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A fruitless tree?

February 16, 2016


The writer is a development and political economist.
The writer is a development and political economist.

IS Pakistani democracy a barren tree which will never produce the fruit of good governance? Not only sceptics but even previously strong supporters of Pakistani democracy are arguing so. Going by comments on our governance conundrum it would appear that some analysts have concluded that our soil, gene and climate are not suited for democracy, and that a hybrid system, with the military pulling strings behind the scenes, suits us better.

I find such conclusions flabbergasting since soil, gene and climate were not the correlates of democracy that I was taught at Berkeley. However, the army seems enamoured with this piece of advice for we see its heavy boots, invisible hand and fingerprints in ever-expanding domains: the appointment of an ex-general as national security adviser, the possible induction of a former military man as KP governor, and plans for a civilian-military apex committee for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Fortunately, Raheel Sharif, the desired ‘Moses’ of dozens of Pakistani tribes that have been waiting impatiently for decades for a horse-mounted saviour against Pakistan’s pharaoh-like politicians, has refused extension and that role.

This naïve belief in military rule, overt or covert, is popular in Pakistan but not regionally. Take India. It has stuck resolutely with democracy even though for five decades its economic growth rates were lower than those of autocracy-prone Pakistan.

Invariably, democracies get better and autocracies worse with time.

The contrast was especially vivid in the 1960s when autocratic Pakistan was galloping along at 6pc to 8pc growth rates while democratic India was stuck with around 3pc growth rates. This led a frustrated Nehru to even call, perhaps with an envious eye across the border, this the Hindu rate of growth. However, not even then did Indians succumb to the false allure of dictatorship. And for this show of wisdom, they were ultimately rewarded amply. The Ayub development model soon collapsed. Mortifyingly for ‘pious’ and ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis, the Islamic republic is stuck today with ‘Hindu’ growth rates while India is galloping along at 6pc to 8pc growth rates.

Similarly, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal’s results with democracy have been mixed. Yet I find little longing for autocracy there. In fact, my regional friends laugh at our penchant for autocracy and treat our tragic experiences with dictatorship as reasons for rejecting it. Their preference for democracy is not tied to any short-term ability to facilitate development better than dictatorship. They view democracy as an intrinsic reward in itself for self-respecting people who trust their own judgement and value the right to choose their own rulers.

They realise that even if short-term experiences with it are negative, one must still stick with democracy as its longer-term edge is undeniable. Invariably, democracies get better and autocracies worse with time. This disregard of democracy’s intrinsic value is especially puzzling among otherwise highly honour-sensitive Pakistanis who deeply resent foreign slights. Yet, they embrace the self-deprecating belief that we are not ready yet for democracy.

Pakistan’s experiences with democracy have not been really much worse than regional ones, but our experiences with dictatorships have certainly been so. No regional country has experienced the toxic cocktail of secession, extremism, sectarianism and terrorism that Pakistan has under dictatorship. Yet, some crave for it still!

Pakistan’s three dictatorial experiences can be summarised thus: three to five years of administrative efficiency and economic growth (mostly superficial or elitist) followed by economic downturns and severe conflict and violence due to the long suppression of democracy. By their eighth and ninth year, all three prolonged dictatorships had run out of steam and it was clear that their continuation would harm Pakistan badly. Their economic miracles vanished im­­mediately but their negative political legacies have hau­nted Pakistan for decades.

In contrast, for the first time in Pakistani history, its democracy is in its eighth uninterrupted year and things are looking increasingly brighter going forward both economically and security-wise despite weak governance. Democracy’s slow but steady tortoise is gradually but surely overtaking autocracy’s fast but unsteady rabbit.

Political collapse is a serious threat for deeply fractured states like Pakistan. Democracy’s edge over dictatorship is crystal clear here. Almost all states which collapsed in the past were autocracies and not a single established democracy has ever collapsed.

Pakistan collapsed once under dictatorship in 1971 and became perilously placed under Zia and Musharraf. The chances of collapse have steadily shrunk since 2008. Thus, one must be realistic about the nature of democracy’s fruits for states like Pakistan. The fruits are not rapid economic and governance improvements but greater guarantees against political collapse immediately and slow but steadier economic and governance improvements in the long run.

The writer is a development and political economist.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2016