ASSETS have become a four-letter word in Pakistani politics. Let talk begin of the ‘assets’ of anyone well known, especially in politics, and chances are it will not end well — or ever end.

From a prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) to a judge (Qazi Faez Isa) to a former military man (Asim Saleem Bajwa), they have all been accused of hiding their wealth and because it was not made public it is assumed that it was illegally gotten.

But what is even more fascinating is the reaction to these allegations made public. Our ability to buy them or reject them is directly linked to our political affiliation and not to the ‘facts’ made public. And because it’s a matter of belief, the ‘faith’ is rarely shaken, regardless of what follows. Be it the case of the former prime minister or the current judge, or present cabinet members, political beliefs decide which side of the issue we will land on and stay, no matter what transpires later.

Is this because of the polarisation in our politics? Partly, this is so for our national political scene is rather Manichean these days and everything is either to be accepted for all its goodness or rejected entirely for being evil. Shades of grey are old-fashioned, even if the book so titled proved rather popular. In our part of the world, for those who follow politics closely, it’s black and it’s white, as Michael Jackson once crooned.

And, therefore, wealth is accepted or its accumulation deemed acceptable, or otherwise because of who the owner is. And not the size or origins of the wealth. Facts have never been less important.

But this, too, is only part of the story.

Another part of it is linked to the undocumented nature of the economy. Chances are that most of those who are well known and wealthy have riches they can’t explain because of the manner in which businesses and people in Pakistan operate; figures are fudged and income tax evaded. And this is helped along by the law which says any ‘remittance’ from abroad will not be questioned. It is one of our, many, open secrets that unaccounted money is sent abroad through illegal means and then sent back through banking channels. And once this is done, the money is legit, till a fuss is kicked up for reasons other than the law and taxes. Such transactions would be found in many a bank account of the rich and the famous.

And the second issue here is of the breakdown of our institutions. Be it the FBR or investigative agencies such as the FIA which should be looking into these matters and determining the facts, none of them is capable of doing this. The organisations are so compromised that their inquiries and decisions lead to no closure.

As a result, scandals or allegations turn into a never-ending soap. Take the case of Nawaz Sharif — from Hudaibiya to Panama to the JIT to the NAB courts, it’s a story spanning decades and yet nothing is settled or resolved. Neither the details and reality of the ‘wrongs’ nor if they were really committed — those who believe in his innocence or his guilt do so by ignoring the actions and the findings of the state institutions, which in turn will declare him innocent or guilty, depending on the times and the political environment.

Hence, a case will be closed by the courts and in retrospect the decision will seem shady. Investigations will go on for years without anyone ever hearing anything and then suddenly they will move at breakneck speed and evidence will pile up faster than it is consumed. It is all, always, part of a game and rarely ever due to an institution doing its job.

This perhaps is the most worrying aspect. For without stronger institutions, none of these problems will ever addressed. After all, Pakistan is not the only country where the powerful are able to influence the system; it happens elsewhere also. But at some stage, the allegations or the scandal is big enough for the institutions to ignore all pressure and just do their job. The Epstein or Weinstein convictions are a case in point. And this is essential if people are to still have some level of trust in the state.

But this is never our goal. Because for everyone involved, it’s easier to keep NAB or FIA or even the trial courts so compromised that either accountability can be avoided or used for political ends. And this is true of the politicians as well as the establishment. And unfortunately, if there is any unspoken consensus between the two at the moment, it is to not address the larger systemic problems; instead, it’s to continue manipulating the system for political ends.

And sadly, the rest of us have become part of the game. We, too, now want a general or a politician or a judge to be held accountable. For some the politician is more accountable because he is elected to office by the people; for others, a general should be because politicians have already offered themselves up for accountability and paid a ‘heavy price’ more than once; and others still, a judge providing answers will ensure the fairness of the system. But no one seems interested in demanding stronger, more independent institutions which would do due diligence away from the public glare and also ensure that a scandal or an allegation is put to bed, one way or the other. However, in our part of the world, this is such a boring approach. And it doesn’t allow us to beat our chest and announce our patriotic or liberal credentials. Grey, after all, is a four-letter word.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2020

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