The Panamaleaks story is not about to die down. Several new developments are in the offing that will keep the subject alive and kicking.
The PMLN government has succumbed to public pressure and written to the Chief Justice of Pakistan to set up a Commission of Inquiry comprising sitting Supreme Court judges instead of retired ones as originally proposed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But the opposition has rejected the Terms of Reference (TORs) unilaterally proposed by the government. However, indications are that if the opposition mounts pressure via the streets the government may relent and open negotiations for consensual TORs. In the event, it may take a couple of months to approve the consensual TORs.
But the delay is not likely to bail the prime minister out. In the next week or so, another long list of Pakistanis with off-shore companies is expected to hit headlines and there is no knowing whether he or his immediate family members will escape the net.
Much the same may be said of Mr Asif Zardari and the Bhuttos, or indeed Imran Khan and leading members of the PTI. This is bound to impact the budding alliance of opposition parties. If the other party leaders are clean, the opposition will get stronger. If they are not, the wind will be taken out of their sails. As it is, the PPP is wary of allying with the PTI because it fears the skeletons in its own cupboard may spill out or, worse, the agitation may provoke the “third umpire” to step in and wrap up the game. That is why Khurshid Shah, the PPP leader of the opposition, has advised Imran Khan to stay put in Punjab instead of touring Sindh and whipping up anti-corruption fever there in exchange for joining hands with him in Islamabad against the PMLN.
Matters have escalated to the level of GHQ too. The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, first gave a statement linking corruption directly to terrorism, implying that since the military was leading the fight against terrorism it had every right to target and uproot corruption too. Shortly thereafter, following criticism that the army shouldn’t stray from its constitutional writ, and his reference to “across the board accountability”, the chief won public favour by announcing some spring-cleaning of his own. A story was leaked about the dismissal or removal from service of two generals and five other officers for corrupt practices while serving in the Frontier Corps Balochistan in 2013-14. Initially, this was “breaking news” that seemed to suggest that the military was definitely interested in pushing the anti-corruption agenda apolitically. But soon questions began to be asked about the timing of the leak when the dismissals had routinely been carried out almost a year ago and the punishments seemed unduly soft compared to the nature of the allegations and the high rank of the main accused. The fact that the ISPR has still not come clean suggests that the motive of the leak was to try and cash in on public sentiment against the civilian politicians and elevate the army chief to heroic proportions once again, in contrast to the pygmy civilians in the firing line.
Several PMLN leaders like Khawaja Asif and Rana Sanaullah are going out of their way to appear sanguine. The former says the PM and his family are squeaky clean and the “third umpire” on whom Imran Khan is constantly banking has melted away. The latter claims that if Imran Khan ventures to make trouble in Punjab, he will be dealt with appropriately. Meanwhile, the prime minister has embarked on a tour of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab during which he will address public rallies, proclaim his innocence and highlight the achievements of his regime. All this is to create the public perception that Panamaleaks is water off the duck’s back and Imran Khan’s desperate histrionics are in vain.
A word of caution, however, is in order. There are some gaping holes in the account of Mr Sharif’s sons which could come back to haunt the family in the commission’s findings regardless of the TORs. The government may also be advised to negotiate a peaceful way out of this crisis instead of precipitating another one by unleashing the police against peaceful protestors marching on to besiege the prime minister’s estate in Raiwind. The last thing the government should risk is a repeat of what happened in Model Town, Lahore, two years ago. Certainly, if there are conspirators afoot to destabilize the government to downfall-point, a few dead bodies on the streets will definitely yield dividends.
We need a powerful judicial commission to sift the wheat from the chaff. Tax evasion and money laundering are crimes of corruption and must be exposed. But owning offshore companies, like offshore bank balances, is not illegal, if assets and funds are sourced to legitimate tax-paid earnings. Tarring every offshore company beneficiary with the brush of corruption is neither fair nor just.