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Story Publication logo December 20, 2009

Pakistan: Conceptualizing Corruption

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As I've written previously, the Pakistani government has been taking some heat. On Wednesday night, the controversy finally came to a full boil, and officials are still scrambling to keep the pot from bubbling over.

A bit of background: in 2007, a weakened Pervez Musharraf tried to curry favor with officials by suspending their many corruption cases in exchange for political support. The contraversial National Reconciliation Ordinance was upheld after legal battle in early 2008. But since Musharraf had already canned the nation's Chief Justice and instituted a new set of judges who swore loyalty directly to the President, the N.R.O. was part of an "extra-constitutional" system, whose legal status, according to Anil Kalhan, is ambiguous now that the martial regime is gone.

Rather than addressing the thorny legal question (the constitutional position of the Pakistani state from October 2007 to August 2008), the Chief Justice has acted politically: he simply struck down the most unpopular piece of extra-constitutional law, the N.R.O. Moreover, the judge extended his N.R.O. decision to cover charges against President Zardari, whose cases were tabled long before Musharraf's rule. Zardari still retains unequivocal presidential immunity from prosecution, but the Chief Justice's move puts political pressure on the president to informally relinquish powers or to formally step down. Indeed, many Pakistanis I have interviewed express concern that the Chief Justice, widely championed as the face of resistance to Musharraf and symbol of the rule of law, is just another political aspirant who uses the judicial pulpit to endear himself to the voting public.

What strikes me about the N.R.O. verdict is that the Chief Justice saw populist value in a crackdown on corruption to begin with. When he left his post as South Asia correspondent fifteen years ago, Washington Post reporter Steve Coll wrote of South Asians' perplexing enthusiasm for rishwat. Elected officials took bribes from constituents in exchange for a share of the goodies they proceeded to embezzle from the national coffers. And far from condemning the practice, locals seemed to take pride in the system. After several years in the region, Coll came to understand why: When a society's primary loyalties are local and clannish, rather than national, robbing the nation to serve the clan is normal, even honorable.

The takeaway from the public outrage over corruption today is that local ties are giving way to a national consciousness, the kind of consciousness than can and will be offended by the theft or manipulation of its resources. The kind of consciousness that can conceive of conflicts over resources and balancing of interests rather than simply existential fights over identity. Whatever happens to President Zardari, this is a positive sign. Unfortunately, one local lawyer told me, "we've only just started learning to be a nation. It will take us three generations to start behaving like one."

The other change since Steve Coll left Pakistan is even less rosy. Then too, there was a profound gap between rich and poor, but during the latest economic boom, the poor actively lost ground despite rapid growth. In that atmosphere, the failures of national leaders acquired new significance, especially when (as with corruption) those failures could be given a rupee value.

But anger has limitations. The new concern for national solidarity and cleaner politics is bound up with a newfound affection for democratic systems. While I think it's safe to predict the resignation of key ministers, and perhaps, the rise of opposition and dissident members to fill their place, the full collapse of the two-year-old government seems a bridge too far.

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