July Issue 2019
The Big Question: Will the PTI government’s anti-corruption campaign bear fruit?
If one were to believe Prime Minister Imran Khan’s anti-corruption slogans – repeated ad nauseam for 20 years – Pakistan has a monopoly on corruption. Once we have rid ourselves of this virus, rivers of milk and honey will flow across this ‘naya Pakistan.’
But despite PM Khan’s loud, angry rhetoric, his party has done little to eradicate the venality that continues to flourish, albeit at a lower level. One reason for this reduction is that the economy has slowed down, and there are few large government projects to skim off. Many civil servants, terrified of NAB and the courts, are simply ducking decision-making when large amounts are involved.
So can the ruling PTI actually make Pakistan corruption-free? The short answer has to be ‘no.’ Our ‘selected’ PM has repeatedly cited Singapore as an example of a state making rapid progress, but without politicians and civil servants accepting bribes. He forgets that senior bureaucrats there are paid as much as CEOs of multinational companies. Also, the city-state has a population far less than Karachi’s, making it easier to govern.
If we look around our region, we find that other countries have done well despite levels of corruption that equal – and often exceed – Pakistan’s. India is regularly convulsed by financial scandals involving politicians, but its economy is growing rapidly. Bangladesh is thriving in relative terms, despite the ruling party’s greed.
Of course corruption holds back investment and economic activity. Pakistan’s problem is that our economy has been warped by the inordinate share of the pie that goes to defence. Development funds have to be borrowed, and the exchequer can barely service loans and pay for an inefficient civil service. Although salaries have improved, rapid inflation has eroded their value. So corrupt civil servants rationalise their behaviour by arguing that they cannot make ends meet.
The subcontinent has a long and dishonourable history of corruption. The Mughals expected expensive gifts to grant fiefdoms that paid the aristocracy hefty amounts in tax revenues. Even earlier, princes and rajas squeezed the peasantry for funds to support their obscenely lavish lifestyles.
There is thus a long tradition of bribery that is part of the bureaucratic structure of South Asia. If Imran Khan thinks he has a magic wand that will rid us of this toxic culture, good luck to him. I, for one, would be delighted if he succeeds. But he needs to make sure he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: by focusing solely on one evil, he has lost sight of the larger picture. Rampant population growth, poor educational standards and the lack of clean drinking water all deserve attention and resources.
Farrukh Khan Pitafi
To ensure the quality of discourse, let us first appreciate a few important nuances. First, it is, technically, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s accountability drive. He did shine light on these matters, but this organically remains an inextricable part of the state’s institutional response to certain developments; for instance, in the Sharif family’s case, the revelations brought to the fore what we now know as the Panama Papers. Of course, Khan took the matter to court and played an instrumental role in building pressure, but had it not been for the courts, the matter would still be unresolved.
Similarly, in the mega money-laundering case, it was the country’s apex court that ordered the inquiry that finally led to the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari and his sister, Faryal Talpur. There are numerous other cases too, but most of them were initiated by statutory bodies like the NAB and lack the Panama Papers’ level of public attention.
The second nuance is that for any drive to endure and bear fruit, you need consistency in enabling atmospherics. In Pakistan, they change after every few years.
The third nuance is about the scope of the problem and the drive. For instance, how many corruption cases are there and how much time will be needed to bring them to their logical conclusion? The cases of white-collar crime are usually messy and take considerable time to be brought to closure. It is imperative to note here that in order to be credible, the accountability process cannot be limited to a few cases and this ensures that it will essentially be a long-drawn process.
The fourth and final nuance is about precedents. How many cases have been brought to closure in the past? Barring the Panama Papers case, a precious few could reach the final stage. Now, put them together and see what this means. An across-the-board accountability process will consume considerable time and resources and will have to be independent of any single government. Atmospherics are already not too conducive, owing to the distress caused by an economy under stress, a hung parliament, a polarised society and extraneous political shockwaves. Please don’t forget that the government has a knack for continuously adding to its burden.
Hence, it seems unlikely that we will see a major dramatic breakthrough during the current term, other than moderate success in a few high profile cases. But despite my skepticism, let me also remind you that at the start of the Panama Papers trial we were just as sceptical. But PM Khan does not give up easily.
With every passing day, doubts about the success of the PTI government’s anti-corruption campaign are increasing. It is primarily because of the government’s own conduct, which is worsening day by day, and its policies, especially the ones relating to the economy. For an anti-corruption campaign, the government needs widespread support and a clarity in planning – both of which are lacking.
Since taking charge in August last year, the government has failed miserably in spelling out any clear policy that could last for a significant period of time. All we have seen, instead, is a consistent vilification campaign against its political opponents, many of whom are being held to account for their past actions.
Impatience and intolerance have become the virtues of government spokespersons, who are in a hurry to complete an accountability process against their opponents. The consistent rise in fuel, gas, electricity bills and other commodities of everyday use have distanced citizens from the government’s claims and the long-term plans it had announced. For the underpriviliged section of society, day-to-day survival is of primary concern; they are neither interested, nor can they understand the intricacies of government policies on tax collection, revenues and imports and exports.
The latest Economic Survey of Pakistan has disclosed all the secrets about the current situation of the country’s economy. The underprivileged may not grasp the details about economics, or the factors resulting in this dismal situation, but they nevertheless learn of the general state of decline through the TV and print media.
The most worrying scenario is in the agriculture sector. For the poor majority living in the rural areas, the primary resource and means of livelihood is linked to agriculture in one way or another.
At present, the government does not appear to be on a strong footing, on any front, other than foul mouthing the opposition. Its declared and undeclared actions to ‘silence’ and control the freedom of expression on mainstream and alternate media have given rise to mistrust in an already precarious situation. The government’s relations with its allies, especially from Balochistan, do not seem to be cemented well, owing to the non-fulfilment of promises.
Its own ranks are by no means any better. Some of its allies are facing long-standing cases in the courts of law. In addition to these, the most critical factor is the question mark on the credibility and competence of the institutions to effectively conduct corruption cases. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is the key player in this regard, as far as the current and future cases are concerned. Recently, in some cases, even the Supreme Court has questioned the NAB’s capacity and competence. The government ministers’ statements, which are uncalled for, are adding to the NAB’s misery.
There does not seem to be any hope in the anti-corruption drive and it seems to be a repeat of such attempts in the past that did little to bring any relief to the country and its people.
Syed Mohammad Ali
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI’s) rhetoric of social justice resonates with the youth and hard-working citizens across the country. Expecting the PTI-led government to rid Pakistan of the menace of corruption and address our lingering inequalities, however, remains a tall order.
The PTI government has established an Assets Recovery Unit and introduced a whistleblower law. It is also using the NAB to go after top Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and (Pakistan People’s Party) PPP leaders. The NAB has tried to prove its impartiality by initiating action against a few PTI heavyweights, but such measures have not convinced PTI detractors that the anti-corruption drive is unbiased. Like the Turkish and Chinese anti-corruption drives, which Prime Minister Imran Khan so admires, the federal government’s attempts to implement accountability are also being described as a vehicle for punishing political rivals.
A critical view of the government’s ongoing anti-corruption drive does not imply that corruption of the former ruling elite needs to be overlooked. Yet the current thrust of the drive does not only seem selective, but also shallow. It may be too early to determine whether the PTI-led dispensation will curb corruption across the country, yet its record in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) over the past five years is not impressive.
The pervasive corruption in Pakistan is in fact a symptom of our top-down patronage-based politics, which makes effective governance impossible. Institutions of state are meant to offer rewards rather than efficiently deliver public services.
The PTI has repeatedly claimed that its main motivation to persecute the corrupt is not based on personal vendetta, but to help improve the country’s economy, reduce income inequality and eradicate poverty. Yet many electables, who hardly have impeccable records, have managed to penetrate the ranks of the ruling party. Sugar barons, corporate farmers and the traditional elite now yield immense influence within the party.
The PTI’s team of economic advisors is working firmly under IMF directives to implement neoliberal policies that are fixated on the use of the market mechanism to spur growth, instead of trying to address the plight of the have-nots.
The party has walked back on its promise of stopping discretionary spending on parliamentarians’ schemes, which doles out the taxpayer’s money for politically motivated projects, rife with opportunities for kickbacks and nepotism.
Under the current circumstances, we may at best expect a handful of political rivals to cough up some money, but it will not be enough to end the culture of patronage, elitism and deep-seated inequities that the PTI had promised to root out.
Aasim Zafar Khan
A rigorous campaign against corruption has long been part of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) party manifesto. The idea that a small group of people who had stolen immeasurable amounts of money from the citizens of Pakistan would actively be persecuted, and the looted monies recovered, made for a great electoral promise. Since coming to power, the PTI has, apparently, been actively pursuing these thieves in a no-holds barred manner.
Or have they?
Critics of the PTI claim that the party’s anti-corruption witch-hunt is nothing more than a blanket being used to disguise what is really happening: taking down political opponents so that they are unable to partake in the future politics of the country. Why, then, they ask, would it just focus on the top cadre of the PTI”s political opponents: The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)?
If, indeed, the PTI was gung-ho about rooting out corrupt elements within the Pakistani landscape, it would do well to look within its own ranks first, because, after all, one must first get one’s own house in order, before pointing fingers at another. Take, for instance, much of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government under Pervaiz Khattak. Or those electables from Southern Punjab who delivered the much needed seats for the PTI, so that the party could form the government in the country’s most important political arena.
What about Aleem Khan? Jahangir Tareen? Faisal Wawda? These are just a few black sheep within the ranks of the PTI government who would make for interesting anti-corruption investigations.
Another noticeable absence from the PTI’s anti-corruption campaign is the structural corruption that lives within most government institutions: WAPDA, Customs, Federal Board of Revenue and the police. Corruption within these institutions is so deep that a parallel working system not only exists, but thrives. Ask any common citizen and you’ll find that it is easier to take the corrupt route rather than the lawful one. What is the PTI going to do about this?
And lastly, the ongoing amnesty scheme. The sitting government is in such financial shambles that it is okay with people declaring their hidden assets at a paltry rate of between one per cent and 4.5 per cent without any questions asked on where the funds to purchase those assets came from. Maybe sometime in the future, these questions will be asked. But for now, it seems that due to the levels of poverty across the country, and the lack of creative ideas on how to raise funds, the government is allowing a large number of people to come clean. This is not how a government that had vowed to eliminate corruption, operates.