OPINION: An exercise in futility?

The government-opposition discussions to decide the terms of reference for the proposed commission that is to probe the Panama Papers scandal involving Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s family are not getting anywhere – and they won’t.

The issue stands where it was at the beginning. While the opposition parties want the probe to start with the PM’s children, his side is insistent to include financial wrongdoing committed by those in the opposition parties – an unmistakable ploy to drag on the issue for as long as possible and confuse the people.

It matters little if in so doing the government comes across as saying if ‘we are corrupt so are you’, which is an indirect admission of guilt. There obviously is no sense of regret or shame.

Right from the beginning the suspects have been making deceitful statements. The Prime Minister’s heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz, has been brazenly lying about her ownership of pricy properties in London bought through offshore companies.

Once the Panama trove of documents could no longer remain a secret the PM and his son Hussain Nawaz came up with contradictory accounts of where the family got the money to buy assets in London. For all practical purposes it was an open and shut case of wrongdoing.

Yet Mian Sahib has dug in his heels thinking he can get away with it. Many believe he can actually do that.

That speaks volumes about the state of morality in this Islamic Republic. Interestingly, the ruling PML-N’s rightwing religious constituency still supports him.

Which is an enigma of sorts considering that these people claim to love Islam more than the secular types, and yet when it comes to self-interest they separate politics from the religion that lays huge emphasis on honesty and moral uprightness at both individual and leadership levels.

Hypocrisy reigns supreme in all matters concerning them. One wonders how these proponents of ‘Islamic ideology’ reconcile the glaring difference between belief and practice.

As noted earlier, nothing is going to come out of the meetings of parliamentary committee’s meetings to formulate ToRs. The Prime Minister and his men are prepared to go to any lengths to have him keep the controversial properties and stay in power too.

Unsurprising, the sixth meeting on Tuesday ended in a stalemate. The two sides stayed stuck to their respective positions. PPP’s Senator Aitzaz Ahsan told journalists that the situation was at a standstill as the government had refused to accept the opposition’s amendments to the ToRs, and has sought time until Friday to respond. One can bet on it that the response will not be any different.

Meanwhile, the government’s strategists are using every trick to have the first family wriggle out of trouble. In a blatant attempt to give legal cover to their transgressions, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar snuck into the finance bill a rider amending the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001, aimed specifically at protecting Maryam Nawaz from the consequence of being a secret trustee (beneficial owner as per the British law) of two offshore companies used to buy, with unaccounted for money, properties in London.

It was a clever device to hoodwink the opposition. It could not remain hidden, however, from some sharp-eyed economists within Parliament. In his Tuesday’s speech in the National Assembly PTI’s Asad Umer took issue with the proposed amendment describing in great detail what it meant for the current fight against corruption. Reading out the relevant clause and a new insertion in the bill “… thereafter the following explanation shall be added: ‘For the removal of doubt it is clarified that the trust under this clause shall include a foreign trust”, he raised the pertinent question, why was this ‘explanation’ necessary?

The ‘explanation’, he pointed out, is meant to “claim that this was the law all along.” As crooked and questionable as the proposed amendment is, it is still going to be approved by the Parliament where the government has majority.

The Panama leaks scandal has thoroughly exposed what we have known always: that the system is completely rigged in the ruling class’s favour. The PM can use every cog in the system to his advantage. An illegality can easily be turned into legality, as the preceding example shows.

There is a National Accountability Bureau, but it wouldn’t lift a finger to ask him to justify his family’s resources with which the properties in question were purchased. In theory the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) can disqualify him for stating in his nomination papers that Maryam was his dependent without mentioning the assets she owned. The same applies to his son-in-law, Mohammad Safdar, for not declaring his wife’s properties in his nomination papers.

The PTI’s candidate who lost against Safdar has filed a petition with the ECP seeking his disqualification; and the party’s other candidate who contested the National Assembly seat against Nawaz Sharif is also reported to be getting ready to pose the same challenge. In all likelihood the ECP will sit on these petitions until the next elections become due.

Yet one can hope that this opportunity to clean out our ruling classes’ Augean stables will not be allowed to go to waste. We can expect that the opposition will hold good on its plan to stage public protest demonstrations until the system gives in.

That when all else fails the Supreme Court will take suo motu notice of the case and hold the PM and his family to account. And that the civil society will also rise to say enough is enough, we want rule of law and hold to account all looters and plunderers of the national wealth that they have stashed away in foreign bank accounts, properties and businesses.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2016