Corruption and democracy


Panama Leaks debate continues


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech in the National Assembly on May 16 turned out to be what was mostly expected: lots of words (apparently promising, but practically meaningless), reiterating only the old position. The only good thing was that the PM was still flexible and didn’t close the doors for a negotiated and mutually agreed settlement of the Panama Papers issue.

It was a calculated attempt to drag on the issue a little more. Appearing to say something, Nawaz Sharif said nothing at all. The fact is he couldn’t do anything else. He had to come, and he came. He had to address the house, and he addressed. He had to use verbosity instead of facts – and he did that somewhat convincingly. Facts and figures may not match therefore it’s better to avoid them. Indulging in verbosity and a glorious (illustrated) family history momentarily evoked positive and sympathetic vibes for him – at least among his supporters. And that isn’t a small feat in the given circumstances when this entire Panama episode is supposed to erode his political support base.

A vigorous debate has already started about what he did and didn’t say in the address, the opposition’s immediate response in the shape of a walkout from the National Assembly, developments that can be expected in the coming days and weeks and of all the bad things that Panama Papers issue and the ensuing political turmoil can bring about. But one is tempted to see a silver lining in this gloomy situation.

The first good thing about it is that a positive, substantive debate has started in the wake of Panama Leaks despite the efforts of segments in the media to use it for nefarious, anti-democratic ends. This debate is sometimes as narrow as crucifying the PM and his family alone but it goes as wider and broader at times as to devise laws, rules and mechanisms to address the larger corruption issue comprehensively. In this debate many thought-provoking and out-of-the-box suggestions have come to the forefront for the formulation of ways and means to not only eradicate corruption but also to bring about changes in the political system to ensure rule of law in the country.

All this open debate and criticism has become possible only due the democratic system that is currently in place. Were we living under a dictatorship today, nothing of the sort could have happened. There is no bar on individuals to express their opinion. There is no gagging the media or taking TV channels off the air to stop them from taking the rulers to task.

Eight years of democracy have allowed everyone to ask questions; the media, the legislators, the people to ask their rulers how they built their financial empires. It was unthinkable just a while back to box in the rulers and ask them all kinds of nasty questions. An example is being set for future. Today, the leaders and family belonging to the party that is politically considered the most popular and powerful are being made to answer. But the matter is not just confined to the encirclement of PML-N leadership, the once biggest political party – the PPP – is faced with the spectre of extinction due to corruption charges and its resultant erosion of public support. And this has become possible only through democracy.

The march is still on as the demands and aspirations of the people are now moving from individual and party accountability to the reformation of the system and a comprehensive and foolproof accountability mechanism. It needs no explanation that if the system is allowed to continue, the course towards better and more responsive governance will be set within a span of just a few years from now.

A lot of hue and cry is being made on the opposition’s decision to stage a walkout from the assembly and rightly so as parliament is the proper forum to resolve such political issues. It is also being alleged that PPP has deliberately let the PTI down and played its cards to help Nawaz Sharif get off the hook. Right or wrong, all the large political parties, excluding PTI, agree on two major points: to not send PML-N’s government packing prematurely and to ensure continuity of the current democratic dispensation. Continuity of the system has utmost importance but since an abrupt change of government can bring in political instability that may result in the derailment of the system altogether, therefore, saving one is like saving the other to them (opposition).

Seen in this perspective, the opposition can be criticized for walking out of the NA on Monday but in the larger context they are so far successful in letting the steam out of the option to take matters to the streets. In retrospect, it may be regarded as one of the biggest contributing factors that saved the day.

However, it may be added that democracy cannot be saved or strengthened through such machinations in the time of crisis. Yes, this can help to some extent but continuation of the system cannot be an end in itself. It can, at best, be termed means to achieve higher democratic goals.

Democracy, in our current situation, can be boosted when politicians will devise some credible mechanism of accountability – to the satisfaction of the people. Unless politicians are considered clean, politics will be regarded a dirty game. And as long as politics remains a dirty game, democracy, as a system of government, will remain tarnished.

The issue of corruption must be taken serious by the politicians. Playing games and manipulating the system to get away with loot and plunder is not going to save anyone – nor can it be called politics or democracy. People may accept it under duress but they will keep on looking for outside solutions; sometime to a savoir on horseback, sometime to a brute throat-slitter in the disguise of religious revivalist. But look on, they will; because if the system cannot reform itself from within, it is bound to be corrected by some outer force. And when outer force comes in to cleanse, then justice is dispensed amidst bloodbath.

One would not mind even that if the system is not allowed to improve and loopholes in the system are left intentionally and purposefully open by the elite in order to accumulate more and more ill-gotten wealth for themselves and their coming generations. But the problem is that political uprising, in the absence of some ideology and alternative program, cannot be equated with a revolution. At best, the letting out of anger in a bloody way against prevailing injustices can be termed ‘Arab Spring’ and nothing more. And Arab Springs bear no fruit.

At the moment we don’t have any alternative idea. Even the so-called revolutionaries and post-modern intellectuals are at a loss to know what can be an alternative system of governance or how to correct things within the current system. That’s why one is always in favour of giving the democratic system a chance instead of an abrupt or bloody regime change. But success of the democratic project hinges heavily on the behaviour, vision and performance of the political class – which at the moment are gravely lacking.