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Politics around ‘corruption’

An alternative perspective on the corruption debate

Politics around ‘corruption’

Corruption and politics have increasingly become synonymous in the context of Pakistan. The very concept of an ‘honest’ and ‘uncorrupt’ democratic dispensation is inconceivable.

It’s a stigma associated with the political class. Civilian governments in the past were dissolved on charges of corruption. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Benazir Bhutto was constantly subjected to tirades, indentifying her rule as corrupt and inept. A similar position was taken by Imran Khan against the PML-N and the PPP under Asif Ali Zardari in the run up to the election last year. He still reiterates these accusations vehemently while addressing the PTI activists in Islamabad.

With Tahir ul Qadri joining in this chorus and no clear agenda on how the prevailing ‘corrupt’ system will be overturned, the campaign is not about bringing an end to corruption but to do politics around it.

Corruption, if analysed seriously, was bequeathed to us as an integral part of our governmental structure by the British. In 1947, as one can glean from Dr Ilyas Chattha’s valuable research on Partition [Partition and Localities: Violence, Migration and Development in Gujranwala and Sialkot 1947-1961], the scale of corruption went up considerably, particularly through the entering of false property claims by migrants.

Corruption, the way we understand it today, came to us with the institution of private property systemically introduced here by the British. As the state expanded its operations and the ambit of personal responsibility waxed, so the scale of corruption soared.

Now the question is how, and by what means, the curse of corruption can be dealt with, without the state absolving itself of its responsibility towards its citizens. Does anybody, particularly those vociferously condemning corruption, have a blue-print showing how corruption can be contained, if not eradicated altogether? Is there any human state or society that exists without any trace of corruption? Or does corruption have to be accepted as a natural part of processes which can, at times, work as conduits for development, as happened in some countries of the third world such as South Korea?

In order to make proper sense of a very wide and diverse array of phenomenon that fall under ‘corruption’, we must first define it and then, in the light of the views advanced by Indian sociologist and thinker Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur literary festival in 2013, examine it from the social perspective.

‘Corruption’ is defined most comprehensively by Transparency International as an abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority. The literal meaning of the word corrupt is “utterly broken”. The word was first used by Aristotle, and later by Cicero, who posited that corruption meant bribery and an abandonment of good habits. S.D.Morris, a Professor of Politics, defines corruption as the illegitimate use of power to benefit a private interest.

Thus corruption as a concept has evolved over a period of time and its genealogy, like so many other concepts, goes back to the Greek era when it had more of a moral connotation. In medieval times, the state had relatively limited functions and liabilities towards the people. The collection of revenue and the maintenance of the army were the primary functions of the state. The surplus generated by the peasantry was the principal instrument of sustenance for the medieval state, according to Indian historian Irfan Habib.

With the dawn of the modern era, and the growth of political consciousness among subjects and citizens, the state resorted to disciplining them: this was necessary to make them responsible citizens. Education, healthcare, penal code and the attendant institutions were put in place to inculcate ‘responsibility’ and ‘goodness’ among them. Thus with the expansion of the state’s functions, its responsibilities expanded too. Regulatory mechanism impinging upon the citizens’ exercise of his free choice was the hallmark of a modern state.

In order to circumvent the straitjacket of laws and regulations promulgated by the authorities, corrupt practices were adopted. In the colonised world, all these circumventing practices became institutionalised because the benefits of colonial rule were limited only to the privileged few. The colonial state’s politics of patronage strengthened corrupt modes and practices.

When countries flung away the colonial yoke, the same privileged clique were the beneficiaries of a system which was based, structurally, on the foundations of the previous system. Hence the Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal’s assertion that corruption, “is a sort of equalising force in society as power structures are always created by the elite to keep the status quo in their favour and the poor can break through these glass ceilings created by the elite only by bending and subverting the system”.

While agreeing with Tejpal, Ashis Nandy considers corruption to be “a way of creating social mobility”. He further says, “all of this (corruption by the poor) was fine and part of a necessary social churn because this was the only way that poor could break free from centuries of being downtrodden and access the power and entitlements that should be theirs by right”. According to him, the Republic of India was safe because the necessary “social churn” was taking place, through corruption, which is a class equaliser.

That assertion may seem a masterpiece of eccentricity to many but, as a point of view, this line of argument coming from a figure like Nandy is worth deliberating.

In Pakistan, it seems corruption has attained a certain level of social acceptability. Given this situation, bringing corruption to an end ceases to be a pragmatic strategy on which to base political action. With the complete eradication of corruption, some people argue, the process of development is impeded. Because, practically speaking, development and corruption often go hand in hand. Besides this, initiatives to break open new avenues of development are sapped too.

Corruption becomes starkly evident when it trickles down to the lower echelons of the social hierarchy. If it remains confined to the elite sections of society, no hue and cry is raised. There is hardly a country in the world which is entirely free of corruption except, perhaps, Singapore. The issue of corruption must not be discussed in a simplistic manner. This is just an attempt to offer an alternative perspective to the entire discussion.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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