Who cares about corruption?

TWO questions about corruption deserve dispassionate attention. The first: does corruption matter to voters in Pakistan? Phrased differently, do voters factor in the relative honesty of candidates and the ‘cleanliness’ of the party they represent while they cast their vote? From the little published work that exists, it appears many factors are important, but corruption and honesty are not explicitly part of them.

In most of the country, candidates possessing connections to local state institutions (thana/kacheri/patwarkhana), ties to other powerful individuals, and with the ability to deliver targeted services and material benefits are preferred. In some parts, desire for cultural representation and greater ethnic affiliation appear as factors. In others, kinship ties, familial networks, and moral obligations to their social superiors play a part.

Finally, in urban centres the perception that a party will come good on important issues, such as peace or public transport or energy, for their neighbourhood, city or the country as a whole seems to matter to voters.

In sum, people who’ve spent time observing local politics in urban and rural constituencies will tell you a candidate’s probity and honesty are celebrated as great character values, but are given less weight as political values. This is not just true for Pakistan, it is also true for India, where an all-time high of 186 candidates with criminal records were elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a small but growing segment of the urban electorate that places high premium on an anti-corruption agenda. These are the single-issue voters that form PTI’s core support base. For many, if not all, service delivery, economic growth, protection of fundamental rights, and competent representation can be linked (and thus collapsed in) to financial and administrative honesty.

The dilemma for PTI, however, is that single-issue voters are not even close to being the majority in most urban constituencies, let alone rural ones. Their electoral challenge, therefore, is to keep the anti-corruption segment on board, while reaching out to other-issue voters through different means. So far, this has proven to be difficult.

Let’s move on to the second question: should corruption matter to voters who want development, services, and fundamental rights? In the abstract, the answer is less certain than one may think. Many countries experienced economic growth and development under what are widely considered corrupt, nepotistic regimes.

Early developing East Asian economies — South Korea and Taiwan — were notorious for handing out preferential treatment to large business houses. Late developers Thailand, Indonesia, and most recently, Malaysia, borrowed the same blueprint.

India, next door, experienced brisk growth rates and poverty reduction under two UPA governments plagued by several corruption scandals. Even Pakistan experienced rapid economic growth under Ayub Khan’s nepotistic government, and it seems the economy and service delivery in some sectors is improving under PML-N’s current stint. In sum, any way you look at it, the history of development is ambivalent on the connection between corruption and growth.

There is, however, one Pakistan-centric argument to be made in support of anti-corruption politics, over and above its obvious moral value: it is essential to the functioning of our fragile democracy. This stands in contrast to what many intelligent observers have so far stated. Their position is that brinkmanship and single-minded pursuit of the prime minister’s family will create political turmoil, thus opening the door for the military to assert itself. Corruption should be highlighted, but the politics around it should be reformist rather than ‘revolutionary’.

Fundamentally, I do not disagree with the idea that maximalist views and positional rigidity from all parties will lead to political retardation. Agitation should primarily be through parliamentary politics, in consultation with the opposition, with civic pressure and mass public mobilisation sparingly used tactics.

However, there is another way to look at it. The single-issue, middle- and upper-income voters that PTI now speaks to and for, may be small in number, but their historical role in breaking democracy is large. It is the same class that occupies positions in bureaucracy, and most importantly, provides officers to the military. Their ideas and perceptions about democracy and corruption have reflected themselves in the latter’s institutional thinking. It is this class that in the past socially legitimised ‘clean-up’ coups, covert interventions, and threw mud at the entire edifice of mass participatory politics.

For the democratic project to succeed, the system needs to be sensitive to the demands of the urban middle cl**** over and above what election results offer — if for no other reason than to prevent ‘nostalgia’ for a uniformed messiah.

It is well known the army officer corps has an unceasing appetite for institutional power. Their praetorian actions often find social justification via the echo chamber of cantonment messes, drawing rooms of relatives, communication with civilian friends and family, and the occasional piece of moralistic writing that is accidentally read. It is thus important that the wider urban middle cl**** which often provides social justification through these channels, remains committed to democracy and sees it achieving some success.

So while the onus lies on PTI to behave respon*sibly in its agitation, the principal responsibility of helping democratic institutions evolve lies with the government.

The PML-N, as a party, knows the dangers posed by institutional overreach. One of its jobs should be enhancing the moral authority of government by delivering to the electorate, and by being responsive to those who did not vote for them. This would include the same single-issue voters clamouring for the prime minister’s accountability. Transparency and financial probity may not be important for economic development, but at the moment they seem to be increasingly important for the country’s political evolution.