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Politics of entitlement

All politics is for power, which in turn gets driven by the allure of influence or lust. Exceptions exist and that is when history gets made but those moments on the long span of history are only blips.

Ideology, belief, welfare of the masses or their rights, drive men to do the extraordinary. History is made of such tales where men rose above their limitations to realise the passion of collective idealism. Whence those have delivered though politics mutates to another kind, driven still by motives which may be ideological, economic, or simply power-driven around objectives which are base and tribal. It is then that politics descends to the shallows of ordinariness. This is how the long and short of history in nations depicts over the canvas of time.

Pakistan is a young nation and other than spasmodic flings with idealism it has mostly been the two base instincts which have brought people to power – power itself, and the lucre of it which then gets translated into ‘hand in the till’ opportunity. There are checks meant to control such instincts but law panders to authority here. Systems, processes, regulation and due diligence don’t hold any significance in the way that matters proceed. They exist on statutes and come in handy when needs arise to extract retribution. That doesn’t make the laws irrelevant; it’s just that in their observance discretion usually overrides exactitude. Governance thus has always remained a loose conception where rule of law is lax or non-existent and patronage easily trump all pretensions of it.

This makes for an open season for any government with a run on the treasury. The ultimate expression of it is in how largesse is handed out. Minister for Information, Fawad Chaudhry said it differently in the National Assembly which remains the most apt analogy of the misuse of public money but I cannot repeat it here in respect for the sanctity of these pages. Nawaz Sharif reiterated the sentiment most recently when he proposed that to retain any sense of stability in national matters, it was time to ‘let go’. More dangerous words have not been spoken for the 99 percent disenfranchised of this country. Here is a veteran telling the new kids on the block the means to tribal sustenance. Khursheed Shah of the PPP, fearing their turn next, has similar counsel.

The problem is our public representatives, or even those who weren’t public representatives but with hand their hand on or in the till (military rulers). They all have fooled around with public money – some less, some more – and that makes them liable to being held accountable for excesses under their tenures because statutes meant to control such instincts still exist. For definition, public money is money from the treasury of the state handed out in the budget under various heads and deemed to have belonged to and collected from the people in taxes and revenue, or in their name under the state’s sovereign guarantee from other sources.

Public representatives only deal with public money. All else is private money. When in power or a position of influence, very rarely do they live on private money. As an academic aside, there is also money raised through other means not sourced to the treasury which falls under organisational or institutional control outside the remit of the state which is termed non-public money in official lexicon. These too must have strictures controlling the expense and must be periodically audited. In case of violations, retributive measures are activated with serious personal repercussions. Any trust when violated will be accountable before various arms of justice. You just cannot fool around with what is placed in your trust, public or non-public.

When Shahbaz Sharif was recently detained by the NAB in one case – there are numerous for the duration he has ruled Punjab – it reflected this malady. His intent by all counts seems kosher but he structured a different system of implementation and delivery than what the statute books allowed. He broke convention and law without having first amended it to favour his newer mutation of the process. Thus he became liable to judicial scrutiny. But it also had roots, some if not huge, to the sense of entitlement as the head of a function, provincial or federal – a la royalty, where what is of the state is of the crown and accountability is to none.

Analogously this frame of thinking, especially among the Sharifs, is popularly ascribed to their kingly ways of the times of the Mughals. In the 1990s, every government was removed on charges of corruption by the following one, and sadly most charges stuck, such was the nature of profligacy and pilfer. To save from infamy of public charges and odious exposure before the people, the PPP and the PML-N signed a Charter of Democracy between them as a euphemism for unchecked plunder. Democracy became a convenient cover for fiscal excesses to enable personal gain.

This forces another challenge on the state with its attendant consequences. The disparity of social and material distribution of wealth and thus the associated derivations in education, health and opportunity become extremely diverse, spread over a very wide spectrum from those who have it all to those have-nots who remain mired in deprivation. The cycle of poverty then repeats over generations because there is simply no way to break out of it because this segment remains disenfranchised from a system which only caters to its elites. Imran Khan tapped on this sentiment of resentment and promised to bring all in the fold – and won his election. And this has upstaged the entire political system which had evolved, de jure or through default, to only sustain the privileged of society.

This is the rub with the PML-N and the PPP, and perhaps with some in the PTI, who view these developments with consternation and concern, fearing their turn next. Perhaps this is what was needed to right a political economy which had badly skewed in one segment’s favour. While we boast of a few billionaires among our moneyed political elites, the nation continues to lie at the bottom of most indices related to economic or human resource rosters. We may be the sixth largest nation with abundant natural resources with a military to boot and the only nuclear capable Muslim nation of the world but we still haven’t been able to provide clean drinking water to the majority of our people.

This makes us a highly unstable society, in which seeking stability of any kind is futile. Accounting for responsibility is a good step to change behaviours and force a renewal of thought on how this country must be ruled. But what it does in the interim is to cause fear and pain, forcing those who have always assumed entitlement with the power to cry foul. The moment is here for the top crust to learn that law, rules and due process are meant to be followed; and when they fall afoul of those they will be held accountable and face retribution. That alone can right the imbalance.

Shahzad Chaudhry, "Politics of entitlement," Islamabad. 2018-10-12.
Keywords: Political science , Politics descends , Public money , Official lexicon , Judicial scrutiny , Social distribution , Political system , Human resource , Accountability , Democracy , PTI , PML-N

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