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Disabusing democracy

June 21, 2012

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.