December Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 10 years ago

There was a time not many years ago when Pakistan used to compete with the likes of Nigeria for the title of the most corrupt country in the world. At that point we were at the bottom of the Transparency International (TI) pit. The 2009 TI report, coming at a politically critical time, has declared that we are the 43rd most corrupt country.

The TI report incidentally came after the government decided to pull back the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) from parliament and announced the list of alleged beneficiaries. A section of the media is gloating over it as if every accused is guilty. Although corruption cannot be condoned in any society, at the same time, its rise and fall shouldn’t be discussed without social, economic and political perspective.

Two social scientists, Donatella Della Porta and Yves Meny in their book Democracy and Corruption in Europehave said: “Corruption can be initially defined as [a] clandestine exchange between two markets; the political and/or administrative market and, the economic and social market.”

Corruption in developing and developed countries is not the exclusive domain of politicians and government officials, as it may appear from the present uproar in the media. Multi-billion dollar corruption scandals in the West have brought down famous banks and companies. In Pakistan, the media industry is also well aware of the corrupt practices of their owners, advertising agencies and even brand managers at multinationals.

We should analyse who the major actors in this ‘corruption drama’ are at the national level. It is difficult to say, though, what the level of the financial loss to the country is because of corruption. The figures floating in the media at present are not backed by any in-depth economic studies. In fact, the economy suffers larger losses due to delayed decisions on important development and commercial issues. The sugar fiasco is one such example.

Leaving aside corruption at the lower level, let’s discuss those deals which run into the millions and billions of rupees. The major actors in Pakistan are the same culprits who lecture from the pulpit that corruption is rampant — politicians, civil and military bureaucracy and the business tycoons. The latter is the biggest beneficiary of this system. As one businessman confessed the other day after giving me a lecture on rising corruption, if a business house pays Rs 10 million in bribes, the gain acquired is at least 10 times this amount.

Much of the corruption that irritates the common man is when they have to pay bribes to get legal work done at the lower level. At present in Pakistan, the corruption of the politicians is in focus — more than the lower-level corruption that frustrates the common man. A seasoned professional manager once told me that “when we vote for one candidate who has spent Rs 20 million or more on his election campaign, we also stamp approval that he can recover his investment with interest.” Those of us who have the opportunity as journalists to visit the elected representatives’ home or offices in the morning have seen a number of people sitting in the waiting room with applications. And almost 80% of these people ask for illegal favours.

It is because of this precise reason that the ordinary citizen did not rise when the NRO was being negotiated between President Musharraf, supported by his intelligence chief, and Benazir Bhutto, backed by the British diplomats. There were some meek voices but not the screaming headlines we see now. The country was threatened more by the Islamic militants while the popular political leadership was thrown into exile by the crafty Musharraf. Those who are talking about this bad law now knew that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif would not be able to return to politics without reconciliation with the military dictator. Also, the fact that the majority of the 37 million votes cast went to these two parties show that voters did not care for all the allegations of corruption made during the eight-year Musharraf rule. The people’s court gave its verdict in the elections. I am not saying that many who are mentioned in the NRO list are innocent; my contention is that the voters did not care. Maybe they chose the lesser evil, the one which is approachable.

So the question is: why the hue and cry now? A fellow journalist published the real charge sheet against President Zardari last month. The president — who has so many skeletons in his cupboard — according to this report, is charged for having said that Pakistan faces no threat from India; for having asked the India-friendly Hamid Karzai to share the stage with him at his first official press conference; for daring to offer that our ISI Chief would visit India to discuss the Mumbai attack and for supporting the Kerry-Lugar bill openly. Recently, during a talk-show PPP spokeswoman Fauzia Wahab also accepted that there is a difference of opinion between the president and army chief about the threat to the country and India policy.

Once again, an elected government is paying the price for ‘trespassing’ on the sacred domain of national security. There is no doubt that the national security policy followed so far has failed miserably. Thus, there is an immediate need to revamp it drastically by the civilian government. Indeed they have to take input from the armed forces but not dictation. This is where President Zardari was reckless. He should have walked this path patiently and prudently. Unwittingly, he has tried to bite off more than he can chew, relying on the backing of Washington. Little does he realise that Washington has always been unreliable when it comes to choosing sides between a civilian government and the armed forces.

He should have realised that to spread his wings he has to first keep his own house in order by offering improvement in governance and reduction in corruption. But unfortunately, his government record is not enviable on both counts. There is no doubt that corruption is widespread in this country.

But most of the people who complain about this in their drawing rooms or on TV have either not paid their taxes honestly or have paid bribes to get extra favours. It is a part of all capitalist economies; the difference is that of degree. In all civilised countries cases are registered against the politicians under normal law. There are no discriminatory laws for trying to pin down corrupt politicians and government officials. Hence, they don’t need a bad law like the NRO to save these leaders from prosecution after a political compromise. The burden of proving to the court that the charges against a politician have been framed to victimise them should be on the defendant.

This is not the first time the government has taken back cases against holders of public office. Ayub Khan disqualified politicians, who were later rehabilitated. Ghulam Ishaq Khan declared Asif Zardari as the most corrupt man in his speech announcing the sacking of the PPP government but was later seen swearing in Zardari as a minister. Nawaz Sharif was ousted on charges of loan defaults and tax cases; he returned to power and all cases against him were dropped. Though the PML-N is now opposing the NRO, it signed the Charter of Democracy which talks against political victimisation.

A point to be remembered is that no government has been thrown out in Pakistan just because they were corrupt; they are shunted out because they tried to claim their rightful place in the political structure of Pakistan and because they had different national security prescriptions than the one followed by the establishment. These old policies have brought us wanton killings of civilians and our army soldiers by the same jihadis who were called strategic assets till yesterday. The attack on the president is not only because of his cronies and corruption tales; it is because he talked out of turn on building relations with India, America and Afghanistan much to the dislike of the establishment. The democrats are not taking this important factor into account. The camouflage of the corruption war is to tame the civilian government and keep the control with the establishment which has ruined this country.

The system will take time to evolve but we have to be patient and keep playing the role of a watchdog. But not that of the wolf that devours the democratic system. As Churchill said, it is “the worst political system, except for all others.” Or as philosopher Noberto Bobbio once said it is “a better system than those that have preceded and succeeded it.” Let’s be careful that we do not beat the corruption drum so loud that the sound of marching jackboots is missed by the nation. Remember, the damage jackboots do is much larger and long-lasting.