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The Panama Papers effect on Pakistan

By Aditi Phadnis
April 23, 2016 12:13 IST
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How does the country’s civilian government reclaim legitimacy after the names of many Pakistanis, including the family members of PM Nawaz Sharif, figured in the leaked documents, Aditi Phadnis asks.

The Panama Papers revelations have sent shock waves around the world and while there seems to be no political risk to anyone in India, in neighbouring Pakistan, political parties and judges alike are getting the heebie-jeebies.

The 200-plus list of those in Pakistan who have maintained dealings with M/s Mossack Fonseca includes the three children of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; relatives of the two wives of Shahbaz Sharif (the chief minister of Punjab and Nawaz Sharif’s brother).

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s name figures as well: she, her nephew Hasan Ali Jaffery and former interior minister Rehman Malik are said to have co-owned Petrofine FZC. The family of Osman Saifullah Khan, a senator for the Pakistan Peoples Party, has registered 34 offshore companies.

In delicious irony, Khan is a serving member on a body that is deliberating on Pakistan’s tax reforms programme, such as it is. Much like the findings of Indian democracy watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms that many of the wealthiest candidates contesting elections don’t even have PAN numbers, in Pakistan too, many of those on the Panama list don’t figure on the Federal Board of Revenue’s published lists of Pakistan’s top taxpayers, as columnist and financial expert Najma Minhas noted recently.

Small wonder then, that for the Pakistani political class, the Panama findings are nothing more than an annoyance, like a fly in a closed room. Soon after the names came out, with a minimum of fuss, at a meeting of the Cabinet where one of those named in the Panama Papers, Mariam Nawaz, was present, the government decided to refer the whole issue to an inquiry committee headed by a retired judge.

The Opposition is asking for an inquiry by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or a parliamentary committee. But the chairman of the Senate (equivalent to the chairman of the Rajya Sabha) has politely turned down a request to head one because he is not “qualified” to investigate into issues of this nature.

When Nawaz Sharif left for London for a medical check-up last week leaving Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in charge of the outreach to defuse the Panama Papers explosion with minimum collateral damage, the erroneous conclusion was that he had fled the country. He returned earlier this week. The state of his health did not prevent him from shopping for new suits on Mayfair. Nor did it prevent patriotic Pakistanis from putting the prime minister on sale on eBay UK: the listing described the product as “used” and said: “Used too much and now we don’t need him any more so probably you can put him in a freezer and freeze him so in winter time you can use.”

The seller, Saeed00735, explained why he was selling it: “Just need to get rid of him anyone need so please hurry up. Useless prime minister of Pakistan.” While postage was free, there was one condition: “it may not post to India”. (Those who want to buy can still do so: bids have reached £29 and the sale will end on April 24.)

All this has not bothered Nawaz Sharif. With a large section of Pakistan’s political elite, barring elements from the army, on the list, it is in everybody’s interest that the controversy be given a decent burial. Nawaz Sharif knows the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz that he heads cannot be thrown out on the floor of Parliament. In the 342-member lower house of Parliament, his party has 188 members. Even if the two Opposition parties -- Bhutto-Zardari’s PPP (46) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (34) -- join up, they cannot depose him. Only if the Pakistan Army intervenes can the government be toppled.

But why would the army want to do that? For all practical purposes, it is already in command. Look at the way it handled the Easter Sunday massacre. Like India, legally, the Pakistan Army can act only in aid to the civil authority and that too only if it is invited to. In this case, not only was it the army that decided to deploy the Pakistan Rangers (who answer to the civilian Ministry of Interior) in Punjab -- the heartland of the Sharif family’s influence where Shahbaz Sharif is chief minister -- but it was also the one to push them into operations against Daesh-linked radical Islamic groups. This is bound to upset the government.

The PML-N is known to patronise and even fund radical Islamic groups, including the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which does not engage in sectarian violence, only in violence against India.

The army is happy to look the other way when it comes to anti-India groups but through its action has declared that it will not compromise on the unity of Pakistan -- and is signalling it will not hesitate to emasculate the authority of a legally elected government if it has to. So “investments” made by the Sharifs in radical Islamic groups could go waste. More than 5,000 people have been rounded up in the province so far.

All this undermines the provincial government’s autonomy.

The question is, how the civilian government is going to reclaim its legitimacy. Pakistan is by far the most interesting country in South Asia today for the sheer range of political challenges it faces.

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Aditi Phadnis
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