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Posted at: Jul 8, 2018, 12:40 AM; last updated: Jul 8, 2018, 12:40 AM (IST)ACROSS THE BORDER

Icebergs of wealth

FS Aijazuddin
The 2018 Pakistani elections show an intriguing trend — the assets of the sons exceed those of their fathers
Icebergs of wealth
Richie Rich: Mohammad Hussain Shaikh, an Independent contesting from Muzaffargarh, is the wealthiest candidate with assets worth Rs 403 billion

FS Aijazuddin

There are truths, half-truths, and the disclosures of assets by electoral candidates.  Science says the portion visible of an iceberg is a fraction — one-tenth to nine-tenths — of what lies hidden below. Should voters apply the same formula when assessing the actual size of these icebergs of wealth?

Once, honesty was given in those aspiring to hold public office. One did not need to wear a loincloth like Mahatma Gandhi to advertise one's probity. He never held public office, even in the Indian National Congress Party. He merely dressed the part. 

Over recent years, responding to the public's suspicion that wealth velcro-like adheres to elected leaders, judicial courts have ordered the fuller disclosure of assets before the elections. The Indian Supreme Court, for example, “expressed alarm over the undue accretion of assets of lawmakers, a sure sign that they were misusing their offices”. 

The Supreme Court's argument was flawless: “The citizen, the ultimate repository of sovereignty in a democracy, must have access to all information that enables critical audit of the performance of the state, its instrumentalities and their incumbent or aspiring public officials.” The teeth it implanted in the Election Commission of India (ECI), however, proved to be dentures. The ECI could not prevent or pursue unlawful accretion of wealth; it could only expose an iceberg fraction of it.  

Politics is now big business, the parties themselves cash-rich conglomerates. In India, the declared assets of the BJP rose “from Rs 122.93 crore in 2004-05 to Rs 893.88 crore in 2015-16”, while those of the Congress increased “from Rs 167.35 crore to Rs 758.79 crore”. Astonishing, until one learns that a single politician from Karnataka — Anand Singh — alone is believed to be worth Rs 1,800 crore. 

He could buy out Sonia Gandhi 180 times over. In 2014, she declared personal assets of Rs 10 crore. (Her son Rahul Gandhi declared Rs 9.4 crore.) Her assets included a 3.81-acre agricultural land outside Delhi and an ancestral house in Italy.  Interestingly, Asif Ali Zardari's 'ancestral' chateau Manoir de la Reine Blanche in France finds no mention in his latest declaration of assets, nor that of his son Bilawal. 

An intriguing trend in the 2018 Pakistani elections is that the assets of the sons exceed those of their fathers.  Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is worth twice as much as his father, who disclosed wealth of Rs 75.8 crore. Similarly, Hamza Sharif with disclosed wealth of Rs 41.1 crore — eight times richer than his impoverished father Shahbaz Sharif who owns only Rs 5 crore. “Rarely are sons similar to their fathers,” Homer wrote in his Odyssey, “most are worse, and a few are better”. He stands corrected. Today, “rarely are political sons poorer than their fathers”.

Squirelled in Bilawal’s declaration is a figure of Rs 3 million as the cost of the gargantuan Bilawal House in Clifton, Karachi. It caught the vigilant eye of the Ameer Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Pakistan Sirajul Haq. He teasingly offered to buy it for Rs 5 million. The Ameer took his cue from the Indian Government's ploy in the 1980s when it sought to reduce evasion of duties and taxes. Those affected will remember that the Finance Ministry officer posted with a cheque book at land registry offices, ready to buy properties at the declared under-value. 

Politicians are grudgingly disclosing their wealth; they have yet to disgorge it. Will voters ever discover the real wealth of the candidates who flaunt their corruption with such icy insouciance?  Until then, voters should heed Thomas Paine’s advice: “Men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”

— The writer is a Pakistan-based historian 

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