Check-posts against white collar crimes

Business Recorder

First, the medicine prices went through the roof. Next, it was the turn of Atta (wheat flour) and sugar prices, followed by “artificial shortage” of oil at a time when there was a global glut of oil as demand fell because of Covid-19. Shortage of gas has made the winter doubly unbearable and rising cost of power is having a disruptive influence on the overall economy. And the burgeoning circular debt has turned into a perennial problem with the government seemingly having no idea how to control it. Meanwhile, smuggled Iranian oil worth $1.5 billion flowed into Balochistan market from across Taftan border allegedly with the collusion of Frontier Corps and customs authorities.

The commission appointed to enquire into the oil shortage scandal had recommended strict action against the Oil & Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) which was found to be out of touch with ground realities. It also found Director General Oil and private oil marketing companies (OMCs) colluding in the scandal.

The oil shortage report had concluded that together the relevant departments in collusion with the OMCs had allegedly manipulated the oil shortage passing, in the process additional burden of over Rs.8 billion, on to the consumers, at a time when the price of oil fell over 50% in international market.

The report had also revealed that Iranian oil was smuggled in 50,000-liter tankers via road with no one challenging the day-light robbery all the way from the border to the mainstream oil market inside Pakistan. The report had recommended a deeper probe in the workings of BYCO Refinery, a private firm involved in Balochistan’s oil market, broadly hinting it to be somehow linked to the oil smuggling business.

The very first price manipulation scandal that the PTI-led coalition government faced was the unauthorized manifold escalation in medicine prices, with prices of life-saving and other drugs rising between 100% and 300%. As the public protest became too noisy for government’s political health, the then federal health minister, Amir Mehmood Kiyani was thrown to the wolves seemingly in panic and the NAB was asked to probe the matter. As the event faded from public glare Kiyani was rehabilitated by awarding him the post of central secretary general of the ruling party. Understandably, NAB held its hand knowing its limitations when it came to investigating those on the so-called ‘cleaner’ side of the fence.

The commission investigating into Atta and sugar price escalations had estimated that the scandal had cost the consumers an additional burden of Rs. 400 billion. These reports had also allegedly questioned the very integrity of Federal Food Minister Khusro Bakhtiar, PTI’s senior leader Jahangir Tareen and Chief Minister Punjab, Usman Buzdar. But as usual NAB has continued to look the other way.

Thanks largely to the overdrive of its expanding troop of spin doctors led by the Information minister Shibli Faraz the government despite having been accused of being responsible for multiple financial scandals, shortages of essentials and a flare-up in all round inflationary trends, continues to maintain a misleading self-image of a clean administration as the PM conveniently passes the blame on to mafias and cartels-targets too vague to be held accountable by the NAB. So far, no naming and shaming of those actually responsible for these scandals has taken place despite the clear hints about the identity of the culprits behind these scandals by the various investigating commissions appointed by the government.

The government had kept claiming publicly that it had nothing to do with what NAB was doing. But in the same breath it kept contradicting the claim by shouting from every rooftop that it would not let the ‘chors and dacoos’ go unpunished. And the Bureau added to the impression of it being a partisan entity as it went relentlessly after the high-profile opposition leadership.

Indeed, the government’s performance on the corruption front, when tested against the PTI’s own yardsticks, seems to have remained too wanting. And as the time passed nothing positive that could be held as a grand success of government’s anti-corruption campaign emerged from the NAB’s court rooms. Increasing resort to media trials to cover up the Bureau’s investigative and prosecution weaknesses started yielding counter-productive results. Even those among the media persons who had willingly joined the media trial campaign as some kind of religious crusade, started questioning the government’s single-minded pursuit of the corruption campaign against the opposition to the neglect of even governance and economic management. Meanwhile, right under its very nose a new jumma bazaar of mega corruption being indulged in allegedly by some prominent members of the coalition government itself was flourishing.

Generally, white collar crimes are difficult to solve. In fact, it becomes almost an insurmountable challenge when one tries to prove these cases beyond a shadow of doubt in a court of law, no matter how strong the evidence is. It is like trying to follow the footprints of someone who had walked on ice.

As a result, the party’s declared ‘crusade’ against corruption has seemingly turned into no more than manufactured moralism. Factually speaking, since it came to power in October 2018, the government rather than focusing on governance and economic management, seems to have turned into a vigilante force of moralizers. While the Khan-led moralizers seem to be trying to inflate their own social and moral standing in the public eye by flaunting their moral virtues on daily basis, they also seem to take carnal pleasure in the public humiliation of their ‘corrupt’ victims. Reminders are voiced almost round the clock by party spokespersons promoting Khan as being the cleanest of the clean Pakistanis.

That such moralizers as a rule suffer from strong doses of hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, pomposity, pretension and conformism is not an exaggerated notion. That is why even during these days of a deadly pandemic we see frenzied media trials of the ‘corrupt’ and the NAB persecuting rather than prosecuting. NAB’s problem since it was set up has been its very weak prosecution wing. And what it receives by way of evidence from investigation agencies is normally too flimsy because of corruption and inefficiency within the investigation agencies themselves. That is perhaps why, since it was launched by General Musharraf, it has been employed as an instrument of political engineering rather than for catching the corrupt and making them return the loot.

Because of the mindless pursuit of cases with dubious evidence, the Bureau had, on the one hand, brought to a virtual standstill the civil administration and on the other seriously disrupted the business activities as both civil servants and businessmen were allegedly being blackmailed into ‘singing’ against the arrested politicians.

It would certainly be wrong to equate what is going on in Pakistan currently in pursuit of moralism to the Spanish Inquisition, or the ‘Tribunals’ of the French Revolution, the Moscow trials in the 1930s, the Nazis’ ‘People’s Court’ or even the 1950s McCarthy hearings in the US. Still, one cannot but observe certain rather vague features in the acts of moralism at work in the country resembling some of those that were found in all these above mentioned examples. On daily basis we see a parading of the accused before judges and the uncritical mob; their various ‘vices’ reviewed in the media, deserving harsh penalties meted out on this basis.

But, of course, one cannot condone corruption while criticizing vigilante moralizers. Khan and his party have the right to investigate and prosecute the corrupt. But of course, one must be extremely wary of those who persecute in the name of principle. Therefore, in order to be able to discourage such a practice the very approach of the society to the matter of curbing corruption needs to be modified to fit the nature of the crime.

When a society practices illiberal democracy along with no-holds-barred free market economy, it becomes almost impossible to keep the incidence of white collar crimes under control through the normal laws.

In civilized societies white collar crimes are kept under control by setting up statutory regulatory bodies autonomous of their respective ministries and at the same time by enlarging space for the development of a strong parliament, a truly independent judiciary and a genuinely fearless media equipped with really intrusive Right to Information(RTI) law. But we miserably lack these check-posts against white collar crimes.

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