Nabbing the NAB?

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Riaz Missen

If one believes in the assertion that corruption is directly linked with extremism, limiting the mandate of National Accountability Bureau (NAB), or barring it from doing its job, amounts resisting what National Action Plan (NAP) stands for: a terror-free Pakistan. Going by the reports that the anti-corruption agency has got all necessary stuff to net high ups in Punjab from political, business and bureaucratic arena provides PML-N a common ground with the parties hailing and ruling other provinces to clip the wings of NAB. The Prime Minister has warned the NAB chief to stop its officials from harassing the government employees. He wants the anti-corruption agency to be focused on its mandate but know its limits as well: harassing employees equals disturbing the functional side of the government.
Going by the utterance of the premier, while he was addressing the newly elected members of the local government in Bahawalpur, the situation has reached the point where NAB officials dishonor the government employees by barging into the houses and offices without the verifications of charges against them. Why Nawaz Sharif has chosen a remote district to air his worries is certainly a meaningful gesture, for this area has little share of high grade jobs. However, one can just imagine what crucial role the lower cadres play in channeling bribery to the top echelons of bureaucracy.
The ZTBL’s surveyors, whose recommendations made possible for the small farmers to secure loans during the prolonged ‘cotton crises’ of the southern region are now living a luxurious life in Bahawalpur. A patwari’s pillage heads everywhere outside the region. The government officials having the opportunity to serve Bahawalpur, the capital of a former princely state, have preferred to build homes to enjoy the calmness and placidity of the region in chaotic times. Does PM’s reservation represent the concerns of Punjab, wherefrom the bulk, rather the majority, of bureaucracy hails? It is what Khurshid Shah has said and something Rana Sanaullah tired to deny. This impression gets strengthened from the fact that the primer has aired his concerns about NAB while addressing his party workers.
That the Premier has developed serious reservations with NAB is quite clear, but going public on the issue is certainly something odd and was below his status. Being the chief executive of the country certainly authorizes him to find a constitutional way to address the same. Does he want to change the mandate of the NAB or clip the powers of its officials? It is what he can do and he can imagine a whole political lot on his back.
The PPP, the second largest political party in the centre controlling Senate, is already grumbling, for many of its important members are under investigation by the anti-corruption agency. The same is the case with the MQM. So if the PML-N requires amendment in the NAB ordinance, it is theoretically possible. Now the situation seems to be entirely odd, if not naïve, if one sees the recent posture of the NAB, whereby it is operating as an independent authority to eradicate corruption from the country, in the context that the NAP has been set operational. Since it falls in the interest of the Centre to eradicate militancy from the country’s soil, NAB’s role becomes central.
Will centre stand on high ground and be able to bid the provinces to act responsibly. Actually, the 18th Constitutional Amendment has rendered it highly dependent on its units to move ahead on the path of progress. Law and order and socio-economic development devolved to them, the Centre has been exclusively left only with the realm of peace. The political parties, particularly the ones already confronting the ire of NAB, have found a strong voice in their favor with PML-N roaring in rage. The NAB can become under pressure, including the move to amend its mandate, on the ground that the fundamental rights of the citizens are being attacked.
The political parties may concentrate on the vast powers the NAB chief whereby he can shift cases to any accountability court in the country, get the assets of the accused freeze by initiating the case and, take up the pending cases on his sweet will. Can the political parties manipulate Parliament to amend the NAB ordinance? Apparently, they can do it. Actually the activism of the anti-corruption agency has put the future of the ruling parties at stake given the ever rising number of their stalwarts becoming its target. The post-devolution political scenario, which has titled to the advantage of the federal units, is certainly taking a U-turn and NAB is playing a pivotal role in this regard. But NAB is the institution, other than the Judiciary, whose independence is the hallmark of the whole devolution exercise done in 2010.
Information gathering and production of evidences of corruption is just one part of the story, establishing linkage between mega-corruption and militancy the other. Information leaked through vibrant media can damage the political parties in question more than they can imagine. Whether the ruling parties like it or not, the fact of the matter is that the all powerful NAB chief has become a linchpin in the completion of the NAP agenda. It is, ultimately, not the political parties but the political system that accommodates contradictions and tolerates corruption, which is ultimately going to be a subject of change.
It is up to civilian leadership to sense which way the winds of change are blowing. There is going to be a contest between prudence and politics at the end of the day. However, there is a little hint which even those blessed with common sense can pick easily. The rules of the game following 18th Constitutional Amendment equally entice them to do away with the vast powers of the NAB. But, at the same time, the body is as untouchable as judiciary. Its independence is as necessary for the uplift of Pakistan as the supremacy of Parliament or provincial autonomy.
— The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.