Sunday, October 30, 2011

An anti-corruption strategy

Less is more.

This applies well to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a Pakistani government agency charged with fighting corruption. Somewhat paradoxically, shutting down the NAB would do more for anti-corruption than the NAB could ever do by remaining open.

Recently, opposition leader Chaudhary Nisar of the PML-N challenged the PPP government's appointment of the NAB chairman. Chaudhary has done this in the past; last year, he successfully challenged the NAB appointment of Justice Deedar Hussain Shah. Such politicking is quite common when it comes to the NAB. For every NAB news story involving the reimbursement of scam victims or successful prosecution of corrupt officials, there is another involving political machinations by one political party against another. Politicians view the NAB less as an anti-corruption body and more as a vehicle for political point-scoring.

And lest one believe that the PML-N opposition party is sincere in its criticism of the NAB, the purpose of their criticism is not so much reform of the NAB as it is criticism of the government for the sake of criticism itself. This is evidenced by the fact that the PML-N are planning to replace the NAB with their own version of anti-corruptionism, the NAC.

How seriously the PML-N takes the issue of corruption can be gauged by the fact that it wants the head of its proposed NAC to be a sitting judge of the Supreme Court. In other words, it would like to discard the fundamental democratic principle of separation-of-powers by combining the roles of the judiciary and the executive in a single person. A sure-fire path to corruption.

Assume, for a moment, that we can move beyond these political games. Can an institution like the NAB successfully enforce accountability? Ironically, the NAB itself suffers from an accountability problem.

Like other parliamentary systems, the Pakistani government has 3 branches: the executive which executes laws, the legislative which writes laws, and the judicial which interprets laws. The NAB is an executive agency and, as an executive agency, its members are appointed by the President. When a country is intent on fighting political corruption, the last thing it needs is for the ruling party to appoint the anti-corruption watchdogs.

The actual task of rooting out corruption is a drawn-out and systemic process that takes generations. It can't be attributed to a single individual or government. Rather, it requires steady reform of the existing judicial system and existing law enforcement agencies. Such a strategy would ensure that government does not become needlessly bureaucratic by an endless parade of politicized anti-corruption agencies. It is also entirely in keeping with how corruption has historically been stamped out in other societies.

How might such a strategy play out in Pakistan?

The 2010 floods that ravaged the country provide an illustrative example. After the floods, the provincial government of Punjab constituted a Flood Inquiry Tribunal which investigated the government response to the floods. The tribunal published a report (part 1 and part 2) that concluded that the Federal Flood Commission as well as the Irrigation and Power Department were accountable for lapses in the flood response. Among other things, the report recommends cooperation amongst the various flood-related government institutions for the creation of an Integrated National Flood Management Plan. It also recommends the creation of a National Water Policy / Plan and notes that the official National Water Policy is still in draft form and has been awaiting approval since 2005 (!).

Any political party which works to implement these report recommendations would do more for accountability than the existence of an "anti-corruption" institution could ever do.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tehreek-e-Insaaf: Idealism meets Pragmatism?

With the recent release of his autobiography, I feel compelled to write something on Imran Khan's political career. Most pieces concerning Khan's PTI relentlessly target its dismal electoral chances without providing a clear rationale. Amongst these, there are a few well-written exceptions.

To analyze the PTI's chances requires an understanding of the Pakistani political system.

It is a system that operates on the basis of blood/tribal ties. For the most part, this holds true in both rural and urban areas but such ties are more prevalent in rural areas where approximately 60% of the population resides. Leaving aside urban areas, which are competitive enough, has the PTI made inroads into the rural areas where the majority of votes reside? Is the PTI able to appeal to tribal links?


The Pakistani political system is one that requires distribution of favours. This involves courting influential figures in the political and business community before elections for the purposes of gaining support and then repaying such figures with government posts and kickbacks after the elections. Is the PTI willing to play this game?

Again, no.

Presumably, the PTI wants to eradicate these evils. But it needs to come into power to do so. And therein lies the problem. To become electable in the very near-future, the PTI needs to temper its idealism with pragmatism. Any reasonable person would argue that this is a good thing. After all, isn't politics all about being pragmatic?

However, this would be a mistake.

In the past, Khan has stated that there is more to being a party leader than simply running after the prime minister post. He is absolutely right. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of the youth vote, which further highlights the long-term nature of his strategy. In this sense, he has displayed a vision lacking in most politicians.

On the face of it, there isn't much harm in pragmatically working with like-minded members of other parties. But there is grievous harm in giving up your vision.

Khan's challenge is being pragmatic enough to forge alliances with experienced politicians while holding on to his vision; this is easier said than done.

Consider some of the possible new PTI entrants. Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi is the former foreign minister and a senior PPP figure. Bringing him on would secure rural votes; it would also, at some level, perpetuate the dynasticism that PTI claims to be against. The same could be said, in varying degrees, for a number of other possible PTI entrants including Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, as well as Awais and Jamal Leghari of the Leghari clan.

Besides, given the political clout of people like Qureshi and Hashmi, Khan would be better off not loading PTI with such heavyweights as they may very well replace Khan's vision with their own. And without Khan's alternative vision, the PTI would stand for nothing. A more sound strategy would involve recruiting less experienced politicians who have nonetheless been tested at the national level and aren't such an obvious part of the old ruling elite. It would then be left to Khan to use his considerable leadership skills to ensure his vision is successfully implemented by the party members.

That is the only way forward for the PTI if it wants to establish an influential and alternative position on the political landscape.