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Saturday July 20, 2024

The Toshakhana’s moral vacuum

By I Hussain
May 03, 2023

Now that the Toshakhana record for the period 2002-2022 is in the public domain, we can see how morally questionable the rules were that allowed our leaders to keep gifts they received from foreign governments at a fraction of their appraised value. To begin with, these rules disregarded the obvious conflicts of interests inherent in receiving expensive gifts when dealing with foreign governments.

Let’s examine the facts. Former president Gen Pervez Musharraf received gifts worth Rs77.4 million and paid only Rs5.5 million (7.1 per cent of the valuation). None of these gifts were auctioned or deposited in the Toshakhana. Former prime minister Jamali received gifts worth Rs3.7 million and paid only Rs0.5 million (14 per cent of their value). He kept all items, except for a model of the Kaaba valued at Rs50,000, which was displayed at the Prime Minister’s House.

Former prime minister Shaukat Aziz received gifts valued at Rs67. 2 million and paid Rs2.8 million (4.0 per cent of total value), but only gave back or auctioned Rs5.1 million worth of gifts, leaving him with a net benefit of Rs59.3 million. However, it should be noted that both Musharraf and Aziz received a high-end Lexus SUV each in 2006 which they declared but did not hand over to the state. (The vehicle’s value has not been assessed in the Toshakhana’s record, but for the purposes of calculation of net monetary benefit accrued by them it has been set at Rs40 million, on the basis that Asif Ali Zardari received the same Lexus model in 2009, which has been valued at Rs50 million).

As for former president Zardari, he received gifts worth Rs143.4 million for which he paid Rs21.5 million (15 per cent of the value of the items received). This included two top-of-the-line BMW cars and one armored Lexus SUV. None of the items were given to the state or auctioned by Zardari.

Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani received Rs6.1 million in gifts from his trips abroad for which he and his relatives/’guests’ paid Rs0.9 million (15 per cent of value). The crassness of taking ‘guests’ along on a foreign tour when Gilani himself was a guest was obviously lost on him. Gilani and his relatives/’guests’ retained all their gifts after paying the discounted price.

Former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was in office for less than a year and received Rs1.5 million in gifts for which he paid Rs0.3 million (20 per cent of the valuation). All the gifts were retained.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif received gifts assessed at Rs144.1 million for which he paid Rs24.4 million (17 per cent of the valuation). This includes an unspecified model of a Mercedes Benz car which has been valued at Rs42.6 million and a Rolex watch and a pair of cufflinks given to his son Hussain Nawaz. Sharif returned or auctioned Rs0.2 million worth of gifts.

The top position in the Toshakhana’s list of beneficiaries in terms of value received is occupied by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who, along with his wife, children, and children’s spouses, received a staggering sum of Rs244.2 million for which he paid Rs48.7 million (20 per cent of the value received). All of the gifts were retained by Abbasi and his coterie of relatives. For Abbasi, who held the prime minister’s position for 303 days after Sharif’s disqualification, this translates into a daily net benefit (value of gifts received minus amount paid) of Rs645,000 – a king’s ransom by Pakistan’s standards.

Imran Khan benefited from receiving gifts worth Rs146.6 million for which he paid Rs36.6 million (25 per cent of their stipulated worth). Khan also gave back to the state or auctioned Rs6 million worth of gifts received. Khan has been accused by the current government of illegally profiting from the sale of gifts that should have been deposited in the Toshakhana. However, the record shows that he did what others in his position had done before him.

By accusing Imran Khan of malfeasance in the matter of the Toshakhana, the ruling government has unwittingly opened up a can of worms that reflects badly on the moral compass of all our leaders. To use a line from Shakespeare, it has been hoisted by its own petard.

While the gifts indicated in the Toshakhana were legal under the rules then in effect, their values and the fact that they were retained by our leaders and their friends/relatives make their acceptance morally questionable. The valuation of the gifts is itself dubious, with a silk scarf given to Musharraf valued at only $1 (Rs60) which is unlikely for a gift given to a foreign VIP.

Several issues need to be addressed in the future. The definition of gifts should be widened to include non-tangible presents from foreign governments such as an all-expenses paid vacation for any leader and his family or educational expenses to be covered for leaders’ children.

Another issue is the needlessly large delegations that accompany our politicians on their foreign visits. There are numerous instances of superfluous accompanying personnel disclosed in the Toshakhana’s record. There are personnel with titles such as deputy chief of protocol, protocol assistant, chief security officer, security officer, additional security officer, personal consultant to the prime minister, and, not least, the deliciously hybrid designation of ‘Lady Gunman’.

Foreign visits should not amount to junkets for friends and sycophants. Besides, there are Pakistan embassy officials who can carry out many of the duties much more efficiently as they are more accustomed to local conditions.

Leaders travelling abroad on official visits should use commercial airlines and not commandeer an aircraft from Pakistan International Airlines’ fast depleting fleet of airworthy planes. This should also provide a deterrent to expanding the size of the leader’s entourage which, needless to say, a country on the brink of defaulting on its foreign debts can hardly afford.

Further, gifts given in the past to friends or ‘guests’ in the leaders’ entourage should be returned to the Toshakhana. They had no moral right or reason either to tag along on official visits or to accept gifts from foreign governments.

Pakistan’s embassies should be advised that henceforth only gifts with a token value (such as rosary beads, a prayer rug, plaques) will be accepted so there should be no cause for embarrassment if, say, a diamond studded Piaget watch is declined.

More troubling is the fact that not one of our leaders thought it fitting or proper to donate the gifts they received to the earthquake victims left orphaned or homeless after Pakistan’s earthquake of 2005 nor for the cause of the oppressed Kashmiri people for whom the nation takes a day off every February. Out of the total of Rs834.2 million received by the nine heads of government mentioned above, nothing was donated to the Zakat fund or for the cause of education in this country.

It is high time that our leaders realized that they are not above the law and that the rules should not be slanted in their favour. They need to set an example of integrity and morality for the hapless people they lead. Slogans like ‘Pakistan first’ or the proclamation of an Islamic welfare state are empty words that are belied by actions that don’t match their talk. Prohibition on acceptance of all gifts except those with a token value is justified by the need to maintain a sense of propriety in public life.

The writer is a group director at the Jang Group. He can be reached at: iqbal.hussain@janggroup.com.pk