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Pondering Panama

April 26, 2016


The writer is a political economist.
The writer is a political economist.

THE response to the Panama leaks has been expectedly monotonous, mainly covering legal or moral issues. But ancient Sufis wisely said that kids view things narrowly; to grasp a complex issue, adults must view it from seven distinct lenses without any view undermining the other.

The first lens is legal. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems linked to dodgy deals and he or the chief justice must initiate a credible inquiry. If indicted, Sharif must resign before trial. This will not harm but bolster democracy. Politicians must show more sense by avoiding the excuses dictators give when facing trial (the act occurred long ago; trial will harm stability; abettors must be tried too; etc) even if they seem more relevant here than for Musharraf.

The second lens is moral. Is Sharif morally obliged to quit? Some see the Iceland prime minister’s resignation as reflecting high morals which Sharif must emulate. Since the former owns dubious offshore accounts, his actions likely reflected not morality but realpolitik action to avoid dismissal. Western rulers resign after small wrongs or unproven aspersions due not to high morality but strong accountability pressure, which is weaker in developing states. No non-Western leader named in Panama leaks has quit.

Also, the frequency of accusations is higher but stability and political capital stock lower in developing states. There such high standards will mean endless resignations and instability doing more harm than good. The bar for resigning there must be set lower, eg, to indictment before trial. Nor will the prime minister’s presence thwart inquiry if the commission is credible.

The next lens is political. Many feel this issue will end the PML-N hold. But past trends suggest that while weakened, it will likely still remain the biggest party since Pakistani masses forgive major sins if their own lot improves. If Nawaz Sharif and his daughter are convicted, the baton may pass on to Shahbaz Sharif. Stern action will not quickly unleash the desired clean leadership.

Stern action will not quickly unleash the desired clean leadership.

This brings us to the sociological lens which reviews how and how soon corruption reduces. ‘Pious’ Pakistanis demand a quick end to corruption, through illegal means if needed, by arguing that Pakistan cannot develop otherwise. Global reviews of the Transparency Index (TI) puncture such analysis. No country has ended corruption, the highest score on it being around 90pc. TI data from 1995 onwards reveals no state which has improved its score massively and quickly through extra-legal ways.

A review of Pakistan’s region shows that national TI scores have improved by less than 1pc annually over 20 years. Thus, even 25 years later, our score will likely be around 50pc. This means high corruption in the future, however much we may delude ourselves based on the allure of dubious means, the claimed exceptionalism of the ‘Islamic fort’ and the messianic instincts of a ‘born-again’ army.

Above scores of 25pc, one finds many states developing rapidly. China scores (35pc) only slightly better than us (30pc) today and scored 22pc in 1995 by when it had grown rapidly for long. This shows that though corruption slows growth, high growth and corruption can still coexist, and even a benign autocracy, the dream regime for many, cannot end it quickly.

Pakistani TI scores are highest today since TI’s 1995 inception, are increasing normally, and are not unusual regionally, but our obsession in justifying illegal acts to control corruption is unusual. All this is argument not for accepting corruption resignedly but against unrealistic beliefs about how soon and how it reduces. Pakistani blood pressures can be better managed by not expecting the immediate end extra-legally but gradual corruption cuts through legal means, just as we accept that ending terrorism will take long.

The fifth lens covers civ-mil issues. Recent ISPR tweets demand across-the-board ac­­co­u­n­­­tability. But was Musharraf, who was aided to escape trial, above board? The well-timed revelation of the dismissal of corrupt army officers is good but not their light sentences when military-backed courts jail corrupt civilians for long. ISPR tweets say the army will aid ‘all’ efforts against corruption. Does ‘all’ mean state efforts or even others, eg, PTI’s Raiwind dharna? TI lists 35 states below Pakistan on corruption. In how many do armies issue such tweets? Their aim seemingly is to extend the military’s political sway.

The last lens is a political economy one. Does corruption mainly cause terrorism? Experts link it mainly to state support to or inaction against jihadis under autocracy, but only secondarily to corruption. Finally, is terrorism or corruption our main issue? Many states with similar corruption as ours have developed rapidly but none with similar terrorism. Our corruption rank is normal but terrorism rank abnormal regionally.

Not being a Sufi titan but a sinful mortal, I can only identify six lenses. But even six provide a wider view on the topic than TV shows, without later views weakening the legal one.

The writer is a political economist.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2016