Strong institutions, the last refuge of democracy

Umar Cheema
Strong institutions, the last refuge of democracy

ISLAMABAD: The PML-N government is in crisis again. Soothsayers are up to predict the outcome. TV anchors and analysts are sparing no effort to ignite the tension. Imran Khan is there to provide the ammunition and has now been joined by Tahirul Qadri.

This time, the story centres on Panama Papers. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and family have assumed the central role in this drama. Accusations are wild and grave. The allegations of loot and plunder abound. Regardless of the reality, people like to hear what they already believe. 

That the accusers and accused both own the offshore companies is a fact. Neither side is interested in accountability is yet another bitter reality. Efforts to evolve consensus on Terms of References (ToRs) for the Supreme Court-led commission of inquiry failed to make any headway. The reason was obvious. 

The PTI and other opposition parties were on get-Nawaz Sharif mission whereas the government was insistent on broadening the scope of inquiry in order to bundle all of them together in this hall of shame. It also wanted to include the beneficiaries of loan write-offs and whoever owned offshore companies, no matter named or not in Panama papers.

Let’s keep the unsubstantiated allegations aside and analyse what the documented evidences indicate. Two sons and one daughter of the prime minister have been identified in connection with as many as four companies. 

Two of them are in the names of Hassan Nawaz and Hussain Nawaz. They will likely have little to no implication for the first family if the sons of prime minister are non-tax-resident Pakistanis which appear to be the case. However, a couple of companies owned by Maryam Nawaz can lead to the disqualification of her spouse MNA, if not more, for concealing the assets abroad. Maryam Nawaz, however, claims that she is a trustee and not beneficial owner of these companies. And proving that legal requirement of declaring them in the assets declarations was fulfilled, remains a daunting challenge. 

This is also evident from the fact that the notices dispatched by the FBR have not been responded as yet which is indicative of the fact that tax advisers of the Sharif family are trying hard to figure out how to tackle with this legal challenge. 

The Sharif family claims the foreign business was done by their elders in the wake of nationalisation. Their elders, who are no more in this world, have distributed these assets.However, the allegations of receiving kickbacks through these offshore holdings are difficult to establish. More so, because the Panama Papers documents indicate that the companies only own London-based four apartments of Sharif family; neither any bank account nor any other business. But the opportunity to defend in so many words has already been lost by the ruling family that came up with contradictory claims on the question of their ownership.

If the same yardstick is applied on Imran Khan, the allegations against him of concealing the offshore company are as serious. An investigation by Ahmed Noorani of The News found out that PTI Chairman was rather a pioneer in this field. Niazi Services Limited, a Jersey-based offshore holding of Imran was set up in 1983, the oldest ever company traced of a Pakistani.  

If Maryam’s companies were used for purchasing flats in London, Imran’s company was also set up for the same purpose, according to Imran Khan, and he used this route to avoid taxes. The flat was sold in 2003 but the company remained in existence till 2015. What it had been doing after the sale of flat is anybody’s guess. Imran who said in a famous tweet that the offshore companies are set up by those who want to stash ill-gotten money, has not offered any explanation to the satisfaction of his critics.

The articles of associations of Niazi Services Limited point out that it was formed for sports consultancy and property, etc. This indicates that he might have been receiving commentary fee through the offshore company while the purchase of flat through it had already been established. Imran’s tax returns are also indicative of the fact that major source of his annual income is contributed from abroad. 

The nature of income source has never been mentioned as to who sends him each year nine to ten million rupees when he isn’t into cricket commentary business anymore and instead does 24/7 politics in Pakistan. This foreign money saves him a lot of income tax that is registering average decline by 89% without witnessing any decrease in his income.

So an inquiry into offshore companies will not spare either the Sharif family or Imran Khan. Here begins the dilemma. Any indictment will damage the Sharifs more than Imran as the former has the disadvantage of incumbency that allows the critics to fabricate stories of loot and plunder. 

As campaign against the Sharifs has been kick-started by Imran, there appears to be more than what meet the eyes. All the political spoilers have joined hands. Uneasy civil-military relations coincide with the demand of the PM’s resignation. While the government can’t claim innocence as it lingered on the Panama Papers inquiry under different pretexts for six months, Imran doesn’t have any moral edge over the government. 

Quaid-i-Azam Muhamamd Ali Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela are among his ideals that he never tires of quoting. Importance of honest leadership is what he likes to talk about. However, his preaching doesn’t match with what he practices. He insists on performing the search of Sharifs but has never bothered to present himself for  accountability.

He was confronted time and again about his low taxes but he chose to remain silent and instead remained focused on other tax evaders. His response on offshore company isn’t different either.

A political leader commanding moral integrity would have written to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Election Commission of Pakistan and Federal Board of Revenue offering himself for the accountability. Imran should have himself given papers of all bank transactions and original documents of his offshore company to the SC chief justice, FBR and media. The publisher of this group stood out the only person who wrote to authorities for carrying out an investigation into his offshore company after his name appeared in the Panama Papers. Imran could have followed this path only if he had no offshore company to hide.  

Now as Imran channels anger against the government, he is least bothered about the consequences. Power appears to be his destination, not democracy. This politics of allegations has often been used for derailing the democracy while corruption continues.

No military dictator has ever finished maiden speech without reading the charges of corruption against the ousted government, which is complemented with a resolve to fight this menace out. This has never happened. Gen Pervez Musharraf’s role is a recent example. He used this tool to buy political loyalties of corruption-tainted politicians for consolidating his rule. But we tend to forget in no time.  

However, the questions arise: if the characters like Imran Khan are strangers to the government? Didn’t he pose a challenge before by staging dharna that got him nothing but weakened the civilian government? If he’s bent on repeating the same mistakes, the government is providing him opportunity once again.

No amount of political speeches and press conferences can insulate democracy from threats in the absence of strong institutions. Accountability is essence of responsive democracy. If only elections were to decide that who’d rule, there was no point of having state institutions, now virtually destroyed through politicisation. 

If only the FBR had been allowed to work independently and without any political pressure, Imran could not have been able to exploit this opportunity. What happened in contrast is really depressing.

As the battle lines have been drawn, neither Nawaz nor Imran seem interested in strengthening the institutions for the sake of democracy. The former wants to protect himself and the latter is up to dislodge him. The ultimate sufferer is the public, sick of dramas but surrounded by actors and opportunists. Meanwhile, the script writer is closely watching in wait for the right opportunity to strike a new deal.

—Originally published in The News