Senior Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Syed Khursheed Shah’s arrest in a case of alleged assets beyond means has once against brought the role of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) into the limelight as the opposition believes the government is arresting its leaders to stifle its voice while the government claims the corruption watchdog is an independent institution and taking action on the basis of concrete evidence.
The only aspect that maligns the NAB is that it has mostly arrested opposition leaders. Khursheed Shah joins a long list of opposition politicians facing corruption charges, including former President Asif Zardari, Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Maryam Nawaz, Faryal Talpur, Agha Siraj Durrani, Sharjeel Memon, Hamza Shahbaz, Miftah Ismail and others. According to the NAB, Khursheed Shah has acquired assets worth billions of rupees in the names of his frontmen through ill-gotten money. Two flour mills and 83 other properties are registered in the names of his alleged frontman, Pehlaj Rai. Shah is also accused of acquiring a hotel at Sukkur, worth Rs250 million, through his friend, Aijaz Baloch. He also owns a petrol pump worth over Rs90 million on Rohri Road, Sukkur, a bungalow built on government land and a hotel in Rohri.
Khursheed Shah’s arrest came a few days after Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa had expressed the fear that a growing perception about what he called a “lopsided process of accountability” needed urgent remedial measures to save it from losing credibility. “We, as a relevant organ of the state, also feel that a growing perception that the process of accountability being pursued in the country at present is lopsided and is a part of political engineering is a dangerous perception and some remedial steps need to be taken urgently so that the process does not lose credibility,” he told the opening ceremony of the new judicial year 2019-20.
Terming the recovery of stolen wealth of the country a noble cause, he said the process must be legitimately and legally pursued. “But if in the process the constitutional and legal morality of society and the recognised standards of fairness and impartiality are compromised, then retrieval of the lost constitutional and legal morality may pose an even bigger challenge to society at large in the days to come,” he observed. The chief justice also noted that voices were being raised about the muzzling of the print and electronic media and suppression of dissent. “It must be appreciated by all concerned that a voice suppressed or an opinion curbed generates frustration, which gives rise to discontent and increasing discontent poses a serious threat to the democratic system itself.”
The arrest of Khursheed Shah has also enraged his party leaders. Though the PPP has refused to become part of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s “long march” on Islamabad in October, yet it has come out with a new strategy of making efforts to bring about an in-house change by “putting pressure on the allies and facilitators” of the government. The party has set a three-month deadline for it. “We want to bring about a change in the government by putting pressure in a democratic way on the allies of the government. If our efforts do not succeed by the end of this year and the government’s allies and facilitators do not agree, then our next stance will be extreme and we would lodge a protest in a democratic way,” PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari told a news conference.
The NAB and the government are accused of political victimisation by opposition parties. They claim the government is using the NAB to hide its own failures. It is a fact that most politicians in NAB custody or under investigations belong to the main opposition parties – the PML-N and the PPP. It raises serious questions over the claims of fair and uniform accountability. On the other hand, the NAB clams that it only focuses on big and old cases. As the PPP and the PML-N have been in power for decades, their leaders need to be investigated first, it argues. Justifying its soft stance on the ruling party, the NAB says the PTI has been in power in the Centre for only a year and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for six years, therefore, its leaders will be investigated after the completion of mega corruption cases of the past. However, it still has arrested two PTI ministers in the Punjab and is investigating the party’s main leaders in corruption cases in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The government’s ownership of corruption cases against politicians is also maligning its image and has brought the NAB into disrepute. PTI ministers only speak about corruption cases in press conferences and seminars and ignore other issues of the people. Accountability is a lengthy process and the curse is entrenched in society and politics. It will take decades of concerted efforts to dent the problem. The government should reform the NAB under the guidelines of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and leave the accountability process to it. People are fed up with the accountability mantra and demand resolution to their problems.
The common people have realized that the government has launched a vigorous campaign against corruption and many people have been arrested but it has not brought about change to their lives. The NAB receives over 40,000 complaints every year. Ideally, a complaint is processed within two months. The next step is inquiry, which should be processed in four months. Critics say only few dozen cases reach the prosecution stage every year and the conviction rate is almost 7pc. However, the NAB claims its conviction rate is 70pc.
Analysts say the government will have to concentrate on public issues and their resolution, as it cannot use corruption as an excuse for inaction any more. The PTI had announced revolutionary reforms to improve education, health, revenue generation, investment, employment, agriculture, federation, the environment, tourism and justice.
The PTI government had promised 100m jobs in five years. Instead, thousands of people have lost their jobs in the private sector. Private businesses are making lay-offs to offset their declining profit margins. Real estate, housing, private societies’ developers, builders and construction businesses are in extremely bad shape and a large number of people have lost their jobs in recent months.
Critics say the government has put the real issues of the common people to the backburner to pursue a crackdown on corruption. The opposition blames the government for victimization through the accountability drive. In the situation, the government should leave the accountability process to the departments concerned and concentrate on resolving issues of the people or their confidence in democracy will shatter.