WHAT is the number one problem afflicting Pakistan? Is it a non-functional state or an elitist democracy or a country as isolated as North Korea, or poverty and the powerlessness of the masses? None of these, according to the standard discourse preached by a certain section of the elite, media and the military establishment — Pakistan’s number one problem is corruption.
Leaving aside this fundamental debate, what cannot be denied is the central importance of corruption as a public issue. But what is problematic are the myths which have arisen with regard to the solution to corruption ie the ways of eradicating it. This mythical solution is: the ruthless application of the rule of law, under the supervision of the superior judiciary, assisted by all state institutions (ie NAB, FIA etc.) as well as by the military establishment. Critical to this mythical solution is the unquestionable assumption that the present Pakistani state is capable of solving the problem of corruption.
Corrupt state: Most states have corrupt officials or some corrupt state elites, or there are parts of the state structure which are ridden with corruption. But countries like Pakistan are different because the state here is not faced with a corruption problem; rather, the state itself is inherently corrupt.
The state is not faced with a corruption problem; rather, the state itself is inherently corrupt.
Any Pakistani who has dealt with the Pakistani state is aware of the undeniable fact that most interactions, or transactions, concerning nearly all aspects and institutions of the Pakistani state, are governed not by rules or laws but by unjustified influence or financial corruption. The latter two constitute the fundamental principle governing the very functioning of the Pakistani state, and all classes and sections of Pakistani society make use of this fundamental principle for their own benefit.
More importantly, unjustified influence or financial corruption, as a fundamental governing principle, also inflicts even anti-corruption institutions like NAB, FIA etc, created to eradicate corruption. In short, the Pakistani state indulges in corruption as a norm, and there are only islands of individual honesty. Therefore, can such a Pakistani state, which itself is the greatest cause and chief example of corruption, somehow also eradicate corruption?
Corruption by law, not rule of law: What is less obvious is the corruption caused not by violation of the law but by the application of the law itself ie legalised perks and privileges and discretionary state power to dole out public finances and state resources.
Two obvious examples are: firstly, the many unjustified and extraordinary perks and privileges conferred on the political elite, state employees and military elite by using the law. Secondly, the huge discretionary power of the state elite to dole out public finances and state resources to a select few after fulfilling minimalist legal requirements.
In other words, this legalised corruption is an example not of the rule of law but of rule by law ie using the law to create and justify benefits for a select few. And what is most creative about this form of legalised corruption is that the law is further used to foreclose any form of accountability of the use of such public finances and resources. For example, serving members of the armed forces cannot be prosecuted under the NAB law.
Military as problematic saviours: The military elite’s ties with corruption are historically problematic. Firstly, the military elite has used corruption as a strategic tool to control certain sections of the political and societal elite while allowing other elements of these elites to freely engage in corruption. The misuse of NAB by Musharraf is a classic example.
Secondly, it has conferred state finances and resources on its own institution and its officials, which is not only highly lopsided and unjustified (eg what Ayesha Siddiqa calls Military Inc. etc.), but also beyond the reach of any accountability. For example, the defence budget cannot even be debated in parliament.
What is also problematic about any substantive role of the military elite in combating corruption is that it would require giving them an executive governance role, which is unconstitutional because it violates their constitutional oath to not engage in civilian matters. The fight against corruption to establish the rule of law should not violate the Constitution.
Judiciary as a false hope: The judiciary is a false hope for three main reasons. Firstly, the judicial system operates within the present Pakistani state which is either too incompetent or too corrupt to prosecute people for corruption. Judges cannot invent evidence if the state fails to produce evidence for sustaining convictions.
Secondly, there are 510 cases pending in NAB courts and 6,020 cases in the provincial anti-corruption courts (as of Dec 31, 2014). In any serious judicial campaign against corruption, many more thousands of cases would need to be prosecuted in the courts. Does anyone seriously believe that the courts can prosecute such a large number of cases with around 2.1 million cases presently pending in the Pakistani judicial system?
Thirdly, Iftikhar Chaudhry’s court’s attempt to deal with corruption was a valiant effort but it failed as nothing substantive or long term came out of it. The Chaudhry court was no match for a deeply incompetent and corrupt state.
Money and corruption dominate: A society in which money is seen as the main source of success and failure and which engages in materialism as a goal in itself but at the same time, does not provide equal resources and opportunities to its citizens to make money and provides ample opportunity to an elite to capture state resources, is bound to become corrupt. Corruption is the result of the contradiction between unequal opportunities and the unquestioned goal of making lots of money. In other words, corruption becomes an alternative means for a lot of people, both the powerless and the elite, to be successful because money is valued as the highest good in society.
Without understanding the entrenched nature of state corruption, all anti-corruption efforts are both futile and delusional. Therefore, the struggle for a less corrupt Pakistani state must be grounded in the country’s hard realities.