Prime Minster Imran Khan addressed Pakistan in the early hours of Wednesday, 12 June, and iterated that while all corrupt leaders in Pakistan would go to jail, politicians and officials who have put the country badly in debt would be punished.
He set up a High-Powered Commission to probe huge debts taken during the last 10 years as he defended arrests of several political figures in corruption cases. It is a fact that exceptional personal moral standards ought to be a pre-requisite for holding high public office, but in third world countries many leaders have thin morality nay integrity with smudged financial hygiene.
Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Truth has a tendency to be discovered.” Sooner or later many such unscrupulous leaders find themselves in the quagmire of corruption charges with frugal arguments to defend them. In last few days former President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan People’s Party and Hamza Shahbaz, nephew of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and son of former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif have been arrested by Pakistan’s NAB (National Accountability Bureau).
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is already in Kot Lakhpat Rai jail spending his jail term (hard labour) in his grubby prison cell. Also, Damocle’s sword hangs over the head of Asif Zardari’s sister, senator Faryal Talpur, his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and former Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. So practically all the leaders of main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan People’s Party would be in jail soon.
Corruption by political leaders while in power was one of the staple and ostentatious themes of Imran Khan’s political journey. He vigorously pursued it throughout his campaigns over the years. Imran always commented on his intention to carry out an intensive anti-corruption drive once in power. Pledging “strict accountability” and a crackdown against “the people who looted the country,” Khan visualized an extensive anti-corruption campaign.
As Pakistan’s financial crisis got worse, the government constantly highlighted that rampant, uncontrolled corruption from the highest to the lowest tiers of society and government is a key factor responsible for its predicament. Trying to regain the confidence of foreign investors and business partners alike, the fledgling government has had to find new methods and exert all its resources to get back stolen funds.
In the meantime, Pakistan’s budget deficit started climbing and foreign exchange reserves started depleting fast. Imran hoped that drastic measures – reminiscent of China’s Skynet operations against corrupt citizens hiding abroad – would give effective results. In fact, keen to learn from the Chinese experience in rooting out corruption, Khan even requested advice from China’s Premier Li Keqiang on battling corruption in their very first communication after taking over as PM.
He hoped that effectively fighting corruption would speed up national development in Pakistan. Imran, in fact inherited a government with a substantial budget deficit ($21.5 Billion), formidable internal and external debts (Rs 60 lakh crore) and shrinking foreign reserves ($8.2 Billion). Khan held his corrupt predecessors responsible for the country’s economic downfall and believed that recovering the looted money would ease the burden on the economy.
This was a sort of Robin Hood style of anticorruption effort. However, while most research shows that corruption stifles social and economic development, corruption is not the principal factor that accounts for Pakistan’s economic challenges. In fact, a drop in corruption may not automatically accelerate economic growth. If the aim of Khan’s anti-corruption drive is to prosecute corrupt politicians, his effort seems to have been successful so far. If, however, his aim is to root corruption out of the country, the drive does not seem to be doing a very good job.
The current movement rests on the flawed assumption that once these corrupt politicians are put in jail, illicit practices will automatically come to an end. There are numerous other corrupt practices in day to day life that are still widespread in Pakistan’s social life. The current anti-corruption drive does not address the causes of corruption and hence may not root out corruption from that country in the long run.
Ending corruption requires institutional measures and reforms that can prevent rampant corruption from occurring in the first place. While Khan has taken some important steps, such as the establishment of an Assets Recovery Unit in his Prime Minister’s office and the introduction of a whistle-blower law, ensuring and monitoring the implementation of these steps and maintaining political neutrality for effectiveness of his anti-corruption drive is a tall order.
In fact, Pakistan needs an anticorruption policy that seeks to combat corruption from all tiers of society, is free from political interference, and reduces the wealth gap that results from corruption. The present state of affairs lucidly show that Imran has the support of the powerful Establishment – who have decided to get rid of the Zardaris and Sharifs once and for all. The whole gamut of this relationship depends on the economy of Pakistan.
Recently the $47 Billion Federal Budget has imposed massive taxation as per advice of the IMF. But it is false optimism to put so much trust in the rationally, wisdom, efficaciousness and sagacity of Imran and his government. His survival in power would be allowed by the Establishment only if he succeeds in improving the economy; otherwise after a year he may also have difficult times.
Imran Khan’s continuous assault on political opponents has widened the gulf between the government and the opposition. His intense disdain for the opposition leaders has hurt him and the functioning of government and parliament more than it has harmed the opposition. It is the job of the National Accountability Bureau and the judiciary to deal with cases of corruption and not of the Prime Minister or his cabinet members.
The belt-tightening that the country is experiencing is an inescapable requirement to overcome the economic crisis. It also simultaneously provides a convenient reason for opposition parties to agitate the public against the government. So, the government on the one hand must comply with the strict prescription of the IMF and on the other ensure that the masses are not led away into an agitation as economic and financial pressures mount on the poor and lower middle classes.
It is a Herculean challenge to navigate through this muddle, but Imran has to succeed. Otherwise history would repeat itself and his government would be short lived.
(The writer is a senior IAS officer of the Punjab cadre)