"Out of sight, out of mind"

By Huzaima Bukhari and Dr Ikramul Haq

Apropos to our article "Who should contest election?", published in these columns on 17 December 2010, which seems to have hurt the sentiments of some of our expatriate friends, although the ideas presented therein were to emphasize that unless and until one can experience the plight of one's people first hand, there is little point to aspire to lead them.

A number of objections have been raised as to why persons holding dual nationality, with assets and businesses abroad or foreign connections should not be allowed to contest elections. The idea was not to undermine the capabilities of such persons or question their loyalty with their homeland, but to highlight the need for leaders, who have exclusive commitment with Pakistanis-to become a leader of a nation, one must demonstrate unquestionable affiliation with the soil when entering into public life.

By way of example, take the case of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Shaukat Aziz, who agreed to lead the cabinet on the condition that Wealth Tax Act be repealed as once he became resident in Pakistan, he would be subjected to tax for all his foreign assets. As a result, the country lost one of its major sources of direct tax revenue, shifting the burden of taxes on the hapless poor through imposition of indirect taxes and with no tax on assets, encouraging the people to divert their investments in unproductive sectors.

The flight of capital after abolition of wealth also increased exposing the myth that such taxation discouraged local investment. What happened after the end of his government? He conveniently bid goodbye and went back to his foreign refuge, leaving the country in acute economic shambles.

Undoubtedly, there should be a level playing field for all who wish to become members of the parliament and there should be no discrimination whatsoever. Only those, who are convicted under the law or found to be guilty of perjury in their declaration, should be disqualified. Tax delinquents, beneficiaries of politically written off loans, looters of public money and defaulters of utility bills cannot be allowed to contest elections.

For democratisation of the country, we need a proper system of filtration at the preliminary stage of electioneering-flushing out unworthy and incompetent persons is a sine qua non for proper representation of people. Once a true democratic system takes roots in any country, then automatically unwanted elements are discouraged and they do not dare file their nomination papers and if they do so are rejected by the masses. In societies like ours where ill-gotten wealth buys and corrupts persons and institutions, election laws must be amended to ensure that the corrupt, defaulters and tax evaders are ousted from the very beginning.

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Everyone wants to improve his home and family, provided he considers them as his own. To meet this end, he would be willing to go to all possible extents. He would put himself in discomfort so that his family members may enjoy a happy life, he may starve in order to feed his offspring, he would be willing to bear the burden of hard work and labour to build a comfortable environment for his loved ones. However, if he had no such feelings he could lavishly spend his money to fulfil all his hedonistic desires even if his other family members lived miserably. A person enjoying a life of affluence cannot understand the problems related to poverty or issues, which spring from economic deprivation.

A person may have the capacity to ride a Ferrari, but he may not have a clue of the suffering of a cyclist on a cold winter evening returning home with paltry wages after a long hard day. Before the historic revolutions in Europe, the Russian and French royalty were unable to feel the pangs of starvation of the general public as they were overly obsessed with their own luxurious lives.

This is the main reason that our rulers have never been able to do anything substantial for the majority poor, who day by day are being pushed below the poverty level. Living in huge palaces and bungalows, it is indeed very difficult for them to perceive the miserable lives of human beings, who have no choice but to live in precarious dwellings amid stinking, insect-ridden environments lacking sanitation or water facilities. Persons at the helm of affairs only pay attention to the beautification of those city areas that are most frequented by them or their henchmen, totally ignoring rural areas, pockets of slums within sprawling cities and not bothering to develop an infrastructure that is more congenial to the requirements of the general public.

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Roads are broadened for a few over-sized land cruisers and luxury cars, under-passes/fly-overs are built at exorbitant costs, nothing is provided for those on foot, no amount is spent upon making efficient transport systems even when foreign companies are more than willing to build them on tariff (BOT) basis.

As for living abroad, people may bear the pangs of separation to make a decent living, but their focus remains their home no matter where they are located in the world. Most of the remittances that are received in the country are sent by workers to their families in Pakistan. Why should there be any need for remittance if the entire family is based abroad? So it all boils down to improvement on the home-front where a person wearily resides in an alien country so that his dear ones can live happily in their home country.

The principal consideration is attachment and sense of belonging. There is no harm in having dual nationality but it also speaks of a particular mindset where one is not exactly secure with just being a Pakistani. The reasons maybe many – political and religious persecution, economic pressures, poor governance, dearth of basic needs, bad infrastructure, bureaucratic bottlenecks, or the simple desire to live in more developed and civilised environments. Who does not want to aspire for greener pastures, but some line ought to be drawn between those who are enjoying these luxuries and those who, while remaining associated with this country in both letter and spirit, want to see it thriving and its people reaping the benefits that are at present only fairy tale dreams for them.

Civil migration during times of war cannot be considered an anti-state activity but occurs to protect one's life and honour from being ravaged by advancing enemy soldiers. Besides, leaving homes located in the border areas to seek secure havens within the country is very different from abandoning the country itself. At times, when natural calamities hit a certain area, people are temporarily forced to shift to safer locations. It certainly does not mean that they are defectors.

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For uplifting the country, efforts are required to direct investments towards development projects, but if Pakistanis stack their cash worth trillions of rupees in Swiss banks, purchase shares of foreign companies abroad, invest in businesses and assets outside, then how is the country expected to progress and provide the desired level of economic security? The cultural environment of the East in general and Pakistan in particular, is such that people are readily influenced by their relatives and friends. Thus, nepotism becomes the hallmark and prized postings, ministries are doled out to relatives and close associates mercilessly trampling merit and 'right man for the right job' theory. So if important posts are handed over to relatives from abroad, what good can be expected to come out of it?

Having said all this, the fact remains that there is no guarantee that someone of true Pakistani origin would not indulge in these activities but when he is caught, at least he cannot escape accountability whereas those with foreign tags could easily seek refuge abroad. Nonetheless, in order to appease those who have some reservations about our earlier criteria for those who should not be allowed to contest elections, the following few points with respect to those who should not be allowed to stand as prospective candidates for the parliaments, maybe more appealing:

  • A person convicted for any crime by a court of law.
  • A loan defaulter or beneficiary of a loan write-off.
  • Tax defaulter or evader.
  • A person having dual nationality unless he forgoes his foreign one.

So, if Pakistan is considered a home and its inhabitants, one large family, there is no reason why we cannot do all that we should to make it a heavenly abode – the country is very rich in natural and human wealth and all we need is a clean and neat leadership with good governance to bring it at par with any democratic and progressive country on this earth.

(The writers, tax lawyers, are Adjunct Professors at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Besides newspapers, now they also contribute to Opinion Maker.)

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