Wednesday June 19, 2024

Shooting a prime minister

By Zaigham Khan
July 17, 2017

In colonial Burma, an elephant underwent a short bout of madness, what we call mast in South Asia – it is the same word we find in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawali ‘mast qalandar’, where madness is a divine experience. The elephant had become quite calm by the time a British police officer arrived on the scene with his rifle. This officer happened to be George Orwell – the same Orwell who wrote Animal Farm and 1984, and coined the term Big Brother.

An elephant was a precious animal, perhaps it still is, integral to the native economy, so the wise thing would have been to leave it alone. However, a huge crowd had formed that expected the Sahib to shoot the elephant and the Sahib realised that under the gaze of so many eyes, he had no option but to pull the trigger.

A century later, I am part of a crowd that is waiting for the Sahib to pull the trigger. Both the crowd and the Sahib appear convinced that the spectacle must reach its logical conclusion. While partisan supporters of opposition parties, particularly the PTI, are going crazy with expectation, many respected independent analysts also feel convinced by materials contained in ten volumes of the Joint Investigation Team’s (JIT) report. “The JIT report has, in effect, decimated every documented evidence and undocumented argument of innocence that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his close family members had been employing to cast themselves in roles beyond even a shadow of suspicion.” wrote M Ziauddin.

Frankly, to me the counter-arguments also appear weighty. This makes me feel like Mullah Nasruddin who had agreed both with the complainant and the respondent when he listened to their arguments one after the other and also agreed with those in the court who protested that both the parties could not be true at the same time. My heart is divided between the Sahib with the gun and the poor elephant waiting to be shot but still showing residual signs of defiance.

Like everyone else, I have seen Sharifs get richer and richer. Like any middle class person, I feel jealous of anyone who drives a bigger car or lives in a larger house. Like almost any other rich person in this country, the Sharifs made their fortunes through crony capitalism – that is not by taking risks but by mixing business and politics. Before real estate won the crown, the sugar industry was the monarch of crony capitalism. While others built sugar mills using political influence, the Sharifs used to build sugar mills at the Ittefaq Group of Industries. Contrary to the PTI narrative, they had absolutely no need to soil their hands with commissions.

The JIT report claims that Prime Minister    Nawaz Sharif and his family have amassed wealth beyond their declared sources of income. This would sound so horrible in Norway. In Pakistan, this crime can land in trouble a good 20 percent of our population who should pay taxes but do not or who pay far less than what they should pay.

Both tax evasion and money laundering are interesting terms in the Pakistani context. Only an utter fool would take his money out of Pakistan to evade taxes in the land of the pure. Pakistan is the safest place on earth to keep your ill-gotten wealth and make it grow. You can invest billions of rupees to buy hundreds of plots in a housing colony of your choice, or even better develop your own housing colony, and multiply your wealth exponentially without a mouse squeaking in protest. You can start a billion dollar retail business and the withholding tax is the only thing that will bother you, and retailers protest against this infringement on their right to not paying taxes.

The word mafia is an equally funny term in Pakistan. It is used in countries where mafia and elite are supposed to be two different and distinct categories. In Pakistan such a distinction does not exist. For two decades Pakistan remained a hub of narcotics smuggling, far surpassing Italy and most South American countries. Who were the mafia dons? We can’t identify them because they have become normalised without ever having been maligned as the mafia. Of course, two or three persons went through hardships, but that was because they were nabbed in foreign lands. Hundi and Havala went out of fashion only during Musharraf’s period because of US concerns about terror financing.

Offshore companies are formed not to dodge Pakistani tax authorities but to avoid taxes in Western countries. Both the Sharifs and Imran Khan made their companies for the same purpose – to avoid taxes in Britain. The Sharifs are in trouble because some of their children decided to settle abroad and could not avoid scrutiny. It does not surprise us that it is the London flats that are on trial and not the Raiwind estate.

What amazes me is not the wealth of the Sharifs but their poverty. What they have to show for three decades of corruption and seven decades of business are merely four flats that are hardly worth as much as the Bani Gala estate of Mr Clean. We know that Mr Clean has done nothing other than playing cricket and the Sharifs have done nothing other than making money.

The Sharifs are supposed to be billionaires and one billion has one thousand million in it. Yet the scandalous news in The Guardian reads like this: “The children of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, raised a GBP7 million loan from Deutsche Bank against four flats in Park Lane in         London          owned by offshore companies.” GBP7 million! That’s like me borrowing five hundred rupees from my neighbour.  Where has all of their wealth gone? Have the boys burnt it at casinos? Those who want to harm the Sharifs should highlight their poverty and I am sure most N Wallahs will leave them in disgust.

Heads should roll and the system should be cleaned. However, only errant elephants can be shot through extraordinary mechanism – Article 184 (3), Articles 62-63 and JITs. Politicians throw them at each other like children playing with boomerangs. They end up slitting their own throats. Last time, when Gilani was hunted, Nawaz Sharif was the cheerleader for the Sahib. Today, it is Imran Khan. Imagine, Imran Khan playing with Article 62-63. Don’t tell me the word paternity does not ring in your head while reading these lines?

There is a silent consensus amongst the political class that they will not establish an above-board system of accountability because it goes against their class interests. The most neglected department in the revolutionary KP is the Accountability Commission. Oh yes, in the land ruled by Accountability Khan himself. They won’t do anything to ensure that no one can avoid the tax net. Such measures can make our economy grow. Hunting elephants plays havoc with it.

The revolution is round the corner. With new warriors like Mustafa Khar of My Feudal Lord, Babar Awan of the University      of Monticello and Irfanullah Marwat of you know what, the vanguard of revolution in Pakistan’s animals farm has already started resembling the cruel humans against whom the uprising is taking place. And this is before Imran Khan has got his chance to wear his sherwani. The crowd can rest assured that they will not have to wait long for the next spectacle.

PS: According to Umar Cheema, in 2014, the Supreme Judicial Council appointed 12 high court judges. Seven of them hadn’t paid any tax, one was without an NTN and four paid negligible taxes.


The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan