Accountability in open kutchery – By Kunwar Idris

PUNJAB Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has publicly pledged to recover every penny looted by his predecessor in office, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi.

He must proceed further and not let it rest as an empty threat or just a brag. However, to be on an even footing he must also throw open the accounts of his own first term as chief minister to enable Pervaiz Elahi to look for looted pennies.

A lot is said about the accountability of the politicians in power but it hasn’t ever really taken place. Any action whenever initiated, more in revenge than in public interest, invariably got stuck somewhere along the way or succumbed to a deal. The worst example is Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance issued last year which, in essence, has closed all cases instituted against politicians for “political reasons” between January 1986 (when Mohammad Khan Junejo took over as prime minister in Ziaul Haq’s regime) and October 1999 (advent of Gen Musharraf). The ordinance has thus enabled even criminals to get away if they happened to be in politics.

This extraordinary ordinance, unprecedented in the country’s legal history, was issued purportedly to “foster mutual trust and confidence amongst the holders of public office”. Ironically, the reverse has happened. Mistrust never ran deeper. A nervous country is bracing for the outcome of the deceitful manoeuvres in progress and the presidential (or military) and judicial interventions that must inevitably follow.

The ongoing activity may lead to the impeachment of the president or he may pre-empt it by dissolving the National Assembly or the Supreme Court may intervene to stall it altogether. But surely no other public representative — ministers, nazims and the rest — will be called to account for his misconduct and for wasting or embezzling public funds. Indeed, hardly ever has anyone been held accountable in the past. The leaders who are now about to embark on a life and death struggle at the top would rather pamper than prosecute them. After all they need their votes.

In Shahbaz Sharif’s determined effort to hold Pervaiz Elahi to account, and if he also agrees to be held accountable likewise, one can see the beginning of a speedy and just era of accountability of the holders of public office. Formal and long-winded accountability under the law, as the 2007 NRO concedes, results only in the institution of false cases against rivals to victimise them or to induce them to switch loyalties.

The normal methods of investigation and judicial determination fail to work where the offenders have been in power and expect to be in power again one day. The futility of this course of action and the cost it exacts is amply demonstrated in the cases started by Musharraf’s National Accountability Bureau and pursued for seven years at home and abroad. The process has, by and large, ended only in legalising the assets that were alleged to have been illegally acquired by abusing public trust. And, to boot, London and Dubai have become alternative homes for our politicians for recreation or convalescence and also for refuge when the need arises which, inevitably, will one day.

It should be a source of concern to a society that is rooted in Islamic faith and has inherited legislative and judicial institutions from Westminster (where democracy and rule of law have found their finest expression in modern times) not to have ever held its elected representatives accountable for their corruption and maladministration. It has been left to the army commanders to intervene at intervals to institute enquiries which in course of time also trail into greater corruption.

Since no accountability whether conducted by judges under the normal laws or by generals under the military regulations has worked, parliament together with civil society (NGOs like the Human Rights Commission) should devise a less formal but speedier and fairer system to keep the conduct of the holders of important offices — governors, ministers, judges, civil servants, military commanders — under constant public surveillance. This system should require their personal and family assets to be published at the time they assume office and subsequent additions should also be open to public scrutiny. So should be their tax statements.

The whole process should be supervised by a board of venerable citizens who are no longer involved in public life nor intend to come back. Wherever they observe or suspect, on their own or on complaint, dishonesty, extravagance or impropriety of behaviour they should examine it in an open kutchery. Surely it would serve as a greater deterrent to malpractices than the possibility of prosecution in a court of law which is always remote and seldom succeeds.

Not as a proposal but just as a thought, the first board could comprise the three old but alert former chiefs of the Pakistan Air Force — Asghar Khan, Nur Khan and Zafar Chaudhry. Their first clients should be Shahbaz Sharif and Pervaiz Elahi for the scrutiny of their conduct and assets at the start and at the end of their past terms as chief ministers.

A word here on the accountability of President Musharraf should be in order. The parties in the coalition possibly could muster the parliamentary majority required for impeachment but they have to be wary of the constitutional position. The president can be impeached if he is found to be “unfit to hold the office due to incapacity or is guilty of violating the Constitution or of gross misconduct”.

Musharraf’s capacity can be hardly called into question. His coup and emergencies stand validated by the Supreme Court. Parliament will be hard put to proving gross misconduct on his part. Though the parties launching the impeachment have the benefit of legal advice, their motivation is obviously political. If the Supreme Court holds the impeachment proceedings unconstitutional, the president will have a reason to dissolve the assembly and instantly call for fresh elections.

The common man, already disenchanted with a parliament that has failed to function and a government that remains involved in its own squabbles while lawlessness spreads and the economic crisis deepens, is then more likely to opt for electioneering than for agitation.

Source: Daily Dawn, 10/8/2008

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