THE current mood in Pakistan reflects a fractured society. Will our political leadership remain mired in confrontation? Are we reaping the harvest of hate unleashed by vendetta, bigotry, and falsehood? These questions must be answered because zeitgeist matters. Let’s start with the direction set by the rulers. The PTI government’s 100-day performance was announced with great fanfare at a function where platitudes and self-praise obscured the vision and priorities required to reflect the direction the prime minister has set as a tireless leader. He is expected to change the culture of governance through transparency and accountability.
Credit is due to a former civil servant and current adviser on institutional reform who admitted that the government could ‘complete’ only 18 out of 34 ‘deliverables’.
The prime minister’s Nov 29 address demonstrated good intentions. There is no doubt he aims to build a welfare state based on socioeconomic justice. However, translating his desires into reality depend on sound advice, legislative reforms and political forces abandoning the collision course they have embarked on. Sagacity in parliament is essential.
Turning wishes into reality depends on sound advice, legal reforms and abandoning the collision course. The prime minister’s contempt for the corrupt was evident in the priority he attaches to fighting corruption, though his criticism of NAB appeared odd. If the accountability body investigates key figures of the opposition, the treasury benches applaud. But if NAB investigates or arrests bureaucrats or expands its net to government institutions and functionaries, the chief executive expresses his frustration with an air of resignation that he cannot do anything against the ‘independent’ body. In fact, he and parliament can do much to make NAB truly independent, impartial and professional. Here are a few suggestions.
First, recalling some significant Supreme Court verdicts, the selection of the NAB chairman must be made more transparent and merit-based as he or she should be nominated by the president in consultation with (and after the consensus of) the prime minister, opposition leader and the Supreme Court chief justice. The appointment may take effect after a simple Senate majority endorses the nomination. Second, the unbridled powers of arrest, the sole prerogative of the NAB chairman, must be exercised jointly by the chairman, prosecutor general, and director general of the concerned zone.
Third, the 90-day custody limit should be reduced to 30 days. Preferably, no suspect or accused linked to white-collar crime should be arrested without solid evidence, and arrest warrants should be obtained from a court of competent jurisdiction. The suspects or accused can be put on the Exit Control List or their travel documents be confiscated. If a reference is not filed by NAB after the custody period, the accused should be entitled to bail subject to reasonable surety.
Fourth, if the trial is not completed within the mandatory 30 days, the accused should be released on bail. However, it is reasonable to extend the trial period to 60 days.
Fifth, the voluntary return of plundered wealth or the practice of plea bargain must be revisited as they have led to a perception that such provisions allow influential individuals to get away leniently, while the axe falls on the less culpable.
Sixth, a low conviction rate in NAB cases reflects a serious flaw in the justice system, where there’s more focus on arrests and prosecutions than quality investigations, and few but solid cases going to court.
And last, many corruption cases fall within the mandate of the FIA and anti-corruption establishments. NAB should focus its attention on mega scams and institutional corruption that undermine the values of public service.
It is heartening that the prime minister has created an assets recovery unit in his secretariat. Mutual legal assistance agreements have been signed with over 26 countries to share information about wealth stashed in foreign lands. Reportedly, the FIA has identified undeclared wealth or accounts abroad to the tune of $11 billion. Whether all these are fake accounts or illegally transferred wealth would require professional probes. The FIA is led by a professional command that will hopefully not be linked to a perceived witch-hunt. Past governments have misused the FIA’s mandate, and there is a need to avoid a rush of blood and to carry out investigations with utmost integrity. For the anti-money laundering regime to be recognised internationally, parliamentary legislation is needed, and not presidential ordinances.
In the context of security, the rule of law and governance, the prime minister has prudently opted to delve deeper into such vital issues and come up with a national security structure with the consensus of all stakeholders, including the provincial governments. A decision has also been taken to revamp the counterterrorism National Action Plan that was launched in 2015 and obtain cabinet-level re-validation of the recent National Internal Security Policy (2018-23).
Excessive focus on the militarisation of internal security coupled with the complexity of the justice system — multiple institutions, systems and processes — has meant that the pace of reform, and its impact on ordinary citizens, has been slow to date. There is an opportunity now to realise the NISP’s potential and deliver on two key pillars of the government’s agenda — ‘enhance national security’ and ‘revolutionise access to justice for all’.
The NISP defines not only a strategic framework for reform, but also a prioritised action plan, and sets out timelines, institutional responsibilities, and indicators to measure progress. It builds on challenges faced over the last five years, but critically also gives the current government a head start on the problem diagnosis and identification of issues that need to be tackled urgently to effect change. As all the four provinces have recently finalised their five-year Rule of Law Roadmaps, a collective consensus needs to be harnessed right now between the federation and all the provinces to promote rule of law and good governance across the board.
In order to realise this vision, egos will have to be set aside and replaced by the spirit of humility, grace, dignity and farsightedness so that peace, progress and prosperity is achieved for the bright future of our nation. Indeed, zeitgeist matters.