Pakistan’s Crisis of Morality in Politics

One of the most popular political jokes making the rounds in Pakistan—and also abroad among the Pakistani diaspora—runs something like this: An old woman accosts President Asif Ali Zardari and chides him that he should stop harassing the people or else God will send down punishment on him. Hearing this, Zardari sniggers and taunts the old woman: ‘Listen, old lady, it was Musharraf (his predecessor-in-office) who was harassing the people of Pakistan; I’m the punishment God has sent down on the people.’

Zardari has been a butt of popular jokes and a bane of Pakistan’s feudal-centric political culture since he shot to prominence, in the late 80s as the play-boy consort and husband to Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s regal politician and two-time prime minister. The son of a piddling land-holder of no consequence, Zardari came into a lot of wealth—amassed mostly illegally and through highly questionable means by virtue of being the ‘worse-half’ of Pakistan’s most prominent political icon.

But the tormenting part of Zardari, as far as the man-on-the-Pakistani-street, began two years ago, in December 2007, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, in highly dubious circumstances, on a street of Rawalpindi—the twin-city of Islamabad. Zardari made the best of that tragic situation by claiming to have inherited the mantle of the leadership of Benazir’s People’s Party—founded by her hanged father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto—through a hand-written political testament and will of BB. Many in Pakistan still doubt the authenticity of that will. This ultimately paved the way for Zardari to shove the erstwhile strongman of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, aside from the presidency and engineer his own rise to that coveted position.

With Zardari ascending to the high office of President of Pakistan, despite his shady reputation as Mr. Ten Percent (denoting his well-known practice to charge at least ten percent commission, for himself, on every thing purchased by his wife’s government from suppliers abroad) the nightmare of the Pakistani people began, a tragedy that has stuck with them, to date, shows no sign of abating and only aggravates the plight of the hapless Pakistanis.

However, on December 16, this year, Pakistan’s Supreme Court—comprising a full bench of 17 justices of the apex court—delivered a stunning rebuke against Zardari, and dozens of other corrupt and money-addicted politicians like him. In a unanimous verdict, the court struck down as unconstitutional and illegal, ab initio, the notorious National Reconciliation Ordinance, or NRO as it is popularly known to the Pakistanis by its acronym, which had been foisted on Pakistan by its last military dictator, General Musharraf.

NRO was an act of desperation—a truly last-ditch effort of Musharraf’s to keep himself in power at all cost. It was a black law designed to benefit Musharraf and those among the corrupt and grabbing politicians of Pakistan who were ready to condone a second term in office for him in return for their misdeeds and whole-sale bungling, in pelf and power, white-washed for good.

It wasn’t only the blackest of black laws that Musharraf rammed down the throats of unsuspecting Pakistanis but also one that virtually sanctified crime. To perpetuate himself in power, Musharraf, the swaggering autocrat, conjured up a devious law that white-washed all the crimes of corruption, including murder, of a select number of politicians and their favourite bureaucrats-many of whom had fled Pakistan and sought refuge abroad, mainly in Britain, Canada and U.S.—so they may return home in total safety, throw their full weight behind Musharraf’s authoritarian regime and become his partners in the rape of a country carved out in the name of Islam.

The numbers were staggering. The beneficiaries of Musharraf’s unprecedented largesse were 8041 politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and industrialists. These were the people who had used Benazir Bhutto’s two stints in power to loot Pakistan and feather their nests, abroad, with enormous wealth.

There are a number of prominent PPP cabinet ministers-such as the Minister of Interior, Rehman Malik, and the Minister of Defence, Ahmed Mukhtar, among others-who have outstanding cases of corruption and misappropriation against them under NAB. Their files, which had been closed under the temporary blessing of NRO, have re-opened and come alive. It’s an irreducible minimum, in terms of ethics and morality, of any democracy-and PPP in Pakistan never shies away from beating its drums as the stalwart watch-man of democracy-that a minister under suspicion of any offence or crime should step down from his office and face the courts in his private capacity.

Of these rogues and scoundrels bleeding Pakistan white, 7793 or 97 % hailed from Sindh, the native province of BB and Zardari and the power bastion of a party that had shot to popular approbation on the misleading slogan of standing for Roti, Kapra aur Makan (bread, clothing and shelter) for the poor and indigent Pakistanis but never delivered on this commitment. Instead, it became a refuge for Pakistan’s power-hungry feudals and large land-holders, and their relentless pursuit of pelf and power.

Their modus operandi for making money was simple and needed only political patronage that PPP provided in spades. According to NAB (the National Accountability Bureau), an anti-corruption outfit tasked with unearthing the enormous loot of this cabal, at least 1500 billion rupees (nearly 20 billion dollars) were looted, by way of kick-backs on foreign deals and loans taken from nationalized banks but written off as political favours. 92 % of the rogues feasting on the patronage of the government-in-power belonged to, who else but, PPP.

Mr. Zardari was particularly an ace in arranging kick-backs and ten percent commissions to line his pockets at the expense of the people of Pakistan. NAB has conservatively estimated, on the basis of evidence and record compiled over several years of meticulous research done at home and abroad, that Mr. Zardari’s myriad assets, of cash and property dispersed over a dozen countries in Europe and North America—as indeed also in his favourite perch in Dubai—come to a total of at least 1.5 billion dollars, easily making him one of the richest men in Pakistan. 60 million dollars, in cold cash in his name, still sits in one of the banks in Switzerland.

In addition to cases of whole-sale money making, there are also cases of torture, violence and murder registered, mostly, against leaders of PPP, including Mr. Zardari, as well as those of its coalition party in Sindh and at the federal level in Islamabad, the MQM. This latter party claims to be the standard-bearer of the rights of the Mohajirs in Pakistan-descendants of those who migrated to Pakistan from the Muslim-minority provinces of India in 1947.

72 of these cases of murder and mayhem are registered against the MQM supremo, Altaf Hussain, who has been living in plush exile in London for nearly 20 years and keeps an iron grip on his party apparatus and apparatchiks from long distance.

In its historic verdict of December 16, the Pakistan Supreme Court didn’t name names. All it said was to declare the infamous NRO ultra vires of the constitution and ask NAB to reopen the cases against all those named in its lists for having profited and enriched themselves at the expense of the Treasury of Pakistan.

The thrust of the Supreme Court’s verdict is more on the moral front, at this early stage, than legal. However, it’s on the issue of morality in politics or governance that the PPP and its robber-barons are most vulnerable, and are, predictably, reacting with all the sound and fury expected on a thief caught with his hand in the cookie-jar.

There are a number of prominent PPP cabinet ministers—such as the Minister of Interior, Rehman Malik, and the Minister of Defence, Ahmed Mukhtar, among others—who have outstanding cases of corruption and misappropriation against them under NAB. Their files, which had been closed under the temporary blessing of NRO, have re-opened and come alive. It’s an irreducible minimum, in terms of ethics and morality, of any democracy—and PPP in Pakistan never shies away from beating its drums as the stalwart watch-man of democracy—that a minister under suspicion of any offence or crime should step down from his office and face the courts in his private capacity.

However, the PPP ministers in Pakistan are brazenly refusing to vacate their offices, in spite of NAB having already summoned them to appear before its court to defend the charges against them.

To the utter horror of all the law-abiding and democracy-favouring people of Pakistan, these roe ministers have the fullest support and backing of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in their immoral and unethical stance of open defiance to the call of justice and fair play.

Zardari, in his capacity as the co-chairman of PPP (his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the other co-chairman) summoned his party’s executive council to meet in the Presidency—in open defiance of the law of the land that lays down that the country’s head-of-state shall not hold any other office and have no partisan affiliations—and ordered his ministers to not resign under any circumstances. His mantra, obviously, is one of defiance to the dictates of law and morality.

Gilani, on his own part, is acting in even greater contempt of the law and the constitution of Pakistan by letting rogue ministers thrive under the canopy of his cabinet. Not only that, but to thumb his nose at the Supreme Court, Gilani has put a rogue minister, named before the court as having extorted a huge amount of money out of a wealthy bank-loan defaulter, in charge of NAB, the very institution sitting in judgment over him.

The case of Babar Awan, now Minister for both Parliamentary Affairs and Law, is especially eye-opening and provides an insight into the ethics—or lack of them—of a gang of robber-barons, rogues and scoundrels that has callously usurped political power in the country in the name of the ‘mandate’ supposedly given by the people of Pakistan.

Babar Awan was a non-descript lawyer until he managed to worm his way into the inner sanctum of the PPP upon BB’s return to Pakistan from her self-imposed exile of several years, in 2007. He also started calling himself a ‘doctor of philosophy’ (implying that he had a Ph.D. from a foreign university). It transpired, soon afterward, that his degree was bogus and had been purchased for a few hundred dollars from one of several American universities hawking their degrees on the net.

Babar Awan twisted the arm of a bank-loan defaulter to pay him a bribe in return for services to have the case against him cleared from the then-Islamabad High Court, a court-of-convenience that Musharraf had constituted in violation of the constitution (this ‘kangaroo court’ was subsequently disbanded by the Supreme Court of Pakistan when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was restored to his position). This defaulter had borrowed the huge sum of 9 billion rupees from the Bank of Punjab and had run away from Pakistan. He was brought back from his sanctuary in Malaysia upon the orders of the Supreme Court and deposed, like a canary, before it. His testimony established that Babar Awan had extorted a bribe of 35 million rupees from him, in addition to a ‘legal fee’ of rupees 5 million besides also forcing the defaulter to do compulsory shopping of goodies and gifts, to the tune of 2 million rupees, for Awan’s family in Dubai.

That the PPP has sunk to the nadir of moral bankruptcy in Pakistan is amply borne out by the unethical behaviour of its stalwarts, from president Zardari and PM Gilani down to cabinet ministers. PPP’s coalition partners, ministers belonging to MQM, who are likewise implicated in cases of corruption and murder, are also refusing to step down. Both these parties seem to covet and claim corruption as their ‘right.’

The hapless people of Pakistan have had more than a fair share of suffering at the hands of civilian autocrats, like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and soldiers-of-fortune and Bonapartes, like Generals Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. But the latest cabal of adventurers, currently ensconced in the corridors of power in the country, is adding a shameful chapter of not only gross abuse of trust vested in it by the people but also sinking to the lowest point of unethical opportunism.

The immoral conduct of Zardari-Gilani & Co. is inexorably herding the country in the direction of total anarchy and lawlessness. A country like Pakistan, already consumed by terrorism of grave proportions—which has given it the name of ‘the most dangerous country in the world’ in the annals of U.S. and its western allies locked in a costly war in neighbouring Afghanistan—cannot afford a total breakdown of law and order within its confines. The people of Pakistan deserve much better than a clique of rogues and scoundrels holding them hostage in the name of democracy of a most dubious description. More than any other country in the world, perhaps, Pakistan, in the hands of its current robber-barons, fits the moniker of a ‘kleptocracy.’   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 January 2010 on page no. 26

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