Earlier this week, reports emerged of a meeting in which the PML-N’s leadership was told that, from next year, the Prime Minister was willing to ensure that all of the party’s MNAs would receive Rs. 1 billion for development expenditure in their constituencies. The Rs. 300 billion that would thus be required would be drawn from the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP), with the stated aim of this expenditure being to bolster the electoral chances of the PML-N in the general elections scheduled for 2018. Responding to these reports, the PTI’s Central Information Secretary Naeem-ul-Haque argued that the proposal amounted to little more than the blatant use of public resources to pursue a partisan political agenda. While this might seem obvious enough, it is nonetheless important to unpack and explore precisely why this form of development expenditure is so deeply problematic, not only because of its implications for elections and democracy, but also because of the impact it will inevitably have on Pakistan’s already dysfunctional political institutions.
The first thing that needs to be understood about this issue is the question of whether or not this strategy, if implemented, would yield the electoral dividends the PML-N expects. The simple answer is yes, albeit with some important qualifications. Assuming that the MNAs provided with these funds actually ensure they are used for their stated purpose, namely the provision of public services like roads, sanitation, and other forms of infrastructure, it would not be unreasonable to expect voters to reward their incumbent representatives by returning them to parliament in 2018. Indeed, some may even be tempted to argue that this is precisely how democracy should work, with the threat of electoral competition driving the government and opposition parties to promise, and deliver, more than they have in the past.
There is some merit to this argument, but what it misses out on is the inherently discriminatory and arbitrary nature of service provision of this kind. In any functioning democracy, citizens should be able to expect the provision of public services regardless of their own political affiliations and those of their legislators. By providing extra funding to members of its own party, the federal government, which should ultimately exist to serve all Pakistanis equally, is essentially acting unfairly towards all of those citizens who happen to be living in parts of the country that did not vote the PML-N into power. This becomes even more troubling when considering how the PML-N derives almost all of its support from Punjab, thereby ensuring that funding channeled towards its legislators is ultimately funding that the smaller provinces will not receive. While it may arguably be good for voters in Punjab to see the government spending money on them, it is self-evident that a more equitable and democratic form of expenditure would be one that offered equal resources and opportunities to everyone rather than those fortunate enough to be aligned with the ruling party.
The problem is compounded when considering precisely what the actual disbursement of these funds will achieve for the constituency-level politicians who will be charged with using them. While it can certainly be assumed that the money would be spent wisely and effectively, the reality is that corruption, inefficiency, and sheer incompetence will greatly diminish any positive impact that might be made by this extra spending. Those inclined to be charitable towards the government might argue that some development is better than none, but this argument inadvertently strengthens the case against providing PML-N legislators with extra funds. In the absence of well-organized and institutionalized parties, as well as accountable and effective political institutions, Pakistan’s patronage-based political system works enables political elites, particularly those in government, to hold on to electoral power by using their networks of influence, as well as the tremendous economic and social resources at their disposal, to act as conduits to the state for citizens who lack any others means of approaching it. The PML-N’s proposal would simply strengthen these local power-holders, bolstering their electability by reinforcing the notion that they can get things done. However, by providing legislators with the discretion to use these funds for projects of their own choosing, the government will simply strengthen the arbitrary nature of patronage politics by deepening the ability of local MNAs to reward and punish their own constituents through the selective provision or withdrawal of funds. Again, rather than providing citizens with equal treatment, service provision will be dependent on the questionable goodwill and dubious intentions of different local patrons.
A third aspect that merits consideration is how this scheme also serves as a signaling device deployed by the PML-N to attract yet more politicians to its banner. Anecdotal evidence from around the country already suggests that the party has been actively courted by disgruntled legislators and aspirants to power from outside Punjab, and it certainly appears to be the case that the PML-N itself is interested in expanding its reach (as evinced, for example, by the Federal Government’s Green Line project in Karachi). By demonstrating its willingness to treat its legislators well, through the provision of very large sums of money, the PML-N is largely validating the PTI’s suggestion that this latest plan simply seeks to bribe MNAs into sticking with, or joining, the party in 2018.
One final point that has to be made about the PML-N’s plan relates to the source of the funding that is intended to be earmarked for the party’s MNA’s. Of the 1.5 trillion rupees allocated to the PSDP in the current budget, roughly half is controlled by the Federal Government (with the rest being allocated to the provinces), with almost Rs. 150 billion of this coming in the form of foreign aid. As the current government continues to wrack up increasing levels of debt, and as it consistently fails to meet its domestic revenue targets, it is pertinent to wonder whether the Rs. 300 billion promised to legislators next year, and possibly the year after that as well, represents a sustainable expense particularly when considering how it will either be diverted from other areas or will be financed by yet more debt. At a time when the circular debt in the power sector has once again crept up to almost Rs. 250 billion, and spending on healthcare and education remains abysmally low, it seems difficult to justify the kind of targeted and probably wasteful (through corruption and inefficiency) provision of funds to partisan MNAs.
While the government’s proposal is clearly half-baked and nakedly opportunistic, there is hope. For one, a 2013 judgment by the Supreme Court declared the disbursement of discretionary funds by the Prime Minister to be illegal. Although there are ways around this, as seen by the way in which funds earmarked for Community Development Projects have been diverted to select districts and constituencies through the services of pliant bureaucrats and administrative departments, it will be interesting to see whether or not the government will be able to go through with its plans. Secondly, as evidence from India shows, debt-fuelled patronage politics is unsustainable in the long-run, eventually giving way to more programmatic, policy-based politics as parties are forced to compete on the strength of their ideas rather than their ability to manipulate public money. Should the PML-N succeed in implementing this scheme, its leaders may unwittingly become the architects of their own downfall several elections down the line.