Degrees of Indignation

By Shiza Shahid
July 26, 2010

Over the past few weeks there has been political brouhaha in Pakistan – played out daily on the nation’s front pages and interview programs — as dozens of federal and provincial lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees. The investigation of office-holders’ university qualifications has turned into a white-hot, nationwide controversy, with the Supreme Court ordering the Election Commission to verify the academic qualifications of 1,065 of the country’s 1,170 members of provincial and national assemblies. So far 46 lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees, and many more are under investigation. There has been speculation that if too many lawmakers are disqualified for holding fake degrees the country may have to midterm elections.

The requirement for academic qualification is rooted in a controversial law imposed by the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2002, which made a bachelor’s degree, or equivalent, mandatory for those running for office. While the law was justified by Musharraf as a move intended to draw in more qualified lawmakers, it was criticized as a ploy to disqualify scores of political opponents, many of whom were veterans of Pakistan’s feudal and tribal political system but lacked the necessary qualifications. The law was also seen as un-democratic in country with almost half the population illiterate, barring the great majority of the population from running for office. Echoing this view, the Supreme Court struck down the law in April 2008. However, some politicians had already acquired fake degrees to run for the February 2008 elections, and their fraudulent degrees have now become a heated issue.

Analysts have pointed out that fake degree debacle is, to an extent, another instance of the media shamelessly exploiting political scandals to pump up their television ratings. The media’s vigilant and – some say — overzealous coverage has been a key reason for the intensity of the uproar. The issue has made front-page headlines for days, and has been a central theme in popular local talk shows.

The media circus, however, is only one angle of the story. As a number of writers have argued, there is a genuinely strong reaction to the issue from various parts of civil society. A Pakistani lawyer, Babar Sattar, writes, “This scandal isn’t about educational qualification or whether or not such qualification was desirable or legitimate in the first place. It is about lack of personal integrity, corrupt ethical values, use of deceit to achieve a personal end and shamelessly justifying wrongdoing when caught red-handed.” In a country where feudal and dynastic parties have dominated the political scene, the fake degree scandal seems to have struck a nerve, exposing deeply rooted anger at the relentless subversion of the system.

Yet, while the attack on politicians holding fake degrees may, in part, be an attempt at genuine accountability, it is also part of the age-old cynicism within the Pakistani middle-classes at the political system. As the journalist and politician, Ayaz Amir, argues, “making a punching bag of politics feeds into the obsessive delusion of the chattering classes, and indeed the media-obsessed middle classes as a whole, that the thing wrong with Pakistan is the greed and incompetence of politicians.” Not only does this foster a sense of self-righteousness and complacency amongst the middle-classes, but also provides an opening for competing institutions such as the military or the judiciary to step in and possibly bring down the political structure. The fake degrees scandal can be seen, then, as an attack, not just on corrupt politicians, but on the political system as a whole, and even on politics itself.

But even in the midst of the latest grave threat to democracy in Pakistan (as some commentators have alleged), red-faced politicians stumble to regain some dignity, provoking the inevitable humour. A Member of Parliament, Sanaullah Mastikhel, found himself the source of much spelling-related amusement, after he earnestly declared that three “Js”, “Jenerals” (Generals) Judiciary, and Journalists, were responsible for the “conspiracy” to expose fake degrees. The Chief Minister of the Baluchistan Province, Nawab Muhammad Aslam Raisani, meanwhile, emphatically defended fake degrees saying: “A degree is a degree, whether it is fake or genuine.”

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