Most of Pakistan is currently polarized in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s controversial Panama verdict. The socio-political dynamics unleashed by what the pro PML-N denounce as an (establishment-sponsored) judicial coup seem to have galvanized almost all key political stakeholders, including the chief provocateur, the PTI chairman Imran Khan.
The sleazy barrage of accusations (read Aysha Gulalai) and the flood of federal and Punjab government commercials on both the print and electronic media as well as the narrative doing rounds invariably reminds me of two anecdotes. These offer a good explanation on the mindset behind our political economy and also highlights why and how the politics of patronage, permits, plots and loan-write-offs took the economy down a disastrous path.
One of the anecdotes relates to the late Ardeshir Cowasjee, an extremely selfless human being, prolific writer/columnist for a national newspaper and a fearless critic of Pakistan’s civilian and military elites.
Sometime in the earlier part of Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure (1997-1999), we met at the Islamabad residence of veteran politician couple Begum Abida Hussein and Fakhr Imam.
Over lunch Cowasjee shared with us his recent meeting with the Sharif brothers. I flew from Karachi for the meeting at the Prime Minister’s House where they offered me the governor ship of the Sindh province.
“We value your greatly and think you deserve a place like the Governor’s House in Karachi to guide us,” Cowasjee recalled. Despite repeated requests, Cowasjee, who owned a shipping company, politely declined the offer. I have no temperament for such a position.
Once both brothers saw their effort going a miss, Shahbaz Sharif jumped into the conversation.
“How is your company doing these days,” Shahbaz asked. It’s a small company. Business conditions are not ideal but is doing fine, Cowasjee responded. Oh I see, but why don’t you secure a loan from the bank, we can help you with that, came the prompt offer from Shahbaz.
“Oh now thank you, how would I return that loan if the business doesn’t pick up,” an uncomfortable Cowasjee responded.
Then came the thunderbolt from the younger Sharif; why worry about repaying the loan, who has asked you to return the loan, Shabaz said reassuring Cowasjee of his unflinching support on the financial front. But Cowasjee turned down this bait too, excused himself and drove out of the PM’s palace.
He narrated this incident in the presence of Begum Abida Hussein and her spouse Fakhar Imam sahib, leaving us all conjecturing how the Sharif empire had doubled, if not quadrupled, between 1990, when the elder Sharif rode into federal power for the first time, and October 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf brought an abrupt end to his second tenure.
This was just one glimpse of the politics of patronage that politicians like Sharifs and Zardari deployed to win over, silence or neutralize opposition — a buy, bully or befriend approach that exists today in a much more blatant way. A couple of years later — on 23 July 2000 to be precise — we witnessed an Accountability Court at the Attock Fort on the Indus, sentence Nawaz Sharif to 14 years of ‘rigorous imprisonment’ for failing to pay tax on a £600,000 Russian Mi-8 helicopter which he leased and then bought in October 1993 and used for electioneering.
The ministry of information had taken us journalists to witness the trial conclusion. After the ruling, I asked Nawaz Sharif whether he had any regrets, he said: I have no regrets, I bought the helicopter with my own money.
Regardless of the motives of Musharraf’s coup and the cases against him, Sharif basically displayed no remorse for having evaded taxes that were due on the money spent on the Mi-8 chopper (which I also once flew with Sharif on his election trail). The paltry sums of income taxes that the family paid in the 1980s and the 1990s bore testimony to the propensity to conceal income and evade or avoid taxes, while their finance minister hunted small and medium private businessmen to cough up exorbitant taxes.
Another encounter with Ishaq Dar, sometime in 1999 also sheds considerable light on the elite’s self-righteous and self-serving mindset that relies on evasion, subsidies and rebates as a tool of enrichment.
During a press conference at the Planning Commission some time before the annual budget, Dar was bragging about having exported half a million ton surplus sugar to India.
“We also paid a rebate of Rs 5000 per ton to the exporting sugar mills,” Dar said.
Would you please name the sugar mills that received the bulk of this rebate, I asked.
As if I had touched a raw nerve, Dar instantly flared up and lunged into a furious response.
Are you suggesting we paid the rebate to our sugar mills, he hit back at me. But then one of his deputies calmed him down to conclude the press conference.
These three anecdotes perhaps offer a glimpse into the mindset that rules this country. The current polarization is also rooted in this way of thinking of the elites. And there has to be an end to it — whether its theft of national resource, tax evasion, subsidies, or financial appropriation in favor of cronies. In his latest article for a national daily, Sakib Shirani, a well-known economist, too, attempts to address the same issue.
“The military conspiracy argument ignores the elephant in the room — the presence of unexplained and undeclared assets whose ownership the ruling family accepted in court, the Sharifs have been caught out by their massive unexplained aggrandizement of assets coinciding with their long stint in public office. As for the technicality, one wonders if we would bemoan Al Capone’s conviction because he was nabbed on tax evasion and not for his real crimes — murder, extortion, racketeering etc.”
“…… the July 28 ruling by the Supreme Court is a huge step forward. We need to build on this by strengthening judicial processes and ensuring accountability and enforcement of rule of law in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner for all segments of society. This cause is not helped, however, by exhibiting intellectual dishonesty and not being able to call out a wrong that has been so evidently committed. The elite needs to develop loyalty to higher principles, not a self-serving one to individuals in power,” concludes Sherani befittingly.
After all, we have to begin thinking like Pakistanis, instead of supporters or opponents of this or that politician. Accountability and compliance to rule of law probably should be our yardstick for this support of opposition, instead of looking it through the eyes of the incumbent elites.
The writer is Editor, Strategic Affairs, and also heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and author of Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbu Tahrir’s Global Caliphate. Can be reached at Imtiaz@crss.pk
This article first appeared in Daily Times. Click here to go to the original.