In governance, truth, like air in the stratosphere, comes rarefied.

No voter expects politicians to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What a voter does not expect of an elected government are half-truths, evasions and duplicity.

After three years in assisted power, Pakistan’s present Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition government has demonstrated that the standard of probity it demanded of its predecessors is in fact just another sliding scale, adjustable to fit individual circumstances and personal whims.

History of gifts

The public has still not forgotten the cases instituted by the country’s National Accountability Bureau last year against former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for alleged graft. They were said to have acquired costly motor cars gifted to Pakistan by foreign governments. Zardari was accused of making a “nominal payment of 15% of their total value” and acquiring them through “dishonest and illegal means for personal benefit and interest”.

This accusation was a reprise of an earlier ruse when a diamond necklace, donated in 2010 for Pakistan’s flood-affected victims by the wife of Turkish President Erdogan found itself coiled around the neck of Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s wife. Such gifts by law are expected to be deposited in the state Toshakhana (treasure-house). When the story broke, both the Foreign Office and the Toshakhana refused to handle the purloined goods, because their receipt and appropriation had not been according to “their standard operating procedure”.

The customary exchange of gifts between governments has over the centuries matured into a carefully calibrated duet. Equivalence matters. In the 19th century, for example, gifts by the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh to visiting British dignitaries were reciprocated value for value. In December 1838, Ranjit Singh gave the British governor-general Lord Auckland “a bed, with gold legs, completely encrusted with rubies and emeralds”. This bed was surrendered to the East India Company treasure-house, which in time recycled the gift by offering it to the ruler of Gwalior two years later.

Queen Victoria created a distinction between property belonging to the state (the crown jewels), property belonging to the Crown (now The Royal Collection Trust), and the personal property of the sovereign. That distinction is not hermetic. An expensive diamond necklace consisting of 80 carats of diamonds set in platinum was given by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to Queen Elizabeth in 1967. It is not to be found in the vaults of the Foreign office. It adorned the necks of the Queen, later of Diana Princess of Wales and more recently the Duchess of Cambridge.

Keeping secret

Pakistan follows the French tradition, personified by King Louis XIV’s assertion: ‘L’état, c’est moi!’ The modern version was replayed when Zardari as president appointed a Pakistan State Bank governor. It was made clear to the new appointee that as the president was the state, ergo the State Bank was his bank.

The present Pakistan government, having cavilled for years at the misappropriations of previous governments, has slipped into the mould left by them. In response to a public information request, the present government has “refused to make public details of gifts given to Prime Minister Imran Khan by foreign heads of states”, asserting that such gifts were “classified” and their “disclosure can damage the country’s national interest and its relations with other states”. Was the normally public exchange of gifts governed by a secrecy agreement? Were the presents too expensive or, worse, not extravagant enough?

Such a deflective tactic might not have been noticed, had the United States State Department not a day later disclosed that “out of hundreds of gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, only five were retained by US officials in 2019”.

Governments can be notoriously secretive and defensive, but sometimes even they (as Julian Assange has shown) can be shamed into disclosure. For the first time, the British ministry of defence has disclosed (under pressure) the compensation it has paid out between 2006-’14 for 289 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, including the youngest casualty – a three-year-old boy (“killed by shock”).

The report reveals that in 2008, an Afghan family “received just £104.17 for a confirmed fatality and property damage”, less than the £110 paid for a lost mobile phone, and derisively less than the £662 for the death of six donkeys after they “wandered on to a rifle range”.

Do Afghan lives come so cheap? Are Afghan children worth less than a mobile phone or a herd of stray donkeys? Rudyard Kipling reversed the equation when, in his poem Arithmetic on the Frontier (1886), he wrote: “Two thousand pounds of education/ Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.” The cost of a bullet vs the price of a human life.

In this age of forced disclosure, governments everywhere should heed Julius Assange’s advice: “The only way to keep a secret is to never have one.”

This article first appeared in Dawn.