CORRUPTION isn’t good for Pakistan. But that doesn’t mean that the manner and timing of revelations about it cannot be questioned. The NAB chairman’s public claims about the extent of wrongdoing by powerful people have effectively been political statements whose tone, timing and content suggest that combating corruption is not his only motive. The job of his agency is to investigate specific instances of corruption, not to make sweeping public statements without providing concrete evidence. What makes the chairman’s motives even more questionable are his estimates of the value of corruption allegedly taking place in Pakistan on a daily basis, a figure he nearly doubled from Rs7bn to Rs13bn overnight and which counts items — such as the gap between potential and actual tax collection and the financial losses of public-sector enterprises — of which corruption is only one component. Add to this another statement that the Punjab government was at least as guilty as the federal government, and it becomes clear that politics, though with an unclear endgame, has at least partly shaped these claims.
This being Pakistan, the corruption story is hardly unfolding in a vacuum. Take two other recent developments: the report on lawmakers not filing tax returns and underpaying taxes, and the decision to create a new delimitation of constituencies in Karachi before the general election. The underlying problems in both cases are not new and are well-known. Pakistan has a dismal tax-to-GDP ratio, and the elite avoiding taxes is a major part of the problem. There are long-standing objections to the way constituencies have been drawn up in Karachi, and the city’s demographics have likely changed significantly since the last census (though delimitation should be carried out across the country if it is carried out in one city). But is now the best time to bring up these issues? Or, to ask the question another way, what would be gained — and who would benefit — by bringing them up or tackling them three months before a caretaker government is meant to take over?
Asking these questions doesn’t mean excusing corruption, tax evasion or efforts to limit the value of certain votes. It is an unfortunate outcome of the fears that have been spawned by Pakistan’s history of interrupted democracy. Just as important as addressing these issues is the need to ensure that Pakistan doesn’t waste the progress made over the last four-plus years in managing to cling on to a democratic system, as flawed as the current set-up may be. If the coincidental emergence of these latest developments represents a threat to the system, they must not be allowed to derail that progress.