More democracy

Published May 5, 2016
The writer is a former federal secretary and minister.
The writer is a former federal secretary and minister.

SLEAZY democracy in Pakistan is showing no sign of abating. The best defence in favour of democracy was presented by Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill’s voice is, however, drowned by equally qualified critics. Many have stripped away the thick foliage of what is called the myth of democracy. The best one I came across is from George Bernard Shaw who compared democracy to a large balloon which is filled with “gas or hot air and sent up so that you shall be kept looking at the sky [for five years] whilst other people are picking your pockets”.

We are told democracy is of the people, for the people and by the people. It is an illusion. It can be of the people (a few not all); for the people (all people need to be governed); but it cannot be by the people. So there is one and a half cheers for democracy not three.

Even MPAs and MNAs are not available to the common people.

Last time when I was a minister in the interim government of KP, I voted in my village in the general election, a thought struck me when I came out of the polling station. Now that I have voted, is the next government of me, for me and by me? I wrung my empty hands.

Let alone ministers, even MPAs and MNAs are not available to the common people for the next five years after the election.

So many elected representatives, who never speak a syllable in the assemblies, come out rich at the end, ready for the next election with bulging pockets. The people are told they need to be governed and yet they control their governors by judging them in the next election. It means: take home all the (illegal) wealth you make in five years but you will be barred from the assembly now.

Have you seen any rich man being successfully barred from doing anything? What we have seen is that we may bar one but another equally rich person takes his/her place.

Comedian Bob Hope said it all when he remarked on JFK’s electoral victory in 1960, “I must say that the senator’s victory in Wisconsin was a triumph for democracy. It proves a millionaire has as good a chance as anybody else”. The flood of money that gushes into politics pollutes democracy.

Apparently, there has been growing disenchantment with democracy in some advanced countries. According to Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, “Scholars who have long ago concluded that post-war Western democracies have ‘consolidated’ must reckon with the possibility that a process of what we call ‘democratic deconsolidation’ may be under way.”

There are three main reasons for this. First, the stagnation of incomes in the US after a prolonged period of prosperity has eroded optimism. Second, growing income inequality has taken centre stage in the debate. It is tellingly represented by the fact that 1pc of the population owns something like half the world’s wealth. Paradoxically, the rich are now also as critical of democracy as the poor because they believe that they are victims of ‘the war on the rich’.

The Jamaat-i-Islami chief packed a powerful punch when he dilated on how the poor in Pakistan find it difficult to survive while the rich stash their wealth abroad.

We have to save ourselves from the grafters and scoundrels. The question is how? Violent protests and periodic popular movements are not the answer. In violent protests it is public property and property of the innocent people that is destroyed. In a so-called popular movement, many people do not know what it is all about. They like to ride in buses hired for them and have a day away from their drab villages and small towns. They think they have expressed their power through full-throated slogans.

The Swiss cure for democratic ills is more democracy — frequent referendums. We can do it by constitutionally requiring a referendum on the performance of the government after two and half years of its existence. If it fails, fresh polls are called. If it succeeds, it can continue for remaining term. This would give a fair chance to every government to prove itself, and the people reasonable time to deliver their judgement.

The necessity of violent protests and popular movements will be obviated as people can look forward to a shorter period to express themselves. It may not fully eradicate corruption and bad governance but it will see the incumbent government being presented before the people halfway through its term. It will not be expensive because more care will be exercised by the rulers to expend resources and conduct themselves properly.

The writer is a former federal secretary and minister.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2016


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