Pakistan’s elite is far too used to remaining above the law, and for far too long, the government has shown no interest in reining in that smug sense of entitlement. The Nawaz Administration’s decision to stop prosecuting some of the largest electricity thieves in the country because many of them are politically connected is only the latest example of a sociopolitical system that is rigged to favour the already privileged. But if the government believes it can fix the country’s energy crisis while also letting some of its wealthiest citizens to continue to steal electricity, it is sadly mistaken.
We could make moral, philosophical, economic, or even mathematical arguments as to why this move by the government is wrong. But those arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears. So, we will make the only argument that will hold any meaning: it will cost the ruling PML-N votes. Take a good long look at the currently unemployed politicians of the PPP, Mr Prime Minister. It was not a specific scandal that caused the voters to chuck the largest political party in the country from the corridors of power. It was for their unwillingness to confront the singular reality that defines Pakistan’s political economy today: the state can no longer afford to pay for the privileges of its corrupt elite. Any statesman willing to take on that corrupt elite will be hailed as a hero. Any politician unwilling to take on that confrontation will soon find themselves unemployed.
The PML-N already suffers from the perception that it is the party that supports the interests of Pakistan’s industrial and commercial elite. It can ill afford to further perpetuate that perception with policies like preventing the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) from prosecuting electricity thieves. The amounts in question are far from trivial. Unpaid bills from defaulters that NAB was asked to prosecute total Rs112 billion. If NAB fails to recover that amount, the state-owned utility companies will try to recoup the cost of generating that electricity from their law-abiding customers, perpetuating the cycle of perverse incentives. For its own political interests, the Nawaz administration should seek to break that cycle.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2014.