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Editorial | Amendments To NAB Laws Expose The Hollowness Of The Accountability Drive So Far

From the perspective of the faithful, the ruling party may well have taken the Mother of All U-turns – even though some of its other recent stances have vied fiercely for that title. But this may be it. We refer here to the far-reaching changes to the scope of powers enjoyed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). This was done ostensibly keeping in view the “concerns” of the country’s business community, and in the usual manner of the ruling party, i.e. via ordinance.

The government is now looking to bring about a new set of rules for NAB: it cannot take up graft cases to the tune of less than Rs. 500 million. The period of remand is reduced to a mere 14 days from the previous 90. Inquiries, once done and dusted with, cannot be opened again. Government functionaries cannot be arrested without permission. Issues of taxation will no longer be under the accountability watchdog’s purview and its operatives can no longer issue the statements to the media for which they had attracted much notoriety.

The actually intended beneficiaries are, of course, members of the current government.

Weaponized accountability was always a double-edged sword. To pretend otherwise – through a highly selective targeting of the opposition – was debilitating to the government’s moral standing. And above all, it was but a temporary “fix”. Sooner or later, like a destructive whirlpool, this method of accountability was going to suck in the government’s own bigwigs on account of their follies and foibles. And hence, the sweeping effort to “defang” NAB, coming from the government itself.

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Nothing sums up the problem for the current rulers more than the summary sent by the law ministry to the federal cabinet. To quote it verbatim:

“Under the existing regime a number of inquiries have been initiated against the holders of public office and government servants on account of procedural lapses where no actual corruption is involved. This has enhanced NAB’s burden and has also affected working of the federal government.”

The proposed changes will be a matter of some satisfaction for members of the opposition who had been hounded via accountability drives. After all, as soon as the government realized the extent of the threat to itself, it has applied the very curbs to NAB which others had once recommended – and been roundly abused for it by media personalities and hordes of social media trolls loyal to the ruling party’s narrative.

And that brings us to the unintended beneficiaries of the defanging of NAB: the opposition. Assuming that the government still wishes to uphold the PM’s promise of “making them cry”, it will have to find creative new ways beyond NAB references, whimsical investigations and planting several kilograms of drugs on the target – for all these measures seem to have exhausted their repressive utility.

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Naya Daur