What's good for democracy can be bad for stability

America Abroad
nawaz sharif

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Roberto Schmidt

When news stories about offshore tax schemes from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) started appearing, more than 500 Indians were identified as having illegal companies in tax havens overseas, but reactions in India were fairly muted. Across the border in Pakistan, though, reactions were vastly different. 

The stories broke in April 2016 and, within days, protests against the erstwhile prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, rocked the nation. Rallies and marches were held across Pakistan, in markets, streets, during cricket matches, as well as in London and New York City. There was even a song urging him to go — saying that in every street and every lane, the news had spread that Sharif, whose name translates to “noble” ... was a thief. 

Then the furore died down and other issues hogged the headlines. And it may have blown away entirely, says Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee, a research fellow who focuses on Pakistan at the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi, except for a widening rift between the military and civilian leadership. The military in Pakistan enjoys more autonomy than in most democracies; since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, the country has spent more than three decades under military rule, off and on. 

Part of the problem was linked to US foreign policy, says Bhattacharjee. President Donald Trump sought a bigger role for India in Afghanistan, excluding Pakistan. This “was seen to be a major failure of the civilian leadership in steering a proper foreign policy of the country.” Plus there was economic fallout.

“Then came the big blow of the falling investments of China, where China started backing out [of funding] projects in the Pakistan China Economic Corridor. So, as usual, the Pakistani army started taking steps on their own.”

The growing mistrust of the civilian leadership, he says, led to renewed interest in ousting Sharif. Within six months, an investigative team comprising members of the judiciary and military looked into Sharif and his family’s London properties. After deliberations and hearings, the Supreme Court of Pakistan concluded that he lacked “sadiq” or honesty and “ameen” or righteousness and was, therefore, “disqualified” from holding office. 

Nawaz Sharif was unable break the jinx: No prime minister in the history of Pakistani democracy has ever completed a full term. His party stayed in power, though, and his brother took over as interim prime minister in July 2017.

But in India, the resignation created barely a ripple, and Bhattacharjee isn’t surprised. “The media did not find it attractive because the names that were coming up were so mundanely corrupt,” Bhattacharjee says, laughing. 

It could be that the Indian citizenry is apathetic. Or maybe no one was surprised: Most of the people named were repeat offenders, and very few politicians were named. It’s entirely possible, of course, that Indian politicians just chose not to launder their money. 

Plus, as Jay Mazoomdaar, an editor at the Indian Express newspaper, says, the only Indian member of the ICIJ points out, perhaps the Indian public didn’t care much because it wasn’t taxpayers’ money, it was their own money. 

Still, the speed with which the judiciary moved in Pakistan surprised many. The journalists refused to speculate on why, but Bhattacharjee has an idea: “In Pakistan, corruption is not an issue. All are corrupt. How that document is being used, what is the necessity of the document, that is important,” he says, “Panama turned out to be a mechanism, a device with which a very powerful political family can be controlled and that is exactly how it was used.”

Bhattacharjee points out that 259 Pakistani nationals were named in the Panama Papers, but nobody except the Sharifs were prosecuted so publicly. When you follow the trail of power and see who benefits, you can trace the real forces behind these unprecedented actions. 

In India, the feeling is that document leaks boost the transparency of a democracy. And whether the people have faith in due process, the finance ministry has promised it is acting on the leaks.

Ritu Sarin is an editor and investigative reporter at the Indian Express and this is the fourth document leak she’s covered. She headed the team and with the ICIJ, took the decisions on what to release and when. The Nawaz Sharif story broke on the first day of the Panama Papers report.

“I’ve been asked several times — look what’s happened in Pakistan and look what’s happening in India,” she says. “The fact is that the income tax authorities are not obliged to tell anyone, as far as the investigations are concerned. The cases will quietly go to court. And the individuals who have offshore companies will have to pay penalties. But the people need not get to know and will not get to know.”

Her colleague Mazoomdaar says that there is, of course, a fine line between serving the public interest and inadvertently compromising national security. While it's ideal to reveal corruption and hold authorities to account in a democracy, there could be concerns about possibly giving away security secrets. But, he adds that “As a thumb rule, ICIJ partners haven’t published anything that is not in public interest. All of us have been very cautious to avoid temptations of sensationalism.” 

And while he commends the media of Pakistan, he acknowledges that they have a difficult job. Pakistani journalists often self-censor because regulatory bodies monitor everything that is reported. In Sharif’s term from 2013 to 2017, 12 journalists were killed in Pakistan. As recently as November 2017, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority clamped down on TV stations that showed violence at an anti-government protest, effecting a 28-hour news blackout. 

Bhattacharjee says that document leaks have a different effect in different contexts and in Pakistan, they have made the entire region more unstable. If countries like Pakistan, which is a nuclear weapon state, go through serious phases of instability, he says, “South Asia can’t grow, India can’t grow. Serious investments from China are blocked; the gulf, Afghanistan — it’s all linked. We can’t say that this type of political instability will strengthen people further. They won’t. It depends on the country concerned.” 

In India, the leaks are seen as a good thing. Mazoomdaar is optimistic about what leaks mean for democracy.

“First it makes the system look bad if they don’t act on it.” And second, “there is no warranty for complete secrecy anymore. Anyone — however big and powerful you are — if you go somewhere and do some business with the assumption that it will stay there, you will think twice now. In the last four to five years, the number of leaks, and the growing scale of it has made everyone a little jittery and that’s another good sign.” 

In July 2017, Sharif was removed from office and just a few months after that, the ICIJ's Paradise Papers leak implicated 135 more Pakistanis in wrongdoing, including former prime minister Shaukat Aziz. Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Revenue is investigating these as well as the people named in the Panama Papers but is severely hampered by lax residency rules and a statutory time limit: It can only investigate cases less than six years old.

Aziz may not face a judicial punishment, but journalists are certain that he and others like him will not escape public scrutiny.

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