- The recipe of using NAB against political opponents has done more harm than in the past
It has almost become visceral for incumbent governments to blame their predecessors for all the ills afflicting the economy, and to hurl unsubstantiated allegations of corruption at them, with the ostensible purpose of presenting themselves as messiahs with a holy mission to fix everything under the skies. But unfortunately, that narrative has invariably been used to initiate a process of witch-hunt and to settle scores with political opponents. Well-orchestrated and calculated moves are unfurled to paint the opponents in the most dismal colours possible without having the spine to speak truth about things done by them in the national interest.
The effort is to portray them as an embodiment of terminal evil. That is exactly what is happening at the moment, with the PTI government and its stalwarts making strenuous efforts to portray the outgoing PML-N government and its leaders as villains who destroyed the national economy through unprecedented corruption, though none has been established in a court of law. They are trying to make the people believe that they could not have done any good for the country. I am afraid they are totally wrong. No wonder, the Lahore High Court, while granting bail to the accused including Shahbaz Sharif in Ashiana Housing Scheme and Saaf Pani Company cases, maintained that NAB had acted with mala fide intent.
The PML-N government might have made a number of mistakes but the fact remains that they made credible efforts to lift the economy out of the quagmire into which it was stuck in 2013, and when they left the GDP growth rate had risen to 5.9 per cent from the inherited 3 per cent and the budgetary deficit had also been dragged down to 5.3 per cent of the GDP from 8.4 per cent. As regards tackling corruption, Transparency International in its consecutive reports acknowledged a nosedive in corruption in the public sector during the PML-N rule. It also took a very wise decision to sign the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters with the OECD in September 2016, which has already started showing dividends.
In an environment where the credibility of the state organ conducting accountability is zero, and in which the Supreme Court has expressed no confidence as to its ability and impartiality in dealing with cases of corruption, it is simply not possible to achieve the desired objectives
According to reports in the media, the FBR has recovered an estimated Rs1.15 billion in taxes from concealed offshore assets owing to the assistance provided by OECD countries under that agreement. The Agreement became operational in December 2017. This recovery has been made on the basis of first batch of bulk information from OECD members received in September 2018. I vividly remember a federal minister boasting about the fact that the PTI government had obtained information from 20 countries about money illegally stashed aboard, which earned a lot of embarrassment for him when he was reminded that the information had come under the agreement that the PML-N government had signed with the OECD. The FBR has also initiated the process to collect data from OECD countries for the second year as well, and the process is to continue in the coming years. This has ensured that no Pakistani would be able to park his money outside, or make investments abroad with the money raked up by tax evasion or earned through corruption. Anybody doing so would be automatically reported.
The Convention, to which 80 countries are signatories, purports to facilitate global cooperation to combat tax evasion. The signing of the agreement testified to the commitment of the PML-N government to bring its tax system in line with the best global practices in the field of tax matters, and to be part of the multilateral fight against tax evasion. It removed the obstacles in getting information about untaxed money of Pakistani nationals stashed in foreign banks, including the money invested in off-shore companies. The federal cabinet had authorised the finance minister to sign the Convention on 31 August 2013, much before the Panama leaks.
The convention is the most comprehensive global instrument against off-shore tax evasion and could become increasingly relevant in regards to the Panama Leaks probe. Under the global pressure even the government of Panama announced to sign the OECD Convention, which would make it easier for an incisive probe into the Panama Leaks. It surely cleared the impediments to such an inquiry and gave a sound legal footing to Pakistan to have the matter investigated thoroughly, if so desired.
It is also pertinent to point out that the PML-N government also offered to form a judicial commission to probe the Panama Leaks. But it was vehemently opposed by the opposition, particularly PTI which was hell bent to target the Sharif family only. The Bill actually envisaged to ensure across-the-board accountability of all those who had been named in the Panama Leaks. What followed is an open secret now. The FBR also raised Rs120 billion in lieu of tax payments on local and offshore concealed assets under the amnesty scheme announced by the PML-N government last year, which the PTI government is now trying to emulate, convinced by the merits of the move under prevailing circumstances. These are unassailable realities and negate the portrayal of the PML-N government as an incarnation of evil which the PTI government is trying to present before the people.
There is no denying the fact that rampant corruption is the bane of our socio-economic development, and it is absolutely imperative to tackle this menace on war footing. The country needs an accountability mechanism whereby the politicians, generals, judges, bureaucrats as well as all those holding public office are accountable for their acts of omission and commission, without any distinction or bias.
There is no way corruption can be eliminated through selective accountability and witch-hunt of political opponents. It is not only a mockery of the concept of accountability, but is also a perfect recipe for fomenting political instability in the country with a potential to scuttle the efforts for reviving the economy. The PTI government is treading a wrong course in regards to accountability and curbing corruption. In an environment where the credibility of the state organ conducting accountability is zero, and in which the Supreme Court has expressed no confidence as to its ability and impartiality in dealing with cases of corruption, it is simply not possible to achieve the desired objectives. The recipe of using NAB against political opponents has done more harm than in the past. Across-the-board accountability cannot be ensured without bringing systemic changes through an inclusive consultative process that leads to required changes in the Constitution and law. Granted that Prime Minister Imran Khan is honest in eliminating corruption, but he must understand that it could not be done through wishes only. He needs to heed the proverb ‘If wishes were horses then fools would ride’.