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Pakistan can and must turn the corner

With an increasingly robust media and a sizeable civil society making their presence felt, change for the better is impossible to block

Gulf News

Amid Pakistan’s continuing political storm, reports in the past week of Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the populous Punjab province, turning his family’s palatial estate outside Lahore into his camp office may have been shocking though hardly surprising.

The estate, which is popularly known as ‘Jati Umra’ — named after the Sharif family’s ancestral village, now in India — has been equated with controversy for years. It was from here that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the elder sibling of the Punjab chief minister, maintained a camp office and ran part of his government. Turning the property into a camp office works out to be the perfect ploy for deploying resources of the state to run affairs of a private residence. From minions who are charged with keeping the place spotless to the sizeable security staff and even those who look after the top family’s personal pets, all become a responsibility of the public exchequer. The ‘camp office’ declarations have easily disclosed a sorry trend — suck out the last possible rupee from the budget of state budget, irrespective of its legitimacy or not.

Pakistan is not unfamiliar with the business of the state’s resources being squandered by its ruling elite. For years, high-ranking leaders under one regime after another have shown complete disregard for the plight of ordinary citizens. As the rich and politically mighty lavishly enjoy their grabs, the ordinary public suffers ranging from those who rot at resource-starved government hospitals to the poverty-stricken children who are routinely abused at poorly-run government schools.

Yet, as the Sharif family struggles in the midst of an unprecedented uncertainty over their political future, the utter disregard for public welfare is clearly baffling. Shahbaz’s cronies often label him as Pakistan’s most efficient administrator, with a penchant for scooting off from one problem-stricken location to another. Irrespective of the acute crisis of governance surrounding Pakistan today, the ruling party has missed no opportunity to build up the younger Sharif’s credentials as those of a perfect leader. But the camp office choice has badly exposed his clear disregard for responsible behaviour when it comes to using public funds. And indeed, it is the Pakistani public’s wealth that has been squandered by the leaders time and again.

Equally significant are events of the past year, which, in late July, led to Nawaz’s dismissal as the prime minister, following a verdict by the Supreme Court. The matter came to a head following a trial that began more than a year ago and was triggered by revelations in the so called ‘Panama Papers’.

The discovery of large-scale offshore wealth belonging to the high and mighty from around the world immediately ignited global interest over the legitimacy of such wealth. And Pakistan was no exception. The issue of exactly how the Sharif family bought luxurious and outrageously expensive properties in central London, overlooking the world famous Hyde Park, remain unanswered. Subsequent investigations further revealed the family’s overseas business interests.

As Nawaz now battles to return to Pakistan’s ruling mainstream, he and his brother are apparently in denial or more aptly living in a cuckoo land. In public gatherings, the former prime minister continues to ask an increasingly absurd question: “Mujhe kyon nikala” (“Why was I thrown out”). This has now become the elder Sharif’s battle cry, notably during appearances in public. It is clear that the judges who presided over the Supreme Court trial and verdict went into the details of the case and examined the former prime minister’s offshore wealth.

And following the verdict, there are virtually no signs of a public groundswell in favour of the Sharif family, notwithstanding claims to the contrary by the Sharif brothers and some of their cronies. That is hardly surprising in a country with a prevailing disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.

Going forward, irrespective of how much more public assets are ripped off by self-serving politicians, it is amply clear that the public is increasingly tired of eventually loosing out at the hands of self-serving leaders. Elections, which are due next year, may not necessarily break fresh ground for previously untested political parties and leaders. However, with a growing flow of information across Pakistan, it appears likely that ripping off public interest will become increasingly tough as time passes by.

With an increasingly robust and active media dominating the country and a sizeable community of members of the civil society making their presence felt, change for the better will be impossible to block. In time, the likes of the Sharifs are set to be left by the wayside.

In sharp contrast, a continuing journey along the path of democracy will throw up fresh trends that will shape political behaviour across Pakistan in the years to come. Though Pakistan’s future today appears bleak, this is likely to be only a passing phase in the country’s history.

As for Nawaz, the writing is on the wall. The former prime minister will likely just continue to point towards a conspiracy that had apparently forced him out of office. But his claim is set to fall on deaf ears across Pakistan. And even after being armed with the comfort of one camp office after another, the Sharif brothers will likely end up drifting away from the mainstream of Pakistan.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.

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