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Disabusing democracy

Published Jun 21, 2012 10:03pm


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FOR a term the roots of which can be traced back to classical antiquity, democracy is being bandied about these days with reckless abandon.

Everyone from the superior judiciary to the ruling party is out to save the democratic process, while so-called ‘civil society’ — that is, the private TV media, legal fraternity and donor-funded non-governmental organisations — has declared itself indispensable to the cause.

Even the right-wing intelligentsia has been forced to accede to the dominant narrative, although its real allegiances can be discerned in private living-room conversations.

A wide cross-section of the urban middle class too can hardly disguise its disgust at what is happening to its beloved country in the name of democracy. Yet even this otherwise unapologetic anti-politics constituency is, in the current climate, wary of bashing ‘democracy’ in public.

That having been said a luminary no less than the khadim-i-ala of Punjab himself recently pronounced that people want electricity, not democracy.

While my political views are almost diametrically opposed to Shahbaz Sharif and much of the democracy-hating urban middle class, I do recognise why more and more ordinary people are increasingly impatient with the democracy rhetoric doing the rounds, particularly those hailing from decidedly less comfortable backgrounds than the usual suspects.

Ultimately, a political idea like democracy must be judged by the people in whose name it came into being. The question then, as ever, is whether or not there exist conflicting conceptions of democracy, and which of these conceptions is dominant in any given society at any given time. The prevailing attitudes towards the idea — and its actual practice — can then be put in their proper perspective.

Us Pakistanis have quite a peculiar understanding of democracy, and the political process more generally. Bred on a hyper-nationalist, militarist ideology, we have been convinced that everything can be sacrificed in the name of defending ourselves from the state’s real and/or imagined enemies.

It is thus that political freedoms, including the right to choose our representatives, have been perceived as luxuries, excesses even (sometimes depicted as values of the cultural ‘other’).

Most of the people in the rest of the world do not share our hang-ups. In principle, the general consensus is that ordinary people should exercise choice over the decision-making processes that affect their lives. We appear to be alone in still being ambivalent about this basic human entitlement.

Critiques of actually existing democracy (read: liberal political dispensations within the shell of capitalism) in other countries are based on what it does or not deliver, rather than on whether it should or should not exist.Next door in India, for instance, the failures of the prevailing democratic order have been exposed in trenchant fashion by innumerable critics within, including the iconic figure of Arundhati Roy.

The emphasis in such critiques is on the hollowness of the liberal democratic ideal in a world defined by the brute force of the state’s coercive and surveillance apparatus and the imperatives of corporate capitalist accumulation.

To reiterate, such critiques do not reject democracy per se as much as emphasise that the practice of democracy needs to be deepened beyond the ritual holding of elections every other year.

Notwithstanding the association of Marxists with anti-democratic political regimes for much of the 20th century, Marx’s original critique of mainstream enlightenment thought was quite simply an insistence that the liberals’ claim of political equality was an eyewash given deeply entrenched structures that produced and reproduced social and economic inequality.

More than 150 years later, democracy, or the rule of ordinary people, is yet to be achieved, even in the so-called advanced liberal democracies in which big business, corporate media and military establishments rule the roost.

But it is only in Pakistan that we still wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I am under no illusion as to the future of our ‘democracy’ given that we are at the mercy of the ruthless logic of an imploding global capitalist regime.

Nor am I unaware of the continuing salience of more localised expressions of political, economic and cultural power to which the poor, women low castes, religious minorities and many, many more Pakistanis are subject on a daily basis.

Yet if we stopped thinking of ourselves as such exceptions to the global norm, we would discover that the terribly flawed ‘democratic process’ has inevitably — admittedly over a long period of time — provided a measure of social mobility to historically oppressed social groups.

Given the choice I might still prefer a (bloodless) revolution that smashes the state and breaks with the capitalist-world system, but in the absence of that option, and the fact that the men in khaki have exacerbated virtually everyone of our many retrogressive social inheritances, I will always say aye to what passes as democracy at present.

In doing so, I believe it is essential to question the performance and vision of our ‘democratic’ parties. They must be held to account, because this is the only guarantee that they will be forced to deepen the long-term process of democratisation that all progressives throughout history have fought for.

Epic proclamations of martyrdom, anti-terrorist vanguardism and political maturity do not exempt anyone from accountability.

But instead of deepening democracy and thereby addressing over time the crisis of representation, too many of us choose to continually laud the good intentions and efficiency of coup-making generals and judges (Yusuf Raza Gilani’s disqualification surely counts as nothing less than a judicial coup). We celebrate the ‘rule of law’ when it leads to the removal of one PPP jiyala but cannot accept it when it leads to the election of another one into the presidency.

I do not agree with the doomsayers who are warning that we will soon again plunge back into the darkness of military dictatorship. If nothing else I believe it is no longer possible for judges, media persons and power-hungry establishment-friendly politicians to openly support the suspension of the democratic process.

But the changing lexicon of power politics should not betray the fact that there are still many powerful constituencies in this country who want nothing more than for Pakistani exceptionalism to once again rear its ugly head and for ‘democracy’ to itself become the means through which the long-term process of democratisation is brought to a screeching halt.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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Comments (10) Closed

nadir saroya Jun 22, 2012 05:11pm
profound analysis, i like it very much asim.
FRKH Jun 22, 2012 05:35pm
Media should educate the common masses of Pk not argue among the 10% lot. It's a useless effort.
shaukat ali chughtai Jun 23, 2012 04:39pm
Super rundown on democracy.......varied things need to be worked out, election process...voter registration after attaining age 18, democratiazation in political parties, their continuous elections at the public level, each party demonstrate total registered voters list.....their electoral college,,,,at th union council and tehsil level always visible and working for the welfare of the public. their think tanks at union council level work day and night, id cards of people under subguation of feudals and high powered groups must be given back to individuals than retaining them with power groups. minorities respected and given rights according to international laws. No discrimination. To make it ideal society,every individual will have put in efforts for many years to come. Volunteer teams established at union council level to help old age people, sick and diseased population, let political parties making ASHRAMS for people who do not have home or homeless people. Deprived women must be accomodated in orgs such DarulAmaans to be run on private funding. We can undoubtedly make this country as real democratic welfare state and name Democratic Republic of Pakistan. Your article is thought provokin.
tousif Jun 22, 2012 03:31pm
The absense of vibrant and motivated left is a great problem in our country.The downtrodden is being divided on the basis of caste and creed.Left is not ready to come out of its cocoon and be a part of mainstream politics.
raana Jun 22, 2012 04:45am
Excellent analysis - as always. Aasim, I hope your students are listening. I want my grandson to grow up in a better Pakistan
Cyrus Howell Jun 22, 2012 05:26am
"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." -- Sir Winston Churchill
Said Arab Jun 22, 2012 08:44am
Excellent article
Abdul Waheed Jun 22, 2012 02:53pm
If we have to come out of the obsession of a security state, to reduce defence spendings and utilize our sources for social / economic uplift of our people, it is absolutely nessential that democratic process is allowed to continue. No doubt there are many obstacles from military and judicial establishment in the way of democracy yet the way Zardari handled difficult crises / turmoil with patience, tolerance is really appreciable and hope that democracy will flourish.
N Memon Jun 22, 2012 09:28am
"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." -- Winston Churchill
Hussain Jun 22, 2012 09:52am
Thought provoking.