Transparency International claims that “Pakistan is one of the three most corrupt countries in the world”. An American Congressman, James Moran, has written to US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, charging prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s family of “acquiring profitable private firms in a consistently corrupt and criminal manner”. Since Mr Moran hasn’t been sued, CNN’s Riz Khan asked Ms Bhutto to respond to the charge of corruption levelled against her government.
For a split second, Ms Bhutto was nonplussed. Then she hit back so audaciously that even her worst detractors were left dumbfounded. “Corruption? How?” she asked rhetorically, again and again, ticking off her government’s many “accomplishments”. But if the question went begging on CNN, its relevance has not been lost on the public. In fact, at every ‘khokha’, ‘majlis’ or ‘bhaithak’ across the country (Ms Bhutto is averse to ‘drawing rooms’) people are only talking of the pervasive and crippling burden of corruption.
Some well-wishers of Ms Bhutto have actually braved the lioness’ den and confronted her with this issue. “Name the people”, challenges Ms Bhutto, her cheeks reddening with anger, “where’s the proof?”, she demands. When it is pointed out that kickbacks, commissions and embezzlements rarely leave any footprints — that is why not a single corruption/ embezzlement case against a number of opposition leaders has borne fruit — she dismisses the allegations out of hand. “It’s another conspiracy to target my loyalists, deprive me of their services and weaken my power base”, she explains. Talking of corruption with the prime minister can therefore be an acutely frustrating, depressing and alienating experience.
But it is becoming harder still to ignore the issue. Pakistan’s ‘family jewels’ are being frittered away with impunity. Every major privatisation deal has been dogged with bitter controversy. Every DFI is in financial trouble, caused by unwarranted interference from Islamabad. And every government corporation is bloated with political appointees and steeped in corrupt practices.
The recent debates and Q/A sessions in parliament reveal the perverse mindset of our elected representatives. We are told that we must pay higher taxes because the government doesn’t have money for roads, schools, hospitals, population planning, etc. When we ask where the money has gone, we are shocked to discover an ongoing scandal of astronomical proportions.
Tens of billions of rupees have been stolen from the banks by our rulers, past and present; our hard earned money finances our leaders’ foreign junkets; it is spent on their medical treatment in exotic lands; it is used to buy fleets of Mercedes and Pajeros for their families; it is consumed in the refurbishment of their offices, residences and playgrounds; it has been handed out to their flunkies as fees and commissions; it is lavished on egotistical projects for personal projection. Profitable public enterprises have been sold to cronies for a song. Acres of valuable lands have been gifted or given away at a fraction of market prices to party loyalists and qabza groups.
Yet our rulers are at pains to explain that they live in abject poverty. That is why, we are told, less than Rs 2 million was paid last year in wealth taxes by our feudal landlords. And that is why our parliament is opposed to any tax on agricultural incomes. Meanwhile, our impoverished prime ministers, chief ministers and governors have all been busy importing hugely expensive limousines for their personal use without paying any duty on them.
Our rulers have mortgaged several generations of Pakistanis to come. When will this loot and plunder come to an end? Who will string up all the crooks and thugs who rob us of our daily bread? If there are no messiahs in sight, can we at least console ourselves with the pangs of conscience which have stricken Mian Nawaz Sharif of late?
In a laudable gesture, Mr Sharif has told his party members not to apply for plots of land in the government’s latest ‘housing scheme’ in Islamabad which is aimed at lining the pockets of our parliamentarians. He has also floated the idea of a parliamentary committee to combat corruption. But the PPP has, disgracefully, rejected this suggestion. The fear apparently is that a policy of setting a thief to catch a thief might demean the political system which parades as ‘democracy’ in this country.
Over Rs 500 billion have been plundered, in one way or another, from the national exchequer since 1980. That is more than what is needed for self-sufficiency in new ports, roads, airports, dams, hospitals and schools. Is there no limit to the avarice of our ruling elites?
It is high time that the judiciary reasserted its independence and integrity and bailed us out. Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and his compatriots are placed in a unique position. They have an agenda cut out for them. They could, for instance, set the ball rolling by investigating “Mehrangate”, the most blatant case of corruption, horsetrading and embezzlement in recent times. The rest will follow. Pakistan will owe them a debt of gratitude for generations to come. And the Quaid i Azam’s blood, sweat and tears will not have been in vain.