The single-minded pursuit of accountability of the corrupt among political leaders has become a hallmark of the PTI led government.
iven the many differences in the political realm, there is little disagreement that one of the major issues faced by Pakistan is corruption. Corruption has not only affected governance but has also eroded people’s trust in the system. It has diminished their resilience to the point of loot and plunder becoming acceptable – almost a cultural norm. Stealing a part of the public money is defended by formulations like khaaya toh lagaya bhi (embezzled some but also put some to public use).
Long years of such looting and political impunity in the form of NROs as well as purposeful weakening of the watchdog institutions have impoverished our people, practically bankrupted the state and made the country debt ridden despite its rich resources. Growth and development have been hampered and the thirst for innovation and creativity among the youth has been suppressed while the corrupt elite have accumulated assets worldwide.
While properties worth billions of rupees were being purchased in London and bank accounts in Middle East were filled to the neck, the Pakistani working class suffered. While petty thieves were punished, big looters were appointed to public offices and declared sacrosanct. NROs and political muk-mukas (mutually beneficial corrupt settlements) were touted as some kind of truth and reconciliation measures. These machinations of the political class were the worst deceit and betrayal of the people of Pakistan.
It was in this backdrop that the people of Pakistan voted for change in 2018. Changing the rotten system required extreme courage and the kind of mettle shown by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his revolutionary movement against the corrupt status quo and his categorical stance of “no compromise on corruption”. Though, legislations, executive machinery and judicial oversight on corruption have been there since 1947, it is the political will not to spare the dishonest that has become the hallmark of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-inssaf (PTI) government.
There was always a realisation that the fight against corruption would require locking horns with the powerful looters and their supporters who would join forces regardless of their disagreements. The establishment of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), attempts to blackmail the government into amending the NAB law, disruption of fair investigations, crying foul over arrests made by independent watchdogs and defaming of state institutions like the Pakistan Army show that fighting the cancer of corruption is going to be an uphill task. Yet, the PTI government, and most pertinently the prime minister’s determination to fight the status quo in order to eliminate the cancer of corruption have proved more formidable. This augurs well for the people of Pakistan.
Those who fight corruption must have clean hands themselves. The government’s anti-corruption drive makes no distinction on account of party allegiance. Opposition’s mantra of political victimisation and allegations of one-sidednesss have failed on account of the fact that several PTI stalwarts have been booked under various charges. Commissions have been formed to inquire into alleged wrongdoing by them and a crackdown has been launched against petrol, sugar, and pharma cartels. Several PTI members and government officers have been arrested and references have been filed in accountability courts against them. It is for the first time in the history of the country that an anti-corruption drive has made no distinction between the prince and the pauper.
In the absence of strong watchdog institutions, impunity becomes the very foundation upon which a corrupt system is built. Former regimes were bent upon making accountability institutions toothless by appointing their favourites as heads of such bodies and making amendments to weaken the laws. Once the NAB chairman appointed by those now in the opposition refused to toe their line, they tried to blackmail the government into making 34 amendments to the NAB law to make the NAB subservient to powerful looters. A cursory glance on the proposed amendments is enough to reveal its true intent which is to give a clean chit to corrupt party leaders and to break the institutional backbone.
National institutions can only thrive when the trichotomy of power is respected. The PTI government has strengthened the accountability institutions by making them independent, accountable and transparent. This has resulted in a marked improvement in their working. The NAB, in the last two years, has recovered more than Rs 389 billion of looted money (2019-2020) which is four times the amount recovered by the NAB in the past 10 years, The conviction ratio has gone up and people’s trust in the system has been restored (47,000 complaints were received by the NAB in the year 2019). The Anti-Corruption Establishments (ACE) the in Punjab has made recoveries amounting to Rs 206 billion since August 2018 after only Rs 3 billion in the previous 10 years.
The government has not only stengthened the existing institutions but also set up the Asset Recovery Unit (ARU) under the direct supervision of the prime minister to improve coordination between various agencies in order to recover the looted public money. Moreover, regulatory bodies have been strengthened through legislation, allocation of adequate budgets, training and zero interference in their working.
Kofi Anan once famously remarked, “If corruption is a disease, transparency is an essential part of its treatment.” There is no cavil to the position that secrecy breeds corruption. For long, our rulers had kept secrets under the garb of privileged and confidential information. The PTI, since coming into power, has made access to public information a fundamental right of the citizens and brought a number of legislations to make public office holders accountable to the general public. Today our public offices are not exempt from scrutiny. Their working is completely transparent.
History is replete with instances of nation-states, even entire civilizations, being wiped out when the corrupt and dishonest took charge. The battle against corruption is a long one. Imran Khan had made it clear that once the noose is tightened, the dishonest and the corrupt will join hands to fight those standing on the right side of history. This is indeed a decisive moment. Our country’s survival and prosperity depends on it. There are no shortcuts to cure the cancer of corruption and the prime minister and his government are determined to go all the way to fight it.
The writer is Advisor to the Prime Minister on Accountability and Interior.