Another tranche of the names of offshore company holders is unleashed as are ear-piercing noises of what some journalists like to call ‘accountability’. All of it started a couple of weeks ago with the Panama Papers leaked to media by the media organisation, ICIJ. Much of what we have understood so far is less about accountability and more about politics and bringing the incumbents down. The incumbents, in turn, try to throw mud on the opposition parties to paint them as equally bad. The opposition runs black and blue. Then follows the great ToR saga. And now, another tranche. Things seem to be a bit calmer in the opposition tents this time.

As emphasised last week, dislodging individuals from the government has been the favourite form of ‘accountability’ since very long. Mainly because this highly abused and misused term has been very liberally used by all and sundry to settle the score. In the process, making the entire concept of accountability murkier, messier and trickier. No wonder the larger national discourse on accountability could not evolve with time and stays where it was in the formative years of this country. Eject the incumbents. The process has been repeated umpteen times, that too with no results, if accountability was the objective.

When we call for accountability, most of the time we mean retribution on the financial corruption that has already happened. No political party or state institution has ever demonstrated any more imaginativeness than this as far as models of accountability are concerned. Nor did the debate about causes of corruption – in case we want to limit accountability to financial corruption only – ever set in.

The nitty-gritty of how leakages of this humungous magnitude happen, and where the system had cracks etc. aside, there is a need to also deliberate upon how a broad system of accountability would work when the entire political process is standing on corrupt practices. Starting from the electoral process to the legislative, judicial and governance procedures, everything is fraught with loopholes and malpractices, which might or might not be covered by law at all.

Much beyond how much money was extracted by some individuals, the concept of corruption must be discussed in the way to afford us to clearly distinguish what exactly are the corrupt practices and to understand what are the ingredients and common traits of corrupt practices. Thereby enabling the system to detect corruption at intentions level, and enabling ourselves – the society and the state – to define corruption beyond its financial aspect. For example, a widely accepted definition of corruption states: misuse or abuse of public office for individual or collective private gains.

What we identify as corruption generally is, fraud, bribery, embezzlement and nepotism. What misses our attention is equally – or in many cases even more – harmful for realisation of a just and equitable society. These unspoken forms of corruption affect the populace most harmfully but is not spoken about in the public space by the elite, even as part of the lip service they give to ‘accountability’ to settle scores with each other. Why? Because it is dangerous for the survival of political and security elite. This strategic silence is part of the deal – the deal that their symbiotic relationship demands of them.

Consider, for example, the electoral speeches by politicians from every shade of ideological leanings. At the constituency levels, it is always about how many jobs would be ‘given’ (as opposed to ‘created’), schools and dispensaries be built (as opposed to be run efficiently), and roads to be constructed. This is what the civilised world would call clientelism. Whereby, a relatively powerful and richer ‘patron’ (in our case the feudal elite, the upper brass of powerful institutions, bureaucrats especially the politicians who ask for people’s votes) promise to provide relatively powerless and poor classes with benefits like jobs and services, in exchange for votes or support.

In this ‘deal’, the disenfranchised and the common people become ‘clients’ of the promise-making elite capturing power for policy/decision-making. Not only that this patron-client relationship at many points coerces the latter into this relationship by leaving no other option, but also, there is hardly any accountability of the promises made in this process. That negatively affects the entire system of governance, which owes its foundations to selfish and corrupt practices such as clientelism.

In addition to this, there exists a parallel relationship between politicians (in our case some state institutions too) and high-income people occupying almost all the spaces to influence services, business and industry. These people finance the election campaigns and / or the adventures of state authorities – in cash and in kind – under the promise that these candidates or state institutions would deliver policy decisions that would benefit those providing funds or social / political support.

Unlike the patron-client relationship, this kind of state capture by the powerful and resourced elite is not an unequal bond per se. This essentially, is handshaking of the powerful with the state. This symbiosis can lead to economically powerful sectors to capture the state, which is more dangerous than it sounds. It becomes a tool for serving private interests of some individuals or of a collective rather than serving the public good.

Political rent seeking is another form of corruption that allows individuals or collectives to profit by manipulating laws and state resources. It includes the common practice of some of our state institutions when they opt for socially (and politically) costly pursuits at the expense of the choices that the vast majority of people would make given a chance. These costly pursuits might be costly for the public, but get the rent-seeker considerably larger share of the cake. This kind of rent seeking tendency should be considered a corrupt practice because it implies that money or potential national earnings and revenue would be allocated in a manner that is not beneficial to or approved by all the stakeholders.

For example, rent seeking occurs when a media house seeks to change media ownership or regulation laws in its favour or against other competitors. It also occurs when some state institutions want to make money by manipulating laws and getting a favourable market for their services. Even today, business concerns of some institutions do not pay tax, for example. Which might be permitted by law, which in all probability was twisted just for the sake of being favourable to those concerned.

If all of this is corruption, and is affecting the economic wellbeing of the entire society, it must be checked and stopped because it is much more dangerous than few individuals indulging in graft or few contractors offering public officials bribes. Although there should be zero tolerance for even the latter.

The best way to prevent this kind of structural and organised corruption is to make the governance system absolutely transparent and all institutions accountable to the public. Parliament being people’s proxy for overseeing all governance processes, must take this responsibility and all institutions must present themselves for accountability rather than chest thumping for across the board accountability on superficial notions and suspending few individuals. The processes that set a parliament in office must be ammended to include broad-based accountability on corrupt practices like clientelism and state capture. Accountability is not possible without transparency.

If that happens, there won’t be any offshore companies either.