The loudest slogan

December 7, 2014

The elite capture is reinforced through inter-elite legalised awards and transactions, which impact the masses far more negatively than petty corruption

The loudest slogan

‘Corruption’, as defined by law, is not Pakistan’s biggest problem. It’s like noise of malfunctioning engine of an old, and once expensive, car. This car is the country; its engine, the legal regime striving to tackle corruption; and we inherited it during the Colonial days. Malfunctioning of the engine is due to its long overdue tuning. Ironically, the drivers are trying to overcome the noise by playing loud and bad music in the car.

Those who pledge to end it, or who equate politicians’ venality with the economic misery of the masses, or who argue that corruption is stopping Pakistan to enter the 21st century; and who assert accountability commissions of this or that type and more laws delivering ‘severe punishments’ will end corruption are either fooling us, or do not understand the cartography of corruption in Pakistan. Perhaps both!

The forms of ‘corruption’ as various laws define it, as our leading revolutionaries portray it, as the self-ascribed opinion-makers understand it, and as majority of Pakistanis live, experience, and negotiate it in their daily lives, are starkly different from each other. Just like maternal cousins, who are closely related yet very different when it comes to family titles they are introduced with or known to the outside world.

In my view, the bigger problems are those ‘legally correct’ transactions which are not termed corruption by the high and mighty who do it like their weekend bridge sessions with close friends. Our laws do not term them ‘corruption’ either, but they cause and encourage the legally defined corruption.

So, the first point I would like to put up is that there are two types of corruption streams in Pakistan. The plain, petty, or overt corruption, which the laws also term so; and, the covert forms of corruption, whose negative economic impact on the society and the masses is far deep and wide than the other, small stream.

According to some leading sociologists, three Cs -- cinema, cricket, and crime -- promise rapid economic transformation of individuals in India as they work as valid shortcuts. Folks with grit, intelligence and street-smartness resort to these in the same order, to change their fate and fortunes. In Pakistan, cinema is replaced by corruption, and, thus, it’s a way of life for those who happen to be on the right side of a wrong economic transaction.

Most of those who do crime or corruption to get rich find it risky but worth the trouble bypass, as the highway of legitimate opportunities is blocked, or ‘not a thoroughfare’, or there is no link road to the highway that may connect them to the city of prosperity; or such road does not exist for them at all.

In Pakistan, or any country aspiring progress and prosperity, corruption will not end; and behold, it does not impact the living condition of the masses any more severely and negatively than other things that in the absence of corruption do. If we look at Japan, despite a reasonable degree of prosperity of all, and economic opportunity to all, cases of high level of corruption occurs. It means, if we make Pakistan, Japan, or Lahore, Paris, corruption won’t leave. It will increase, as increased emissions ensue industrialisation.

Corruption is the love child of holy trinity of capitalism, democracy, and the rule of law. All three of these adore it, and nurture it intimately and passionately.

The objective of this piece is to help the leaders promising change comprehend corruption a bit better, a bit deeper. Once they better understand, they may reconsider that the recovery of ‘looti hui qaumi daulat’ (plundered national wealth) won’t be of much help in affecting national progress and prosperity.

In any economy, prosperity is linked with generation of wealth and its due redistribution. Attempts of more wealth generation will give way to more leakages, and corruption is one of the several possible leakages. Putting too much energy and resources to stop small leakages is neither wise nor efficient.

The following five points will help the leaders understand the causes and cartography of corruption in Pakistan. Many of the legally-correct transactions that pinch and punch like corruption are not defined as such in the laws; nor are they considered so by those who do it without any moral compunction.

1) Most noted and highlighted form of corruption results from bending the rules or a law by the officials. This is prevalent in the realms of justice (judiciary, police, jails), taxation (Customs, income or property taxes), award of contracts (everywhere), theft of public property or low-payment of basic services (gas, electricity et al). These will reduce when more users have direct involvement in the oversight of those institutions that do such corruption. That will follow functional decentralisation and deeper democracy.

2) Many believe the quick fix for corruption is to award severe and exemplary punishments. In my view, hollow promises of severe punishment only increase the instances of corruption. When a law sets death penalty for keeping a few grams of narcotics, we are only increasing the price of bending the law at first encounter between a perpetrator and the law enforcer. It’s the certainty of light punishment that helps reduce such and other crimes. Severe punishments of small crimes are simply not enforceable at scale.

3) The real problems are those large-scale transactions that deeply hurt the economy and masses but in the eyes of the law they are legal and legitimate awards. When certain a finance minister ‘donated’ a few billions to a welfare wing of the armed forces from the funds reserved for ‘the welfare organisations and NGOs’, it was a legally correct transaction but helped him get clearance to be the Prime Minister later. Similarly, when a well-known Chairman of the Capital Development Authority awarded land for golf course for the boys or certain leases in the Margalla Hills, these were legally correct transactions. But were they not ‘covert corruption’ that got traded with other privileges, later?

4) When certain powerful institutions and individuals get agricultural lands at throwaway prices, then get these converted to residential area and sell them for 1000 times of the purchase price, legally these deals are not corruption, but the way they distort housing market and affect the masses, they hurt far deeper than the petty forms of corruption.

5) The ill-conceived salary and incentive structures of the government servants (bureaucrats, judges, and police officials) have inherent incentive to be corrupt. Since 1947, in real terms, the wages of the persons holding powerful offices have gone down in real terms. These need to change soon and significantly.

To conclude, I would say in Pakistan the elite capture is reinforced and consolidated through inter-elite legalised awards and transactions, which impact the masses far more negatively than petty corruption. Unless the leaders have deeper and nuanced understanding of the real venal transactions, and devise broad-base accountability, with prudent balance between laws and their enforceability, corruption will remain a song played in between routine national mourning of plunder by the politicians.

The loudest slogan