More, not less

Updated September 15, 2014


The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

ALMOST like clockwork, the ‘fake democracy’ crowd is back. Those claiming that the era of dictatorships and coup-mongering was over utterly failed to take into account the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the well-heeled and the well-fed of this country.

Apart from the usual Twitter warriors and Facebook philosophers, a group of supremely talentless yuppies have even come out with a song denouncing Pakistan’s procedural democracy and its accompanying rhetoric.

Predictably, their desire for instant stability and an insulated, unfettered existence is being couched in the language of national salvation and uplift. How terribly original.

All who harp on and on about the value of representation and inclusion through democratic government — basically, people such as myself — have clearly failed to make any intellectual progress.

Democracy as an end on its own holds little to no value for the urban middle and upper classes, hence giving ideological, morality-based arguments is largely useless. We’ve (d)evolved too far into an ideologically impoverished society, where authoritarianism is celebrated, and the danda is given as an answer to every problem.

Forcefully displacing one set of individuals will not automatically produce angelic democrats.

To make matters simpler, let’s reduce the format of government as the means to get to more exalted goals.

Let’s say those goals are firstly, improvement in the lives of poor people, and secondly, the accumulation of more wealth for those with some already. (Let’s temporarily leave aside the fact that these two are by and large mutually exclusive).

For the first goal, you need a government that plans, makes rules, and delivers. You need those rules to be protected over multiple decades, and delivery to be accountable. Built somewhere into this format of government should be a mechanism to throw out those who fail to deliver on Goal 1 with minimum fuss.

If helping poor people doesn’t tickle your fancy, accumulating personal wealth probably does. So to achieve Goal 2, you need protection of whatever you own through law. That’s to stop people (or the government) from arbitrarily stepping in to take what you own.

To make long-term investments, you need to feel secure through the knowledge that governments and their accompanying agendas won’t change without due notice. Finally, if you’re even remotely considerate, you’d want your children and your grandchildren to live similarly decadent, secure lives.

Throughout modern history, societies have attempted to tackle these very basic goals and have found some imperfect mechanisms to do it.

The common factors underscoring each of these imperfections — from 17th-century England to 21st-century China — have been the removal of arbitrariness, the introduction of some form of representation, and instilling accountability.

Leaving aside questions of legality, the biggest problem with the pro-dictatorship demographic is that it’s too addle-brained to come up with a sophisticated enough format which deals with these questions of arbitrariness, representation and accountability.

Their answer for the past 60 years has been to give control of the country to the COAS and the armed forces.

Let’s say we magically turn our clocks back to a time where nobody had heard about democracy or the 1973 Constitution; what would happen if the COAS-cum-Benevolent-Despot suddenly dies? What would happen if he were not like ‘liberal’ Uncle Musharraf and more like fascist Uncle Zia?

What would happen when the armed forces fail to deliver to a particular subset of the population? The frustrating thing is that we’ve already been through each of these scenarios, and yet after a few years, we’re back having these tiresome drawing room conversations about how the only defined (and largely untested) mechanism of holding and transferring power ‘doesn’t work’.

Those with (only) an ounce more of nuance claim that a few years of complete authoritarian rule, backed with the noblest of intentions, could potentially make Pakistan ready for democracy.

This formula entails ridding the country of corrupt party bosses who’ve monopolised electoral power.

Again, it takes some serious ignorance of history to not realise how forcefully displacing one set of individuals will not automatically produce angelic democrats in their stead.

If we’re currently experiencing the rule of a few major political dynasties, rest assured there are many hundreds waiting for their turn through the back door.

Keeping all these abstract arguments on one side, we need to contend with the reality that military dictatorships cannot get rid of the many groups who have a stake in civilian rule and procedural democracy.

Smaller ethnicities, political parties and civil society groups, for reasons noble or selfish, know that elections and increased participation are the only way of getting what they want.

It is no coincidence that we’ve seen outbreak of agitations and extreme instability in the smaller provinces during each period of military rule.

It is also no coincidence that despite all their claims of using the danda, dictators have had to co-opt and cut deals with sections of the political class.

Pakistan’s democracy is and has historically been problematic.

No reasonable democrat in this country can claim otherwise.

It is embedded with serious autocratic tendencies, incompetence, venality and a heavy elite bias. It is largely procedural — limited to electoral and some parliamentary activity — and is representative in the narrowest of senses.

Yet history everywhere tells us it is the least imperfect way through which the primary principles of governing a state can be fulfilled in perpetuity. It is also the only format that allows for some pressure from both inside and outside and provides some space for those who wish for something more progressive.

The demand for a ‘reset’ and the ‘umpire’ in this time of instability and general wretchedness is supremely short-sighted and counterproductive. If anything, we should be demanding more democracy, not less.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav