Bangla Saturday, August 15, 2020

Vested interest outmanoevres the national interest in Pakistan

COLUMN-ENG-09-07-2020

One of the most impeding characteristics in Pakistani society is the striving of people to do favours and to get favours in return, whether in cash and/or kind.

In Pakistan one needs patronage and/or protection for even simple things like going to an office and applying for whatsoever. Even for access to a certain school for one’s kids one has to find someone who can help. To find that someone we have to keep people in the relevant places happy by paying bribes or extending favours to them. We do this even for people unknown to us because they sit in a place which we might one day need to get a favour done. 

The big ‘dons’ of our society are so powerful that they don’t need any favours from others any more, but like to give things gratis simply because it flatters their ego.

As the recent PIA pilots fake licence scandal has shown, bribes were paid and/or favours dished out before the pilots could enter PIA service, again on the basis of patronage or bribes. Unfortunately even those with professional competence and merit had to pay or use influence to get a job. 

The culture now requires that you pay to get what you are seeking, whether or not your proposal has merit. The culture of bribery is not confined to Pakistan. Doing favours in Europe and the West comes under the rubric of corruption. American author, screenwriter and journalist Mario Puzo who is known for his crime novels about the Italian-American mafia, has described it in his play ‘The Godfather’ like this: “Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and they were never disappointed. He made no empty promises, nor the craven excuse that his hands were tied by more powerful forces in the world than himself. The Don invariably found a solution to a man’s problem.”

“It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”

There is another side to this, it is called filibustering, you keep the person satisfied by being positive in doing him a favour with no intention whatever of doing that favour. In the meantime in that situation of limbo you can get a lot of favours from him in return.

Being a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Partnership Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), I am privy to detailed discussions about this unfortunate culture in emerging countries. Unfortunately, my PACI colleagues’ corporate entities in Pakistan do not practice what they preach during PACI deliberations. Whenever I bring it to their notice in Geneva, they are evasive about their “local” stance.

How are fake bank accounts opened except by bankers doing favours to clients? To hide money or to transfer money untaxed out of the country, bankers even open accounts in other people’s names but the named account holder is clueless know about it. The owners of the money would operate these accounts on their own. In some cases very poor servants of those engaged in money-laundering operate accounts on behalf of their masters. It is therefore necessary to “protect” them. 

Fake ID cards are issued for plots transferred in other peoples’ names. Many more things that undermine rules and regulations are done to avoid paying taxes and undermine the state and its institutions in multiple ways. 

There are several reasons why such behaviour is so much entrenched in our society. Pakistani society has preserved, until today, many pre-modern social structures like tribes, clans, biradris and extended families. If a person who is part of such a social structure attains a position of influence it is his traditional obligation to extend favours to other members of that social structure. If he refuses, some kind of retribution would follow from the social structure. In addition, next time when that person needs a favour he would be shunned by the other members of his clan. 

Given the fact that living without help is almost impossible or at least extremely difficult in Pakistan, these pre-existing social structures, which in well-functioning states with strong institutions would have weakened and may be dissolved by now, are reinforced again and again. A study done in the (former) frontier region (FATA) where government structures are absent, or weak at best, shows the strength of tribal institutions.

Though Pakistan inherited British institutions in 1947, the ruling elite consisted of pre-modern British appointed feudal lords and tribal chieftains and religious personalities who mostly had no understanding of values like equality or fraternity which should be the sentiments upon which a modern nation state is based. Such an elite is in power till date.

Long years of military rule and the inherent nepotism it fosters when the rule is elongated, have certainly added to the difficulties in running a parliamentary democracy and its institutions. Our best and brightest are selected on merit for the bureaucracy, but bureaucrats soon get compromised by money and/or influence. 

To be successful, a modern state, in whatever form, has to be based on ideas of equality of all citizens before the law and the fraternity, i.e. solidarity between the citizens of differing social status. We need reforms in our economic system like land reforms, extension of tax system on agricultural income, social security for the poor and lower middle class and in the educational system where values like merit and straightforwardness have to be developed. 

There is also the identification of the citizens with the state of Pakistan. Even in the face of draw-backs and hickups people do identify with Pakistan. But to do so more effectively, it would be important to figure out what exactly is Pakistan’s national interest. This is not something self-explanatory. A public debate in which people from all walks take part would be ideal to arrive at an answer, but would that throw up needless controversies. The debate should focus on what the people want their country to be about. Certainly jobs, social security would be among the demands. But things like a broad understanding about Pakistan’s place in the world have to be part of it as well. Also how do we relate to our past and what we see as our future.

I have worked on a project of national consequence for some time. It has far reaching benefits for the poor and the impoverished. Forsaking paying of bribes to get the work done and being fortunate to deal with honest officials, I have nevertheless been hampered by my competitors who paid bribes not to let my project, conceived and implemented totally in Pakistan by young Pakistanis, function.

What really concerned me was the lack of importance being given to what is a national project. It is true I have a vested interest in it but far above that is the national interest, not only for the economic emancipation of the poverty-stricken masses but a giant step for the documentation of the economy. 

The current government of Pakistan has made the fight against corruption its central endeavour. While going after misappropriation of public money, of tax evasion there has to be other initiatives in the field of education, media and may be other institutions to support the understanding that rules are there to make a process transparent and applicable to everyone in the same way. 

Cutting corners, avoiding rules or undermining institutions and the state, some associated with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf are not committed to its goals. The hard-core has served every regime, including Asif Zardari’s. Deeds for ‘friendship’, favours or straight forward bribes are the bane of our society and undermine the very existence of Pakistan. Those who dish out such favours should be investigated by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), prosecuted and, once convicted, made an example of.

 

(The writer is a defence and security analyst).