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Sauda on governance

June 22, 2011

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GOVERNANCE affects the life of all people yoked together in a political entity. Throughout the ages it has been defined and debated by its beneficiaries as well as by those who suffer because of it. References to the subject can be found not only in ancient inscriptions on rocks and pillars but also in legends and ballads.

Many Urdu classical poets took note, directly or allegorically, of the state of governance in their times. One of them who tried to sum up the attributes of good governance was Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda (1706–1781), one of the greatest names in Urdu poetry. He was qualified to speak about governance as he had seen the decline of the Mughal court in Delhi, the rise of feudals in Oudh, the glitter of the Lucknow court and the arrival there of the advance party of East India Company's occupation paraphernalia. Like many others he was prepared to turn his face towards the rising sun; he too wrote a panegyric for a Company clerk.

Sauda's brief essay on governance is in the form of advice from a destitute person. A beggar offers his ruler a design often followed by wise people of yore. They put gems of wisdom in the mouths of poor mendicants as probably the latter had no axe to grind, because they could be taken as truly selfless.

The first thing the poet wants the ruler to bear in mind is that he must attach top priority to the welfare of the poor and the indigent. In today's political jargon, this could be a plea for a welfare regime that offers security and protection to all those who cannot take care of themselves or who do not wish to spend their energy on meeting their own worldly needs.

The second piece of advice to the monarch is that when he performs the functions of the head of the justice system he must treat as equal all people — small and big, poor and rich. Sauda was writing at a time when the king was the highest court of appeal even if he was not the formal head of the judiciary. In a modern state, this bit of advice would mean a constitutional order that precludes discrimination against the poor and other weaker sections of society and guarantees evenhanded justice.

The poet does not have his eyes on the poor alone. Other members of society are not ignored either. Therefore he returns to the first principle of governance and declares that the ruler should entertain only views, his own or opinion/advice rendered to him that promote the good of the general public.

A corollary to the foregoing advice is a plea regarding the state functionaries. The servants of the realm must not be employed in a manner that adversely affects the affairs and interest of the people. Since the ruler cannot use his employees to oppress the people they cannot on their own indulge in such practices. The principle of good administration, according to Sauda, is that neither the policies of the regime nor the conduct of its functionaries should be oppressive.

Sauda further emphasises the overriding principles of governance for public good and equality of citizens in the next two couplets. The first one likens the country to a garden and the people to flowers and both must be guaranteed a benevolent cover. In the second couplet he says that while the ruler should reward the people in proportion to their services, the principle of equality between the nobles and foot-soldiers (in terms of rights) should not be ignored.

The poet then turns his attention to the army and says that the ruler should value soldierly qualities and these must not be confused with dying without a cause. (Could this be extended to distinguish politicians/bureaucrats who suffer for a cause from those who invite hardships through foolishness or ignorance?)

The next couplet is a lament on the state of affairs the poet faces. What a terrible thing it is, he says, that he who claims to be a deputy of the ultimate ruler does not know the basic law of governance.

Although the advice to the ruler ends on the foregoing verse, Sauda cannot stop without telling the monarch not to take undue pride in wearing a crown because it is comparable to a cock's believing that the small crown on its head means it is the master of the world. A more devastating blow to self-deluding rulers is hard to imagine.

The idea in recalling Sauda's views on governance is not merely to acknowledge the poet's political insight though that needs to be undertaken by literary critics. The main purpose of this exercise is to underline the fact that the values of good governance have always been known to ordinary human beings. Governance must be judged not by the findings of think tanks but by the experiences of citizens. Indeed, experts on governance can produce wholesome and realistic assessments only if they place their indicators in the experience of ordinary people.

Pakistan's rulers too can find out all about their performance, their strong points and their shortcomings if they put their ears to the ground, talk to the people and ponder why Zehra Nigah finds the law of the jungle better than their code and their conduct.