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Old Thursday, August 12, 2010
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Default Fake Degrees Issue Article

The Expectation Gap

Dr Maleeha Lodhi

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

President Asif Ali Zardari's decision to continue with his visit to Britain despite more than one tragedy unfolding at home has drawn sharp criticism both within and outside the country. And for good reason. It was poor judgement to press ahead after Prime Minister David Cameron's gratuitous remarks questioning Pakistan's commitment to fight terrorism remarks that enraged most Pakistanis.

What was worse was that the president did not cut short his trip at a time of national disaster when the most devastating floods in living memory claimed more than 1,200 lives and plunged the country into a crisis.

The insensitivity to the mounting suffering at home was thrown into sharper relief by the long duration of his overseas tour. Even as swelling rivers pushed the number of people affected by the calamity to several million the president carried on with a visit that had no urgent purpose.

This was as much a statement of the president's priorities as another example of the disconnect between his government and public opinion. This gulf has been evident on more than one count and has increasingly fed the image of a government more intent on enjoying the perks of office foreign junkets included than responding to issues of national urgency. This has reinforced the widespread perception of a government that rules but rarely governs.

This has come on the heels of another issue fake degree holders on which a yawning gap has emerged between public expectations and political behaviour. It is not just governmental leaders who have taken a stance at variance with broad opinion but politicians from other parties too.

The latest twist in this tangled tale is the official pressure being mounted on the Higher Education Commission (HEC) not to vigorously pursue the process of ascertaining which member of parliament's degree doesn't meet the verification test. The HEC has also come under pressure not to send its report to the National Assembly's standing committee on education whose feisty chairman Abid Sher Ali of the Pakistan Muslim League-N has been pressing the issue.

Nevertheless from a list of 293 legislators whose degrees it scrutinised the HEC declared last week that 47 legislators had either fake degrees or possessed graduate qualifications from institutions not recognised by the HEC. Thirteen MPs have been disqualified by tribunals or courts on the grounds of false graduation documents. Six lawmakers resigned as the cases against them neared decision.

PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) estimates that so far 65 MPs' degrees have either been or about to be proven as forged. These include five senators, 20 MNAs, 26 MPAs from Punjab, three from Sindh, five from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and six from Balochistan. Conservative estimates by PILDAT put the number who may eventually be affected from among 1,170 legislators at around 10 to 15 per cent. This potentially means between 100 to 170 lawmakers a number that would indicate a large-scale scam.

The principal responsibility for this fiasco lies with a negligent Election Commission which clearly did not do its job in 2008. But this does not let the party leaderships off the hook. The duck-and-dodge tactics adopted by several political leaders have not brought them any credit. Their evasive behaviour has undermined public respect for them and has risked compromising parliament's credibility.

The leader who has taken a clear position on this issue is Mian Nawaz Sharif. He has declared more than once that he will not tolerate those in his party who had lied to the people about their qualifications. He was also the first to force the resignation of a parliamentary member on these grounds. But his unambiguous stance has not been matched by equally firm action by his party.

The pushback from his party leaders is evident from how the party chose to deal with Sanaullah Mastikhel who moved the controversial anti-media resolution in the Punjab Assembly last month. This backfired badly with the furious media reaction forcing the PLM-N to rescind the resolution. But Mastikhel has been retained rather than thrown out of the party as Mr Sharif had demanded.

Leaders of other parties whose members have been found guilty on this count have for the most part been silent except for the ruling party whose members have been among those vigorously and publicly defending this on different grounds. The PPP's chief minister in Balochistan made this priceless pronouncement: "A degree is a degree, whether false or genuine it's a degree." The most disingenuous of the arguments offered is that those uncovering the fraud are part of a conspiracy to destabilise parliament and democracy as well as trying to force mid-term polls. This shoot-the-messenger stance is a deliberate effort to obfuscate the real issue.

Three other kinds of arguments have been marshalled out by those seeking to play down the seriousness of this matter. One, that as the graduate qualification is part of a dictator's legacy that has subsequently been dismantled any 'wrongdoing' under this is irrelevant.

The graduate requirement may well have been a device to secure certain political ends. It may also be inconsistent with the democratic freedom to contest elections subject to the law. Nevertheless a discriminatory electoral requirement cannot be an excuse for fraud or an alibi for forgery and perjury. The real issue is that members cheated about their university qualifications not that they did so to circumvent a controversial law.

A second argument questions why the issue of authenticity of degrees has been raised now and not earlier and seeks to cast the current objections as 'malafide'. This seems to assert a statute of limitation on fraudulent behaviour discovered 'after the event'. This is a patently absurd line of defence and fails to address the substance of the issue: lying to get elected.

The third line of argument goes something like this: what's the fuss about as people have a right to elect who they wish. So it doesn't matter if they did or did not falsify their degree. The re-election of Jamshed Dasti from the PPP is used to shore up this case. Dasti was disqualified for having a bogus degree but was nominated by his party to run again and was elected as a member of the National Assembly.

The fundamental question raised by this as indeed the entire issue of fake degrees is whether politics electoral politics is above the law. Does a candidate's 'electability' provide immunity from the law? Can and should a democracy function outside the ambit of the rule of law? If the political system is not rule-based will it not then be ruled by expediency and chicanery?

At the heart of the forged degrees scandal lies the issue of ethics, probity and integrity in public life. How can members of elected assemblies represent people if they falsify their credentials? The Constitution after all has explicit clauses that oblige members to be honest. If public representatives do not hold themselves up to ethical standards, what kind of example are they setting and how do they expect others to behave?

Rather than seek refuge in dubious arguments and engage in political machinations, parliamentary leaders need to act on this issue in accordance with their legal and moral obligations. Instead of waiting for courts to disqualify their members, they should ask for the resignation of those who falsely represented their credentials. Only then will they be able to align their conduct with public expectations and begin to close the gap between their behaviour and the values and aspirations of those they claim to serve.
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