Fixing The Ship Without Sinking It

Syed Yahya HussainyPakistan is not the only country in the world where corruption takes place, but it does seem to be one of the few countries where the approach to reducing corruption actually feeds its existence. While corruption should never be tolerated or excused, we should be asking whether this seeming obsession with corruption in the public discourse is standing in the way of effective solutions. As they say, we should not let perfection be the enemy of good.

The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that Adil Gilani, the head of Transparency International’s (TI) office in Karachi, has been threatened by some officials for his work in rooting out corruption. The same day, however, Pakistani daily The News International reported that misunderstandings between TI and the government had been resolved and the two were now working together on joint efforts.

So, what’s the real story about corruption in Pakistan?

As it turns out, corruption is more complex an issue that is often admitted. Part of the problem, as reported by Transparency International, is political instability. This should come as no surprise. Pakistani politicians tend to have a short shelf-life. With a political history that includes more coups than elections, political leaders have a perverse incentive to stash away public funds to ensure their own survival.

But Pakistan is not the only country that has elected one or two crooks in its time. Neighboring India continues to struggle with corruption. In fact, a recent report by the watchdog group Global Financial Integrity found that India has lost more than $462 billion due to tax evasion, crime and corruption. And even that estimate is possibly quite low. Some estimates put the amount of money siphoned off India’s ecnoomy in the trillions. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal this week reported on leaked recordings of phone calls between an Indian lobbyist and her political contacts that has shaken Delhi.

And corruption is not a South Asian export, either. Rest assured, the Americans are in on the game as well.

In recent weeks the powerful American Congressman Charlie Rangel was found guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations including “failure to pay some taxes, improper solicitation of charitable donations and failure to accurately report his personal income” and former Vice President Dick Cheney faces accusations in a bribery scandal in Nigeria.

Though corruption is present in both India and the US, the solution for the problem in these countries is discussed differently than in Pakistan. Rather than supporting transparency and establishing processes that help prevent corruption by making it too risky, discussion in Pakistan focuses on vague and unsubstantiated accusations by political opponents and a sensational media. Corruption often overtakes discussion of terrorism, development, and education in the popular discourse. As a result, these problems continue unaddressed. Simply put, it’s easier to score political points by accusing your opponent of corruption than it is to produce innovative solutions for the deeper problems that Pakistan faces.

Worse, however, are the perennial threats of coup against every seated government, regardless of whether or not it was genuinely democratically elected. Earlier this year, for example, the head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party, Altaf Hussain, publicly called for the military to “take any martial law-type action against corruption politicians”. While this statement was widely condemned, many observed that it was the natural result of a perceived campaign to unseat the democratically elected government by some sections of Pakistan’s media.

Everyone has disavowed the old reflex of trying to get rid of the government mid-tenure. But if you look at the political landscape of Pakistan you will clearly see that there is a media campaign to do just that to the PPP government. Criticism of the government is a duty that a free media must perform, even of problems like the PIA, of load-shedding and rental units, and the wheat and sugar crises, that have a history in the past. But defaming the president of the country so blithely is not a good precedent to set, especially by comparing him to a president recently deposed in Latin America for corruption.

Ironically, many of the journalists involved in this campaign support opposition political leader Nawaz Sharif – himself removed from power in 1999 by a military coup rationalized by claims of weeding out corruption. At the end of the day, the political discussion of corruption in Pakistan has less to do with corruption than with politics.

No one believes corruption should be tolerated, and no one believes that the rich and powerful should be allowed to use the nation as their personal bank account. But eliminating corruption in Pakistan must be approached with reason and patience. If opposition politicians or journalists have evidence that exposes corruption, by all means that should be presented to the public. But using the issue of corruption as a political strategy risks undoing not just the present government, but democracy as a whole. This would do nothing to eliminate corruption, while doing irreparable damage to country’s democratic progress. Removing a ship’s hull to fix a leak mid-voyage only threatens to exacerbate the problem and ultimately sink the ship.

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