By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

               SETTING aside the particularities of NAB and the context of specific tenures and incumbents, what does ‘accountable’ connote more generally? Housewives for instance take accounts/hisab daily: How much money was spent on the alu, matar, daal; is it actually the weight and price charged? Double-check! If there are discrepancies who is cheating or being fooled? The cook? His favourite sabziwalla? Are they in cahoots? If the cook is to blame he is replaced, and possibly the grocer and butcher as well: produce at another shop is the same price and better quality. Punishment and investigation are linked to forestalling recurrence.  

          What if a negligent housewife suddenly wakes up and finds she has been cheated by a series of cooks over years of poorly supervised housekeeping?

She could rush out to nab the one who began the inglorious tradition and the many others who followed and advanced it. But if the goal is good housekeeping rather than an emotionally satisfying chefs-retro accusatory showdown, she sacks the present cheat of a cook, finds a new one and keeps a sharp eye on him: making him accountable within the ongoing continuous process of home management. For accountability derives meaning and relevance as an ongoing process. Recovery of stolen goods is another story altogether and not always feasible. Sometimes, losses have to be written off with or without absolution. And any recount about the same old offenders and offences again and again eventually becomes white noise.

Turning to the context of national public and political accountability and punishment: Accountability of PPP and PML-N offenders, as the PTI likes to remind us (when not claiming credit for awakening the public to the cancer of political corruption) is nothing new. Nor were the major cases those parties’ leaders are facing today instituted by the present PTI government. Undeniably, accountability as pursued by the PPP and PML-N turn by turn was, motivationally, a witch-hunt. Its focus was on party prevalence and self-exoneration. It is too early to say the PTI adheres to the precept of self-exoneration, but there is more than a whiff of self-interest in its leader’s clamorous pursuit of the accountability process. It seems as if the prime purpose is to raze the former mainstream parties to the ground: Are we headed to a one-party system? Minnows that are indispensable allies in the PTI coalition are irrelevant once the two mainstream party rivals have been knocked out. Concomitantly, looming specters of economic national bankruptcy and a failed state, reinforce an argument that a rescue process of systemic reform—even such as may set aside the parliamentary system—is paramount. It is heard increasingly that a presidential system is also democratic. Pragmatists may well wonder what would happen while major constitutional reform is being debated, or demand how it would be initiated and emplaced: A forced consensus lacks durability.

There are many who argue empirically that Pakistan’s democratic process gently generates its own improvements, and without over-riding or suspending civil liberties. No matter how flawed, the system provides a structure for civil society’s attempts to safeguard human rights and promote tolerance. Apologists also point out that elected representatives within the parliament voice public opinion as to national policy and direction in a way that oligarchs and juntas cannot and would not.

In their assumption of greater wisdom, the latter might contend that scarcely matters where national survival is at stake. But the ethos of Pakistan’s origin and mutations dramatically show that accepting diversity and plurality and preserving democracy’s traditional freedoms of expression and association are indispensable. It is disquieting that the PTI has yet to function as mindful of parliament.

The PM has a massive cabinet which meets regularly; but chops and changes within that body are whimsical, and extra-parliamentary advisers seem as much a part of the cabinet’s consultative process as elected representatives. They do not yet outnumber them, but no-one knows if they outweigh them in the PM’s judgment. Inside parliament the PTI’s unease is apparent. The opposition too is increasingly rowdy, and resorting to boycotts and walkouts. But this is after their appeals for procedural formalities and sober offers for discussion, debate and consensus on national policy have been ignored.

All of this suits those who dislike the parliamentary format for government in Pakistan. When parliamentarians lack dignity of conduct and the House repeatedly degrades itself it is easier to introduce extra-parliamentary modes. In Nawaz Sharif’s last tenure, parliament was able to conduct a debate on the issue of sending troops to Yemen and insist on neutrality. It is unlikely that public opinion as to fighting or joining others’ battles on others’ soils has changed: but would parliament today have the will to initiate such debate or substance to have its spirit upheld?

That is one reason why the opposition’s move to actively demonstrate its functionality and relevance in the upper house should not be taken as cosmetic or reflective of mere pique. The reversal—or upholding—of the earlier vote that elected the senate’s chairman will tell us much about the prevailing democratic intent and direction. Thumbs up?