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More equal than others

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (aasim@lums.edu.pk) is a member of the Awami Workers Party and a well-known academician.

A plethora of evidence suggests that a highly discriminatory notion of justice and understanding of “corruption” has been applied by the Supreme Court throughout the recent tenure of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party in Pakistan and beyond. Both in Pakistan and perhaps the rest of South Asia, the unelected institutions of the state – the judiciary, the military apparatus and the civil services - continue to depict corruption as our single biggest problem rather than draw attention to their own power

It only takes a few short months for the euphoria of a winning election campaign to give way to the somber realities of actually running a virtually-impossible-to-run country like Pakistan. The Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) came to power following the May 11 general election, and even won a healthy number of seats in by-elections held in August. Yet its honeymoon period was short-lived. In fact, both the PML-N and the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) – the other principal victor in the general election – started to face criticism on a number of fronts soon after their moment of triumph.

Still, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan – the cricketer-turned politician leader of the PTI – have come up against nothing like the media battering that Asif Zardari suffered throughout his presidency. Zardari left office after completing his five-year term in early September, robbing the local press corps of its favourite punching bag. The presidency is now a low-profile office, occupied by a retired judge widely viewed to be a Sharif loyalist. It is thus unclear as to who will replace Zardari as the most vilified politician in the country.

Alongside the media, the Zardari regime’s other nemesis was the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The CJ is also scheduled to leave office later this year, having spent the past five years building up a populist reputation on the heels of the lawyer-led movement that deposed general Pervez Musharraf and facilitated the revival of the democratic process after the country’s third decade-long experience with military rule (Ayub Khan 1958-69; Zia-ul-Haq 1977-88; Pervez Musharraf 1999-2008).

Democrats in Pakistan remained divided over the Supreme Court’s judicial activism during the Zardari years. The pro-CJ camp consistently argued that the country needed a strong judiciary willing to take on a ‘corrupt’ political class, whereas the other side perceived the innumerable suo moto actions taken by Chaudhry and his fellow judges against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government – with Zardari at its head – to be deliberate attempts at undermining the elected regime and thereby democracy in general.

While the PPP and Zardari are now out of office, the debate continues to simmer, in large part because the Supreme Court has maintained a relatively low-key posture in the post-election period, which, most objective observers agree, is entirely out of character. Why, the court’s critics are asking, is the PML-N being spared the kind of scrutiny which was focused upon the PPP?

The facts confirm that the SC indicted and punished high-profile individuals either directly or indirectly affiliated with the PPP. PM Yusuf Raza Gilani was the most prominent casualty, disqualified from office in June 2012 on contempt of court charges for refusing to reopen corruption cases against President  Zardari. Many other PPP appointees were also alleged to be financially corrupt or guilty of being complicit in legal irregularities of other kinds.

Yet “corruption” of the kind that the SC chose to highlight surely cannot be considered as significant a problem as that of millenarian violence, or state repression in restive Balochistan. If the SC could insist that a sitting prime minister be disqualified from office, why were intelligence chiefs responsible for disappearing and torturing youth in Balochistan not brought to book?

Even if this major contradiction is totally put to one side, a case can be made that the SC appeared keener to target PPP leaders than, say those associated with the PML-N (which, let it not be forgotten, ran the Punjab government during the previous set-up). The court and media together also made sure to take care of other inconveniences efficiently, none more so that the major scandal involving the CJ’s son and real estate tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain which threatened to be a major embarrassment for the top judge.

In short, a plethora of evidence suggests a highly discriminatory application of justice by the SC throughout the tenure of the PPP. Die-hard critics of the PPP argue that the evidence is anecdotal rather than systematic. In effect they insist that the PPP was far more “corrupt” than everyone else in Pakistan between 2008 and 2013. Even if one were to accept this line or argument, the court’s motivations remain unclear. Was the objective to target the “most corrupt” or to address “corruption” in general?

This is an incredibly important question given the now growing consensus that corruption is an integral feature of everyday life in much of South Asia (not to mention other parts of the post-colonial world). I find the word corruption itself troubling given that a majority of ordinary people and state functionaries regularly engage in what would strictly be considered illicit practices. The entire socio-economic structure, as well as the “everyday state”, is navigated by the vast majority of ordinary people through various forms of petty corruption.

This logic is not a cultural one; South Asians are not prone to corruption any more than Europeans, Africans or (north or south) Americans. The rule of capital and the state – firmly established during the colonial period – is operationalised through a patronage-based political-economic order that actually makes corruption necessary, if not sufficient, for individuals and group formations to climb the social ladder.

The Notion of “Corruption”

It is all too easy a refrain to decry corruption without understanding its historical-structural roots. Indeed, the chattering classes have been the most vocal adherents of the recent spate of political mobilisations against corruption. Their drawing room condemnations of the system aside, the chattering classes are much better equipped to work the system – often through corruption – than the lower orders. The fact that the elite are making hay about the very system that allows it to continue thriving is disingenuous at best.  

Unsurprisingly most political movements against corruption tend to demonstrate a flash-in-the-pan character. For instance, Anna Hazare’s fabled “Gandhian” call to arms now seems a distant memory. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court also appears to have decided that the PML-N and PTI are considerably less corrupt than their predecessors in government. 

One wonders, however, whether public opinion might not force the CJ and his brother judges’ to overlook their personal preferences. Prior to winning control of the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the general election, Imran Khan’s PTI was easily the most vocal proponent of judicial activism against corrupt politicians. Now in power in the war-torn KP, the PTI has already come under fire for its lackadaisical approach towards Islamists, while a whispering campaign about nepotism in appointments and the awarding of contracts is well underway. 

It is a moot point whether or not the PTI, PML-N and other parties in government are engaging in corruption and whether or not the SC has turned a blind eye to it. The question is not whether such practices have taken or will take place but how judges, politicians, media, the intelligentsia and indeed the entire society understand the issue and then address it.

Unfortunately there is not a great deal of hope for transformation in the dominant discourse, and politics, in Pakistan (or, for that matter, the rest of South Asia). My contention is that the biggest impediment in this regard is the state itself, particularly its permanent apparatus. The judiciary, civil and military services continue to exercise tremendous power over the majority of South Asians, with only the rich and powerful able to negotiate with state functionaries on their own terms. Rather than draw attention to their own power, the unelected institutions of the state would much rather continue to depict corruption as our single biggest problem, and then attribute all of it to those who are involved in the dirty business of politics.

Having said this, our mainstream politicians hardly do the cause of democratisation any favours by themselves reinforcing the patronage-based political-economic order. Yet politicians are not all alike, and neither are the wretched of the earth necessarily prone to dancing to established tunes. Some very prominent Indian scholars have argued in recent times that the lower orders have themselves learned the ropes of the system and how to use it to their advantage, thus implying something like a democratisation of patronage.

While following this line of argument, I believe that it understates the fact that the rule of state and capital is still very much intact. The majority of working people barely eke out an existence by acceding to the rules of the game. Yes, we should recognise all of the potential implications of corruption but we should at the same time recognise its obvious limitations as a “correcting mechanism” to injustice and inequality. It is only in doing so that we open up the possibility of an emancipatory politics that serves the interests of all.

Of course context determines how the long-term process of democratisation proceeds. Pakistani democracy is nowhere near as developed as in other South Asian countries. But this is precisely why the superficial rhetoric of corruption cannot go unchallenged, lest it become the justification, yet again, for unconstitutional interruptions of the democratic process. 

Thankfully, things have progressed enough that a military coup is not likely in the near future (and hopefully ever again). But the past five years have also proven that the military is not the only unelected institution of the state that has pretensions to being the saviour of the country. Judges partial to a particular brand of politician – not to mention other unelected state institutions – are just as big a danger to democracy as generals. Or should we just be satisfied with the Orwellian fact that some of us are more equal than others?

 

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