EDITORIAL: It is only because it was decided, for some reason, to keep the Toshakhana record secret that so many allegations had whipped up such controversy for so long. It is, therefore, heartening to note that Cabinet Division on Sunday declassified the records of the Toshakhana in historic first.

The government also deserves commendation for introducing a fresh policy on presents given to government functionaries by foreign dignitaries, among which include a USD 300 ceiling on gifts that could be retained.

According to reports, the new Toshakhana Procedure for Acceptance and Disposal of Gifts, 2023, dated March 8, includes a fresh set of guidelines for ministries and divisions to adhere to.

Be that as it may, transparency is the very essence of democracy, after all, and the people have a right to know how much their elected representatives treated themselves with gifts that were actually meant for the state; and, more importantly, how far some of them may have stepped over the line in terms of availing this privilege to gain monetarily.

A glance at the details made available from 2002 onwards explains why governments have always shied away from making this particular information public. In fact, the first time it rattled the national consciousness was when PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) made a lot of fuss about foreign gifts that the then prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, took as his own.

But later, when PTI was in power and the shoe was on the other foot, the party courted controversy like no other and implied that divulging any information about gifts received by the elite was detrimental to foreign relations as well as national security.

Since then, whenever some information about leaders and gifts comes out, their usual response is that others have taken more. And so we have gone round in circles.

Uploading all records on the cabinet division website and barring officials from retaining gifts worth more than $300 are welcome steps. But the principle also needs to be debated and clarified.

Allowing senior elected representatives to claim gifts, which are legally the property of the state (because these have been presented to them for the office that they hold and not their persona) at depressed costs in fact allows them to enrich themselves as an added benefit of the privilege of that representation. And since such practices ultimately widen the financial gulf between the rulers and the people whose votes enable them to rule, they deepen divisions and inequality in society; which is profoundly undemocratic.

Let’s not forget that we’re already ridiculed as one of those typical extremely poor countries with a certain class of extremely wealthy individuals and families. And while Pakistan is also home to a sea of extreme poverty, given that it is one of the most heavily populated countries in the world, parliament is not very representative of this reality because it is always housed by the rich and powerful; the industrial and feudal lords.

In times like the present, when the elite remain blissfully immune to the back-breaking inflation driving people into bankruptcy, the leadership must realise the importance of setting examples. And while it is too much to expect some of them to impose a harsh austerity drive upon themselves, like the one they’ve burdened the people with, the least they can do is stop deceiving themselves and insulting the people because of their obsession with more gifts and more money; especially using their muscle and influence to buy them on the cheap and selling them at exorbitant rates to make a killing.

It’s not just the gifts that the leaders receive, but all aspects of their financial dealings and net worth that should be public knowledge. The Toshakhana debate is an important starting point. Nothing about how the rulers make their money, and how much of it, should be hidden from the ruled.

We’re fighting to protect our democracy, after all, and it is the latter that give the former their power. And without complete transparency, this bargain can never be a fair one. Last but not least, it is interesting to note that India has a longer Toshakhana history, also of the rules being circumvented.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023


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