Arvind Kejriwal’s and his Aam Aadmi Party’s phenomenal rise has given us Pakistanis some food for thought. The reasons are simple. First, corruption is still as much a concern in Pakistan as it is in India. Second, our successive elected governments were removed from power in the name of corruption. Since then, the common image of the democratic governments that has emerged is that they are usually inept and corrupt. On the other hand, the dictators that have ruled this country have been projected as efficient and clean. Hence, you see that while our concerns are not much different from India’s, our response is. India knows that the solution lies in more democracy, not less. While we are reluctantly progressing in that direction, the message has not quite sunk in yet.
The high prevalence of corruption can be attributed to a lot of issues: our limited and deeply flawed experience with democracy, our erroneous emphasis on just our own families and a set of institutions that have not been inclusive in nature.
Let us start from the lack of democracy. In 66 years, time and again, we were given the opportunity to elect our governments. But electing is one thing. Ask yourself how many times were we allowed to sack or vote out a government after the completion of its term in office? Every time we elected a government, someone else fired it. This poses two problems in terms of transparent governance and hence lack of corruption. First, if I am an elected representative with the knowledge that you can only vote me in, not vote me out, I will not feel accountable to you. I will buy your vote on Election Day and then go looking to flatter the people who can put me out of job.
Second, if I am a voter who knows my vote is good only for Election Day, I will do everything to get maximum benefits on the very day. Perhaps, I will sell my vote to the highest bidder, or give it to someone who can help me in getting away with petty crimes. But in any case, the broader sense of ownership is lost on that day. When I cannot hold my rulers accountable, why should I hold myself accountable? I know it is a twisted argument, but trust me, I have heard it ad nauseam.
Fortunately, with the first ever democratic civilian to civilian transition in the history of this country last year, things are changing rapidly and positively. Give us a couple more such full-term democratic transitions and I assure you every ruler will know he or she will have to face the voter on Election Day. Also, with the presidency’s voluntary surrender of its powers, the emergence of the judiciary and the media as major players, and the army’s decision to stay in the barracks helps the situation a lot.
The second biggest problem is our wrong emphasis on our unique brand of family system. Families are important, of course. But what happens when they come in the way of performance of your duties? When in order to help out an inept or corrupt relative we start breaking all the rules, be disloyal to our profession, society, the state and the principle of merit. In his brilliant, brilliant work Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama dissects the family values of various societies and shows this affliction is called familism. Of the three family models he mentions, namely, the extended family, nuclear family and single parent family, the worst is ours. Call it the biradari system or our joint families, even when we are not shacking together, we give our relatives more importance than our profession or society. Changing economic realities and our response to them can eventually bring a difference. People working at a distance from their hometowns can usually maintain nuclear families, which include husband, wife and dependent children. With time, this will change priorities too.
The tale of our extractive institutions starts with the state’s failure to introduce land reforms, giving birth to an extractive elite and the failure of democracy highlighted above. You will need to read Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s excellent book, Why nations fail, to understand what went wrong. The truth is we can handle corruption through a strong emphasis on democracy and modernity.