THANK GOD for small mercies! David Cameron forgot to include Pakistan among his “fantastically corrupt” countries. Nevertheless, the Panama Papers may prove to be the proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back of leadership corruption in Pakistan. Or it may not.

The COAS has pronounced on the issue and taken action in his military backyard. He avoided meeting the prime minister until recently and then, reportedly, only to warn him to quickly clean up his own mess. The ‘united opposition’ has formulated several questions for the prime minister to answer if and when he comes to parliament. So far he has chosen to ‘fight fire with fire’ in a transparent effort to avoid accountability. One of the opposition parties is possibly even more corrupt than the ruling party. This, of course, should provide no cover to a sitting prime minister.

An anti-corruption summit has been held in London. Did our prime minister fear he would cut too pathetic and ridiculous a figure if he attended? He has not been too busy battling the demons of corruption at home. Or was he too disgusted by Cameron’s proposal to ban foreign ‘dirty money’ from acquiring properties in the UK by requiring upfront the names of the ‘beneficial owners’ of these properties?

Some of our print and media pundits suggest we should accept the ‘fantastic corruption’ of our elected leaders as the political norm from which there is no escape. So like the Biblical ‘Gideon swine’, are we supposed to rush towards the cliffs of political extinction?

Mid-century, 2050, is less than 34 years away. The population of Pakistan by then will be between 350 and 400 million. We already face a calamitous convergence of several lethal trends. Apart from the population bomb, these relate to climate, pollution, disease, water, food insecurity, law and order, education, basic rights, essential entitlements, family supporting jobs, nuclear doctrines and deployments, no-war no-peace and zero-sum regional strategies, obsolete budgetary allocations, medieval and nihilist mindsets interpreting divine injunctions, etc.

It cannot be that our Constitution cannot provide remedies to its subversion by crooked leaders.

None of these fatal developments seem to worry the country’s elected enemies. Unsurprisingly, a foreign acquaintance ominously observed: “When you Pakistanis finally lose your beautiful country none of you will have the right to mourn your loss because you never gave it a chance.”

For the past several decades, Pakistan has been beset by a never-ending series of national scandals, outrages and catastrophes. The Panama political and moral misdemeanours would normally be enough to chase away any political leader from any office of public trust. But not in Pakistan! After brief displays of indignation and letting off political steam all is swept under the carpet in variations on ‘national reconciliation’.

Little wonder a prime minister so morally wounded can transform himself into a political pit bull with complete confidence he will again triumph over all ethical and legal norms of political leadership. A defeated people will once again be shown their place. Today’s Pakistan is a standing insult to Quaid-i-Azam, Allama Iqbal and the Pakistan Movement.

We talk of ‘zero tolerance’ by which we mean ‘zero tolerance for policies of zero tolerance’ towards tax evasion, corruption and other economic crimes. The COAS has made clear his stance. He refused an extension of his tenure thereby denying the prime minister an opportunity to play with the issue. He will now be judged by his actions until he retires in November.

What can the COAS actually do within the parameters of the Constitution? A constitution’s credibility is premised on the willingness of the executive (and those wielding real power) to respect the judiciary’s decisions, opinions and orders. This is a prerequisite of any functioning democracy. But it has been observed in the breach by our political leaders and by the security and intelligence agencies of our civilian and military establishment. Accordingly, a degree of judicial activism has become a sine qua non for credible democracy and better governance in Pakistan.

It cannot be that our Constitution cannot provide remedies to its subversion by crooked leaders and crony legal experts. Moreover, military intervention provides no lasting remedy. Our experience demonstrates military rule is ultimately as stupid and disastrous as ‘elected’ civilian rule has been cynical and venal. Both have been major impediments to good governance, national unity and national security. What can be done?

Under no circumstances can an accused prime minister be allowed to even partially determine the terms and modalities of an independent and credible investigation into whether or not recent revelations disqualify him from holding any office of public trust and national responsibility. Constitutionally, our parliament is competent to impeach an elected prime minister for grave misdemeanours. But sadly, it is happy being a mockery of itself, for a consideration.

Any refusal to completely cooperate with an independent and credible investigation that does not merely report to the government is mala fide. The prime minister, however, is right to point out that the cast of corrupt political characters in Pakistan is vast, and he should not be singled out. But, as with Rouseff in Brazil, he is the sitting prime minister and should, accordingly, be immediately and separately investigated. The rest of the suspects should be investigated as expeditiously as possible.

Early elections, preferably with the technical assistance of the UN to ensure public credibility and acceptance, are probably unavoidable. Those under investigation should not be allowed to contest them unless and until they are cleared by the Election Commission on the basis of the results of their respective investigations.

There will be questions of law, practicality and equity. These must be constitutionally resolved in a manner acceptable to the judiciary even if there are no perfect solutions. The Constitution may lend itself to an interpretation that, in the prevailing circumstances, finds room for the implementation of accountability processes on an expedited basis. The military may legitimately facilitate such processes under judicial oversight. But it must not overstep its role. It does not have the answers, which only responsible governance can provide. Sincerity and wisdom is the key.

PS: The Supreme Court has stipulated conditions which could complicate the situation, possibly beyond political resolution, because of the dysfunctional nature of the current parliament.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.