THE Election Commission of Pakistan’s decision to remove all asset declarations of parliamentarians and senators from its website is inexplicable. Moreover, the removal of these declarations at the height of the Panama Papers controversy makes the act appear even more suspicious. The data was removed when a parliamentary subcommittee objected to its online publication, saying that the lawmakers’ privacy was being violated, and the ECP refused to restore the list to its website even after a larger parliamentary panel requested it to do so. Reportedly, the ECP is asking for additional legal authority to upload the list, while paper copies continue to be available to the general public against a small charge. What is puzzling is the ECP’s argument for additional legal authority when the data was already available on their website for two years. Was specific legal authorisation not required for the upload back then? Removing the data now, as the May 9 release of the full Panama Papers dump approaches, even though a parliamentary panel has asked for the upload, makes the ECP’s decision appear arbitrary and designed to accommodate the wishes of a small group of individuals.
The asset declarations do contain some personal information, such as account numbers and addresses, but those seeking elected office should know that these disclosures are a requirement. The ECP itself has done nothing with these disclosures except to shelve them. Making them available to the public would at least be a way of letting people know what the official declarations say and if they are in keeping with the politicians’ lifestyle. By keeping them out of the public’s view, the ECP ensures that the filing of these declarations is nothing more than a mere formality. One consequence of treating financial disclosure requirements for elected officials in such a non-serious way was apparent when the public learned through the international media that two-thirds of their elected parliamentarians don’t even file income tax returns. The country suffered major humiliation due to this disclosure, and it is fair to ask why the ECP knew nothing of this — it certainly did not act on it. All financial disclosure requirements for elections, whether poll expenses, tax details or asset declarations, are public information and should be available online. The ECP is rightly being asked to change course and make the declarations available online, and it should heed this bit of advice.
A voice from Thar
THE report produced by the Thar Commission set up by the Sindh government makes for a very sad read. First of all, the commission based its conclusions on a few interactions with government functionaries and members of the community. One would have expected, given the seriousness of the situation in Thar, a more rigorous methodology to have been followed; any commission should at least have looked at the demographic studies conducted in the region by experts, and tried to get some data rather than basing the findings only on verbal testimony collected through a series of brief interactions with a miscellaneous group of people. Wherever any numbers are used, they often contradict each other, such as the number of reverse osmosis plants installed, and the figure for those that are operational. The report is, therefore, nothing more than a hasty, superficial compilation of impressions formed by commission members during a short trip to the region.
But even those impressions paint a depressing picture. Government doctors don’t show up at their workplace. They feel better when they run private clinics as they are highly demoralised by the conditions in which they have to work. District hospitals are in a shambles. While their operational budgets have increased, funds can take years to be disbursed. Roads and other infrastructure are built without taking the requirements of the community into account. The reverse osmosis plants are either inoperative, or located too far away to be of use to many of the communities. Or, they are poorly maintained so that the quality of the water they provide is suspect. In many cases, the company charges the local community Rs100 per month, taking the money from every household to keep its plant operational. The people of Thar deserve better. Having said that, it is important to underscore that they deserved a far better inquiry into their plight than what the commission served up. The Sindh government should start getting serious about the issue.
F-16 sale in jeopardy
PAKISTAN and American F-16s have a long and complicated political history. A symbol of both Pakistani national-security pride and resentment, the F-16 looks set to reprise its role as a symbol of American betrayal of Pakistan in the 1990s. Back then, with the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets winding down, Pakistan was made aware of the limits of American cooperation and friendship. Infamously, the US not only blocked the transfer of more F-16s to Pakistan, but refused to return the money Pakistan had already paid for them. This time, the specifics are different, but the regional circumstances familiar. With the American war effort in Afghanistan vastly diminished and the need to rely on Pakistan for supply routes virtually eliminated, Pakistan is learning that it has neither any friends in the US Congress willing to release funds for the sale of eight subsidised F-16s, nor apparently anyone in the White House who considers it important enough to lobby Congress on behalf of Pakistan. Pakistan can still have the eight F-16s, but only if it pays the full price — a decision that virtually blocks the sale. Rejecting Pakistan appears to be once again fashionable in Washington D.C.
The story of ties with Congress is a particularly painful one. Where once at least some pragmatic understanding of the need to maintain a security-based relationship could be relied on, now Congress is mostly in the news on the Pakistan front for hostile statements against the country. Be it Afghanistan, Balochistan or India, there are several congressmen and senators who have taken their attacks against Pakistan to an unacceptable level. Part of it can be explained by the inability and unwillingness of the Pakistan foreign policy establishment, and particularly a succession of leaders in the Washington embassy of Pakistan, to cultivate ties in the US Congress. Unlike India, Pakistan has never really embraced the American way of doing business on Capitol Hill. But a great deal of the explanation is that sections of the US Congress, driven by domestic political concerns and freed from the constraints of a major war effort in Afghanistan, are demonstrating an antipathy towards Pakistan because they now can. Pakistan is expected to deliver peace in Afghanistan, allow Balochistan to secede and accept Indian hegemony — and it is expected to do so meekly and immediately. That is not only preposterous, but a dangerous rhetorical escalation by the US Congress.
Yet, it is perhaps not Congress alone that is to blame. Under President Obama, who recently described Pakistan as a “disastrously dysfunctional country” to an American magazine, there has been a growing reluctance to engage with Pakistan other than on the narrowest of security grounds. How much effort has the White House really put into lobbying critical elements in the US Congress who are undermining the Pak-US relationship? Surely, an increasingly disengaged White House is part of the problem.