing their job properly. It was due to political pressure that the Federal board of Revenue had to issue letters to over 400 persons whose names appear in Panama Papers including sons of the prime minister. Things are changing in Pakistan, and for the better.

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