Prime Minister Imran Khan made a powerful statement of intention in Lahore, at the function organised by the Punjab government (a little late) to mark the PTI’s first 100 days in government, by promising not to let the corrupt escape. However, he also made an admission of something that could disillusion his support base, when he said that the PTI had not instituted any NAB cases.

Though what Imran meant was that the cases currently being faced by the opposition’s political leaders were not the result of his government’s activity, but had resulted from investigations that had already started, the impression was still not very positive. After all, ‘tabdeeli’ meant that Imran’s basic thesis was that corruption had sapped all systems, that the only way to get an improvement in the condition of the ordinary citizen was to first end corruption, because corruption skewed decision-making in favour of the corrupt.

However, the problem with Mian Nawaz Sharif’s conviction in the Azizia reference, and the revelations about the Omni Group, which look so black for PPP chief Asif Zardari, is that both are seen, not just by supporters, as the result of machinations by the government. Their defence is not very strong, and generally is the rather circuitous ‘all politicians are corrupt’, as if corruption by one was somehow a justification of corruption by others, and there is an unshakable conviction they will get off. It is interesting that PPP supporters are aghast at Mian Nawaz’s corruption, while PML(N) loyalists shake their heads at the revelations of Zardari’s supposed iniquities.

Imran tapped into a deep resentment at the better-off, with the less well-off assuming, as did the Supreme Court when it quoted Balzac from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, that “Every great fortune is based on a crime.” Imran’s view thus chimed with the military’s wish to get politicians who had parlayed their positions into great wealth.

It might strike one as a relatively simplistic analysis, to ascribe Pakistan’s problems to one factor, corruption. The system as a whole, the capitalist economic system, the political system described in the Constitution and the legal system described in criminal and civil codes, need to be examined to determine if they are part of the problem, or of the solution. Corruption is reprehensible, and causes instinctive revulsion, but may well be a more complex problem than has been shown by the PTI.

If the system is corrupt, the question then arises, as to how it is to be corrected. By remaining within that system? By obtaining office under the present Constitution? This refuses to recognise that one of the main unsolved problems of modern electoral democracy is that of campaign financing. Once politicians get onto the slippery slope of raising funds to fight elections, and they inevitably do, they end up raising funny money. This gives rise to special interests, which ‘invest’ in politicians.

The ‘investors’ do so because they want the laws made to suit them, and politicians make the laws. They also invest in those who exercise, or are candidates to exercise, the executive power. In Pakistan, ‘investors’ do not restrict themselves to politicians or political parties, but also military men. This is not because they believe in military rule, as because they believe that military rule periodically occurs, and at that time, the military has the power of legislation, and also exercises executive authority.

In return, military regimes and political governments are supposed to look after the interests of the investors. One common practise is to ensure that the tax authorities deal with them leniently. However, there will be no need to evade the law if it is made so as to favour them. This is particularly the case with taxation law, but also applies to regulations. As a result, special interests make a lot of money, and the payments they make go to finance election campaigns. Once politicians learn to take such ‘funny money’, especially where it exceeds election expenses, politicians learn to use that money to live high, well beyond their means.

The PTI got enough lift to reach take-off, and ultimately to achieve office, on its anti-corruption platform. It did not win the election on the basis of the fact that it had presented a 100-day manifesto. Thus the 100-day celebrations would have lost much of their strength if the PTI had not been able to show more heads rolling.

Mian Nawaz was a particularly big bone in the PTI gullet, not just because his PML(N) and the PTI scrabbled over Punjab, or because he was the PM Imran toppled, but because he had obtained bail after being convicted in an accountability court. Thus his conviction in another reference, and his ending up in Kot Lakhpat jail would be a relief for the PTI. Similarly, the revelations about former President Asif Zardari and the Omni Group are quite old, predating the PTI’s government. However, the next step, Zardari’s arrest, has not yet taken place, though PM’s Special Assistant on Accountability Shehzad Akbar has done his best to ‘name him and shame him.’

Perhaps one reason that tactic has not worked is the public perception that the justice system is skewed. Nawaz and Zardari partisans do not feel any disgust with their paladins. They feel that the convictions are at the behest of the government, as are the revelations, which would not come forward unless the government wished it. The conspiracy theory grows deeper when the PTI’s links to the military are factored in, and it is assumed that it is the military which wishes to drive Mian Nawaz and Zardari out of politics, and for the foreseeable future keep their parties out of office.

At the same time, there seems to be an underlying acceptance that the charges are correct. The only possible defence, that corruption is justified or that it is right, is not proffered. PML(N) leaders loudly claim that no corruption has been proved against their leader, tacitly admitting that he was exceptionally clever at covering his tracks. Zardari supporters maintain a silence, sometimes bristly, sometimes aggressive; that says it all.

In this process, the concept of due process, of conviction only when someone is proven guilty, seems to have suffered a body blow. It is the guilty who most need the protection of this concept, and unless it is upheld, there is always the danger of authoritarian dictatorship. Since the corruption charge is so difficult to prove, there is a general perception that it is only made against enemies and rivals. It is interesting that it has been a charge made by the military whenever it takes over. There have been reports of military regimes being corrupt, but there have never been any charges laid. Because of this, there is a public perception that corruption is not a crime to be punished, but an excuse for persecuting opponents.

The present activity is again an example. The verdict against Mian Nawaz, and the Omni Group revelations, have occurred, according to this view because the PTI needs to show activity against corruption, not because Mian Nawaz or Zardari are actually corrupt. As for corruption, are the PTI politicians any different?

The only way the PTI can break away from this image is to break away from the entire system. The biggest obstacle to attacking the status quo, the system, is the fact that the PTI succeeded in working that system to the point where it won power. Just as it has fallen silent on electoral reform, for which it carried out a sit-in, it may fall silent on corruption when its members have had time not to be corrupt, but to have held office long enough to be subject to the charge.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

It might strike one as a relatively simplistic analysis, to ascribe Pakistan’s problems to one factor, corruption.