On The Side From The Archives

A million dollar question

Published Oct 16, 2015 11:45am

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A protest organised by MQM’s Chicago unit | Facebook
A protest organised by MQM’s Chicago unit | Facebook

In spite of his cordial demeanour, pastel dress shirts and plump, bearded grin, Junaid Fahmi is not happy. He is distraught. The central organiser of Chicago-based MQM USA – an international branch of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – has spent most of the day in phone conversations with his party’s supporters and media outlets in Pakistan. In wake of the raid that took place on the MQM’s central office in Karachi about six weeks ago, the party is scrambling for support from the diaspora community.

Suddenly Fahmi’s phone rings, announcing the name Altaf Bhai as it rattles furiously on the table of a Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood. His face lights up. Altaf Hussain, the MQM founder living in self-exile in London, has called with instructions to begin stateside protests against the Karachi raid. Like other Pakistani political parties – including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – the MQM mobilises significant support through the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis living in the United States (US) and other parts of North America.

That support is both activism-based and financial, catapulted by the diaspora’s desire to give back to the land they call home. “You watch the media and you see that your neighbours, your friends and your family are suffering there. So, that night you cannot sleep and you say, ‘What can I do here?’” says Fahmi.

Shaukat Aziz was another prominent expatriate, who after working as head of private banking at Citibank for years, would leave his job abroad and join the government in Pakistan. His connections in the banking circuit had introduced him to people in Islamabad’s corridors of power where he did several advisory stints for the government.

Hassan Majeed, a Pakistani psychiatrist living in New York, recalls a fundraising barbecue he held last year. Majeed and his fellow physicians had money to spare and a deep desire to send it back home to Pakistan. “When you are here [and] you are a little established, you feel some weight. Some guilt,” he explains. “You left the country and you think, ‘I could do something.’”

The need to give back runs deep, even among those who are not really well off. “People who are relatively new to the United States feel very attached to Pakistan and wherever they hail from,” says K Rizwan Kadir, a PTI supporter and president of the Pakistan Club at the University of Chicago. He describes supporters of the MQM and the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) as the “Devon-area crowd” — newly immigrated, “mostly uneducated” Pakistanis who live in the South Asian community on Chicago’s north-west side. “Those people haven’t fully developed their American identity yet, so they have greater allegiance to these parties,” Kadir says.


Facing uncertainties at home, Pakistani political parties have been organising abroad since decades. In 1977, when many PPP activists and leaders were pushed into exile, they organised their party’s first overseas branches in Europe, trying to disrupt the regime back home through town hall meetings, protests and underground literature. Similarly, the MQM saw much of its leadership shift to the United Kingdom, America and South Africa during the 1990s. The party developed close-knit overseas chapters structured to impact politics in Pakistan.

“Those of us who were born in Pakistan and came away, we still hanker for that land, for that culture. So the interest [in politics] is kind of inbuilt,” says Zafar Malik, a Lahore-born PTI supporter and director of publications at the East-West University in Chicago. “It’s in our DNA.”

One of the famed political tales to emerge from a group of Pakistani doctors – the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) – is that of Nasim Ashraf. He once practised medicine in Oregon and cultivated a close relationship with Pervez Musharraf through a charity he had created — the Human Development Fund. His proximity to Washington also allowed him direct access to many US Congress members. Together, these ties culminated in Ashraf becoming a minister and later chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Shaukat Aziz was another prominent expatriate, who after working as head of private banking at Citibank for years, would leave his job abroad and join the government in Pakistan. His connections in the banking circuit had introduced him to people in Islamabad’s corridors of power where he did several advisory stints for the government. In 1999, he returned to Pakistan on the apparent insistence of Musharraf, to assume the post of finance minister. About five years later, he became prime minister.

British regulations on donations and fundraising for foreign political parties require donor groups to register as non-profit institutions, with no paid staff; all the money collected has to reach the entity it is raised for through a legal bank account.

Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar similarly left a successful career in British politics and came to Pakistan in 2013 to become the governor of Punjab. During the previous decade, he had been close to many senior Pakistani politicians including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Late in January 2015, he resigned as governor, reportedly due to differences with Prime Minister Sharif and his younger brother, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, over his place in the power structure, and joined PTI.

Late last month, his brick-layered office in Lahore was filled with members of parliament, candidates preparing for the cantonment board elections and citizens seeking small favours. You can see he knows how to get things in order. But he is an anomaly, and people seem to always ask one question: Why did he return to Pakistan? “It is not about positions or anything. It is really about changing the entrenched status quo,” says Sarwar, denying suggestions that he has prime ministerial ambitions.

When asked about the involvement of overseas Pakistanis in the country’s politics, he is all for it. “This is a very good trend,” he says. Overseas Pakistanis, he says, get involved in Pakistani politics with “a lot of passion and they want to bring change”.


A PTI fundraiser in London | Facebook
A PTI fundraiser in London | Facebook

Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Rabia Zia refers to her life before she joined PTI as one of a socialite who hosted parties at her home in London, inviting people from the investment banking crowd. She herself was a banker back then. The daughter of a former Pakistani diplomat, she was visiting her parents in Islamabad in 2007 when the Lawyers’ Movement was in full swing in Pakistan. She, too, started attending meetings and protests held by lawyers and students. The political consciousness of the youth and fearlessness of some of the journalists she met left her inspired, she says.

With this increased political awareness, Zia wanted to join a party that she “could actually build in London”. She met PTI chief Imran Khan through a friend of her father’s and was soon making preparations for opening the party’s chapters in the United Kingdom.

Her target audience were people who had migrated from Pakistan in the 1960s. The second group she contacted was of Pakistani students abroad. In a matter of months, the party had branches all over England, Wales and Scotland. At its peak, the PTI’s total British membership was between 5,000 and 6,000 — with every member regularly sending money to Pakistan. Between April 2011 and March 2012, according to Zia, they sent 119,000 pounds to PTI in Pakistan.

British regulations on donations and fundraising for foreign political parties require donor groups to register as non-profit institutions, with no paid staff; all the money collected has to reach the entity it is raised for through a legal bank account. These laws also require that donors get independently audited details of the expenses made from the money they donate. That is where the problem first arose. “It was a hotchpotch,” Zia says of the PTI’s financial operations in Pakistan. “There was no financial transparency. Being a banker, I got really scared.”

“When I resigned I noticed that the importance of international chapters had lessened, because more funding started to come from within Pakistan, from a lot of businessmen or whomever.”

Wariness over global transfers of money in the context of funding for terrorist activities could land her and other British donors for the PTI into trouble over the legality of the money they were sending to Pakistan. “There were real dangers. We couldn’t be handling cash in that manner.” Zia’s other worry was attracting allegations of money laundering which, going by MQM’s experience, can be very politically damaging. (A number of MQM activists in England, including the party chief, are facing money laundering charges over what they call the transfer of party funds, but which British authorities allege to be illegal cash transactions.)

After failing to get a post in the 2012 PTI election, she resigned from the party and, in late 2014, started working for Sarwar while he was serving as Punjab governor. Since Sarwar’s entry into PTI, Zia’s political affiliation has come full circle as she is a senior member of staff at his Lahore office. Her complaints, however, have refused to go away. “When I resigned I noticed that the importance of international chapters had lessened, because more funding started to come from within Pakistan, from a lot of businessmen or whomever.”


Akbar S Babar’s story is a forgotten footnote in PTI’s rise. His political clout has disappeared and party trolls refer to him as a traitor. The former vice president of the party turned whistleblower was one of the first people in the United States to start raising funds for PTI.

It was in the late 2000s that PTI decided to embark on a global fundraising campaign, targeting overseas Pakistanis who could donate as little as 10 to 15 pounds or dollars. To complement the campaign, Imran Khan made tours to various cities in North America and England. Two doctors based in Atlanta, Nasrullah Khan and Asad Khan, spearheaded fundraising from the Pakistani-American community. They are reported to have raised millions of dollars. In the two years between 2012 and 2014, the PTI chapter in the United States raised over two million dollars, says Dr Aftab Husain, vice president of the party in America.

Nasrullah Khan also helped formalise PTI’s donor network in the United States by registering a limited liability company under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). A disclosure statute enacted in 1938, the act requires organisations raising funds for foreign political parties to register themselves with the Department of Justice. Every six months, these organisations must also report their activities to the Department of State. The FARA registration documents submitted by PTI include an affidavit signed by the party’s chairman Imran Khan, which specifies that the funds collected from the United States will be used only for political purposes and to improve relations between Pakistan and America.

A provision in the Political Parties Order makes it mandatory that recipients of any political funding – whether individual or institutional – maintain a complete record of their income, including its sources, and expenses, says Khan.

At the receiving end of the money, the situation is rather murky. Babar says none of the donors and campaigners in the United States know if Pakistani law allows the political use of money they have been sending. “No one was ever consulted about the legality,” Babar says. He himself first looked into the matter only in 2011; his role in the party did not allow him access to financial records earlier, he says.

What he saw was disconcerting. In November 2014, after several years of fighting for internal audits, Babar filed a case with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), seeking an investigation into the funds PTI has received from overseas Pakistanis. He accuses the party of violating the provisions of the Political Parties Order 2002 which states: “Any contribution made, directly or indirectly, by any foreign government, multinational or domestically incorporated public or private company, firm, trade or professional association shall be prohibited and the parties may accept contributions and donations only from individuals.” Since PTI USA is registered as a company, the money it sends to Pakistan as political donation violates local statutes, says Babar. “This is all illegal.”

MQM's 30th Youm-e-Tasees celebrations in Chicago | Facebook
MQM's 30th Youm-e-Tasees celebrations in Chicago | Facebook

Political Parties: Disabled by Design, a 2004 report compiled by Zafarullah Khan, head of the Centre for Civic Education, an Islamabad-based advocacy group, shows that PTI is not the only party that raises funds from abroad in violation of the Political Parties Order. Even religious and sectarian parties raise funds in other countries and use them in Pakistan without complying with Pakistani laws.

“On May 19, 2004, dissidents in Pakistan Awami Tehreek, while creating their own faction with the name of ‘Kaarwan’, claimed that for the 2002 elections the party raised 100 million rupees from abroad in a mere 25 days,” his report reads. Khan also quotes Azam Tariq, chief of the defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, saying just days before his assassination in October 2003, “We have sympathisers in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom who send us 100 US dollars or 1,000 Riyals [each].”

A provision in the Political Parties Order makes it mandatory that recipients of any political funding – whether individual or institutional – maintain a complete record of their income, including its sources, and expenses, says Khan. While almost no party complies completely with this provision, no action is ever taken, which encourages further disregard of the authority of the ECP. “The election authorities have long ignored such violations of the law,” he says.

Analysts say the reason for the ECP failure is obvious; the authorities have never defined who can take what action if the Political Parties Order is violated. The ECP, for instance, does not have the power to look into the assets and liabilities of political parties, says Muddassir Rizvi who heads the Free and Fair Election Network, an independent monitoring group in Islamabad.

The regulatory framework clearly needs to catch up with the political activism of Pakistanis abroad. Without this, their fundraising will remain a political scandal that currently nobody seems to care about — donors, voters and election authorities alike.


This was originally published in Herald's May 2015 issue. To read more from Herald in print subscribe.