Photo

Credit Joohee Yoon

KARACHI, Pakistan — I once knew a building contractor who worked for the government of Pakistan. He was very corrupt and very open about it. After hearing endless stories about bribes given for contracts and payments received for projects that were never finished, I asked why was he so open about all this stealing.

He was a bit puzzled. “Why do you call it theft?” he asked. “Look, the state is like our mother, and surely everyone takes something from their mother when she is not looking. Don’t you?”

For Pakistan’s ruling elite, mother is never looking.

In the wake of the Panama Papers leak, this country, like many others, is consumed by a debate over corruption. People accused of owning offshore companies include our prime minister’s children, senior opposition politicians, a media tycoon, two judges and about 400 businesspeople.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in prison for 14 months and spent eight years in exile, but that didn’t stop his family empire from expanding and running sugar mills and poultry farms. To clear his name after the Panama Papers story broke, he promptly went on the air and in a whiny speech recounted all the sacrifices his family has made for the country and how their business has suffered.

Mr. Sharif’s spin masters reminded us that the allegations weren’t about the prime minister but about his children. They reminded us that owning an offshore company is not illegal. Maybe it’s unethical, they conceded, but you can see this country doesn’t really protect its rich, so what were they to do?

This might have stayed a mere debate if Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif (not even remotely related to Mr. Sharif), hadn’t then sacked six senior army officers, including two generals, on charges of smuggling and other forms of corruption. One of the generals was accused of getting two officers killed while test-driving a smuggled Nissan Fairlady.

It turns out that some of those army officers were actually sacked last year without facing a military court, and that they will continue to receive pensions and medical benefits. But never mind that. The timing of the army’s public announcement sent a clear message: We don’t tolerate corruption in our ranks; civilian governments shouldn’t either.

Sign Up for the Opinion Today Newsletter

Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.

https://regilite.nytimes.com/regilite?product=TY&theme=Transparent&landing=true&addSlot=true&app=newsletter&sourceApp=nyt-v5&title=Opinion+Today

Now the opposition parties want the prime minister’s family business to be investigated. And the prime minister wants everyone to be investigated. Our national discussion about corruption is starting to sound like an argument among a bunch of thieves, with some saying to others, “You have stolen more,” and the others saying, “You get caught more often.”

We treat our politicians like criminals, and some of them become criminals. In an age-old tradition, many working criminals also turn to politics to protect and multiply their assets. Former President Asif Ali Zardari spent 11 years in prison on charges of corruption without ever being sentenced in a single case. Nobody knows how he came to own a country estate in England and a chateau in France.

There is no public debate about the army’s financial affairs because we treat our generals like conquering heroes. But conquering heroes take what they think is theirs, and even while fighting very long wars inside and outside Pakistan’s borders, the armed forces have managed to deal in real estate, make fertilizers, run bakeries and sell breakfast cereals. All of these activities are legal, because at one point a military dictator or a weak civilian leader sanctioned them.

Pakistan’s history is so intertwined with plunder that some older Pakistanis who lived through the partition of India in 1947 don’t call it partition or freedom: They refer to it as the time of lut, Punjabi for loot. The migrations and massacres of the day were accompanied by mass plundering of the evacuees’ properties, and many fortunes were made through false claims.

Take Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. It’s not the first capital of a country to be built on plunder, but it must be one of the prettiest that was built entirely on plunder. Half a century ago, our generals, politicians and bureaucrats picked a scenic spot, allotted lands to one another, built on them and then sold the properties to the next generation. One of the poshest areas in Islamabad was meant for working farmers. Today, it’s nothing but swanky mansions with acres of manicured lawns. Many of those who lecture us about corruption live there.

Politicians, generals and bureaucrats aren’t the only ones who think the state owes them a mansion and a manicured lawn. In many cities journalists have been promised, and in some cases given, subsidized plots in housing colonies to build homes on.

I asked a fellow journalist who is lobbying to get one of those, “If it’s wrong for politicians and generals to get free plots, how is it right for journalists?”

“It’s people like you who are holding us back,” he told me. No surprise, then, that it’s rare to read an article or see a news report about the millions of Pakistanis who live in slums or are struggling for land rights.

I am a proud member of Karachi’s Arts Council, an organization of artists of all varieties, mostly poets. Before every annual election, the candidates for the council’s executive body promise us that the council will continue its efforts to get us residential plots somewhere. Even those of us who look at the stars keep one eye on mother’s purse.

Advertisements