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The poverty of wealth

In a country that is impoverished in many more ways than one, there has been talk this week about the wealth that its political leaders possess. But much like the politics they practise, there appears to be a lot of deception about how they file their tax returns.

This is obviously a reference to the seventh tax directory of parliamentarians, released on Monday for the tax year 2019 by Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin. This has come after a delay of more than two years. The directories for tax years 2020 and 2021 are still pending.

It has been noted that the PTI government had released the 2018 tax directory in September 2020, nearly two years late. It is also interesting that while the precedent is to issue the parliamentarians’ tax directory in the month of March, this week’s announcement has come at a time when a controversial ‘mini-budget’ is being debated in parliament.

As for the revelations made this week, there is a sense of business as usual. Or more of the same, including the usual suspects not filing their returns at all. But there is one very dramatic, even magical, example of how the fortunes of one member of the National Assembly changed in one year. And this person is no one else but the prime minister of Pakistan.

Let me just quote the intro of one published report on the tax directory: “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first year in office saw his income tax payment surge from Rs282,449 in the tax year 2018 to Rs9.85 million in 2019, while Opposition Leader Shehbaz Sharif’s tax payments declined during the same period”.

Now, there are bound to be explanations about what this means. So, I would not expound further on this newsy nugget. Besides, we know that with some rare exceptions, income tax payments have little bearing on the incomes that are made.

Some transgressions are taken for granted. For instance, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has set a bar on expenses incurred on the election campaign of a candidate for the provincial or national assemblies. It is Rs4 million for the NA seat. Everyone knows that the submission of accounts to the ECP are perfunctory in nature.

Also this week, on Tuesday, a report compiled by the scrutiny committee of ECP revealed that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had received funding from foreign nationals and companies, had under-reported funds, and concealed dozens of its bank accounts. The report also mentioned a refusal by the party to divulge details of large transactions.

This was evidently a damning judgment on how the PTI had been raising funds and managing its accounts. The scrutiny committee was formed in March 2018 to scrutinise PTI accounts, but it took almost four years for the report to be submitted to the ECP in December 2021. A petition against the PTI’s foreign funding was filed by the founding member of the party, Akber S Babar, in 2014. The next hearing will now be held on January 18.

While we wait for the ECP’s final verdict on the report, it is fair to conclude that there is no transparency in how political parties collect, manage and invest their funds. This would naturally raise doubts about how special interests or individual donors could influence the process of governance, undermining citizens’ trust in how a government functions.

Now, Imran Khan has professedly mobilised all his resources in his battle against corruption, with a specific focus on the previous regimes of the PML-N and PPP. But facts that emerge in successive reports and analyses confirm that it is the entire ruling elite that has nurtured corruption for its own benefit. In fact, the politicians are only partners in the crime.

I am reminded of the Supreme Court’s verdict against the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in the Panama Papers case in April 2017. There was that famous quote from Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather’: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime”.

Written by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the judgment said: “The fortune amassed by respondent No 1 is indeed huge and no plausible or satisfactory explanation has been advanced in that regard. Honore de Balzac may after all be right when he said that behind every great fortune for which one is at a loss to account there is a crime”.

It would be instructive for any judicious and perceptive observer to look around the entire political landscape and identify individuals or families that have made great fortune. The tax directory of the parliamentarians may be a point of reference in this inquiry. More relevant would be the names of Pakistani citizens found in the Panama Papers leaked in 2016 and in the more extensive Pandora Papers that were released in October last year.

The Pandora Papers constituted major research into the financial holdings of high-profile figures around the world. Individuals spanning the entire Pakistani elite were also named in the Pandora Papers, including a few members of Imran Khan’s federal cabinet. But what came out of those revelations?

I have sometimes recommended a visit to certain locations to those who wish to figure out the reality of Pakistan. Among my choices are the lower courts in, say, Karachi, a public hospital in a big city and a police station in a small town. It would also be useful to walk on crowded streets and read the faces of ordinary people. A ride on the roof of a minibus in Karachi would also give you an insight into lives lived in the lower depths of this society.

But there is also an entirely different itinerary to explore the heart of our darkness – and it is paved with a show of glitter and opulence. Drive around all the expansive phases of posh societies and housing ‘authorities’ in Karachi, including the ones that are being developed. Spend some time exploring the sights. And think: where has all this wealth come from? Was Balzac right in suggesting that behind every great fortune there is a crime?

Ghazi Salahuddin, "The poverty of wealth," The News. 2022-01-09.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Political landscape , Corruption , Parliamentarians , Leadership , Nawaz Sharif , Shaukat Tarin , Pakistan , ECP , PTI