Mario Puzo, in his bestseller novel, entitled “Godfather”, writes: “Behind every great fortune lies a crime.” Most early fortunes in the US were made by methods that could be called unethical, illegal and immoral. The sources of such ill-gotten fortunes could not be established, proved and punished in a court of law, despite being as clear as the sky above. So even in the most developed country in the world, corrupt government functionaries are coerced or bought. At times, the criminals have to be booked on relatively trivial charges in order to secure a short-term sentence.

In the 21st century Pakistan, we see hordes of similar unaccounted fortunes being amassed almost overnight, right under our noses. We all know, read in newspapers and talk about them in social gatherings and in the streets. God only knows what crimes lay behind them.

However, what we do see is that kidnapping for ransom, arms and narcotic trade, tax evasion, land grabbing, bribery and commission in contracts have become a common occurrence. In the unlikely event of such a person being apprehended and reaching the trial stage, the witnesses do not come forward, frequently change their statements or are silenced.

The legal system is infested with corruption where the prosecutors, investigators, government officials, litigators and even some of the judges have a price. One just has to make an offer that cannot be refused. The court hearings are adjourned endlessly under flimsy pretexts, blocking final verdicts. The more enterprising influence-peddlers stage financial corruption through such manoeuvres as stock manipulation, framing of short-term favourable ordinances like SROs or plundering state resources. Every one thrives by scratching each other’s back.

These corrupt practices have more or less gained social acceptance as a part of the system - right from the patwari, constable and meter reader to the upper echelons of the political, administrative and civil society. The irresistible glamour that big money brings and the things it can buy have a magnetic effect on any one that may come in contact. Money in these troubled times commands respect, position, loyalty and relationships. Unfortunately, morality does not figure anywhere.

Likewise, money has infiltrated politics. The expense of an election campaign lasting an average of one month runs into millions of rupees. The candidates are required to set up numerous election offices, display banners, feed and transport people among miscellaneous other chores. Consequently, the poor are pushed out of the race. By inference, anyone reaching the Assemblies must be a person of means. It is a small wonder, therefore, that more than half of these affluent parliamentarians do not file tax returns and many do not even have a national tax number (although they also receive a government salary that falls under the tax net). Politicians are not alone in this racket.

Most business people in Pakistan, particularly traders, maintain double books and routinely lie to conceal their incomes in collaboration with the tax collector. Everyone coins a justification for not paying taxes. Unless this axis is dismantled and tax collection is declared a jihad, our governments shall remain impoverished and the number of individuals richer than the state will keep multiplying.

If it were not for the pivotal roles played by the media and the higher judiciary, riding on a wave of unprecedented public support, the bedlam and the revenge of our far from perfect democracy of the last five years would have pushed the country off the brink where it barely stands falteringly today. The candid debates on all political and social issues under the sun, conducted by irreverent television anchors, have helped create a widespread awareness in the common citizens. Suo motu notices of public interest by the Supreme Court (construed by some as overstepping their authority) have, to a certain extent, come in the way of the winner takes all kind of free for all. Public figures of any stature are no longer beyond reproach and public opinion now matters.

To censure the dishonest and for transparency, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) endeavoured to introduce purposeful reforms that met with resistance and criticism from relevant quarters for one reason or the other. The candidates were asked to declare, in the new nomination forms, their personal assets, national tax number, details of foreign travels, etc. These at first glance may appear unnecessary and, according to some, even frivolous. However, once on record and available on the ECP website, these will be irrefutable and will remain open to scrutiny and challenge at all times to come.

Limits have been imposed on the total election expense by candidates, the size of display banners and free use of transport. All these were hailed by the public, but bitterly criticised by the contestants. In our country, what is good for the public and the nation is generally not so good for its leaders. The scrutiny of the nomination papers by Returning Officers (RO) has ended the electoral career of a few notables. A few have been knocked out by their past deceit and the former President and Army Chief of Staff by his past deeds. Other than that, it is business as usual.

The ROs got bogged down into irrelevant questioning to test the religious accomplishments of the candidates, ignoring the more pertinent questions to ascertain if they live by the law of the land. A number of known bank defaulters, tax evaders (and alleged criminals) have escaped the net so far. Conveniently, the required feedback from the relevant departments was not forthcoming. Several candidates disqualified by the ROs were found acceptable by the tribunals or by higher courts casting a shadow on the whole process.

All said and done, a direction has been set for further improvements in the future. The scale of improprieties of all nature is so widespread that there is no quick fix. Those promising to eradicate corruption in 90 days, break ties with the Americans forthwith and bring the Taliban to their knees in any short term are living in a fool’s paradise. Whoever forms the next government will inherit a bed of thorns.

The good news is that all political parties and the people are now fully conscious of the problems and the urgency of their resolution. The hope is that the elections will pave the way for people of integrity and focus, who will rise above themselves and work together to build the nation.

    The writer is an engineer and

    an entrepreneur.