Wailing about corruption has become part of our usual soundscape. And like the din of our daily lives, or the persistent stink of a nearby sewer, we have learnt to block it out. For many of us, corruption is just one of the many unfortunate facts that we need to live with. Or is it?
A large number of Indians don’t think so. Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old Indian social reformer hoping to emulate Gandhi, has touched off a firestorm in India with his crusade against corruption. After being arrested and tossed in jail, Hazare has now emerged to a hero’s welcome and a government which is trying desperately to avoid being cast as the bad guy.
The obvious response at this stage is that Pakistan is not India. We do not have massive crowds out on the streets protesting against corruption. And we have no equivalent of Anna Hazare storming the ramparts of Islamabad.
The obvious response, however, is wrong. The crowds may not be out on the streets yet but according to innovative social research carried out by the data-mining wizards at pringit.com, corruption is — by far — the single most important consideration across the board for all Pakistanis, irrespective of geographic location.
The nationwide analysis by Pringit (described as a Pakistani social network for mobile phone users) found that 42 per cent of Pakistanis think that corruption is the biggest threat facing Pakistan (as opposed to 12 per cent for ‘dehshatgardi’ or terrorism). Even across different locations — the results were separately analysed for Lahore, Karachi, Faisalabad, Peshawar, Fata, Islamabad, Multan and Balochistan — corruption was universally perceived as the biggest threat to Pakistan. In fact, with the exception of the results for Fata and Peshawar, terrorism was not even the second-most important threat: instead, that spot went to either unemployment or inflation (‘mehngai’). Overall, economic concerns (corruption, unemployment, inflation) accounted for 80 per cent of public concerns.
I have to admit that the results came as a surprise to me. After all, between the daily discovery of gunny-sacked bodies in Karachi and the steady drip of casualties from atrocities like the bombing of a mosque in Jamrud, I would have thought it self-evident that the single biggest problem in Pakistan is law and order. But clearly, the people think differently.
Given that the facts are unarguable, a separate issue emerges: does this make sense? Is corruption really as big a deal as the people of Pakistan think it is?
There is certainly a distinguished body of opinion which thinks that corruption is not that big a deal. Or as pithily stated by one commentator on Twitter, “corruption is a silly middle-class concern”.
The economic (or policy) argument in support of that contention is fairly simple. The basic theory behind capitalism is that private individuals get to decide what their capital does since they are best capable of figuring out what the market needs. The job of the government (in such a context) is therefore to provide the services that people need in order to have a stable economic playing field (i.e., things like electricity, transport infrastructure and basic physical security). The fact that people are willing to pay money for certain services (i.e. to give bribes) only shows that the government has misallocated resources or is not responding to private demand. As such, corruption is simply how private entrepreneurs get what they should have been getting in the first place.
While I am no economist, I think such blithe disregard for social concerns is not such a good idea. To begin with, the events of the last few years have only reminded us that capitalism is an imperfect system, one whose many benefits need to be moderated with a dose of common sense and sufficient government regulation to prevent a completely imbalanced society. It is this imbalance which is the public’s root concern today.
As explained by an Indian supporter of Hazare in a New York Times report, “It is the middle class who is worst affected by corruption. The upper class is not affected. The upper classes can get what they need by paying money”.
The term ‘corruption’ thus covers many sins. It refers to the paying of bribes. It refers to a society in which the upper classes can afford to pay ‘speed money’ but the rest of the people cannot. And it refers to public anger at a system so decrepit that none of the simple necessities of life are available without paying extra, often at prices which are not affordable.
Let me try to put all of this together. If the polling data is accurate, there is a tidal wave of public anger building up in Pakistan. From what I can gather, there is little or no recognition of this groundswell amongst the established political parties, all of whom seem to be assuming that life consists of mouthing the same old clichés and all of whom seem to be assuming that the public has no other options.
I am no fan of Imran Khan and I certainly don’t think that he is the answer to our problems. But it may well be that the very high levels of public dissatisfaction with corruption are fuelling his surprisingly high public support. If that is the case, he may not just be a flash in the pan but instead a serious player in the forthcoming elections.
In the 1992 elections, Bill Clinton’s famous War Room used to feature a banner saying, “It’s the economy, stupid”. The point of the banner was to remind the Clinton team that despite all of the froth on the airwaves, what counted most was the economy and people’s perception of it. It may be that the time has come to put up similar banners in the Presidency and in each of the chief minster houses. Otherwise, chances are that the next few years will be more ‘interesting’ than anybody would really prefer.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2011.