The Express Tribune

A myth is being reinforced time and again in Pakistan that repeated elections would ultimately cleanse our democracy of the corrupt and improve governance. However, this is just a misconception that many believe in naively. Deeper examination, in fact, reveals the opposite — at least in our part of the world. Let’s look at India first, where general elections have been held without any interruption. In the first 42 years, between 1947 and 1989, there were only 10 governance-related scandals. Since then, India has suffered from 163 corruption scandals. Moreover, in the last 20 years, the percentage of tainted parliamentarians has gone up manifold. According to a survey of the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch, out of 543 Lok Sabha members, as many as 162 are involved in criminal (murder, rape, extortion and kidnapping) cases. Furthermore, out of 4,120 members of state assemblies, 1,175 are facing similar cases. Another report prepared by the National Social Watch Coalition shows that 25 per cent of parliamentarians in India are corrupt. In Pakistan, too, according to a recent study conducted by Omar Cheema, as many as 70 per cent of parliamentarians did not file tax returns. Dozens of them cheated the public because they gave false information about their assets, degrees and dual nationality.

One may argue that the rising number of cases is, in fact, a result of the enhanced role of watchdog bodies. Hence, more cases are coming to the surface. This may be marginally true but there is substantial evidence that despite the mushrooming of media channels and watchdog bodies, corrupt elements have managed to capture substantive seats through elections in the last 25 years in both countries, while in the first 40 years of independence, politicians were comparatively honest. During the early period, unlike India, we did not hold general elections regularly; however, fewer of our politicians were corrupt.

I leave it to the readers to think about why most of the first generation of politicians of both countries was honest. One thing that may be worth noting here, however, is that elections did not appear as a factor as far as the cleansing of our assemblies from the corrupt is concerned. In fact, I would argue that in both countries, elections paved the way for the corrupt to capture electoral space. Let’s quickly scan through political history. Though under the British Raj a massive amount of resources were extracted from India, generally there was strict adherence to the rule of law. The leadership of both the Muslim League and Congress were honest. They would hold annual conferences regularly. The leaders would debate party policies and strategies; and the delegates would approve or disapprove them through voting. Fighting for independence demanded sacrifices. Hence, greedy opportunists and the corrupt did not have reason to join the struggle. Moreover, most leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League were professional people; i.e., successful lawyers, intellectuals, writers, trade unionists, etc. They did not have any personal financial interest that they would need to promote through politics. After independence, gradually, thugs, feudals, businessmen and the real estate mafia replaced them. This created a serious conflict of interest. Unlike Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru, the second generation of politicians chose to use political power to promote private interests. They did not want anyone who could challenge them inside and outside of political parties. Thus, they destroyed inner party debate, democracy and weakened social movements and trade unions. The media, too, became an industry. The teeth of the watchdogs were removed and advocacy/lobbying replaced social action. Moreover, research on social and political issues was marginalised and delinked from state and society. Consequently, debate and dialogue in our country has become mostly emotional, uninformed and extremely opinionated.

In order to substantiate my argument that elections make politicians corrupt, I would like to cite findings of a fascinating study conducted by two scholars, Asim Khwaja and Atif Mian (2004). In order to understand the relationship between politics and rent-seeking behaviour, they investigated the loan data of thousands of Pakistani firms. The study identifies a firm as “political” if any of its directors had participated in an election. Through a rigorous model, they found out that banks would favour political firms. One of their findings was “that not only do they receive 40 per cent larger loans but they also have 50 per cent higher default rates on the loans”. Moreover, they established that the percentage of votes polled and the margin of victory played a crucial role in this regard. This means that the stronger the politician, the higher the loan amount and default rate. The study shows a strong correlation between elections and corruption.

On February 24, the State Bank of Pakistan informed the Supreme Court that Rs256 billion were waived between 1971 and 2009. The report by Justice (retd) Ali’s commission says that loans worth Rs2.38 billon were waived between 1971 and 1991, whereas loans worth Rs84.62 billion were waived between 1992 and 2009. The list also reveals that the majority of these loans were given to ‘political’ firms. Hence, it is abundantly clear that despite repeated elections in both Pakistan and India, corruption increased and governance became poorer over the years. Moreover, corruption also widens inequalities and deepens deprivations. It is not, therefore, the elections per se, which improve governance and eliminate the corrupt. It is, in fact, the power of freedom that makes the difference. Though freedom is enshrined in our law, poor voters feel vulnerable. Should they use their freedom to vote freely, they loose their freedom after the election. The real issue is to have a free and fair election with the liberty to choose a candidate of one’s liking, without being coerced or bought.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2013.

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