Pandora Papers Unravel Imran Khan’s ‘Anti-Corruption’ Narrative

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Pandora Papers Unravel Imran Khan’s ‘Anti-Corruption’ Narrative

The Panama Papers took down Khan’s predecessor. How will his government weather the latest revelations of offshore wealth?

Pandora Papers Unravel Imran Khan’s ‘Anti-Corruption’ Narrative

Leaders and supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf headed Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan celebrate a court ruling against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, July 6, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Shakil Adil

Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to investigate the over 700 Pakistanis named in the Pandora Papers, which unveiled the offshore wealth of the global elite last Sunday. The major test of Khan’s pledge will come with regard to any action against his own allies, and indeed retired army generals, named in the leaks.

Despite being a staunch critic of past regimes — whether military regimes or quasi-democratic reigns spearheaded by the Sharif and Bhutto families — the cricketer-turned-philanthropist largely remained an outsider in Pakistani politics until the start of the previous decade. However, it was precisely this reputation as someone not a part of the system, coupled with promises of ridding Pakistan of corrupt political dynasties, that paved the way for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to make its first breakthrough, forming the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government in 2013. Khan’s criticism of the military’s corruption, political engineering, and war crimes simultaneously faded away.

Even as he became a beneficiary of the military’s puppeteering, an unforeseen triumph, described as “God-sent” by Khan himself, came in the shape of the 2016 Panama Papers, the precursor to the Pandora Leaks. The Panama Papers revealed offshore companies linked to the then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family, and Khan made investigation into the Panama Leaks his political rallying cry.

In 2017, Sharif was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court on a technicality related to the non-declaration of wages he received from his UAE-based company, following a probe by a joint investigation team (JIT) featuring members of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). With Sharif ousted, the Panama Leaks fast shifted to the backdrop. Khan was brought to power through the 2018 elections the following year.

“It was only one prime minister that was taken down by the Panama Papers. What happened to probes and investigations into the corrupt elite named in those leaks and elsewhere?” said political scientist and former Punjab chief minister Hasan Askari Rizvi, the author of “The Military and Politics in Pakistan: 1947-1997” in an interview with The Diplomat.

“Like other leaders before him, Imran Khan said things in opposition that can never be implemented when in government. Corruption cases against the elite can have ethical and political value, but legally they are difficult to prove,” Rizvi argued.

Instead of launching an all-out campaign against the misappropriation of the elite after coming to power, and addressing the legal challenges that prevent the powerful from being held accountable, Khan was seen echoing the past vitriol against the Sharif and Bhutto families, only now as the prime minister. In fact, after triumphing in the 2018 election owing to the same “electables” of the system that he had rallied against, Khan’s cabinet was brimming over with the very corrupt elite that he had built his political narrative against.

Manzoor Wattoo, among the veteran politicians who joined the PTI in 2018, told The Diplomat that like his predecessors Khan too misused accountability as a tool to target his political opponents, more so than doing anything to challenge the powerful.

“From Nawaz Sharif to Farooq Leghari to now Imran Khan, the so-called accountability has always been one-sided. The army leaders say they have their own system of accountability. The rulers of the country treat it as their kingdom, and hence put themselves above law,” Wattoo said.

A long-pending amendment is in the works to reform the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which has largely been limited to targeting opposition politicians, even more so under Imran Khan. On Thursday, the two major opposition parties – the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – rejected the NAB amendment ordinance, which continues to empower the bureau’s head, in turn directly benefitting the government.

“The government shouldn’t have anything to do with the accountability process. A neutral institution should be empowered; until then political victimization in the garb of corruption would continue,” Wattoo believes.

While the NAB has continued to launch cases against the PML-N and PPP leaderships over the past three years, major misappropriations scandals have sprung up from within Imran Khan’s own government.

Probes into last year’s wheat and sugar crises underlined how cartels created artificial shortages to hike up prices, leading to 76 billion Pakistani rupees ($445 million) worth of profits for sugar mill owners and 5.35 billion rupees ($31 million) worth of irregularities in wheat stocks.

Among those named as the chief beneficiaries of the sugar crisis was the PTI’s Secretary General Jehangir Tareen, a chief funder of the party and orchestrator of “electables” queuing up to join Imran Khan. Other beneficiaries of the sugar scandal included PTI leader Khusro Bakhtiar, the current federal minister for industries and production, and Federal Minister of Water Resources Moonis Elahi, a senior leader of the PTI’s allied Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) once dubbed by Khan as “Punjab’s biggest dacoits.”

Elahi and Bakhtiar are among prominent PTI leaders and advisors named in the Pandora Papers, which also include current Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin.

“Imran Khan has failed in the parameter that he himself set for the Panama Papers investigation: How will there be a fair investigation [over the Pandora Leaks] if the top positions are being held by those named in the leaks and their allies? Why hasn’t anyone resigned?” asked Member of National Assembly Mohsin Dawar, who has been affiliated with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, and last month launched his National Democratic Movement.

While Khan has been lambasted by his critics for his relentless spree of volte-faces since becoming the prime minister, his continued contradiction of his much advertised position on corruption, the raison d’etre of the PTI, might be a U-turn too many. Khan’s rivals hope it ends up being politically damaging for the Pakistani prime minister.

Even so, while talking to The Diplomat, Dawar maintained that the opposition won’t be able to capitalize on the Pandora Leaks.

“The opposition hasn’t been able to take up the Pandora Papers as they should. Perhaps it is because generals are named in the leaks,” said Dawar, who was among the founders of the opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement before leaving it last year.

While politicians’ corruption hogs the limelight, numerous army officers, including a former corps commander and ISI director, have been named in the Pandora Papers. These names, however, aren’t being similarly highlighted by the increasingly military-shackled media. No action was taken in the aftermath of last year’s corruption exposé against Lieutenant General (retired) Asim Bajwa, who continued to serve as the chairperson of the lucrative CPEC Authority.

Using its absolute clout over the country, the Pakistan Army has developed the country’s largest business empire. At least 50 entities affiliated with the military, worth over $20 billion, have been cited in the Senate. But they are believed to be a fraction of the actual worth of the Pakistan Army, which exercises complete control over much of Pakistan’s resources, from farmlands to budget allocations.

The corruption of the Pakistan Army, which continues to be peddled as the “custodian of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers” and a bulwark against corrupt political leaders, is an officially kept secret safeguarded by engineered civilian regimes throughout the country’s history. Imran Khan is only its latest gatekeeper.

Political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy,” doesn’t believe the army is going to be held accountable anytime soon. “[But] are the civilian leaders any better? They all extort in different ways. On plunder they will be on the same page, but will publicize the loot of others to protect themselves,” she told The Diplomat.

Siddiqa believes the duplicity on corruption might not be as damaging for Khan as the current state of Pakistan’s economy. With the Pakistani rupee reaching an all-time low against the U.S. dollar, and ominously high inflation, Khan’s vows of accountability and financial uplift are both unraveling before the masses.

“The main damage to Imran Khan will be done by the [economic crisis] and not [the Pandora Papers], as he has been cultivating his image as a good man who is not being allowed to end corruption,” says Siddiqa.

Khan is likely to push the narrative, already being peddled by his backers, that he individually is incorruptible despite the fact that he’s surrounded by figures who aren’t clean. This narrative has also been used in recent times to sell a presidential system as the political solution for Pakistan, nullifying parliamentary democracy and provincial autonomy. It is also reflected in Khan’s jibes directed toward various “mafia,” even now as the prime minister of the country.

If Khan can remain in the military leadership’s good books, he might continue to provide the quasi-democratic front for the power centers, regardless of the form they take. For, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and along with it the trillions worth of American investment, the untouchable military leadership would increasingly rely on domestic resources to run its mega empire.