Past, present and prognosis
People have all sorts of views on the institution of democracy as a way of running a society. To some, it leads to a government of the people, by the people, for the people. To others, the best argument against it is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. I don’t intend to delve into the pros and cons of the abstract concept of democracy as a socio-political system, nor discuss how it has been practically implemented in various parts of the world. I merely intend to talk about the health of democracy in Pakistan and its prognosis.
Regarding the health of the democratic experiment in the Islamic Republic, I have good news as well as bad. To start with the good: there’s no immediate, or even long-term, threat to our democracy whatsoever. Here I must acknowledge that in holding this opinion I represent a tiny minority, considering the widespread concern, anxiety, distress and consternation on the part of an overwhelming majority of public intellectuals, journalists and commentators regarding the well-being (or otherwise) of democracy.
Of course, this difference of opinion could easily be explained away by saying that democracy is an elusive ideal that any society can at best approach; and which is never fully realised – and this sort of explanation would be in line with the spirit of academic tolerance in vogue these days – but I will resist the temptation. No, it’s not a matter of seeing the glass half-full or half-empty, because as far as I am concerned the glass itself is non-existent – the question of whether it’s half- or quarter-full should only arise when there’s a glass to begin with. Which brings me to the less pleasant task of announcing the bad news I referred to earlier: There’s no such thing as democracy in Pakistan; and there never was. And if one can be certain of one thing, it’s that anything that is non-existent can never be under threat from any quarter.
Mind you, I take no delight in claiming this. I would love to be a part of a prospering democracy as much as the next guy, but one thing that I would love even more is not to yield to hallucinations, however pleasant.
As Gary Miller pointed out long ago, the man who clears the trash from in front of your house does a useful job – doesn’t he? – despite the obvious fact that he doesn’t put anything in its place
What we have always had in Pakistan (barring military dictatorships) – and still have – is at best a crude form of majoritarianism, which leads to ‘democratic’ authoritarianism hardly much better than the military variety. For sloganeering, casting and counting votes every five years, and coming out of polling booths with a triumphant look on one’s face is just one part of democracy. If we had anything like democracy, we would see political parties themselves being democratic – not just regarding the party heads, but also in terms of inclusivity of members in policy and decision-making. If we had anything like democracy, we would see political parties getting rid of their own nefarious characters before the courts turned their attention to them. If we had anything like democracy, responsibility and answerability on the part of the political leadership wouldn’t be conspicuous by their absence.
If we had anything like democracy, politics wouldn’t be the exclusive prerogative of the rich elite. If we had anything like democracy, we wouldn’t constantly see hardcore criminal activities disappearing in the smokescreen of ‘civilian supremacy’ and ‘constitutionalism’. If we had anything like democracy, we wouldn’t be subjected to such shameless displays of unbridled greed and blatant conflicts-of-interest. If we had anything like democracy, we would see its unmistakable fruits in the form of widespread safety, prosperity, and egalitarianism; instead of merely being on the receiving end of sermons extolling democracy’s virtues. Above all, we would see democracy presented as a means of ensuring well-being and prosperity of the masses; and not advertised (and widely believed) as an end in itself.
I know that I am leaving myself exposed to the standard retort of challenging me to bring something better than whatever goes by the name of democracy. Churchill in 1947 had famously quoted an anonymous source to the effect that democracy was the worst form of government except for all those other forms that had been tried from time to time. This (‘Do you have an alternative?’) has ever since been the pet rejoinder to any and all criticisms of democracy. I hereby admit that I don’t have any alternative to ‘democracy’. That said, I disagree with the notion that unless one brings a royal suit one is not entitled to point out that the emperor is stark naked. As Gary Miller pointed out long ago, the man who clears the trash from in front of your house does a useful job – doesn’t he? – despite the obvious fact that he doesn’t put anything in its place. I believe the same can be said of any kind of trash.
A very happy Election 2018 to you!