Accountability of the rich and mighty

If Pakistan has to emerge from the prevailing mess, accountability of all and democratisation of political parties is a must

Accountability of the rich and mighty

The story in The News of September 4, 2015, Policymakers also benefit from foreign remittances, is shocking and loathsome. It reflects sadly on the behaviour and character of our businessmen-turned-political class.

According to the story, a public officeholder with the status of Minister of State, acting as Adviser to Prime Minister on Revenue, is seeking refuge under the infamous Protection of Economic Reforms Act, 1992 ("the Act") in respect of a huge inward remittance of Rs700 million for not disclosing its source. When his own tax affairs are dubious and questionable, is he left with any moral authority to ask Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to take tax evaders to task? Did he declare this amount in his declaration(s) before the Election Commission of Pakistan and in wealth statement(s) mandatory under the income tax law? Non-disclosure of the source of remittance in question, by a public office is a serious matter.

The immunity from probe available under the 1992 was withdrawn with effect from December 16, 1999 vide Protection of Economic Reforms (Amendment) Ordinance, 1999. Even otherwise, the said immunity was for investigation under tax laws and has nothing to do with provisions related to money laundering or disqualification of a public officeholder on account of corruption and/or any other malpractice. It is, thus, obvious that the worthy Adviser to Prime Minister is unaware of the correct position of laws of the land.

The narration in the story that "….the Act prohibits questioning the source of remittance" is factually incorrect. The amended position of the Act clearly provides that no immunity shall be available with effect from December 16, 1999. In view of this, the claim of the worthy Adviser that "I can tell anything NAB wants but they should change the rules," is untenable in law.

An adviser to Prime Minister, once MPA and Senator, oblivious of the existing position of law, is liable to be dismissed from the post and banned from politics. His appointment also exposes the tall claims of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) that "we select men of integrity for important posts." Will National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and FBR take action against a wealthy man, son of ex-general, who was hero of Afghan war, accused of minting millions in arm deals -- the real source of family fortune.

Adviser on Revenue virtually controls FBR, so the possibility of any action against him by this agency is completely ousted. As regards NAB, it has a proven record of inaction when mighty military men or their relatives are involved. This is the real tragedy of today’s Pakistan -- the institutions meant to check corruption and plundering of national wealth are captive in the hands of the rich and mighty while politics is the handmaid of those having money power.

It is thus understandable why there is formidable resistance from politicians against establishment of an independent accountability authority in Pakistan as they know that such a body would expose their corruption and end their control over the State. If Pakistan has to emerge from the prevailing mess, accountability of all and democratisation of political parties is a must. Political life of an individual requires that he complies with all laws of the land. If a politician does not pay his taxes honestly then how can he expect the man on the street to do the same?

We have many laws for disclosure of assets and liabilities by civil servants, holders of public offices, members of assemblies etc. The military hierarchy and judges claim to have a "foolproof internal system" for checking declarations of assets and liabilities. Rarely anybody is prosecuted for corruption in these institutions, giving an impression that financial integrity is not an issue with these powerful segments of society. As far as the general public is concerned, assets owned by generals, judges and high-ranking civil servants remain secret. This is not the case with elected representatives as their assets are notified by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Rule 4 of the Political Parties Rules, 2002, requires that "every political party shall maintain its accounts in the manner set out in Form-I indicating its income and expenditure, sources of funds, assets and liabilities and shall, within 60 days from the close of each financial year (July-June), submit to the Election Commission a consolidated statement of accounts of the party audited by a chartered accountant, accompanied by a certificate, duly signed by the party leader to the effect that no funds from any source prohibited under the order were received by the party and that the statement contains an accurate financial position of the party."

Section 42A of the Representation of People Act, 1976 and Section 25A of the Senate (Election) Act, 1975, make it mandatory for the elected representatives to file in the prescribed manner details of their assets and liabilities on the closing date of each financial year; failure to fulfill this obligation leads to disqualification, but Election Commission has no power to investigate the veracity and sources of assets submitted to it.

Section 116 of Income Tax Ordinance, 2001 also requires filing of wealth statements and declarations of personal expenses in the prescribed manner for all individuals whose last assessed or declared income is one million rupees or more. It means that all persons in the service of Pakistan, holding public offices and elected representatives having this threshold of income must have filed wealth statements conforming to their declaration of assets and liabilities filed under the laws mentioned above. There is an urgent need to verify these assets and liabilities through parliamentary control by constituting a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Asset Disclosures and Investigation.

The FBR should be obliged by law to convey to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Asset Disclosures and Investigation, all declarations filed by persons in the service of Pakistan, holding public offices and elected representatives. The Committee can compare declarations filed under the Civil Servants Act, 1973, Army Act, 1952 and related rules, Representation of People Act, 1976, the Senate (Election) Act, 1975, Rule 4 of the Political Parties Rules, 2002, with those filed under the Income Tax Law. In case of any discrepancies or complaint of suppression and concealment, the Committee can ask the FBR, NAB, FIA and military authorities, as the case may be, to take action under the law.

The starting point for across-the-board accountability in Pakistan should be the scrutiny of the declaration of assets, liabilities and taxes paid by politicians, high-ranking civil and military officials and judges. The civil society and media should come forward to force Parliament to abolish all laws relating to secrecy and/or immunity and enact a comprehensive legislation for obtaining information by any citizen under Freedom of Information Law that alone can pave the way for bona fide democracy and accountability.

Information about the assets of close relatives and dependents is equally important in our context as most of the assets are kept in their names. An affidavit should also be mandatory to the effect that no asset has been kept as benami (namesake). The right to information is now fundamental right under Article 19A of the Constitution of Pakistan. The accountability of powerful segments of society should be initiated through a law of confiscation of assets created from untaxed sources. This step would deprive the rich and mighty from the notorious money power -- enormous wealth amassed without filing tax declarations under the law.

Accountability of the rich and mighty