On ‘corruption’

The problem is not what you think

The prevalence of corruption, just like its historicity, cannot be under stressed because as recent work on the economy of the armed forces has shown it is likely to exist in most public institutions regardless of their democratic or representative nature. It is the nature of democratic politics itself that the public sphere expands and receives more attention in print and the electronic media but it is equally important to remind us of the fact that this is not specific just to democracy or democratic rule but is equally present yet under-exposed during times of authoritarian regimes.

What has concerned me the most in the endless discussions (read: rambling) on corruption in our media is the way that it has been treated as this alien disease that needs to be eliminated almost as if it was more dangerous than cancer and as incurable as the common cold. Some of the rectification schemes and terms recently used in several op-ed pieces include, ‘re-structuring institutional practices’, focusing on ‘good governance’, ‘re-thinking accountability mechanisms’ and so on and so forth. Well intentioned, no doubt, but heavily reliant on the premise that corruption is alien and harmful to the system of governance and public life, hence it has to be separated like some tumour and thrown away.

Whilst I generally agree to the harmful effects of corruption in so far as it induces low levels of efficiency, wastage of scarce resources and promotion of incompetence in merit-based situations, I am more concerned with this fetish of treating corruption as an alien disease. If the premise of their solutions relies on the extraneous nature of the problem itself, then the situation can be made a lot more interesting and complex if the primary assumption is discarded and a new one is set in place, i.e. corruption is not alien to the system, it is an inherent code of practice that has evolved over time in certain parts of the world, primarily from the experience of the public realm undergoing certain forms of social organisation and re-organisation such as colonialism, kinship associational modes and a cultural continuity of sorts that has synthesised these varying social experiences.

It is important to note that then the problem ceases to be an institutional plague but when in turn it becomes a societal practice or norm, these pretentious solutions seem to fall some light-years short of addressing the issue. In simpler terms, it is possible to note that corruption refers to any practice that transgresses the rational-bureaucratic framework of the public sphere, i.e. my offering a bribe to a policeman and its subsequent acceptance is a transgression because I am avoiding my punishment for breaking some legal-rational principle. What if the logic of bureaucratic rationality is alien to my mode of thinking? What if I would rather just exploit his inferior economic position to go scot-free or more commonly my connections amongst his superiors or even the fact that we might hail from the same biraderi. The premise of rationality is a lot different and the recognition of the law is only there while we are breaking it, the law stops being the code of conduct in any subsequent frame of action.

Secondly, the acceptance and acknowledgment of corruption as sin is most often rhetoric employed by society and in relevant and contextual positions, almost every person finds justification of any corrupt or illegal act that they might commit. For example, a policeman or a civil servant taking a bribe justifies his actions on the paucity of his wages, the inflation of subsistence goods and the moral degradation of his immediate superiors. The economically affluent justify some forms of corruption as a necessity to avoid the rigors of our already failed system. Public representatives see the misuse of public vehicles as fringe benefits that they have earned due to the demanding route taken by them to get to this position of privilege.

From these two observations on the notion of corruption, it can be concluded (perhaps superficially) that the rationality of action in the public sphere is unique within post-colonial contexts. This ‘problem’ of corruption is prevalent in places where the colonial experience of a centralised bureaucratic legal framework has merged with non-European modes of social conduct. Where the autonomous citizen (or public servant) is a citizen (or public servant) along with a Rajput, a Lahori, a Sunni, and a resident of some neighbourhood and traces his past to some village on the banks of the Chenab. It is impossible to delineate which of these identities (and subsequent rationality) is inherently colonial, post-colonial and pre-colonial, and perhaps that question does not need to be answered.

What we are left with is not just the simple problem of removing the tumour that is corruption but with a larger question of somehow gathering such diverse identities into an acceptable consensus under some notion of law that would either completely legitimise those actions that we deem as being corrupt or perhaps get rid of the aforementioned actions all together. It is quite clear that these two skewed frameworks cannot co-exist side by side as they have been trying to do for such a long time.

The writer blogs at http://recycled-thought.blogspot.com.Email him at [email protected], or send a tweet @umairjav


  1. m.aslam ch said:

    corruption has almost been eliminated from countries like China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia only because their leadership has been honest, sincere to their countrymen. so If honest, competent and sincere leadership come in Pakistan , corruption could be minimized in months not years, with the immediate fall out that 50% population which is living below poverty line, their income will immediately be tippled and they will come into the main streamline of national development along with multiplier benefits to the economy and the prosperity in the country..

    • Hasan said:

      Corruption in China remains rampant. As for the other countries you list, only Singapore is without significant corruption issues.

  2. Pakistani said:

    OK it is not alien.Now what? This piece is something that only is in the mind of the writer.It is not ‘Ground Reality’
    a popular phrase in the country.He has talked about “fools and kings” perhaps a little muddled in his thought.But he has right to his opinion.

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