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Individual vs the system

April 11, 2013

THE emphasis a new generation of puritans is placing on the personal qualities of candidates for elective offices has revived the debate on what matters more in politics — the individual or the system?

Pakistani people have a long history of attributing their gains and losses to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ individuals at the top regardless of the system they presided over or their class or institutional loyalties.

Ghulam Mohammad alone is blamed for subverting democracy and the rise of an anti-democratic alliance of civil and military bureaucracies is ignored.

Ayub Khan is criticised for handing over power to Yahya as if he could, as the military’s representative, have acted otherwise. Pakistan is believed to have disintegrated because Yahya was a debaucher, as if the system had the capacity to defeat the logic of 24 years of poor governance.

Likewise, Ayub Khan was hailed for ousting ‘bad politicians’ and promoting development works, and the evil innate in dictatorship was ignored. When Musharraf appeared with two puppies under his arms and the mantra of enlightened moderation on his lips a whole brigade of liberals forgave him his crime under Article 6 and he still enjoys freedom while petty thieves rot in jails.

A yearning for a noble person to lead the flock out of desperate situations is the hallmark of societies steeped in tribal-feudal value systems. How a tribal/feudal society fared depended on the tribal/feudal chief’s qualities of mind and character as there was usually no system to check his whim or curb his caprice.

The idea of democracy was born out of the desire to protect the community against the excesses of its rulers, of which ‘good’ men could be just as guilty as the ‘bad’ ones.

The objective of the democratic movement everywhere has been the development of a system in which no single individual can become an absolute ruler and which possesses the instruments of keeping the custodians of power in check.

This is what students of politics often refer to as checks and balances. The idea was to ensure that somebody could start extinguishing the fires in Rome even if Nero continued to play his fiddle.

Unfortunately, the Muslims’ political thought took shape in the era of their empire’s decline. Instead of replacing the amir with a collective set-up the theorists kept looking for superhuman individuals to guide them.

In the subcontinent, our faith in hero worship plays strange tricks on our mental processes. Aurangzeb is hailed as a pious ruler and his sin in digging the grave for his dynasty is ignored.

Ahmad Shah Abdali is praised as a great hero and nobody dare mention his plunder of Lahore or his role in clearing the way for the British victories.

About the British rule our political folklore has two unscientific explanations. First, the British won not on the strength of their superior organisation or knowledge but due to traitors like Mir Jafar. Secondly, the British were good rulers because their officers killed robbers and did justice between the natives — the fact that their system was based on naked and brutal exploitation of our people did not matter.

It is certainly time that Pakistanis gave up their medieval notions of personality cult and developed a system of governance that the clever are not able to manipulate for personal or group interest and which the foolish are not able to disrupt.

The political discourse should therefore address the flaws in the system of governance rather than remain devoted to a fruitless search for angels.

The eligibility criteria laid down in the pre-Zia constitutional documents are adequate, namely, qualifying age, enrolment as voter, absence of a court finding on mental disability, and passage of a specified time following conviction for a crime.

Efforts to keep convicts and the mentally challenged out of legislatures should of course continue but instead of wasting energy on making the eligibility standards more difficult and more and more irrational, attempts must be made to plug the loopholes in the mode of governance.

The misdoings that the outgoing legislators are accused of have been common in our society for long and many of them, such as favouritism and the misuse of public money, have enjoyed considerable social sanction.

The rot set in because the office of the auditor-general has been dysfunctional for decades, the Cornelius Commission’s plea to end discretionary powers made four decades ago was not implemented, and the anti-corruption laws have only targeted the patwari or the assistant sub-inspector of police.

The issues today are many. How can the public service commissions be made more effective and responsible? How can the finance ministry and the State Bank of Pakistan be enabled to impose fiscal discipline on all institutions?

How can the system of standing committees be strengthened? How can the Public Accounts Committee be enabled to assert its will over all institutions? How can the rules of business be given the stamp of a democratic dispensation?

Is it not necessary to introduce the study of contemporary politics and democratic governance in the curriculum for schools and colleges? Should the experiment of transferring the president’s powers to representative bodies be allowed to continue or should we revert to rule by an omnipotent president or prime minister?

There is reason to believe that if the system of governance is perfected and a fair accountability mechanism is put in place the judiciary will be happy to shed its inquisitorial role which in any case has no place in its mandate.