A corrupted debate – by I.A. Rehman

An open, democratic government is still the best polity even if its leaders are less austere and less capable than non-political experts or praetorian guards.

Thursday, 10 Dec, 2009

The ongoing debate on accountability is not free from the fundamental flaw that often mars public discourse in Pakistan, in that the entire emphasis is on symptoms of wrongdoing by persons in authority, holders of political or bureaucratic or judicial offices.

Little is being said about the causes and factors that make corruption possible. The result, as usual in such exercises, will be that a few heads may roll while the cancer of corruption will continue to spread to as yet unaffected parts of the state — if any part can be claimed to have remained unaffected.

As the discussion gets more and more unedifying, one begins to doubt that corruption is being seriously debated because the targets are persons presumed to be corrupt and not the many facets of corruption. This raises doubts about the motives of the anti-corruption brigade — whether it wants to chop off a few of the crowns of the hydra-headed monster of corruption or whether it has decided to kill the monster itself. Sometimes outbursts on corruption in high places cannot be accepted as serious debate, they sound more like underworld brawls.

Quite a few persons in authority have also contributed to the decline in the quality of arguments. For instance, the plea that no NRO beneficiary should quit his ministerial gaddi until he is convicted by a court (after a trial that may continue longer than the honourable fellow’s term in office) is not worth uttering in a decent society.

Obviously some people have not heard of the adage that Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion nor of the modern-day dictum penned by Sir Ivor Jennings (who, incidentally, tried to guide Pakistan’s first constitution-makers) in the following words:

‘The most elementary qualification demanded of a minister is honesty and incorruptibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but also that he should appear to possess it.’

The key word in the quotation is incorruptibility. That is the criterion by which ministers ought to be judged and not by actions done while holding office or before assuming or after quitting an official position. The duty of ministers suspected of wrongdoing is not debatable; it is a settled matter.

The issue of central importance in the whole discussion about corruption or accountability is the increase in corruption despite six decades of efforts to eradicate it. The Anti-Corruption Act, which one believes is still on our statute book, was passed five months before Pakistan came into being. Provisions regarding the liability of public servants found in possession of property disproportionate to their legitimate earnings were added to it more than 50 years ago. And anti-corruption measures have been announced by all regimes.

The Public Representative Offices Disqualification Act was adopted soon after independence and it was invoked against two chief ministers before it was denounced as incompatible with democratic politics in 1954.

Ayub Khan devised EBDO to send politicians home and used martial law cover to purge the bureaucracy of bad eggs (of the regime’s choice). The charge-sheets against the condemned politicians and civil servants show many of them as harmless sparrows compared to the latter-day sharks.

Yahya Khan, Bhutto, Ziaul Haq and Musharraf all tried their hand at throwing out politicians and bureaucrats on charges of corruption and yet corruption has increased at a galloping pace and Pakistan has continued to climb higher and higher in the list of the world’s most corrupt states. What is to be done about this? It is obvious that axing a few more politicians and bureaucrats, however necessary, will not help. It has not helped in the past and it is not going to help in the future.

Some of the institutional weaknesses in the anti-corruption plans have long been identified. For instance, there is no doubt that the drive against corruption has suffered due to its control being vested in the executive. Since all papers, evidence and proof is with the establishment it abuses its powers to prosecute political or personal rivals and covers up the tracks of its favourites.

This applies to all watchdogs — from the Anti-Corruption Establishment to the National Accountability Bureau. Thus, anybody who wishes to fight corruption should be demanding (once again) an accountability mechanism outside and independent of the executive.

Secondly, it has been accepted since the days of Fulton and Cornelius that neither politician nor bureaucrat should have discretionary powers. When will this principle become the rule in Pakistan? In a country where everybody from the head of state to a petty assistant considers discretionary powers a matter of life and death freedom for discretion is problematic.

Thirdly, there is total consensus on the fact that corruption and secret government go hand in hand. Transparent governance and complete respect for the people’s right to know are essential pre-requisites to fair and honest management of public affairs. Is any progress being made towards these goals?

One curious feature of the current discussion on corruption is the absence of any reference to legalised corruption. Nobody includes land grants to public servants, allotment of residential/commercial plots to all and sundry, post-retirement perks, issuance of short-term SROs and loans to the infant children of the high and mighty in the list of corrupt deeds though they manifestly fall in that category. What is conveniently forgotten is the fact that legalised corruption has emboldened many to indulge in what is still considered illegal conduct.

Above all, it is time to take a hard look at the corruption of the system. Let the campaign against individual culprits continue but attention must not be diverted from the fact that a corrupt system causes incalculably greater harm to the people and the state than corrupt individuals.

Colonialism, fascism, dictatorship and theocracy are corrupt systems. No good can ever come out of these systems even if their guiding lights are austere and untainted by personal misconduct. An open, democratic government is still the best polity even if its leaders are less austere and less capable than non-political experts or praetorian guards. A democratic system has its own corrective mechanisms — parliamentary oversight and reference to the people — and all attempts to summon extra-democratic arbitrators (these are easily identifiable in Pakistan) will corrupt the anti-corruption debate itself.

PS. Yesterday Pakistan joined comparable states in celebrating Anti-Corruption Day. Ha ha!