For the past two months, the national discourse has remained polarised between those who captured the state’s resources after last year’s election and now strongly advocate the cause of democracy and those hurling allegations of corruption from atop containers in Islamabad. Because these allegations are rarely contested except for routine ‘filed today, forgotten tomorrow’ legal notices for defamation, the suspicions of corruption are getting stronger by the day.

Those on the containers would like their listeners to believe that there is such a thing as democracy without corruption – if only the right set of power wielders replaced the wrong ones. The total silence from the rulers on this subject strengthens the perception that there indeed exists a relationship between corruption and democracy. There is even a view that corruption might be endogenous to our subcontinental psyche just as Mohinder Kaur (or was it one of her sisters) lamented to her husband in a pre-partition folk song ‘Wey tu kada patwari jey munda mera rowvey amb nu’ (what sort of a patwari are you if my child is craving for a mango?)

One critical relationship between corruption and democracy is that corruption can deeply undermine support for democracy in any fragile democratic dispensation. In established democracies, where state institutions are strong, corruption of one administration can lead to a fresh election, but in fragile ones like ours, corruption of the government creates a potentially explosive situation where people might be inclined to abandon democracy completely in favour of some other form of government.

Regardless of an individual’s view of the relationship between democracy and corruption, the fact is that at the lower level of society, Pakistan today is littered with morally debased, depraved and perverted officials who indulge in corruption as their second nature. And those in the upper echelons of power, for the most part, are simply dishonest and use their positions of trust improperly for personal benefits – all in the garb of public representatives.

We have often seen rulers pandering to the wishes of wealthy players in the private sector and in the process opening the door to corruption. The situation gets worse if the chief executive ignores the conflict of interest and plays around with tariff structures for the benefit of the few including his family members fronting for his business.

Such policies might rake in temporary gains in the short term but in the long haul corruption of this type is inconsistent with rapid growth of the country as evident from statistical data. It also kills competition and innovation in business. That’s one reason why we are so apprehensive about the onslaught of Indian businesses in any MFN regime.

Democracy is often defined as government of the people, by the people and for the people. The previous government headed by Asif Ali Zardari and the present one of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif both have looked like governments for the wealthy and well connected and certainly not governments of the people for the people.

This not to suggest that there is less corruption in authoritative regimes though Singapore is often mentioned as an example. The present Chinese regime has come down hard on corruption and President Putin in Russia is locked in a fierce struggle for power with the country’s oligarchs who are believed to have made their fortunes illegally.

For democracy to take roots in Pakistan, every government will require a certain level of trust from its subjects. That trust can come only if successive governments commit themselves wholeheartedly to pursuits of genuine transparency and good governance. The reposed trust can survive only if pursuit of good governance remains transparent in character and is steadfastly in service of the people and not diverted for personal benefits. It is unfortunate that people’s trust level in our governments during the last few years has ebbed dangerously low.

That said, a history of corruption in Pakistan would suggest that in real life it is next to impossible to separate private motivation from authority entrusted to officials for non-personal purposes. Forcing out every single desire and thought from the minds of people with power, of a valued friendship with people they might need after they leave office, might well nigh be impossible.

Societies, therefore, have to draw a line with respect to demands of integrity from their elected representatives and conflict of interest situations. For instance in India some years ago, prime minister P V Narisma Rao was in deep trouble when an Indian business in the UK, Lakhubhai Patak, accused him of cheating him out of a hundred thousand dollars because the Indian society felt that the line was crossed.

In Pakistan, what is a permissible limit of corruption and what is not is often subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at any given time is a function of the power of influential people and not the truth. Hence a judge can waste nearly two years of court time to no avail asking the government to initiate actions for recovery of sixty million dollars from an incumbent president and yet the helpless nation might think that the line is just one in the sand.

In remaining unconcerned about reducing corruption and introducing greater transparency, the government is stretching its luck too far towards a scenario where a majority of the population could show preference for authoritarian governments serving much broader interests rather than the narrow interests of wealthy and elected representatives. Democracy may be at far greater risk from corruption and indifference of the government than from those shouting hoarse from atop containers.

The worrying aspect is that some of our major trading partners have come to understand our corrupt system and skillfully take advantage of it to the disadvantage of the common person. China and Turkey, no doubt, are our close friends but like us they also do not figure too cleanly on the global transparency index. The government, therefore, owes its people an explanation if the Lahore metro project has been grossly over-priced as it is being alleged. Likewise, people would like to know who has taken possession of valuable state land at throw-away price as well as that acquired from private owners for the power projects in Sahiwal since that venture, with a Chinese company, is all but dead.

The message emanating from the containers is very clear: Pakistan’s heavily contaminated democracy will not do and far greater transparency will have to be introduced if the country is to make economic progress. Nearly a century ago, Germany’s noted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that corruption is simply the sign of the autumn of a nation. Is there going to be a spring for Pakistan? Do we have a drive within us to pull ourselves out of this evil quicksand? These are pertinent questions that need answers.

Tailpiece: When Senator Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan referred to ‘majboori’ (compulsion) in his recent speech in the National Assembly while supporting the government with all its shortcomings, an eunuch at Teen Talwar in Karachi latched on to it the same evening as she sang for alms ‘ hai hai ye majboori, ye mausam aur ye doori’. It will be a serious mistake if we think she only had the cloudy weather in mind.