Corrupt heroes

Updated 01 Jan 2019


The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

AS a moral issue, sleaze evokes strong emotions. However, moral lenses don’t provide solutions; instead, they create a furious though infeasible demand for its quick end, which hidden Pakistani forces manipulate for their own aims. Thus, social scientists view it from empirical lenses too, not to override, but to explain feasible ways of achieving the dictates of moral lenses.

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The rhetoric is that sleaze has destroyed Pakistan and we can end it quickly under Imran’s honest rule to have rapid progress. When a hammer (honesty) is all one has, every problem looks like a nail and honesty the solution to every issue. Imran idolises Ayub’s era but doesn’t say that he was also seen as corrupt as that would undermine his logic that only honest leaders bring progress. Globally too, many developing states that progressed rapidly did so under corrupt but competent and experienced leaders and despite high sleaze, which only reduced very slowly due to progress.

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That doesn’t mean dishonesty is a prerequisite for competence. But in such corrupt states, the chances of a corrupt and competent person winning are higher than of a competent honest person, with those of allegedly corrupt, incompetent persons like Nawaz and Zardari being the highest.

There’s hardly a state that took the fairytale path of an honest but incompetent/ inexperienced person to end sleaze quickly in order to ignite progress with his/her honesty overcoming the drag of their own incompetence and that of a corrupt, incompetent party. Competence can overcome the drag of sleaze but not so honesty the drag of incompetence. Incompetence damages states much more than dishonesty.

The amount of sleaze alleged in Panama against Sharif is like rounding off errors in our budgets over the years. But the damage he caused annually via incompetence was higher.

To end sleaze means ending the ways of dominant interests.

Extra-legal measures like army takeovers don’t end sleaze nor can autocratic states like China. Sleaze is hard to end quickly due to structural factors. It doesn’t exist only because corrupt politicians want it but because large segments of society want it too. Developing states generally produce low-end goods where high profits are possible only by breaking the rules with the help of corrupt officials.

To end sleaze means ending the ways of do­­minant economic interests. Thus, overzealous attempts to control sleaze can actually harm the economy, like Indian demonetisation.

Our accountability is always selective with a political aim (as today) as those driving it know that widespread accountability will badly harm the economy. Sending all corrupt officials and businesspersons into jail in the hope that a new breed of honest persons will emerge is naïve as the new group will also be trapped into producing low-end goods and want sleaze.

How does one reconcile the views of analytical lenses with the moral imperative? We must end sleaze but must not place too much hope on rapid action against sleaze leading to progress. Dodgy accountability and weak judicial verdicts will not produce cleaner politics. They will only generate politics controlled by unelected forces. Finally, we must analyse the competence of whole parties instead of seeing honesty in the top leader as sufficient.

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To achieve progress, competent governments adopt sound legislation, follow strong policies, undertake projects and deliver services. To do all this, they must reform institutions. The PPP is far ahead of others on legislation, though poorly in other aspects. The PML-N does well only on projects — however, not backed by solid policy analysis, many projects were dodgy. It did better last time on legislation too. But on the most crucial task of adopting sound economic policies to achieve equitable and sustainable progress and institutional reforms, it did poorly.

The PTI’s track record is much shorter. It claims it did well on KP educational services and police reform. But proof for these claims is more elusive. Watchdog Alif Ailaan’s data shows KP lagging behind Islamabad, GB, AJK and Punjab on education during 2014-18 and things even became worse on some dimensions in KP then. While it has been in power for only 100-plus days now, its teams at the centre, KP and Punjab show little competence in the areas mentioned above. To think that Imran’s honesty alone will overcome all these competence gaps is to be naïve.

Thus, this is the bleak picture we face. All three top parties (and army even more) severely lack the competence to tackle our huge problems. On key posts, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Miftah Ismail and Shahbaz Sharif may each be more competent than Imran Khan, Asad Umar, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Usman Buzdar. But I would overall give even them four out of 10 and never vote for them. This is why rapid progress is unlikely for us any time soon.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2019