To belabour the obvious, preferential treatment given to political and economic elites by state institutions is wrong. It is wrong at a legal level, and in a cripplingly poor country, it is doubly wrong at a moral level. This in itself is sufficient reason for why the issue of ‘VIP culture’ — short for any and all extra-legal privileges and corrupt practices — should be turned into a political question.
In the light of recent events (on an aeroplane and elsewhere), many have arrived at a consensus over the need to do away with it. What is more contentious though is the diagnosis, which, in the long run, remains crucial to developing an adequate solution.
Here’s how things are currently understood: for a vast majority of people in this country, extra-legal privilege and preferential treatment is a product of ‘muk-muka’ between individuals belonging to a ‘corrupt’ political/economic elite and their facilitators, patrons, and clients in various state institutions. In this ‘us vs them’ interpretation, the problem lies squarely with particular individuals, who are often thought of as immoral, self-serving, and largely predatory.
The culture of the state granting favours to the elite, or the elite privatising state resources for their own benefit, has continued forcefully.
The solution, then, logically emanating out of this understanding is as agent-based as the diagnosis — replace corrupt individuals with honest ones and the problem will go away. This, quite tellingly, is also the solution given by the country’s most popular leader and his millions of fans and voters.
Here’s why this understanding is wrong — corruption is not a biological trait. Some humans aren’t born more corrupt than others. Corruption is best understood as a complex social and historical phenomenon that cannot be treated as a randomly occurring wart — distinctly cut off from the body it grows on.
What needs to be acknowledged more forcefully is that all aspects of public corruption (ie acts involving public office) are marked by a history of the state, and state institutions, being treated as a private resource. This can be seen going as far back as the 19th century, when the British ruled by handing out preferential treatment (commonly called patronage) to socio-economic elites across South Asia.
As a landlord in Punjab, for example, you could borrow money against your land to build large houses, finance extravagant weddings, and live an unproductive, decadent life, and the government would simply step in to take care of your loan if you failed to pay back the moneylender. This, by the way, is not some one-off anecdote. This is what actually happened throughout the 19th and early 20th century — the Raj administration would adopt feudal estates when they faced foreclosure, only to return them to the original landlords once the treasury had paid off the existing debt.
This sense of privilege and distinction was also cultivated in the colonial civil service and the armed forces, which unlike organically developing bureaucracies, weren’t meant to act by the consent of the people; they were intended to rule and discipline the local population. Clubs like the Gymkhana, or residential enclaves like GOR, both built on prime real estate in the centre of the city are active residues of this particular history.
The culture of the state granting favours to the elite, or the elite privatising state resources for their own benefit, has continued quite forcefully after independence. Ayub’s government, for example, built its much-vaunted ‘golden era’ on the back of collusive, rent-seeking arrangements with local businessmen and industrialists. The Zia and Musharraf regimes patronised equally venal politicians with state offices, in exchange for their loyalty against opposition parties.
All such examples may seem overblown, or too large-scale in comparison to the more mundane issue of queue-jumping and extra protocol, but their basis is quite firmly the same. Both are rooted in a logic of state-society relations that has developed over time, and one that continues to be reinforced by skewed incentives and total lack of accountability.
It is precisely because of the historical nature of this problem, why those shouting loudest against ‘VIP culture’ should take a step back and reflect on the larger issue at hand — elite privilege in a very poor country.
If the son of an upper-middle-class bureaucrat or army officer — someone who has spent a thoroughly state-subsidised privileged life — equates himself with the mythical common man, we have a fairly serious problem. Because then what we have is a masked desire to replace one set of ‘undeserving’ elites, with another more ‘deserving’ lot. In short, the impulse holds that preferential treatment by the state in any shape or form is wrong if it’s being handed out to someone else, but okay if it’s coming your way.
This is at best short-sighted, and at worst, even more damaging. If the battle is to be against state-granted privilege or corruption, two things need to be recognised — firstly, VIP culture and corruption exist in multiple forms — it may take the shape of a delayed flight or a bribe, but it also frequently takes the shape of nepotism for a family member(sifarish), subsidised land grants, and other kinds of perks and privileges enjoyed by those affiliated with the state in any shape or form.
Secondly, the real burden of an elite-biased state falls not on the civic-minded, upper-middle-class citizenry (who’ve already graduated to a gated, privatised existence), but on the 65pc of the country for whom the state fails on a daily basis.
As many earnest, well-intentioned individuals raise their voice against the predatory practices of Pakistan’s political and economic elite, there are sufficient reasons to rethink several things. And while the sentiment is appreciable, it is all for nought if it remains unaccompanied by self-reflection, an understanding of history, and an objective assessment of how the scale of privilege operates in this country.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2014