By Sadiq Saleem
The Canadian prime minister has delayed parliamentary proceedings for three months to by-pass expanding opposition criticism. The Japanese prime minister has lost popularity within a couple of months of winning a general election. The US president has not even completed a year in office but his approval ratings are down and the media is criticizing him for everything under the sun. The British prime minister has faced a major parliamentary corruption scandal and is at the lowest ebb of popularity.
Yet in none of these democracies is anyone predicting the end of the government or calling for “someone” to save the country from its elected leaders.Pakistan’s unique history of repeated extra-constitutional interventions has created a mindset that does not accept the notion of elected governments having a mandate to complete their terms, notwithstanding unpopular decisions or scandals and charges propagated by a hostile media. Ending corruption is a noble and popular cause that has, in the past, been used in Pakistan to undermine democracy.
If Pakistani democracy is to survive, our judiciary must uphold legal action against the allegedly corrupt and the media must learn to criticize the supposedly unpopular without undermining the democratic system or overturning the mandate given by the people in a general election.
The Supreme Court declared the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that came into effect on October 5, 2007 ultra vires on grounds that it was discriminatory. That should restore the pending proceedings in various courts. But these proceedings should not become an excuse to overturn the mandate given by the people of Pakistan in the general elections of February 18, 2008.
The people of Pakistan knew that they were voting for NRO beneficiaries and the mere fact of someone being an NRO beneficiary cannot be held as justification for demanding the ouster of anyone elected by the people or their representatives. Only conviction by a court of law for a specific criminal act or wrongdoing should result in the ouster or resignation of any official.
Elected governments and leaders make mistakes. Scandals emerge in the most advanced countries. Those elected amid cheering become the object of criticism or ridicule everywhere. But the desire to “correct the mistake of the electorate” through media noise and backroom maneuvers is not the way forward for a democratic system.
To avoid the pitfalls of the past, why not allow the law to take its course without rocking the boat of democracy this time? Let the courts deal with corruption while allowing the elected executive and the parliament handle their respective spheres in accordance with the constitution. One can understand the frustration of those implacably hostile to President Asif Zardari and the PPP but they, too, should understand that democracy requires patience and howsoever much you might hate the elected leaders it is important to wait for their mandate to expire.
We face a unique situation in Pakistan where we accuse people of corruption and we want to skin them even without charges being proven against them. This time round it would be useful if we look at how other democracies deal with corruption. None of them have purpose built politicized accountability bureaus and none use elimination of corruption as a slogan to eliminate political parties or leaders disliked by the urban middle class of a particular region.
Across our eastern border, in India, no government has been removed from office without an election whereas no elected government has ever completed its term in our country. Even when Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule and crossed the limits in the eyes of most Indians, her opponents and critics waited for the next election to oust her. There was media criticism but no campaign for removing her.
In May 2009, the speaker of the British Parliament resigned over his role in a scandal about the exaggerated expense claims of Members of Parliament. Michael Martin is the first speaker to step down under pressure since a previous incumbent was forced out for taking bribes in 1695. But throughout the MPs expense claim scandal no one called for the resignation of all those charged with wrongdoing.
Each case was treated individually and was required to be proven individually. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, highly unpopular and with approval ratings in opinion polls even less than those of President Asif Zardari, continues in office and the British are waiting for the next election.
Indian Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) faced a huge corruption scandal after leaving office. It was alleged that in July 1993 when Rao’s government was facing a no-confidence motion Rao, through a representative, offered money to Members of Parliament belonging to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). In 1996 a special court convicted Rao but he appealed to a higher court and remained on bail. In 2002 the decision of the special court was overturned by the Indian Supreme Court and both Rao and Buta Singh were cleared of the charges.
In another case Rao along with other fellow ministers was accused of forging documents to show that former Prime Minister VP Singh’s son, Ajeya Singh, had a bank account in St. Kitts. In 2003 Rao was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Despite these charges Narasimha Rao did not spend one day in jail. He was able to obtain bail on each occasion, allowed to appeal to the higher courts and when he died in 2004 the Congress-led government of his former finance minister and now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave him a state funeral on grounds that he was never finally convicted. That, rather than the lynch-mob mentality advocated by some in our hyperactive media, represents the rule of law.
Another former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi faced a huge corruption scandal. Rajiv Gandhi and several of his close associates and friends were accused of receiving kickbacks from Swedish company Bofors AB for winning a bid to supply India’s military with 155 mm field howitzer guns that eventually proved so effective against the Pakistani military during the Kargil war. The scale of the kickbacks was alleged to be of the tune of Indian Rs64 million. Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress Party lost the elections in 1989 to a combined opposition, which used Bofors as a slogan against the Congress administration. But the Indian courts waited for evidence and tried the case at a regular pace instead of joining the popular anti-corruption bandwagon.
Rajiv Gandhi died in 1991 and the Bofors case continued for years but none of his associates were ever arrested or put in jail. In February 2004 the Delhi High Court quashed the charges of bribery against Rajiv Gandhi. While he was alive, even though the charges of corruption remained, Rajiv was never arrested, never placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) and was accorded a full state funeral on his death.
After his death his wife and children continued to be accorded the privileges and security, which they were entitled to as the family of a former prime minister. What we are witnessing in Pakistan is the result of the anti-politician and anti-democracy mindset cultivated among Pakistan’s middle class by General Zia-ul-Haq and his successors. Zia’s use of corruption and immorality as the main planks with which to attack popular politicians and his constant reiteration that unless accountability (Ehtesab) takes place elections cannot take place are his major legacy to Pakistani politics.