Historic opportunity…let’s see what becomes of it
Pakistan’s foremost problem, the mother of all others, is corrupt and incompetent leadership. There’s corruption in other countries too. Take our dear friends the Chinese…President Xi Jinping has been overseeing a campaign against corrupt party officials since coming to power. But we wouldn’t accuse the Chinese of incompetence. There is corruption among them but at the same time they have turned their country into the world’s second-ranking economy and a world power.
Pakistan stands in a class of its own. Its leadership class is corrupt…we all know that. Those in positions of power and authority use their status to enrich themselves. This is a fact of life in what without the least trace of irony we sometimes call the Fortress of Islam. But if our leaders were making the country rich as well, if they were rooting out backwardness and transforming Pakistan into a modern, forward-looking republic their corruption—the fact that they have looted a portion of national wealth—would not matter so much.
This country had great promise when it was born. It had advantages—like infra-structure, an efficient civil service, a functioning judicial system, and the outward forms of democracy—which most other countries on the Asian continent lacked. Malaysia did not exist. Singapore had nothing much going for it. Hong Kong was a port but so was Karachi. In 1950 the Korean peninsula was the scene of a destructive conflict between North and South. The communists seized power in China in 1949—two years after Pakistan’s birth—and by the next year they were embroiled in the Korean War. The Chinese suffered more than 400,000 casualties in that conflict, which I mention only to underscore the fact that it would take them a long time to recover from the effects of war and revolution.
With slightly better leaders Pakistan could have achieved so much. Yet even if it did not live up to its initial promise it was doing pretty well for itself until that fateful hour when after a series of miscalculations it found itself at war with India in 1965. The psychological consequences of that conflict were more important than anything happening on the battlefield. There were problems with India even before, stemming from the legacy of Partition, but after 1965 the walls went up between the two countries and hostility and paranoia became the established norm in their fraught relationship.
The interesting thing remains that even if it is possible to call those early leaders blinkered in their approach to so many things, they were not corrupt in the way we talk of the corruption of today’s leaders. Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s son used his father’s influence to become an industrialist, but that was about it. Ayub Khan did not go about setting factories for himself and as far as is known he bought no property overseas. He certainly had no flat or hideaway in a place like London.
Gen Yahya Khan was fond, perhaps overly fond, of his drink and he enjoyed the company of women, as is well known. But he was not corrupt in financial matters and made no private fortune for himself. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was foreign minister when the foundations of Islamabad were being laid but he had no house or plot in the capital. He had no property in Lahore. He had expensive tastes like drinking good whisky and being a stylish dresser but he didn’t go around taking commissions on development projects. Even when at state expense he put up an air-conditioning system at his residence, 70 Clifton, in Karachi he went through the proper procedure and paid for it from his pocket.
Ayub and Yahya were military dictators and Bhutto was virtually a civilian dictator but all three were clean in financial matters. There may have been lapses here and there but the fact remains that the kind of wealth accumulation and corruption which is the norm today in Pakistan was not to be seen in those days.
All this changed with the coming of Gen Ziaul Haq. It was then that tales began to spread of generals and air marshals (and perhaps admirals too) becoming filthy rich as if by magic. There was a time when even senior military figures lived comfortably of course but modestly. But in this new era the lifestyles of senior officers became visibly more ostentatious.
This was not all. Some of the regime’s civilian supporters, such as the family of Nawaz Sharif, were middle-ranking traders and industrialists. When they came into positions of authority they began expanding their family businesses, their rise and growth nothing short of meteoric. The Sharifs once had owned one industrial unit in Lahore. After Nawaz Sharif became Punjab finance minister in 1981 and chief minister in 1985 they sat atop an industrial empire.
The PPP leadership was not far behind in this rat race. When Benazir Bhutto became prime minister in 1988 her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, came to be known as Mr Ten Percent, an allusion to the widespread belief that a deal was not complete without his commission.
Just imagine, this has been going on not for five or ten years but since the 1980s—the Sharifs and the Zardaris enriching themselves and adding to their already immense fortunes and leaving the nation a legacy of corruption and incompetence.
Zardari in the public imagination was already Mr Ten Percent. The importance of the Panama case is that it has blown the lid off the exploits of the Sharif family. Whatever the verdict in this case, the family stands exposed…which means that in the court of public opinion both parties are equally tarnished. No longer is it possible for the Sharifs to point the finger of corruption at Zardari and claim innocence for themselves. That luxury is now lost to it.
Much of the credit for this exposure goes to Imran Khan. He kept hammering away at the Panama revelations and then took the matter to the Supreme Court. Long used to indulgent judges, the Sharifs to their bad luck face a bench of independent-minded judges for the first time in their long political journey.
This case thus offers the nation a chance to clean the national stables and make a fresh start. And because so much hangs on its outcome it is being awaited like no other judgment in recent Pakistani history.