Tackling the perception of corruption in public opinion rather than conviction for corruption in a court is one of the challenges the government faces
The incumbent government has been in power for less than a month. One of the key challenges it faces is tackling widespread misperceptions about what constitutes corruption and how to tackle it, especially since several of its key leaders have cases of corruption against them.
The issue of corruption lies at the heart of all governance because it involves resources and authority of the state that belong to the people but lie in the hands of government functionaries and the executive to manage. The better the governance, the less the corruption, is the operative principle here.
Like any developing country, Pakistan has been saddled with the problems of corruption and poor governance for a long time. Indeed, Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), campaigned for the 2018 elections on the promise of clean governance and eliminating corruption through tough accountability of his political rivals. He won power and promptly launched a crackdown against corruption. Or so he said.
He may not have understood it but the problem with corruption is less with policy and more with practice and procedure, and therefore perceptions that distort reality. The popular perception – embellished by decades of caricaturisation of politics and politicians – is that all politicians are corrupt. Khan claimed exemption from this perception for his party and himself by brandishing a verdict from the Saqib Nisar-led Supreme Court of Pakistan that declared him “sadiq and amin,” essentially non-corruptible.
Even by putting nearly all his rivals in jails and instituting ‘accountability’ against them through the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) – including members of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) Bhutto family, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) Sharif family and their aides as well as leaders of other erstwhile opposition parties – Khan discovered that tackling what he thought was corruption was not as easy as his campaign promises.
For instance, when Khan assumed power in 2018, Pakistan ranked 117th among 180 countries evaluated on the “corruption perceptions index” employed by the global watchdog, Transparency International. By the time he was ousted from office in 2022, Pakistan had slid down to an alarming 140th position on the index. How could this happen when, according to him, a clean man at the top ensures zero corruption at the bottom?
Ironically, not only did the prevalence of corruption worsen significantly under Khan’s self-proclaimed “clean government”, his government also failed to prove corruption in the courts of even one of his political rivals whom he had accused of plundering the country dry.
Khan’s perception of and cure for corruption are a classic case of oversimplification. In a country that has for half of its life been ruled by the military that has accorded itself grossly disproportionate allocation and utilisation of state resources through institutionalised policies, blaming only politicians for the country’s economic mess is disingenuous. Corruption is not just financial. It is principally abuse of authority and evasion of accountability and perpetuation of a lack of transparency.
No military rulers or their abettors have been tried in courts for corruption. Indeed, when Musharraf set the National Accountability Bureau to end corruption, he exempted the military and judiciary from its ambit of scrutiny. That right there is the worst form of corruption – selective accountability is partial accountability and, therefore, not quiet justice. Musharraf’s decade of rule failed to conclusively prove – either through the NAB or through the courts – the leaders of mainstream political parties corrupt.
Even during the decade of rule of the PPP and the PML-N between 2008-18, the leaders of these parties continued being probed by the NAB and the courts – including the infamous JIT established by the Supreme Court under Justice Saqib Nisar and aided by the intelligence agencies – and failed to prove Sharif corrupt.
After they could not prove any corruption dating to his three stints in power as prime minister spanning three decades, the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from politics for life for not declaring a salary that he was owed from his son but never received. Likewise, Zardari has spent a total of 12 years in jail over the past three decades for alleged corruption. To date he has never been convicted.
This is not accountability; this is a farce. And this farce continued under Khan’s watch who as prime minister also exempted the bureaucracy and the business community from the NAB’s purview after they protested against its intimidation. Thus, the NAB’s jurisdiction to conduct accountability of the allegedly corrupt effectively came to be restricted to only Khan’s political rivals.
While the self-styled anti-corruption crusader Khan, like Musharraf before him, failed to help convict for corruption the leadership of the erstwhile opposition and now incumbent government, he has succeeded in perpetuating the status quo on the farce of accountability. His relentless weaponised rhetoric of corruption against his political rivals and current government leaders, without any conviction by courts, has become so pervasive that there is no popular demand any longer for the courts to have the final word on who is corrupt and who is not.
And tackling this – the perception of corruption in the court of public opinion rather than conviction for corruption in a court of law – is one of the biggest challenges the incumbent government faces. If they shut down the NAB, the perception that they are evading accountability will grow; if they continue with it and include Khan and his aides in investigating the stories of their alleged corruption, then the accusations of a vendetta will rise.
But the right thing will have to be done. Legal reforms will have to be undertaken. These should include disbanding the NAB and transferring the cases before it to the traditional justice system and using the NAB budget to improve investigation and prosecution services. Alternatively, if the NAB must be retained then all authorities and institutions, including public office holders and civil and military personnel paid from the exchequer, must be included in its ambit.
Corruption will not end until economic elitism is targetted, without exemption. Economic privileges accorded to Pakistan’s elite groups including the military, feudal landlords, corporate sector and political class cost the public a whopping $17.5 billion, or six percent of the economy, according to a 2021 UNDP report. Evidence, not allegations, must dictate Pakistan’s new accountability paradigm.
The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org