EDITORIAL: The Islamabad High Court’s (IHC’s) observation that gifts received by the country’s leaders are better placed in a museum than hidden away in some corner, on the pretext that divulging such information could endanger foreign relations or even national security, is apt and must be agreed with in principle. Politicians and even senior civil servants receive customary gifts from institutions and governments of other countries because they represent the people, after all, so the line taken by the present government to keep all such information secret, citing diplomatic and security concerns, is bewildering. That is even more so because PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) made so much noise about the matter when it was in opposition and leaders of other parties received such gifts. But now that the shoe is on the other foot it has, only too conveniently, taken yet another one of its trademark U-turns and adopted a very different position than the one it took on the campaign trail.
Exchange of gifts whenever there is high-level interaction between countries is quite the norm, as is making all such knowledge public in democratic dispensations. Going by PTI’s own logic and standard of accountability, extending such gestures to individuals as opposed to governments, along with the insistence that they be kept secret, would give the impression that something below-the-radar might have been agreed in return. That is one of the reasons that the most robust democracies like the United States of America (USA) have clear policies that route all such offerings to museums for everybody to see.
The honourable court must also have noticed that the absence of the Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP), and his decision to send his deputy to the hearing to seek more time, amounted to typical delaying tactics, most likely in the hope that the petition would become ineffective. Therefore, its statement that this particular case would suffer no such fate even after the prime minister leaves office since this issue concerns senior ministers as well as civil servants, not just one man, was very reassuring. Yet considering how broken our legal system is, it could still be a fairly long time before this issue is settled.
Interestingly, the government seems to have made a new habit of trying to get, even provoke, courts to make decisions that are actually its own responsibility. The PM did it the other day when the Supreme Court questioned him about the APS (Army Public School) case, saying that his administration stood ready to take action against any individual that the court commanded. And the additional attorney general did pretty much the same thing in this case, implying that the government would gladly comply with the court’s orders. But, going by its own reasoning again, if the court does order the administration to acknowledge and display all gifts received by the senior leadership, would that make the court complicit in compromising friendly relations with other countries and also the country’s security?
The ease with which PTI is able to go back on its old promises and core commitments, and make all sorts of excuses for it, is startling, to say the least. Now it’s kicked up a completely needless storm which has already reached the judiciary. Surely, this is the last thing people expected from this prime minister when he claimed that he had nothing to hide and any inquiry about any misappropriation should begin with him. Besides, he couldn’t have forgotten what he said about references filed against some of his predecessors based on information provided by the Toshakhana. And how, just to embarrass his rivals no doubt, he gave the example of Israel where the police force investigated a former prime minister because he took unannounced gifts from foreign dignitaries.
The PM should end this controversy by stepping into this debate himself and make public disclosure of all gifts received by him and any other government representative mandatory as part of PTI’s legacy.
This editorial was published in Business Recorder on Nov 21, 2021