By Tariq Mahmud
As this column goes to press, I will be completing my four years of uninterrupted association with The Express Tribune as a contributor with a fortnightly regularity. During this period, I enjoyed the writer’s premium when it came to the choice of subjects, diction and the freedom of thought process. I had a fairly instructive experience in reflecting on varied themes while engaging with a group of discernible readers at home and abroad. The editorial desk was always more than helpful and supportive in this regard. After having served a long stint in the civil service, there was a moment for repositioning. My instincts helped me opt for teaching and writing for an esteemed newspaper.
Teaching was an entirely different experience for me as for the first time I was exposed to an academic institution like LUMS where one had to put in far more rigour than faced in public-sector training institutions. I came into contact with a fairly large number of sophomores and freshmen working towards courses of public management with an inquisitive mind. What boggled their minds was the scale and enormity of the public sector and the manner with which it impacted their daily lives. From the purchase of a Panadol tablet through a tedious competitive process to the procurement of submarines and F-16s was enough to boggle their minds. Added to this is the proprietary item clause which enables prohibitively expensive items to be taken out of the loop of open competitive bidding. Indeed, an indication of the power and discretion enjoyed by the ruling political elite and the subservient bureaucracy. The latter is known for its institutional memory while it sits over a reservoir of information. It knows the art of steering through the labyrinth of rules and regulations. The bureaucratic machine also knows the art of casting perks and privileges into an institutional mould for the favoured few and taking the wind out of the public storm. Despite the growing interest of young students in this field, they do not shy away from sharing their wariness and scepticism about the government and its working. There are frequent questions about the policy choices, the quality, timeliness and equitable access to basic services. Young minds do not just push towards getting to know what the government does; they are more concerned about what the government ought to do. A visit to a government hospital where one can often witness two patients lying on the same bed bedevilled their minds as to how investment decisions are made by the government machinery. Their simple craving to know how policy choices are made brings us to the question of ethical governance. It is the moral content of public discourse and action that should be setting the pace in the 21st century.
The dynamics of governance operate at two distinct levels: how choices are made and preferences decided upon while at the same time how personal self-interest is kept apart from the public interest. This requires a well-structured system of internal and external accountability with ongoing scrutiny of timely yet faithful disclosures by public office holders. The recent uproar over the Panama leaks is understandable. The discerning public is not just concerned with legal fiction; it is equally concerned about consistency in public disclosures. In the past, the handling of slush funds under the nose of an otherwise upright president like Ghulam Ishaq Khan may not have raised too many eye brows at the time, but public disclosure and the court’s indictment at a later point in time put all the handlers, recipients and the late president in dim light.
Raymond Baker’s seminal work Capitalism’s Achilles heal, while dealing in depth with the workings of offshore companies underlines the sordid reality. It is not the criminal alone but also the intelligent and well-off who have hurt the system. Money laundering, tax evasion, illegal transactions and abuse of power throw up a myriad of corrupt practices, people with authority indulge in these practices with impunity and feel themselves to be beyond reproach. Kickbacks and bribery are the most common and crude form of corrupt practice, which raise the transactional cost apart from sapping society’s moral fibre. In our globalised world, predators have discovered safe havens to stash their ill-gotten fortunes.
It is interesting to note how our political economy has become mired in the culture of sleaze and obtaining easy money. The political elite of yore may have made erroneous decisions but it was hardly known for its fortunes and offshore wealth. Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, Nazimuddin, Chaudhary Muhammad Ali, Iskander Mirza and their ilk, all died in genteel poverty and were not exactly known for possessing Swiss accounts. The non-party elections of 1985 proved to be a watershed in many ways, tilting the balance in favour of the newly emerging urban industrial political class. The nationalised banking sector readily moved in as a complicit villain, fostering a culture of defaulting on loans. Huge loans were extracted with poorly conceived feasibilities and notional equity. The rise of sugar barons for instance is a case in point. They virtually ruined the cotton-growing areas of Punjab and Sindh by fostering a water-guzzling, non-competitive product.
The ethical nuance of public management also raises questions about deep-seated indolence and arrogance of our leadership, which takes the public for a ride all too easily. Former president General Musharraf recently admitted owning offshore properties and foreign currency accounts, but hastened to add that these were gifts from Gulf-based benefactors. One wonders whether he made these disclosures before election authorities when filing papers from Chitral. Regarding his lately discovered foreign currency accounts in London banks, he maintained that the money was transferred by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia without consulting him. It is puzzling as to who whispered his bank account numbers in the late king’s ears! In a similar vein, Mr Zardari’s homecoming has been explained in the light of advice from his doctor, who allowed him to undertake an hour’s ‘arduous flight’ from Dubai to Karachi after 18 months of recuperation. These lollypops cannot take us very far.
The crusade against corrupt practices, which is the flipside of ethical governance, will be the real battleground of competing players in the 2018 general elections. It will be interesting to see whether best ethical ethos would be able to weaken the vestiges of entrenched politics. The answer could be both yes and no, depending on the electorate’s swing. If we go by the Nitish Kumar phenomenon, where the chief minister of Bihar was able to banish the vestiges of Lalu Prasad’s politics, the answer is in the affirmative. But going by the example of the late Jayalalitha from Tamil Nadu, known for amassing enormous wealth, the answer could be ‘no’.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 10th, 2017.