Panama and pajama games
Offshore accounts are nothing new. Their semi-legal and unethical status is well known. Corporate and crony capitalism produce outrageous inequality and concentrations of economic and political power. The wealthy and powerful of the world have secretly stashed away in excess of $20tr in offshore and other tax havens. Moreover, the vast majority of such activity is criminal, illegal or politically unacceptable. Even the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld might agree all this is a “known known.”
Pakistan has long been rated as one of the most corrupt countries of the world especially if its corruption is measured as a proportion of its economic size. The financial probity of the leadership of at least two of the country’s three major national parties is reputed to be very dubious. No institution that wields power and authority in Pakistan, whatever degree of national reverence it may command, has been a paragon of virtue. There are no innocents.
So our embattled prime minister can well say he is in good (or bad) company both at home and abroad. His jiyalas may well ask ‘what else is new?’ Pakistan’s ‘political norm’ has long embraced criminal and self-serving political leadership. The general chorus has been ‘God will somehow take care of the country He brought into being!’
Accordingly, the frequency of such ‘political and ethical crises’ has risen to almost one a week. This, of course, accounts for the brief shelf-life of any scandal no matter how egregious it may appear to the untrained eye. It also explains why at any one time several such scandals occur making it extremely difficult for moral outrage to focus sufficiently on any one of them. Thank heaven for small mercies!
The Panama outcome will be of national consequence for the people of Pakistan.
After all, the prime minister has not been named although his daughter was reportedly described as “politically exposed” by Mossack-Fonseco. His elder son has owned up to owning substantial properties in London and elsewhere — al Hamdulillah! His explanation of how and from where he got the money to buy these properties and invest in shell companies set up in international tax havens may be somewhat wobbly. But then whose explanations of undeclared and untaxed billions are not? Ask David Cameron. However, in his case the sum involved — £30,000 — is frankly ‘peanuts’ for our political leaders and their brilliant business tycoon offspring. It is possible some Pakistani or non-Pakistani admirers of the statesmanship and foreign policy leadership of the elder Sharif gifted the younger Sharif millions if not billions which he had no legal reason to refuse or obligation to declare to Pakistani authorities as he was living abroad — Mashallah!
As for the ‘judicial’ commission to be set up to inquire into the matter, apart from legal and procedural quibbles, the question arises: what is there to inquire into? Is it the business acumen of a non-Pakistani who may be related to a Pakistani politician? If so, a whole lot of us could become liable on that basis! There has to be something more to justify the cacophony of national indignation without reading the small print.
Some incorrigibles insist there is. Pakistan has around 200 million people. According to revised methods those living in poverty add up to considerably more than a third of the population. The national social indices are the worst (Afghanistan excepted?) in South Asia which has the worst regional indices in the world.
Pakistan has five different class-based educational systems which collectively produce an inability for its people to understand and communicate with each other, mutual animosity, and collective dysfunction despite an abundance of talent and love of country. Higher or tertiary education is minimal and almost devoid of creative field work and conceptual innovation. Globally productive and gender-inclusive jobs — essential to survival and success in the 21st century — are not being generated by the educational, vocational and economic systems in Pakistan. No money equals no priority.
The population will reach 350 million by 2050. Environmental, economic, population, nuclear, sectarian, gender and cultural challenges threaten to overwhelm the country much before 2050. No priority is given to averting the prospect before us. Human resource development and fundamental policy reforms over a broad range are of little or no concern to most political leaders, except in speeches and policy declarations. The country is engaged in a conventional and nuclear arms race with a much larger and more resourceful neighbour without considering the inevitable longer term implications.
The country has no consistent and viable strategy for handling issues and relations with India which could offset its disadvantage in numbers and size without relying on doomsday scenarios. This in turn is because the country’s foreign and security policies have largely been hijacked by unaccountable, unqualified and unimaginative domestic constituencies that equate their institutional agendas with the national interest. A rampantly corrupt, indifferent and fearful political leadership can never risk challenging and rectifying this situation. None of this bothers them in the least. What could be more hostile?
It is in this context that the latest dereliction of our ‘elected’ political plutocrats reaches us. The fate of David Cameron is a matter of political importance for the UK. The fate of our political delinquents is of ‘existential’ significance for Pakistan. The effectiveness of legal hair-splitting and political sleights of hand to escape consequences may be of personal significance for the UK prime minister or, at most, his party. The Panama outcome will be of national consequence for the people of Pakistan.
International bookies reportedly rate the chances of our prime minister surviving the Panama leaks as roughly 90pc. It is not clear whether this is an assessment of his innocence or the state of political development in Pakistan. However, it does suggest that politics in Pakistan as pajama games including zero-sum games against the people entails costs that will eventually overwhelm the country. Remaining spectators of the endgame is no longer an option.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.