April 23, 2017 | Daily Times

Pakistan’s ruling elite is not known for drawing moral lessons from its experiences.

The elite know that its money and muscle can help it find its way through the system with the help of highly-paid barristers on its side. When barristers represent tainted property tycoons only to please their political bosses or when they take up cases only to fatten their bank accounts, one can rest assured that there is little room in the country for principles and morality.

Against this context, it should be obvious that the Panama Papers case before the Supreme Court was never just a legal battle. As seen over the course of several months, lawyers defending the ruling party had multiple tricks up their sleeves to drag the proceedings. They even deployed dirty tricks such as the submission before the bench of a letter from a notorious Qatari prince.

The case should not be seen as having a political impact either. The divided opposition never represented a real threat to the ruling PML-N. The party’s majority in the Punjab and the National assemblies, won through a politics of patronage mastered over the past three decades, gives the Sharif brothers enough confidence to ignore dissenting voices in and out of the Parliament. What matters most to them is protection of their political empire and business interests. Personal honour and integrity hardly seems to be a concern to them.

Yet, the dominant majority of frustrated and helpless Pakistanis still aspire for a society where rule of law can be applied to the mighty as well as the weak.

Those of us hoping that the Supreme Court could possibly rattle the consciences of those under question seem to have been proved wrong.

Those unending arguments before the Court had essentially stemmed from a crisis of moral integrity ailing our ruling elite. For the elite, what matters is the parliamentary majority alone. Moral authority seems to be of no relevance to them.

That is why all hopes and expectations of a consequential judgment in the Panama Papers case were really a case of wishful thinking. Our society’s ruling elite thrives on the nexus between politics, business and civil-military bureaucracy. This nexus is too strong to ignore. It seems even the courts think several times before daring to “set a dangerous precedent” such as disqualifying the prime minister over financial fraud and deceitful conduct.

There were plenty of examples from around the globe where incumbents faced with public criticism over corruption charges had bowed out of politics or even ended their lives to salvage some pride.

In 1986, a chief minister of a Federal German province Uwe Barschel had taken his life after it was proven that he had lied under oath. Another German statesman Willy Brandt had instantly resigned from his party office over criticisms regarding “willful decisions and nepotism.” In February 2012, a German leader, former president Christian Wolff, had tendered his resignation after prosecutors asked the Parliament – the Bundestag – to end his immunity from prosecution over accusations of improper ties to businessmen.

Japan, too, is known instances of resignations by prime ministers and other ministers. Excerpts from an article on the subject that appeared in the US journal The Atlantic (June, 2011) merit reproduction here:

“So why is Japan different? Why do its top officials resign from office, seemingly, at the drop of a hat? The theories are endless, most of them relying on oft-repeated but simplistic stereotypes about the supposed centrality of honour, saving face, and respect in Japanese culture. But if these traits really are so important to Japanese culture, then the same could be said of Arab culture. But, clearly, Arab political leaders feel no compunction to step down, even if they become so loathed that the country rises up by the millions to demand their exit.”

As the citation suggests, it is compunction that triggers a resignation ie drawing moral lessons from an instance. However, such behaviour seems to work in societies where systems are raised on principles and not personal whims and where moral authority of public office holders trumps the holder’s individual interests.

So, we should neither be surprised nor shocked over events that have unfolded since April 20. The status quo refuses to give in. Yet, status quo forces will never be the same post-SC verdict. Inspired by the split decision, clouds of dissent and critique will grow and thicken as days go by.

It will be interesting to see how the SC eventually closes this case based on the JIT investigation, though one should not be very excited about the prospects of the JIT investigation.

The Panama Papers issue did not require a months-long litigation at the Supreme Court. It also did not need any JIT as ordered by the court itself. It should have been settled last year through a voluntary exit and an apology.

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