Accountability or reconciliation
Mr Nawaz Sharif's departure from prison in Pakistan to exile in Saudi Arabia is by all accounts a dramatic development. It exposes Mr Sharif as a deal-making businessman, who entered politics through a deal with a military ruler and has chosen to quit politics as the result of another deal. His purpose in entering politics was to make more money. His objective in accepting the exile deal seems to be to save a large part of his fortune, live a life of comfort and luxury and possibly to come back and fight another day. The few na´ve Muslim League supporters who had thus far failed to see Mr Sharif for what he was, will probably now see the light.
Mr Sharif can ponder the benefits of his latest deal presumably not far from the exile home of Uganda's former President Idi Amin. The Pakistan Muslim League, which had been taken over by Mr Sharif in the course of his deal-making career, can now get on with traditional politics. The government of General Pervez Musharraf, on the other hand, has to face the charges of 'sell-out' currently being voiced by the accountability lobby. Having shunned pragmatism for so long, the Chief Executive faces a tough task in changing course without preparing the ground. He has to persuade those who supported his well-intentioned simplistic solutions that there is more to running a country than retribution against corrupt former rulers.
The decision to allow Nawaz Sharif and his family to go into exile presents on-ground advantages for the regime but it is proving to be a disaster in image terms. By removing Nawaz Sharif from the scene, the government has reduced the number of political challenges facing it. The country can now start moving towards a stable political system, without the continuous spectre of a former Prime Minister influencing the course of events from prison. Knowing Mr Sharif, he will try to settle scores with General Musharraf all the way from Saudi Arabia. But one hopes the negotiators for the government have obtained ironclad guarantees from the Saudis against such an eventuality.
The government is trying to justify its pragmatic political move once again in moral terms by saying that the exchequer will benefit from the forfeiture of part of Mr Sharif's fortune. This is hardly likely to impress those who were (in my opinion, mistakenly) led to believe that the ill-gotten wealth of former rulers could be traced and repatriated for the country's economic revival. The financial advantage to the country from the deal with Mr Sharif will probably be minimal. There will be few buyers for the Sharifs' property, given Pakistan's history of discredited rulers getting back into power. General Musharraf and his spokesmen must now work at reducing expectations about repatriation of "ill-gotten wealth" after having created these expectations over the last fourteen months. The process of trying to secure all the wealth of Mr Sharif would have been tedious, with no guarantee that Pakistan would be able to recover much due to complex legal requirements at home and abroad.
The government's position has been compromised and its image is taking a battering in the media both at home and abroad largely because it set such high standards for itself. In a country where successive regimes have pursued mistaken policies and wrongs have been committed on a wide scale, the most logical course of action is to try to bury the past. In fact, most revolutionary regimes try to do just that. After an initial period of punishing the perpetrators of past wrongs, the new regime moves on and establishes its new order. The desire to avoid protracted trials is perhaps the main reason why most coups in the world result in sending surviving former rulers into exile. But General Musharraf's regime so far found it difficult to deal with the past. Its chosen method, of trials under draconian laws, did not result in the quick convictions that the government expected. The accountability law is, according to its own authors, a draconian law. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) enjoys sweeping powers. The judges of NAB courts have been selected by the present regime, which has also restructured the superior courts through the device of oaths under the PCO. If these advantages could not result in successful convictions then surely there was something wrong with the sweeping approach to accountability.
Until now, the general impression about General Musharraf's team has been that it is a group of well-intentioned people who do not know much about the art of governance and politics. They pursued unattainable objectives and cited the nobility of their intentions as justification for their failings. General Musharraf's government seemed to work in mysterious ways. It has consistently acted on somebody's instincts rather than on considered opinions and political judgement. Instead of involving the people of Pakistan in its decisions, the government simply decides what it considers appropriate. Despite freedom of the press, comments reflecting public opinion are consistently ignored. Politics has been considered as bad as hepatitis and therefore avoided. But the Generals' distaste for politics notwithstanding, governance is about politics. In that sense it is a good thing political considerations have been given their due weight in deciding to exile Mr Nawaz Sharif and his family. It is time the government reviewed its attitude towards Mr Asif Ali Zardari, Mian Manzoor Wattoo and Mr Anwar Saifullah Khan. Mr Zardari has already spent four years in prison, which is greater punishment than Mr Sharif underwent. Mr Wattoo and Mr Anwar Saifullah are being held on charges that simply do not merit their continued detention. Then there are the detainees who have never been charged with anything, namely Mr Mushahid Husain and Chaudhry Nisar Ali. It is time perhaps to release them, now that the greater culprit has been allowed to make a settlement with the government.
In political terms, the accountability-driven approach to governance was adding to the regime's isolation both at home and abroad. The world, and indeed most Pakistanis, wanted the country to get on with the business of today instead of being bogged down with sorting out the past. The government was accused of being stubborn in dealing with Mr Nawaz Sharif and other politicians of the past. It was said that the dynamics of politics were being consistently ignored. Attention was not being paid to the possibility of Pakistani society being polarised again-this time between supporters of politics and the political process on the one hand, and the armed forces of the country on the other.
Mr Nawaz Sharif and his cronies did much that was wrong. But they had to be dealt with in a political manner. If their support base remained intact, convictions by courts would have had little or no effect in diminishing the political significance of the former Prime Minister. By allowing Mr Sharif to cut a deal involving protection of his assets, the government has exposed him as anything but a national leader concerned about the welfare of his people, or for that matter about ideas such as democracy. Mr Sharif's removal from the political scene, albeit under less-than-ideal circumstances, creates an opportunity for shifting the focus of the present regime from accountability to national reconciliation. For the first time in more than two decades, there is a real possibility of ending the cycle of vindictive politics that began with the execution of Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. For that opportunity to be realised with all its benefits, the regime will have to broaden its political base and evolve a comprehensive strategy for replacing political polarisation with genuine policy debate.
scene, albeit under less-than-ideal circumstances, creates an opportunity
for shifting the focus of the present regime from accountability to national
reconciliation. For the first time in more than two decades, there is a real possibility
of ending the cycle of vindictive politics that began with the execution of Mr Zulfikar
Ali Bhutto. For that opportunity to be realised with all its benefits, the regime will
have to broaden its political base and evolve a comprehensive strategy for replacing
political polarisation with genuine policy debate.