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|Subject : From Mehrangate to Panamagate
Like most of the entrenched evils in our society, political corruption was a gift which was institutionalised under the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. The ultimate outcome of this kind of politics was in the shape of massive corruption scandals which tarnished the name of democracy and politicians alike. Mehrangate in the 90s and the recent Panamagate are the natural outcomes of such corruption-infested polity. If one glances through the politics before the Zia era, it will be observed that most of it was issued-based, divided on ideological lines rather than clan-based, or biradari culture. This era was dominated by feudal class but Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, despite being scion of a feudal family himself, was able to break the mould. But after ensuring that Bhutto does not remain alive to challenge his dictatorship, Zia went on to take actions that changed the colour of politics in the country. He first got himself elected through a controversial referendum and then held party-less elections with the aim to defenestrate political culture.
Zia tried to lure businessmen by involving them in power structure when he held the non-party elections in 1985 and later picked a Sindhi, Muhammad Khan Junejo, for the post of Prime Minister. But Junejo, an otherwise ordinary politician with no public support, withstood Zia's machinations and refused to follow the orders. He, too, was sacked, but unlike Bhutto, at least his life was spared. Next, the establishment chose to back a business family of Lahore, headed by Mian Muhammad Sharif and his two sons, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. The elder of the two, Mian Nawaz Sharif, was the Chief Minister of Punjab when premier Junejo was sacked. After the plane crash that killed Zia ul Haq and the top military leadership in August 1988, his close confidant and then chief of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), General Hameed Gul, utilised the political cell of the agency (created under Bhutto's premiership in the 70s) to counter the surging popularity of Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, who won the first election after Zia's death in November 1988.
He helped create a cocktail of political parties under the banner of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad which was led by Mian Nawaz Sharif. He was able to undermine and eventually dethrone the Pakistan People’s Party government within 18 months of election. Benazir accused the establishment of conspiring against her party. The 1990 elections were the turning point in Pakistan’s political history. They are a case study to observe how politics and corruption were lumped together, with both establishment and politicians equally responsible. And Mehrangate was the darkest episode from this era, the most blatant example of using money for petty political interests and all of it in the name of ‘national interest’. From a Pakistani perspective, Panamagate perhaps wouldn’t have occurred if Mehrangate scandal would have led to action taken against those who had planned the conspiracy, distributed money and those who accepted it. It was a scandal in which everybody who helped formed IJI and eliminating the first PPP government were exposed yet were never punished.
Panamagate perhaps generated more interest in public because of the way it was taken up by the opposition, particularly by Imran Khan and his party but also, because it did not have the same level of sensitivity involved as that in Mehrangate. According to some reports, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) completed its investigation into the Mehrangate scandal as per Supreme Court directive by December 15 and managed to record statements from most of the individuals named in the case. It would be interesting to see if they will give clean chit to politician, leaving the entire burden and guilt on establishment. On the other hand, if report equally blames both politicians involved as well as former members of military, it will be a landmark in the history of Pakistan. The difference between the two cases is that the Panama scandal only names the people of the sitting Prime Minister’s family while the 1990 case had the entire political class and an active conspiracy involving corrupt politicians for political gains.
Mehrangate was more significant than Panama leaks, as the money was not only distributed to manipulate the election by premier intelligence agency, but also it was the first instance when the chief of that same agency confessed his active role in the conspiracy. Panama leaks case hit the headlines in April last year across the world with names of many dignitaries and politicians globally named in the files. Many of the named resigned on moral grounds but in Pakistan, only the names of Prime Minister’s family members were highlighted and the case has since dragged on in court with no end in sight. It can be said without any doubt that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government has handled the case badly. The PM’s back to back address to the nation and assembly and repeatedly changing statements, along with interviews of his children only helped to complicate the matters. Now the PM Sharif’s legal team is fighting the case before the five-member larger bench at the Supreme Court.
I have been following the Mehrangate scandal since the 90s and in all these years, I have managed to interview most of the main characters such as former Army chief Aslam Baig, former Air chief Asghar Khan, former ISI chief Lt. Gen Asad Durrani and many other known and hidden characters. However, the one person who throughout refused to talk is the former Mehran Bank chief, Yunus Habib himself. The former ISI chief Hameed Gul always defended creation of IJI in the larger ‘national interest’ but distanced himself from Mehrangate. Former PM Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, on the other hand, confirmed to me before his death that the 1990 elections were rigged but also added, “I was ditched and all my nominated candidates were defeated.” Finally, the Supreme Court of Pakistan under former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry called the 1990 election rigged. It established the money trail which was distributed to politicians belonging to IJI, as mentioned in the affidavit by General Durrani, on the directives of the then army chief. While the verdict in Panama case, whichever way it goes, will have a significant impact on future, it is just as important to reach the conclusion of Mehrangate scandal and put all those involved on trial. Failing to do so would mean the menace of corruption and conspiracy will continue to wreak havoc on our society and political system.