Zafar Hilaly: Corruption and democracy


Zafar Hilally“Among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot long exist,” said Edmund Burke. Had he lived to see India, Italy or for that matter present-day Pakistan in action he may have changed his mind. Democracy is thriving in both India and Italy, and for the moment in Pakistan, and so is corruption.

At one time in Italy more than a third of an outgoing parliament and numerous government departments were under investigation for everything from bribery to links with the Mafia, yet democracy continued to flourish. When the immunity of former Prime Minister Benedetto Craxi was lifted in 1992, a hail of coins were showered on him as he walked home, which was the old Roman way of expressing disgust at thieves who were paraded through Rome in disgrace. Corruption thrived during his term thanks to the trail that he blazed but nevertheless democracy was not endangered. Similarly today corruption charges against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are legion; the Italian economy is in meltdown as Berlusconi frolics with nymphets, but democracy is not in peril.

In India, as the economy grows by leaps and bounds, so do scandals. The latest is estimated to have cost a mind boggling $43 billion loss in government revenues; petty corruption is rife; many elected representatives carry criminal indictments; parliament has become dysfunctional as a result of the opposition tactics, but once again there is no talk of doing away with democracy.

On the other hand in Pakistan because corruption is endemic, a return to dictatorship is considered very much on the cards; some even pine for it. Why?

It cannot be because profits are fudged, tax returns missing and as much as half, if not more, of the moneys allotted to a project are set aside for kickbacks. Similar thieving exists in the other two democracies.

Nor are our politicians especially corrupt because, as everyone knows, it is as absurd to expect a politician to be honest as it is to expect an honest burglar. Besides, as the Musharraf years demonstrated, politicians are not the only thieves. He and his prime minister walked off with the entire Toshakhana (treasure-house) after changing the laws. Even in Italy the authorities are open to a ‘bargain’. Ask any Pakistani immigrant with document problems in Milan. And it is also not because the Pakistani police are uniquely inefficient. The detection rate for crimes committed is proportionately not much different than in India or Italy.

Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that while in Italy, and perhaps India, the chances are that when caught the guilty will be punished, in Pakistan the rich and the well connected can hope to get away. To dilate: it is not only the way the legal system operates but also the quality of the judges and vitally, the character of the magistrates. In Italy judges and magistrates have by and large an impeccable reputation. Italian judges are fashioned in the Jacobin mould. In other words, they act as the battering ram of social change, they are resilient, they thirst for justice and the truth and have a disdain for all other considerations including the sluggishness of the law. While they are un-elected, they are not apolitical. As agents of social change they have to be political, not in the sense of belonging to political parties but being responsive to the deep desire of the people to hold a common thief as much as a tycoon and the political class accountable.

The other reason why in Italy at least the battle against corruption is being won is that government employees get a liveable wage. While their salaries are not big, the job is ‘like gold dust, a meal ticket for life’. They also get an extraordinary number of privileges.

I recall asking Dr Mahathir Mohammed how Malaysia had managed to acquire a better reputation than most when it came to corruption in the bureaucracy. He replied that he had pegged the salary of his top civil servants to those of their western counterparts. It might sound like a lot, he said, but when you pay someone a handsome salary he develops a loyalty to his organisation and his job. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, a bigger success story, had done it earlier, setting the trend for Malaysia.

Dr Mahathir was right. I recall having to stay in a cheap hotel in downtown Chicago on account of the pitifully meagre allowance given to officers. In the neighbouring room was a drug addict seemingly awaiting a delayed delivery of cocaine and going spare while doing so and in the other, an abusive husband pummelling his wife. Meanwhile, on the street were a dozen teenagers looking for someone to rob. I would have gladly sold all the secrets I possessed to escape the next few hours, which were spent stacking the sofa against the door to prevent a break in.

Similarly, I recall my pay as a second secretary in our embassy in Prague in 1971, being half of that of the driver of the Danish Ambassador and the concern shown for our welfare by Islamabad was even less than that shown for the driver by his employer, judging by the fur coat he was wearing and the contented smile on his face.

One has no idea how salaries were calculated in Pakistan but those doing so must have been terrible at maths. The starting pay for an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer in 1936 was Rs 450-500 a month, which was exactly what we, in the Foreign Service of Pakistan (FSP) or Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), were paid 30 years later. On his salary my father was able to keep a stable of horses, maintain a car and travel every week to Calcutta and pay his losses at bridge, which must have been considerable as he was hopeless at it. All we could afford was a weekly dinner at the local Gymkhana. A Bengali roommate treated himself to half a dozen coconuts instead. Others went cap in hand to better off family members.

Denied judges attuned to the wants of society, a liveable wage and a decent shot at life, is it any wonder that corruption and inefficiency abound in Pakistan? Sick of waiting for the saviour on a white horse to rescue them, the people will settle for one on a nag by the looks of it. Good judges/justice and a decent wage is all that they want. Liberty, democracy and the absence of corruption is icing on the cake.

The writer is a former ambassador. This column was originally published by Daily Times on 17 December 2010.




  1. Mr Hilaly has only poured an iota of his experience with
    the administrative conduct of higher echelons of Government.
    Frankly corruption is not only the domain of the politicians
    it huggingly sleeps with bureacracy and brass in uniform.In
    Pakistan all three elements are legally wed to each other in
    one form or other.Soon or later the fourth element will be
    ushered into this matrimonial union and all this blare of corruption will be hard to hear.Can we stop paying lip service to moral values and injunctions in order to cover
    our nakedness.Should we become an eccentric nation and let
    go the establish proprietary of bevevolent establishment.

  2. This desire for continuity and strengthening of the system, rather than its derailment is reflective of the need of the country and the hope of its countrymen. By and large, with the exception of few self- serving opportunists, the people of Pakistan would like to see democracy attain its true potential. The hopes and aspirations of the nation are to see our institutions strengthen, our governance stabilize and our system made effective. Only once this happens will true transparency and accountability begin. One hopes that the demeanor in which the executive is conducting itself before the judiciary has set the tone for cordial, cooperative and respectful interaction between the institutions, hence bolstering the principles and values of democracy. The media, as one of the important political player must also understand that inciting a crisis by stoking differences and provoking confrontation is in no one’s interest. The country needs its media and state institutions to show maturity in demeanor and conduct, as was displayed by the executive and judiciary in this instance. We must look within ourselves and evaluate our role in stabilizing democracy and democratic processes in the country for this is the only way of ensuring stability and securing Pakistan’s future.

Comments are closed.