There has to be a wider agenda for accountability and not a selective one

October 4, 2015

Dr Mohammad Waseem focuses on what is wrong with the mechanism of accountability in Pakistan and why

There has to be a wider agenda for accountability and not a selective one

The News on Sunday: How do you look at the current process of accountability in Pakistan, being put into effect by the NAB and FIA, and seemingly aimed at selected political parties? Is there a sense of fairness attached to it or do you think it is politically-motivated and reflects the inherent civil military tussle?

Dr Mohammad Waseem: The debate about corruption is very old. Each military government launched a movement against its predecessor which was a civilian or political government. And the general framework was that of corruption -- that the politicians should be held responsible for whatever has happened by way of misconduct in public office. So, to that extent, you can say that there are political uses of the issue of corruption. That means that it de-legitimises the political class. While it de-ligitimises the politicians, it brings into play extra-parliamentary forces and they become a moral brigade.

In a sense, the issue of corruption is the issue of the middle class. Educated, professional middle class is the recruitment base for both the army and the bureaucracy. (Army means the officer cadre of the army). Thus we can say that corruption is a weapon in the hands of the establishment which it uses either against the previous political government or the incumbent civilian government, which seems to be the case right now. And that is why the political parties, in government or outside the government, feel that National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is encroaching on them and it is using the same old framework of accountability which was biased in favour of the extra-parliamentary forces and against the civilians.

Now, what is the NAB itself? There is no NAB in England, or France, or America, or Germany. The bureaucracy in Pakistan has been saying often in the past that the existing institutional structure is unable to deliver on a particular issue, and therefore, we should create another forum. A public corporation such as Wapda, Steel Mill, or PIA would then not be accountable within the internal departmental framework. So, that in a way frees them of accountability. The NAB itself is not accountable to, for example, the parliamentary committee, at least not de facto. The establishment indicts the political class through the issue of corruption.

TNS: What is the issue of corruption?

MW: The issue of corruption can best be understood in terms of principal-agent relationship. Principal is the state and state functionaries and public office holders are the agents. Agents are supposed to, for example, tax the public, get the money and give it to the principal because they are the agents to the principal. What they do is that they facilitate the passage of some money into their own pockets. In other words, the public money becomes private money.

Corruption can be dealt with in terms of lack of publicness of fines. The ruling elite has no idea and no imagination about public money; any money is theirs. Why is it that corruption has increased manifold after independence? That is because in British India, corruption was rampant at the lower rungs of the state. And there was an appeal system and then we came up to the higher levels where the English bureaucracy was dissociated from the society. Therefore, it did not countenance the pressures of caste, tribe, sect, religion. That level of objectivity, which the state bureaucracy at that time enjoyed, is no more.

"There have been allegations that it (NAB) is selective. So, after MQM and PPP, will there be a shift from Sindh to Punjab? Is it coming the PML-N way? What is happening? This is what made analysts say that NAB is playing into the hands of the establishment."

Now the society is caste-ridden; it is partisan towards family ties. So, I would say that publicness is lacking. The old model was where the moneyed people, the landed elite, sought powers through representation in the legislative assemblies. In other words, the way was from money to power. When the added franchise was put in place and the political base started expanding and the non-elite started getting elected and got recruited into the bureaucracy or the army officer cadre, then power was used to get money. The earlier route was from money to power and today’s model is from power to money.

TNS: Some people think the chorus against corruption is an expression of a class that is against representative democracy and also that representative democracy contains within itself the mechanism of accountability. Each election perhaps is one way of holding the political class accountable?

MW: In the world at large, election is an exercise in accountability. The corrupt will be out and respect by the public would be an asset for getting elected. In Pakistan, the corrupt leaders tend to be elected again. The question is why? These are the people who do constituency work: they offer their services to their voters, to the constituency, to the party. The voting public looks at that particular aspect of the leader -- that here is the person who delivers, whether through corruption or not.

Politicians are brokers between the state and society. The society wants to get things done through the state’s institutional mechanism and does not have access. There is something wrong with the bureaucratic, rather administrative, system of this state which does not solve issues, or allow people to have access, such as access to funds released in time, public services, electricity or education, etc. Therefore, they rely on brokers, the politicians who get them access, and they may have to pay a price for that.

So, corruption is a consequence of lack of working or functioning of the institutions. Therefore, we have to look at where the issue is rooted. The current administrative system does not deliver and, therefore, people take the extra route of corruption to get things done.

TNS: In a serious democratic dispensation, what should be the mechanism for across the board accountability of financial corruption? Do we need a separate institution like NAB along with anti-corruption departments or should the institutions have their own mechanisms and let the ordinary courts do the job?

MW: Institutions do have their own mechanisms. There is always an intra-departmental accountability. Legally, institutionally and structurally speaking, it is there. The old style classical model of institutional accountability is there and was there. The issue is what to do? Elections are not the answer, and they are not the answer, because in elections in a rural society like Pakistan the voting public comes from the large 60-70 per cent rural sector while the issue of corruption emerges mainly from the urban middle classes. Secondly, the institutions are closed in the sense that they don’t deliver. That is why the public is not against the corrupt leaders; they want them to deliver.

So, the real issue is the delivery of services by the institutions, by whichever way. The practice has been to create a separate institution, such as Ombudsman and it never worked. There are so many Ombudsmen in Pakistan, taxation Ombudsman, etc. We have NAB and before that we had Ehtesab Commission.

Why does it not work in Pakistan? One, they are politically-conceived in the sense that they go after the big fish, thinking that seeing the top men suffering and penalised will make people learn their lessons. This is the most stupid argument. And it has never worked. Corruption is not among the big fish. They are visible because there are large sums involved but that is not the issue. The issue is the corruption which is going on behind one million counters in every department, in every institution.

Whenever there is interaction between the state and its citizens, there is corruption. The institutional decay has happened during the last sixty or seventy years. There is a kind of an arena where competing forces are fighting each other: army, bureaucracy, judiciary, and parliament. Each force is pulling and pushing, and not cooperating and supporting each other.

In this situation of clash of institutions, the issue of corruption becomes a blame game. The ‘others’ are corrupt. The citizen who is looking for a redressal of his grievances and does not find a way out when he reaches the counter adopts unfair means to get things done. That would be the first point of tackling corruption, and not a separate institution. Elections are few and far between. For five long years there are no elections. Therefore, whatever goes on in between, there is no check on that.

Politicians get elected despite their reputation. Therefore, the answer lies at the bottom -- at the level where a citizen interacts with the state. And that means that the petty clerk, the lower bureaucracy, is directly responsible for not speeding up the administrative process; not delivering, not pushing the matter fast enough for the higher authorities. And he is responsible for taking away that particular money, little money, in a million counters, which belongs to the principal but the agents skim off.

The answer is citizen empowerment, institutional opening, political supremacy over the institutions of the state. The central institution in this regard is bureaucracy. In England, France, Germany and some other countries, the money comes from the public through tax, revenue-raising and it is disbursed in the same way. It is collected through the institutions and is disbursed through the institutions.

In countries of the third world, particularly Pakistan, the money does not come only from taxes. The so-called development funds come in a very big way in the form of foreign aid or in other big chunks, and it is there that the institutions are rendered irrelevant. The money is spirited away and given into the hands of the higher authorities and they get away with their own will.

So, I would say that corruption is to be tackled at the level of the meeting point of the state and society at various levels.

Read also: Corrupted history

TNS: What about institutions like military, judiciary and media that do not want to be held accountable to any external institution?

MW: The constitution protects the two institutions: the army and the judiciary. No writing against them and no bad profiling in public is allowed about these institutions. They are sacrosanct. Now, generals and admirals and others have been apprehended, individually. And we know that the lower judiciary is extremely corrupt. There is legal protection which is not very imaginative because it bars accountability into these services and institutions.

This, in a way, incapacitates the judiciary to legislate over others. For example, Justice Iftikhar became an icon of justice in this country. He came and left and nothing by way of improvement in the structure of dispensation of justice happened; nothing by way of holding the judges accountable at the local level. The system is exactly the way it was, barring some improvements here and there.

The military has its own mechanism of accountability like other departments. But it would stress the point that it is far more serious about accountability than other departments. And that no external institution should touch them.

The media has got some level of independence now; this is a welcome development. The issue is that of media trial of people and institutions; it is there that the problem arises. The media, in the same way as judiciary and NAB, has or at least seems to have a supra-political agenda. And it is here that people have started suspecting that media has black sheep who have an agenda of de-ligitimisng politicians and political parties. Therefore, it is not always into the genuine practice of giving the news and analysing the news. It probably has a slant sometimes (at least some channels) and that slant is unjustified. The cost is democracy and politics.

TNS: What problems do you see with NAB? Where does NAB stand today in terms of selection of cases, transparency, and performance? Is it a selective exercise? There are calls for revisiting its laws.

MW: There have been allegations that it is selective. So, after MQM and PPP, will there be a shift from Sindh to Punjab? Is it coming the PML-N way? What is happening? This is what made analysts say that NAB is playing into the hands of the establishment. Although the establishment itself would say that NAB is independent and that is how it should be -- looking at all the parties in the same way but not all the institutions. That is the real trouble. Other institutions stay away and only political institutions are in its ambit. There has to be a wider agenda and not a selective agenda.

Second, if you want democracy in this country, let the people judge through the vote like it happens in other countries. And that would happen only when there is institutional performance to the satisfaction of the people.

TNS: What about a country like India, where news of political corruption are flashed every now and then, and yet the system is never threatened as it is in Pakistan. Is military an alternative to corrupt politicians as the urban middle classes seem to think?

MW: India is a very corrupt country. In Pakistan, because of the peculiar nature of the civil military relations, the atrophy of the civil institutions led to the military takeover very early. In India, it did not. In India, the civil institutions were able to survive, even though the state’s two institutions, the army and bureaucracy, were and are extremely powerful in India even today. But elected institutions, which mean the parliament and political parties, dominate the public discourse, the public office, and the agenda. That is where the difference is.

In India, elections are relatively less rigged or unrigged than Pakistan. The parliamentary institutions have been able to keep the extra-parliamentary forces away, even though the focus of corruption scandals is very much on the political parties and parliamentarians. But the erosion of their legitimacy is limited because people do not question the system itself. They want to follow the agenda. They don’t ask the army to come in or the judiciary to take over.

In other words, the belief and faith in democracy is much higher in India than in Pakistan. And that has led to the fact that the elite in India operates under the constitution. The elite in Pakistan tend to operate above the constitution. That is the big difference. This is what has sustained democracy in India and challenged the prospects of democracy in Pakistan.

There has to be a wider agenda for accountability and not a selective one