The one who is in charge
IT might have come sooner than most people expected. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has just hit out at the excesses committed by the National Accountability Bureau. Rising above his usual, tolerant tone in Bahawalpur earlier this week, he told the bureau to not harass and intimidate. On cue the Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, has reminded one and all that the prime minister had every right to talk to NAB like that. It has been reconfirmed that the prime minister is in charge. NAB has come up with its own polite response in which it has vowed to improve in the light of the new guidelines from the prime minister - but that does not quite offset the impact of the prime ministerial admonishment.
That it has been considered necessary to explain just who is the boss here would indicate some kind of progress. It may be taken as a sign that betrays diversification, even progress on the building of institutions, which are necessary to aid the establishment of democracy in the country.
It will be argued that NAB must have been doing something worthwhile to draw an angry reaction from someone who ultimately belongs to the maligned political ranks. This point alone may eagerly be cited in support of the assertion that after so much confusion and diversion we had stumbled upon the right path.
Wish things were as simple as that. As realities go the next phase might have some important people telling NAB to correct itself in line with the prime ministerial censure. One more time the advice will be for the accountability bureau to take stock and come up with pragmatic estimates of what it wants to achieve without ' unduly' pursuing some cases and courting controversy.
It will be told that it must be prepared to spare and not be entangled with some sacred souls for the greater good of the system and the people. It must be prepared to make this compromise for the greater good of everyone here.
There has certainly been some change. These days, once a government functionary has been called out by a bigger government functionary you are never sure if the two will be able to reconcile. They would disagree in the past as well, sometimes in public, but the chances of a patch-up between officials would be less today than used to be the case then. For whatever present and future possibilities it may present, there are more government functionaries in the country today who believe that they are in charge of a particular situation than was ever the case in the past.
NAB seeking to assert its role is just one instance of this growing sense of empowerment. But it cannot obviously exist all by itself. For all we know it might already be treading cautiously and might have been a bit taken aback by this criticism by Prime Minister Sharif. But given the role the modern demands cast it in, neither NAB nor any other anti-corruption bureau which wants to move under the title of 'national' can hope for a long, enduring, stable relationship with a government.
It is in the nature of democracy to keep throwing the corrupt up and out. The process and the images it generates are absolutely essential for the people to keep believing in the efficacy of the system. Following on that, it will be absolutely useless if a national and rational accountability bureau does little more than trace the corruption of those who were in power once and ignore those who are at the helm now.
For the benefit of its users, the system must be able to name and shame a few from amongst those who are in power currently. Either it does that or it exposes itself as inefficient.
The next fight then would be over the ones the party and person in power are prepared to spare for a probe by the accountability bureau and castigation by the public, which may start the moment the people get to know that an investigation is under way.
There have to be those who are more worthy of protection and defence than others who must be put on the stage for interrogation and for keeping the popular interest in the democratic set-up alive. And today, this interest cannot be sustained without the sitting government pledging names from its own ranks for investigation and persecution.
The PPP has shown by example how a party can be less agitated by the trial and persecution of a few of its members until it rises to the defence of those it must protect in all situations. The feeling may be that the PML-N's turn has come all too quickly but the shock has to be overcome fast. The ruling party must not ignore it. It must now decide who and when it wants to guard against the suspected advance of an accountability bureau that could be out to prove its worth - and which is backed by other important actors and by popular sentiment.
Ignoring the bureau's right to investigate would serve no purpose. Angrily reacting to its reach would be even more dangerous when we all know that the outrage could be saved for a later time and for individuals worthier of protection. Sooner rather than later the ruling party must be seen by the people to be offering parts of its own house for inspection, probe and action.
Those in power may be wary of an opposition party that thrives on its anticorruption slogans but at the same time they must find ways of feeding those who feel they are in full charge of the accountability process. The polite NAB response to the prime ministerial reprimand aside, the PML-N must come around to committing itself to the cleansing that all political parties must undergo from time to time.
That's where the expendable the parties always have in their ranks come in so handy.