The Panama Leaks case is the latest instance of trial of a politician, and a sitting prime minister at that, in a long sequence of efforts to establish the rule of probity and propriety in politics that have been going on since independence. The case came to the court through a tortuous route as, for quite some time, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif contested the idea that he was answerable at all.
When the contents of the Panama Papers hit headlines in Pakistan, people were shocked to learn that many of their privileged countrymen, including some prominent politicians, had set up offshore companies or had links with them, and that they included Prime Minister Sharif’s three children. The people were also shocked to learn later on that Imran Khan, the Mr Clean of Pakistan’s political menagerie, had also set up an offshore company and that he was not afraid to admit that, since he was not a British national, he saw no harm in evading payment of taxes to the government of the country where he was earning good money as a much sought-after cricketer.
People were shocked by these disclosures but not outraged because they never expected their political leaders to be paragons of integrity. They had grown accustomed to corruption in politics as they got used to it in all other spheres of life, religion not excluded. They judged their leaders not by their capacity to resist corruption but by their record of doing good to the people while looking after themselves, though within certain limits. They had a soft corner for political lords who were known for sharing the spoils with the commoners, at least with their favourite commoners.
However, when they learnt that a prime minister and a couple of other politicians in foreign lands had resigned after being named in the Panama Papers they, certainly a large number among them, expected their prime minister to similarly rise to the pinnacle of glory. Sharif’s long narration of his family’s tribulations and its remarkable skill in making a financial fortune without any capital, and certainly without taking any capital out of Pakistan, did not persuade many Pakistanis to change their view of where his duty lay as the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Sharif stuck to his defence that he had not directly been accused of any wrongdoing and that he was not responsible for his children’s doings if they had done anything improper. He also had the benefit of one of the most firmly-honoured traditions in Pakistan (in the whole of South Asia, in fact) which protects the right of a person to be elected as a legislator and to occupy a high public office so long as criminal charges against him, however serious they may be, are not proven in a court of law. The idea that occupants of public offices could acquire the means to circumvent the judicial process, at least to delay it indefinitely, has occurred neither to the lawmakers nor to the masses.
In India, lawmakers went to the extent of allowing a person who was convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, after being elected as a legislator, to complete his term. It was only before the last general election that the election commissioner there started efforts to get this law changed. Meanwhile, the chant to get the legislatures purged of known criminals off and on rises to a crescendo in both countries.
Some people nevertheless believed that Sharif had a historic opportunity of founding a noble tradition in the domain of accountability of public figures by stepping down, at least till his name was cleared of all charges beyond any shadow of doubt. These people drew inspiration from an ancient tale to the effect that good rulers/holders of high office were required to be, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. One could also recall the following observation by British constitutional theorist Sir Ivor Jennings, who tried to guide the government of Pakistan in constitutional matters in the 1950s.
“ ... [T]he most elementary qualification demanded of a minister is honesty and incorruptibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but also that he should appear to posses it.” (Quoted by AG Noorani in his essay, When a Minister Ought to Resign, from Jennings’ book, Cabinet Government)
It was also possible to remind the public of an obiter dictum by British jurist AV Dicey that “with us every official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen”.
Had Sharif declared that, although he was completely blameless, he was ready to step down till his innocence was established through an independent and transparent probe, he would have greatly raised his and his party’s stock. His party would have remained in power under a new leader. Sharif could have returned to his post after his name had been cleared. His party’s chances of winning the next election could have improved. But this was not to be.
Perhaps it is not fair to blame Sharif alone for the national tradition, according to which almost all party leaders consider themselves indispensable for their outfits. The factors that prevent political supremos from vacating their seats even for a short period can be traced to the underdeveloped state of national politics, especially in the country’s failure to develop a credible, efficient and democratic party system. It has been assumed that a political party owes more to its leader than what the leader owes to the party. The argument is that since all important decisions are taken by the leader on behalf of the party, their absence from the helm of affairs, even if temporary, would destroy the unity of the flock, undermine its capacity to meet unavoidable challenges, and possibly render its members vulnerable to the guiles of rival or non-political claimants to their loyalties.
Thus, it is improbable that Pakistan will have, in the near future, political leaders who would value their reputation as morally upright individuals more than the glamour of office, and consider stepping down for a moral principle a duty and not a sacrifice.
The above excerpt was taken from the Herald's December 2016 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.