- Skirting the real issues
Amid the release of the damning sugar commission’s inquiry report there is talk of bringing in a conflict of interest law barring holders of public office from engaging in business activities. The prime minister has already directed the law ministry to prepare the draft of a conflict of interest law.
Such a draft already exists on the annals of the National Assembly. The law was initiated back in 2016 as a private member bill by Murad Saeed. But for reasons quite obvious never saw the light of day.
A similar law was enacted in KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in 2016 by the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government. Conflict of interest law became a law in Punjab earlier this year as well.
It is obvious that a law, sans tooth and the will to implement it, is useless. A broad spectrum of politicians- both in power and in the opposition- are directly involved in all kinds of business activity.
The rot started with field marshal Ayub Khan after he took power through a coup de tat in 1958. His son Gohar Ayub set up the now defunct Ghandhara Motors. The dictator was founder of crony capitalism in Pakistan.
Incidentally, this is the same Wajid Zia who did Sharif in while heading the JIT (joint investigation team) in Panama gate probe. It is no coincidence either that Shahzad Akbar SAPM on accountability readout the salient points of the Repot to the media and in his signature acerbic style, he lambasted the ‘sugar mafia.’
But general Zia ul Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 with an iron hand, while invoking the name of Islam in order to make a political base for himself, mentored the Sharif family and the Chadhrys of Gujrat.
Sugar mills owned and run by political office holders became the new normal. Interestingly the Sharifs as owners of Ittefaq foundry also manufactured sugar mills machinery. The foundry was nationalised by late ZA Bhutto’s regime and returned to the family by Zia.
Cheap loans were facilitated through nationalised banks. Running into billions, a bulk of them were never returned. As a result, a new comprador culture emerged in Pakistan.
But why sugar? The answer is quite simple. The feudal politicians saw a double advantage: cheap sugar cane and an industry that did not require much know-how to run.
The Sharifs, apart from establishing their own sugar empire, sanctioned sugar mills as the machinery in many cases was being fabricated at the Ittefaq Foundries.
Recounting a personal interaction, in 1997 when Nawaz Sharif was elected second time prime minister and the Chaudhrys were his close political allies, they came to see me at my house. I had the temerity to suggest that they should set a healthy tradition by not to engaging in business activity while in power.
Ch. Shujaat was quite shocked. He retorted, “why not? We were victimised by Benazir; we have to make good our losses.”
Since then the younger generation of the Sharifs, the Chaudhrys and others have moved on to other lucrative businesses as well.
In fact, the formula of making money while the sun shines has been calibrated to perfection. Many a politician in power has a brother or son looking after his business intrests, blatantly promoted through state patronage.
Take the curious case of federal minister Khusro Bakhtiar. He has been very conveniently absolved of any wrongdoing since technically his brother Makhdoom Omer Shehryar runs the RYK Group Sugar Mills.
Khusro, hailing from Rahim Yar Khan, is not new to establishment politics. He has been able to find a ministerial berth in virtually every regime since Pervez Musharraf’s time.
There are several NAB investigations against him relating to having assets much beyond his means. But having the protection of Khan, he is hitherto untouchable.
It is well known that Chaudhary Munir, who looks after the intrests of the ruling family of UAE in Pakistan, is his political as well as business mentor. Because of the ‘Janoobi suba Mahaz’, that Khusro heads, he is politically vital for Khan.
His brother Hashim Jawan Bakht holds the important portfolio of finance minister in Punjab, while Shehryar is looking after the business intrests of the family. A cool arrangement.
In this backdrop a conflict of interest law will barely scratch the surface. Only if implemented in letter and spirit it can make a difference. However, present political dispensation leaves little room for optimism.
The aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan in a fit of candour has blown the cover off the so-called clean governance practises. According to him there are many SAPMs (special assistant to the prime minister) and advisors who hold dual nationality and have failed to declare their assets.
The original mandate of the sugar commission was to probe the reasons behind price hike and shortage of sugar. Headed by Wajid Zia, the director general of the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) the so-called commission soon morphed into another body tainted by political expediency unable to answer this fundamental question.
Incidentally, this is the same Wajid Zia who did Sharif in while heading the JIT (joint investigation team) in Panama gate probe. It is no coincidence either that Shahzad Akbar SAPM on accountability read out the salient points of the report to the media and in his signature acerbic style, he lambasted the ‘sugar mafia.’
Jahangir Tareen, the erstwhile close consort of Khan, was singled out for every crime perpetrated in the sugar industry. In many ways the report seems to be Tareen and opposition specific.
According to the findings, JDW Sugar Mills, in which Tareen has a considerable shareholding that controls 20 per cent of the sugar market by virtue of its sheer size, under invoiced sales from bagasse and molasse resulting in 25 per cent cost inflation.
JDW is found guilty in the report of forward sales, satta, benami sales and transferring money from PLC accounts to private accounts amongst other crimes.
But why Tareen? What has he done wrong that Khan decided to go after his virtual deputy prime minister? Conceivably such are the vagaries of power.
Tareen used vast sums of his own money to achieve the desired results for Khan. Despite his disqualification for holding public office by the apex court in April 2018 he carved an important niche for himself.
He traversed the whole country on his private plane collecting a motley crew of carpetbaggers to join the Kings party in the making, before and post 2018 general elections. Of course, with a little help from the establishment with whom he had excellent contacts.
In the process he created jealousies within the inner sanctum of the ruling party, primarily Asad Umer, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and quite a few others became his sworn enemies.
Tareen perhaps forgot a cardinal norm of rulers that they usually bite the hand that feeds them. Perhaps some important persons having a stranglehold on Khan were also responsible for his undoing.
With no political base, Tareen had become the most expendable that he had ever been since joining the PTI.
The Report singles out chief minister of Sindh of granting sugar export subsidies to Omni group owned by Anwar Majeed, a close friend and business partner of Asif Zardari.
But on the other hand, the Commission simply papered over the then finance minister Asad Umar’s decision while chairing an ECC (economic coordination committee) meeting in December2018.
Thus, granting sugar millers permission to export 1.1 million tons of sugar in 2019 on the flimsy pretext that the country was in dire need of foreign exchange.
He also defended the subsidy given by the Punjab government to sugar exporters. The Punjab CM falsely claimed that the subsidy was given by the Federal Cabinet despite the minutes of the meeting stating otherwise.
Talking of double standards, Khan is personally Mr Clean but running a clean government in this dispensation is another ball game.