Alien or inherent?


Corruption as an endemic code of practice

There’s a certain degree of irony that the most consistent characteristic associated with the generally instable political climate in this country is ‘corrupt’. It remains the most overt, and popular, driver of change and transformation in Pakistan the cause of at least 5 dissolutions and coups in our past. What has concerned me the most in the endless discussions (read: rambling) on corruption is the way that it has been treated as this alien disease that needs to be eliminated – almost as if it was more dangerous than cancer and as incurable as the common cold.

Some of the rectification schemes and terms recently used in several op-ed pieces include, re-structuring institutional practices, focusing on good governance, re-thinking accountability mechanisms and so on and so forth. Well intentioned no doubt, but heavily reliant on the premise that corruption is alien and harmful to the system of governance and public life; hence it has to be separated like some tumor and thrown away. Whilst I generally agree to the harmful effects of corruption in so far as it induces low levels of efficiency, wastage of scarce resources and promotion of incompetence in merit-based situations, I am more concerned with this fetish of explaining corruption as an alien disease.

If the premise of their solutions relies on the extraneous nature of the problem itself, then the situation can be made a lot more interesting, and complex, if the primary assumption is discarded and a new one is set in place i.e. corruption is not alien to the system, it is an inherent code of practice that has evolved over time in certain parts of the world, primarily from the experience of the public realm undergoing certain forms of social organisation and re-organisation such as colonialism, kinship associational modes and a cultural continuity of sorts that has synthesised these varying social experiences.

It is important to note that then the problem ceases to be an institutional plague but when in turn it becomes a societal practice or norm, these pretentious solutions seem to fall some light-years short of addressing the issue. In simpler terms, it is possible to note that corruption refers to any practice that transgresses the rational-bureaucratic framework of the public sphere, i.e. my offering a bribe to a policeman and its subsequent acceptance is a transgression because I am avoiding my punishment for breaking some legal-rational principle. What if the logic of bureaucratic rationality is alien to my mode of thinking?

What if I would rather just exploit his inferior economic position to go scot-free or more commonly my connections amongst his superiors or even the fact that we might hail from the same biraderi. The premise of rationality is a lot different and the recognition of the law is only there while we are breaking it, the law stops being the code of conduct in any subsequent frame of action.

Secondly, the acceptance and acknowledgment of corruption as sin is most often rhetoric employed by society and in relevant and contextual positions, almost every person finds justification of any corrupt or illegal act that they might commit. For example, a policeman or a civil servant taking a bribe justifies his actions on the paucity of his wages, the inflation of subsistence goods and the moral degradation of his immediate superiors. The economically affluent justify some forms of corruption as a necessity to avoid the rigors of our already failed system. Public representatives see the misuse of public vehicles as fringe benefits that they have earned due to the demanding route taken by them to get to this position of privilege.

From these two observations on the notion of corruption, it can be concluded (perhaps superficially) that the rationality of action in the public sphere is unique within post-colonial contexts. This problem of corruption is prevalent in places where the colonial experience of a centralised bureaucratic legal framework has merged with non-European modes of social conduct. Where the autonomous citizen (or public servant) is a citizen (or public servant) along with a Rajput, a Lahori, a Sunni, and a resident of some neighborhood and traces his past to some village on the banks of the Chenab. It is impossible to delineate which of these identities (and subsequent rationality) is inherently colonial, post-colonial and pre-colonial; perhaps that question does not need to be answered.

What we are left with is not just the simple problem of removing the tumor that is corruption but with a larger question of somehow gathering such diverse identities into an acceptable consensus under some notion of law that would either completely legitimize those actions that we deem as being corrupt or perhaps get rid of the aforementioned actions all together. It is quite clear that without a formal resolution of these dichotomies, Pakistan will be unable to solve its question of social and economic identity.

The writer works in the social sector and blogs at Write to him at [email protected]