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The gullibility of the voting public may be elastic but it is not unbreakable. The latest test in civic credulousness came in PTI's submission to the Election Commission of Pakistan in connection with the endless investigation of its foreign funding accounts.

In 2014, Mr Akbar S. Babar - a founder member of the PTI and a belated convert to probity - had filed a petition before the ECP, requesting it to conduct an enquiry into PTI's foreign currency transactions. According to newspaper reports, ‘he said not a single out of six identified international PTI accounts had been sought, adding that all 23 accounts of the ruling party, mostly concealed from the ECP, remained secret and outside the purview of scrutiny.’

His lawyer expressed distress that the ECP scrutiny committee mandated to scrutinise PTI’s financial statements for the years 2009-13, had spent the last three years examining them, ‘without any tangible progress.’ And when a ECP member ‘inquired from the ECP director general (law), who heads the scrutiny panel, how long the scrutiny process will continue, the latter said “forever”.’

As a chartered accountant who has been a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales since 1965, I felt unspeakable admiration for the chutzpah of the ECP director-general (law). It takes a brave man to repudiate laws and statutes designed to force institutions to report on their financial situation to stakeholders openly and periodically.

Public companies are handcuffed to Article Section 225 (et seq.) of the Companies Act 2017 regarding the preparation and content of Financial Statements. They are also hamstrung by Section 248 that empowers the auditor of a company to have an unquestionable right of ‘access at all times to the company’s books, accounts and vouchers (in whatever form they are held).’

QUANGOs and NGOs, Trusts, charitable bodies - each has its own rules for divulging financial information. Common to all is the fiduciary responsibility their managements have to make full, fair and timely disclosure - not next year, not ten years later, and certainly not after ‘forever’. Political parties however regard themselves as a breed apart. They have transformed illegality into a law. When was the last time you saw their annual reports?

Voters have accepted that the leader of one political party can live in London for years, confident that neither the assets of his party nor the source of his income would ever be questioned. The leader of another had an ingenious CA in-law who could siphon money with the dexterity of a Masai warrior drawing blood from a cow without draining it to death. Yet another could have bogus bank accounts using real ID cards opened and closed within the same day to process billions of rupees in fake transactions.

These parties manage to stay beyond the claws of legislation, enjoying an immunity that is almost sacred. After all, the Pope in Rome accepts Peter’s pence from his flock world-wide without reporting to millions of those faithful Peters about their usage. Not surprisingly, the Vatican’s Banco Ambrosiano lost more than thirty pieces of silver.

Would it be asking too much of our political leadership to admit that those who voted for them are entitled to reasonable (if not full) disclosure on how their parties are sustained? Or they expected to believe in they levitate without visible means of support? One day, hopefully before forever, the truth will out. Until then, political parties fight to keep their financial transactions secret.

Apocryphal stories abound of the lengths (or heights) to which financial accountants will go to hide their shadowy records. In one, a meek accountant perched on a pile of ledgers in order to reach his desk. It was only when he was called away during an emergency that the auditors discovered that he had been sitting on the actual books of account. The ones presented to them for audit contained selectively edited transactions.

Computerisation should have made it easier to retrieve records at the click of a cursor. But as the PTI case shows, what can an auditor or investigator do if the cursor is willing but the guiding hand is weak?

It is a Janus-like ambivalence that allows the PTI to castigate the ECP over the conduct of the elections (Senate & Daska), but is content to see the ECP crawl towards ‘forever’? 

Early on in my professional career, I was required to audit a contractor on the Mangla Dam project. His accountant refused to acknowledge the existence of certain vouchers, even though I had seen them and noted their details. When pressed, the accountant insisted: ‘But you could not have seen them. We never show them to our auditors!’

That explains why I now write books instead of writing up books of account. They contain less fiction.



[DAWN, 25 March 2021]   

25 March 2021
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