Politics without culture?

February 13, 2020

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A SERIES of unsavoury events over the past few weeks again drew attention to the urgent need for strengthening representative rule by developing a democratic culture.

Let us begin with the incident when a federal minister confronted opposition politicians in a TV talk show by putting a military boot on the desk. The incident was denounced as a vulgar demonstration and the minister was censured for his lack of manners. The crude gesture was obviously an extension of the official narrative that begins with demonising the entire opposition and ends with it. The choicest expletives are used for the ‘other’ in opposition. In the hands of immature cadres, the ceaseless denunciation of fellow politicians inevitably assumes coarser forms.

More importantly, the incident revealed a politically immature outlook, a complete ignorance of the worldwide movement to abandon the majoritarian state model, because of its unavoidable degeneration into a tyranny, in favour of participatory democracy. In this higher form of democracy the majority party in parliament accepts the right of smaller parties, even if they assume the role of an opposition, to contribute to the management of state affairs.

In the hands of immature cadres, the ceaseless denunciation of fellow politicians assumes coarser forms.

The steps taken in this direction in Pakistan include giving the opposition a share in standing committees and, especially, reserving the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee for the leader of the opposition, who must also be consulted while making some key constitutional appointments. Thus, despite being rivals in the contest for power, the ruling and opposition parties are partners in promoting the public good. Neither side can be allowed to spoil a debate by pouring scorn on the other.

The government learnt this lesson after dithering for quite a long time. It chose to rule through ordinances and ignored the opposition altogether. When the opposition came to its rescue for extending the army chief’s tenure, the ruling coalition recognised the possibilities of bipartisan consensus and it became possible to solve several difficult problems. This could be described as a small step in favour of a democratic culture.

Then three members of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cabinet were sacked by the PTI chief. They were accused of violating party discipline. Later on, their fall was attributed to poor performance. What the people already knew was that one of these ministers had regretted on TV that the incumbent ministry was performing more poorly than its predecessor, also a PTI-led government. The matter was not referred to the party’s disciplinary committee, nor were the ministers concerned given a chance to defend themselves. After some time, two of the ministers met the party chief and the latter signalled their reinstatement.

The affair didn’t add to the government’s credit and the only explanation for inviting ridicule was preferring the ways of authoritarian rulers to democratic norms. (As for party discipline, a minister got the National Assembly to call for public hanging, a proposal three ministers could not support.)

Now government representatives are running helter-skelter after coalition partners and their declarations about fulfilling all pledges to their allies are having little effect. While the MQM has chosen to sulk over their undisclosed grievances, the leaders of PML-Q are quite aggressively accusing the PTI of breach of faith. The younger Chaudhry from Gujrat has rubbed salt into the PTI’s wounds by praising the PPP as a model coalition partner. The latest news is that the government has accepted the Q-League’s demands and there is peace between the two parties till new demands are made by either side.

The leading coalition party does not seem to realise that its partners are wholly interested in sharing the plumes of power, with the exception perhaps of the BNP-M which wants resolution of a public issue (disappearances) as a condition for supporting the government. No ideological mumbo-jumbo can persuade the PTI’s allies to sacrifice the perks of power in the interest of the coalition’s survival, and any references to public interest are irrelevant. Further, the PTI should not ignore the fact that sometimes in a coalition smaller parties have to be allowed a share in power disproportionate to their strength in parliament.

The government’s problems with its allies are rooted in the nature of political formations. Quite a few authorities refuse to accept them as genuine political parties. Many, if not most, legislators belonging to these parties are migratory birds who have been jumping from one party to another in less time than they take to adjust their headgear. Those who travelled from other parties towards the PTI in 2018 might not have changed their party labels for the last time. The system of using development grants for retaining legislators’ allegiance has taken such firm root that no serious advocates for the eradication of this blatant form of corruption are now visible.

That without a democratic culture Pakistan, or any other country for that matter, cannot establish a truly representative government should be clear to all political activists. The essential features of democratic culture we are talking about are: free and fair elections, without any interference by servants of the state, and offering equal opportunities to the poor as well as the rich to seek election to any legislative body; regulation of state affairs strictly under the legislatures’ sanction; complete adherence to the principle of separation of powers; due respect for the rights of the federating units; rule of just laws adopted through a constitutionally valid process; and a relationship based on mutual respect amongst different parliamentary groups.

Democratic culture also demands that all people joining political parties do so due to their acceptance of the latter’s programme for promoting public causes and those chosen to represent the people in legislatures or to join ministries consider their positions as their full and sole reward.

At the moment, statements about principled politics will sound far too idealistic to be realised in the foreseeable future. However, even small steps towards developing a culture of democratic behaviour should lead to practices and conventions that could restore to politics a sanctity without which it will remain a dirty game exclusively for self-serving groups and individuals.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2020