The wolves in Panama’s wool

June 11,2016

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Psychiatrists speak of a mental condition, a pathology, where people cannot appreciate happiness. Be it their personal or professional lives, these patients will – unconsciously but certainly – sabotage themselves when things are going well for them. A strange thirst for crises, for unhappiness.

Well, it appears that we as a nation suffer from the same dysfunction. The opening lines of a recent article in The Washington Post put it best: “Pakistanis appear to be deciding that, yet again, there is only so much good news they can handle.”

The good news that the article was referring to: the economy seems to be getting back on track. The CPEC plan is locked in on and was set to go. The electric power shortfall, though not resolved, has lessened and is, by most accounts, set to keep decreasing. Major terrorist attacks have decreased, if not disappeared; they were at a nine-year low last year. Pakistan, the Post said, “appeared to be rebounding from a miserable decade.”

That progress didn’t just emerge out of thin air. It was engendered, in part, by the political stability that the country has been seeing of late. Nearly seven decades after our creation, we’re still a nascent democracy. But the semblance of institutional stability has taken root. This government is the first democratically elected government to come to power after another democratically elected government had completed its term. Decentralist constitutional amendments had just gotten firmly in place, where even the common man on the street knew what issue to blame the provincial governments for and what issue to take up with the federal government.

It is that political stability that is on the rocks these days. Though I personally don’t hold the somewhat widespread opinion that this apple-cart is going to be upset, I can’t say that some people aren’t trying.

And who tops this list of those who are rocking the government’s boat? A gentleman who is actually in government at the moment. Imran Khan’s PTI allegedly runs the KP government. His getting the government there was a bit of a surprise, really, since his party could manage to get only 19 percent of the province’s popular vote – just a smidgen more than what they managed to get in Punjab.

So why would Imran Khan squander away this serendipitous opportunity to finally prove himself, you ask? Because he thinks what many in the province are now suspecting he thinks: the KP government is no government. It’s just a consolation prize that you’re supposed to take home and pack in a box somewhere. And this attitude of his shows in his performance: his government has shown record development budget lapses – a pretty decent yardstick for government incompetence anywhere in the world.

Though he might not have an explanation for his government’s incompetence, he has an answer to the allegation that he is conspiring against democracy: that he isn’t the one who brought up the Panama leaks issue and that it was an international leak whose reverberations have hit a huge number of countries. He cites the case of the British prime minister and, more forcefully, the Iceland prime minister. Surely, he asks, he didn’t have anything to do with that.

Well, that’s a self-servingly simplistic way of looking at things. Because those are irrelevant examples he is citing. Iceland’s case is different, because former premier Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson came on a specific election campaign ticket. Since the country had directly suffered considerably in the 2008 global financial meltdown, he had campaigned against, amongst other things, offshore accounts.

With regard to the British prime minister’s father’s offshore account: since taxes due to the UK were avoided, there was bound to be resentment against the UK’s prime minister on that account. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s children avoided British taxes. Khan seems to be awfully concerned about this loss to British revenue.

Though it seemed he was painting all offshore accounts with the same brush, he changed tack when details of his own Niazi Services emerged. No, I didn’t want to pay tax to the British government, nothing wrong with that, he pleaded to the media.

So his initial argument has been stripped down to something familiar: where did all this money come from? In effect, the argument remains the same as it had been during the Musharraf years and before. The Panama Papers have nothing to do with it.

There are many answers – because these are valid questions. The prime minister comes from a business family. The law of the land doesn’t proscribe businessmen from coming into politics. But opponents have accused them of using their influence to enrich their business interests – for example, that the metal for just about everything under the sun is contracted out to the Ittefaq Foundries (which has been shut down for 15 years now, by the way.) Opponents even begrudge them when they go into sectors like poultry that have no barriers to entry, regulatory or otherwise. There is not much by way of government contracts in poultry, but even those investments are a media talking point.

In light of all this, it is but natural for the family to shift a considerable bit of its business abroad. And while abroad, they will do what businessmen do: minimise applicable taxes. Not evade them, but minimise them.

If the public want proof and if they want this investigated, then by all means it should be. And the government is also eager for there to be an independent commission to investigate the matter. But the opposition is throwing a spanner in the works. They say they don’t like the ToRs. Not because they’re lenient on the PM – because they’re not – but because the ToRs ask questions from a large number of people, on a variety of issues – like loan write-offs.

The fact is that though the rest of the opposition, like the mature and weathered PPP, can be reasoned with, it is the newcomers to politics that one finds it difficult to have a conversation with.

The Panama Papers are just the veneer on a very old pattern that keeps rearing its head every now and then. We, as Pakistanis, need to decide between a disruption of the democratic process dressed as an exercise in accountability and the continuation of the democratic process that would strengthen institutions, leading to true, sustained and across-the-board accountability.

The writer is a former federal minister.

Twitter: sheikhwaqqas


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