Absent democracy

Published August 20, 2022
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

WHAT is democracy? The focus of democracy is the people, and its core idea is self-governance. So if the people were to govern themselves, would you imagine them making policies that harm them? The substance of democracy are policies that are beneficial for the people. Going by this criterion, Pakistan’s ‘democracy’ might look like one, but doesn’t work like one.

Some causes of democracy’s failure are foundational.

At the time of independence, the people’s desire for democracy was normal. Its concept of self-determination had provided a rationale for the Pakistan idea and offered a vision for progress. Western political institutions had been introduced by the British. But the British also strengthened or inducted non-democratic practices and institutions, such as feudalism and an elite civil service, with a strong focus on law-and-order tactics.

These were tools of colonial domination and instruments of governance — ensuring stability while minimally satisfying people’s aspirations. The system served the overall purpose of maintaining British hegemony.

Read: Democracy in name?

After independence, these institutions and methods needed to be adapted to realise the ideals of democratic rule, but were stren­gth­e­ned instead because of the existential threats the new state faced. There were enormous economic and security challenges, and the monumental administrative and humani­tarian task of settling millions of refugees. There were also the challenges of nation- and state-building, concerns about unity, and the divisive search for a national identity.

The intelligentsia has not played its due role.

Pakistan sought a solution in an Islamic identity, a strong military, and a centralised bureaucratic state. There emerged powerful groups or institutions that went on to do­­minate its body politic by taking advantage of the leadership vacuum. Administrative challenges strengthened overdependence on the bureaucracy, while the emphasis on security skewed national priorities and resource allocation. Feudalism supported by religious institutions created self-sustai­ning disparities in society by resisting edu­cation, women’s rights and socioeconomic emancipation. All this was hardly conducive for a democratic environment.

As the army, civil-military bureaucracy, dominant social groups and religious ortho­doxy undermined the political process, contributing to its crisis of governance, the country became dependent on financiers like the US and Saudi Arabia, who wanted to use it for their own strategic purposes.

The US came to have a stake for military purposes, while Saudi Arabia saw an opportunity in the country’s fertile religious infrastructure. The landscape became vulnerable to external influences as sectarian complexities made the country susceptible to Saudi-Iranian rivalry, with part of its ethnic composition tied to Afghanistan. This incited extremism.

The internal dynamics, regional rivalries and global politics, instead of motivating a march to progress, provided ideal conditions for a great leap backwards, allowing non-democratic forces to appropriate power and hold on to it.

Civilians and the army took turns to rule Pakistan, but the system, arguably, remained the same, ‘unscathed’ by democracy. They competed for power but then collaborated to maintain the system. It seemed that they figured out that all they needed was each other, supported by the judiciary and bureaucracy and with a misplaced focus on religion. In all this, there was no fear of accountability or electability. They did not need the people. So they did very little for them.

Read: Democracy and prosperity at 75

When the cost of maintaining a ‘democracy’ led by civilians would become unbearable, we would tolerate the army’s intervention to help us get rid of them. But instead of retu­r­ning to the bar­ra­cks, the military took to assuming the role of the poli­ticians. Then we’d long for democracy, which let us down again.

Prolonged per­­i­ods of military rule have now cha­nged the balance of power, with civilian rulers complying with the interests of the security establishment. The fact is that no institution is solely responsible for democracy’s misfortunes.

Nations are changed by ideas and political action. The intelligentsia has a special role to play in sharing ideas and mobilising for political action. In Pakistan, though fixated on the idea of democracy, this segment has not played its due role.

Having never had a proper debate about democracy, much of it has now found a new passion — populism fanned by the powerful rhetoric of morality, nationalism and religion. There is no new awakening regarding ‘democracy’. Without knowing it, they have moved from deception to illusion.

What we need is a deeper debate on democracy. You cannot change what you do not know. Nations change not because they have become democratic; they become democratic because they have changed. Shuffling the deck won’t do. The deck needs to be cleared.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2022

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