Transparency International’s yearly reports on corruption are anathema for governments because these are viewed as an indictment of them rather than of the state, civil society or political system. Thus the domestic focus is not so much on the country’s standing in TI’s global corruption index but on how the government has fared in comparison with its predecessor or its proposed successor-in-waiting. In Pakistan, however, a rather different sort of comparison is also made, albeit implicitly: whether there is more or less corruption in a quasi-legitimate military-dominated government compared to an elected civilian government. From this follow prescriptions for a change in government and, sometimes, even in the political system. Is this fair?
Corruption first became a major political issue in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister in 1988. Indeed, it was the main plank used by the conspiratorial remnants of the Zia regime to oust her from office barely two years later. Much the same reason was given when three democratically elected regimes – one led by Ms Bhutto again and two by Nawaz Sharif – were prematurely ousted by the ubiquitous military-bureaucratic “establishment”. It was significant, too, that whenever an elected civilian regime was ousted, “democracy” and “parliament” were conspicuously discredited, finally paving the way for the military takeover in 1999 when no public tears were shed for the demise of “another corrupt democracy”.
Ominously, the latest TI report on Pakistan arrives at a time when, once again, an elected civilian regime is besieged by corruption charges, and angry voices in the media, civil society and opposition are demanding its ouster. Here is a checklist of TI’s findings. (1) 70% of Pakistanis say that the present federal government is more corrupt than previous governments. (2) The police force retains its unenviable record as being the most corrupt institution in the country. Surprisingly, though, certain other findings are more significant. (1) The Federal Board of Revenue’s Customs and Taxation Departments and the Tendering and Contracting Departments of public sector corporations and local administrations are ranked as the least corrupt sectors of the economy. (2) In the US and UK, among other democracies, parliament and political parties are perceived by Americans to be the single most corrupt sectors of society while in Pakistan that dubious honour goes to civil servants and unelected officials. This means that institutions of the state like the unaccountable bureaucracy, army and judiciary are relatively more corrupt in Pakistan than in robust democracies where there is institutional accountability.
Therefore the solution to the problem of corruption in Pakistan doesn’t lie in periodically kicking out parliaments and governments and thereby discrediting electoral democracy but in firmly establishing a political system of checks and balances and accountability of state institutions so that unelected officials of the state are selected on merit, paid well and legally protected against the discretionary ravages of inept and corrupt politicians. Under the circumstances, a vibrant media armed with a strong freedom of information act and an independent judiciary at its back is a necessary condition for anti-corruption crusading.
Unfortunately, however, the free media and higher judiciary are not playing this role properly in Pakistan. Powerful elements in the media have become partisan political players, thereby losing credibility and unwittingly serving anti-democratic forces. Similarly, the higher judiciary is focusing its energies on abstract constitutional matters and partisan power games rather than on improving the system of lay justice and administration, thereby sustaining the pro-corruption status quo of state institutions. No wonder the latest TI report claims that corruption in the judiciary, education sector and local government has also increased in Pakistan in the last year or so.
There is an organic link between corruption, dictatorship and democracy. TI’s global corruption index shows that robust democracies are relatively less corrupt than dictatorships. Democratic India, for example, which is made of the same post-colonial politico-cultural mould as Pakistan, has climbed the ladder from being the 9th most corrupt country in the world in 1996 to the 95th most corrupt in 2009. In the same period, Pakistan’s checkered history of dictatorship and democracy places it at 42nd position today compared to 2nd in 1996. One reason why India’s democracy took so long to make anti-corruption progress has to do with the weight of the corrupt and inefficient “bureaucratic” public sector model adopted by its founding fathers (which is now being dismantled slowly) just as Pakistan’s dismal situation today is attributed to the unaccountability of the same state institutions and civil-military bureaucracy that dominate its politico-economic landscape.
The Auditor General’s latest report claims over Rs 300 billion were lost to malpractices and discretionary rules and procedures in the civil institutions of the federal government. There is not even a guesstimate for leakages in the budgets of the armed forces which account for nearly one-third of all tax revenues. TI Pakistan estimates corruption to cost over Rs 1000 billion a year. That is about one-third of the federal budget and over half the total tax revenue. If this percentage could be halved by the interventions of a free media and newly independent judiciary, and channeled into education and health every year, there would be no impoverishment of the masses and the lingering threat to democracy would dissipate.