As a young democracy, Pakistan looks to the United States and other advanced democracies for lessons in how to play politics. Some of these, including the move to open and transparent elections, have been positive. But there are signs that some of the uglier parts of American politics are influencing a polarization in Pakistan’s politics as well.
The National Accountability Bureau is a government agency that deals with corruption. As with any corruption watchdog, the agency has not been without controversy. But the present controversy surrounding the agency has nothing to do with any action taken or not, but with the appointment of retired Justice Deedar Hussain Shah as the new agency chief.
At issue is whether or not Mr Shah can be truly impartial given his past as a parliamentarian with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a concern raised by the leadership of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party.
In response to the appointment, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N) is threatening a “long march” protest against the government. This despite the fact that the PML-N leadership has in the past praised Justice Shah for his professionalism and impartiality in the courtroom. While newspapers are calling this latest threat “absurd,” it does raise important questions about the polarization of politics in a nation that is only just beginning to find its footing on the path of democracy.
While many judges in Pakistan feign political neutrality, loyalties do exist and are fairly easy to identify. That does not mean that judges with a personal inclination towards one political party or another cannot be trusted, but it is interesting to see who is considered controversial and who is not.
Khwaja Sharif, Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, is not seen as problematic despite his open activism for the PML-N. Justice Sharif wrote a book, Nests Built On a Weak Branch, that includes tales of his traveling to London to meet with Shahbaz Sharif where he encouraged the PML-N leader to campaign against the PPP government. According to the Lahore High Court Chief Justice, Shahbaz Sharif treated him to a lavish meal and offered him money, which he declined.
Nor is Khwaja Sharif the only PML-N stalwart to be appointed to a court without controversy. Khalil ur Rehman Ramday — a former Deputy Advocate General of Punjab whose brother is a three-time Member of the National Assembly under the PML-N banner — was appointed to the Supreme Court in February of this year and is considered by many to be an independent arbiter, able to set aside his political preferences when decided matters of law.
Today, however, Shahbaz Sharif is singing a different tune when it comes to the newly appointed head of the National Accountability Bureau, Deedar Hussain Shah. Admitting that he has “no personal grudge” against the retired Justice, Shahbaz Sharif continues to suggest that because Mr Shah has supported the PPP in the past, he cannot be trusted to serve with impartiality.
Shahbaz Sharif may remember the corruption case against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari that was dismissed after the disclosure of taped conversations revealing that the PML-N leadership had pressured then-Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum to issue a conviction for political reasons. Facing trial for professional misconduct, Justice Qayyum resigned from the court. Still, the PPP government has not called for the resignation of either Khwaja Sharif or Khalil ur Rehman Ramday.
So why is this faith in impartiality reserved only for Pakistan Muslim League supporters?
Sadly, a whiff of provincial chauvinism sours the air surrounding this debate. Much as some American politicians refer to Midwesterners as “real Americans,” playing up stereotypes of effete “limousine liberals” in the nations coastal cites, too often there is a sense that politicians and media elites from Lahore and Karachi view those from Sindh and other provinces with a slight disdain, as if they were not serious people meant to run the country.
The PPP, being predominant in Sindh, bears the brunt of this chauvinism, which often surfces in subtle ways such as media reactions to President Asif Zardari’s wearing a Sindhi-style cap, or the way that accusations of corruption seem to follow Zardari despite his never having been convicted of any charges. Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) may own millions of dollars in real estate in London and only pay a few thousand Rupees in income taxes, but it is the Sindhi politician who is assumed to be corrupt.
But such chauvinism becomes much more than merely personally destructive when it threatens to close the doors to participation for anyone simply because of their ethnic or political backgrounds. In order for democracy to flourish and the country to move forward, we must overcome these petty prejudices and recognize that just as Justice Ramday can be trusted to serve on the Supreme Court, so too can Deedar Shah oversee the National Accountability Bureau with impartiality.
Whether Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch or any other ethnicity, we are all Pakistani, and we all have the best interests of the nation at heart. We must learn to trust one another, to judge each other based on our individual actions, not where we were born or what political party we belong to. We have all sacrificed too much, overcome too many hardships to let our own personal prejudices keep us from achieving our dream of a strong, prosperous and united Pakistan.