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Corruption and extravagance

December 11, 2010

PEOPLE here have long believed that Pakistan's public policies are greatly influenced and sometimes dictated by external powers.

If there ever was any doubt about our leaders seeking foreign intervention to advance their party interests or personal ambition WikiLeaks has dispelled it. The people have also seen one government after another succumb to local pressure groups in enforcing laws and collecting taxes. The instances in point are the conviction of a Christian woman for blasphemy and introduction of a new formula for the levy of sales tax on goods and services.

Corruption casts its shadow over most government decisions and has not even spared “the holy Kaaba” as the chief justice of Pakistan observed in court proceedings the other day. The minister in charge of Haj affairs conceded corruption but would not resign to uphold parliamentary traditions (although he denied personal culpability) because without the protection of his ministerial office his life would be in danger.

In handling the issues currently in the forefront — the involvement of American diplomats in Pakistan's power tussle, punishment for blasphemy, reformed sales tax, corruption in Haj — the approach is visibly based on expediency rather than merit. That could also be broadly said about other issues that come up from time to time, recruitment and promotions in public service, for instance.

All that happens, even though there is no ambiguity in the laws and procedures governing public businesses and personal behaviour of career civil servants or elected public representatives. The violation is always deliberate. The reason can be sheer indifference or, at the other extreme, betrayal of public interest for personal gain. The fault lies not in the systems but in the people who circumvent them.

When political leaders, military commanders and civil servants meet with the resident or visiting diplomats or ministers, the established protocol is that a career official must be present at the meeting to take notes of the discussions and whatever else transpires.

Surely Maulana Fazlur Rehman would have been more circumspect in soliciting America's support (though he denies it) for him to become prime minister if a Foreign Office official was there and foreign diplomats would not have been dragging army commanders into politics.

As in diplomacy, both law and propriety were violated in handling the charge of blasphemy against Aasia Bibi. Once she was convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction under a valid law, the legal process should have been allowed to run its normal course of appeal to the high court, a second appeal to the Supreme Court and, lastly, a petition for presidential pardon.

The fact that many religious scholars and political leaders are of the view that the punishment laid down in the penal code does not conform to Islamic jurisprudence and is often abused should not have been made a ground for presidential pardon before all legal remedies were exhausted.

The legality of the blasphemy law (Section 295-C) could surely be questioned in the Supreme Court (an intrepid Sherry Rehman has done it already) but its proponents should not have been raising the spectre of civil war if the law were to be repealed or amended to prevent its abuse.

The reaction has been frenzied. A Peshawar cleric has gone to the extent of announcing a reward of half a million rupees for anyone who would kill Aasia Bibi. Some others filed petitions in the high court to bar parliament from amending the law and the president from pardoning her. A scared government counsel readily assured the court that neither would be done.

The clerics, or the crowds they inspire, cannot question parliament's power to legislate or the president's prerogative to pardon. But the way to them was shown by an incensed Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, who pronounced a verdict of his own on the innocence of Aasia and the brutality of the law.

While the law and procedures as they stand must hold sway, there can be no better forum than the Organisation of Islamic Countries for statesmen and jurists of Muslim countries to debate the offence of blasphemy. After all, it is an issue common to the Muslim world and not peculiar to Pakistan alone.

Pakistan is in the news and a centre of world attention for all the wrong reasons. Its politics is divisive and the economy is so badly managed that its growth is slowest in the fastest-growing region of the world; violence is so rampant that not only tourists, even cricketers do not come here; investors and suppliers build the cost of bribery into their projects; the laws weigh heavily against the minorities and dissidents; and a remedy is seldom forthcoming.

The grimmer side of the picture is that it is getting worse by the day. The encouraging thought is that it will get better just as soon as politics and the administration of the country are set right. Short of mid-term polls (but that is anathema to the ruling PPP), Pakistan's graph would start moving up as soon as an understanding on the division of powers, or the spoils, is reached between President Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif and their parties also agree to follow the accepted norms of parliamentary behaviour.

They can make a start by agreeing on the new basis of sales tax and whether income from agriculture should also be taxed. But before that they must assure the sceptical taxpayers that they would cut the size and cost of their official establishments to half the present level.

In fact, a greater reduction is possible and desirable. Let it be recalled that the first cabinet of Pakistan and the cabinets of its present four provinces put together had fewer ministers than Balochistan alone has today. The same can be said about the number of officials. And till 1973 Karachi had just one deputy commissioner. Now it has 18 town administrators.