The mainstream parliamentary parties are being eroded as the alignment of democratic forces breaks down and the Charter of Democracy evaporates at the altar of expediency.
With this erosion, the spectre of religious extremism and militaristic nationalism is emerging as a principal challenge to progressive democratic forces. It is, therefore, time to think about a new social democratic alternative that can put together a broader democratic movement for the future.
As we see the emergence of ‘king’s parties’ all around, and as prospects of engineered results in the next elections become obvious, let’s look beyond an otherwise hijacked democratic transition. People have lost faith in the existing parties and system of governance. They want a fundamental change as broadly right-wing and populist parties fight among themselves for a subsidiary role in an engineered client political facade being engineered. Given the predominance of an extremist religious and militarist paradigm, it is time to come up with a progressive democratic worldview to defend the rights and freedoms of our people and strive to extricate our country from its current predicaments.
Principal concerns: There are physical and psychological threats from terrorism and extremism to the working classes, religious and ethnic minorities, women and children. And there are ideological threats to human progress, equality, justice, liberal-democratic values, rule of law and the sciences. These threats undermine progress, welfare, federalism, democracy and an inclusive and pluralistic nationhood. A national security state with dominant security structures is usually a burden on the economy. Aggressive national security agendas, couched in an isolationist foreign policy, perpetuate hostility with neighbours and end up making client states.
Neo-classical and neo-liberal economic models (accumulation of wealth in a few hands at the cost of the working class and professional strata, an exclusionary elitist development model, imperatives of an over-extended national security state and an inverted pyramid of economic growth) have resulted in endemic poverty, malnourishment, illiteracy, lack of access to healthcare, unemployment, social inequality and unequal regional development. Authoritarian, centralised and alienated nation-building, which identifies with an alien history while suppressing constituent federating units/nationalities their cultures, languages and identities rooted in historically defined regions, has prevented the empowerment of the people.
In Pakistan today, democracy is fragile, civil-military relations are inverted and there is intolerance, intervention by the state in matters of faith, persecution of minorities, gender discrimination and unsustainable and exclusionary growth. Laws, authoritarian structures, feudal and patriarchal customs/traditions/codes and bigotry negate fundamental human rights, civil liberties, pluralism, tolerance and liberal-democratic values.
The current political economy of resource generation (taxes and other revenues) and allocation of resources favour the privileged while ignoring peoples’ needs of nutrition, education, health and a humane quality of life. Human resources, physical infrastructure for all regions, environmental protection, conservation of resources and population planning are being neglected. Unbridled profit-making and rent-seeking override needs-based, participatory and sustainable growth, to the disadvantage of the working masses. The low quality of life of the majority of the population emanates from mass poverty, illiteracy and the lack of basic healthcare, primary and secondary education, clean drinking water, sanitation and suitable housing. Global warming is now posing a serious threat to South and Central Asia.
Art, culture and language are suppressed in the Pakistan of today. The way the humanities are taught is distorted and the education system has deteriorated, in both the public and private spheres, most of all in madressahs. An extremist religious ideology and militant nationalism dominate the national narrative and promote violence, intolerance, hate speech and discrimination against minorities, women and on the basis of sexual orientation.
Remnants of feudalism and archaic structures of extra-economic coercion not only continue to strangulate the rural poor, but also hold back our march towards modernisation and social emancipation. There is lack of mutually beneficial cooperation and connectivity among the South Asian and Central Asian countries. There is a general decline and suppression of trade union activities and professional associations, disabling them from pursuing their legitimate rights.
An agenda for social-democratic change: While ensuring separation of state and religion, the existing national security state can be transformed into a social welfare state that is at peace internally and with its neighbours. A social-democratic Pakistani state can only be created with the assertion of the sovereignty of the people through participatory democracy and proportionate representation as well as an electoral system on the basis of class stratification to establish a sound social base for a sustainable democracy. All institutions of the state can thus be responsible and accountable to the people and their elected legislatures at all levels, including the federating units and local governments.
Provincial autonomy can be consolidated by expanding the scope of the 18th Amendment. Equal power cab ne given to a directly elected Senate and there can be a greater role of federal institutions representing all federating units, such as the Council of Common Interest, National Finance Commission, National Executive Committee, IRSA, Wapda, Railways, PIA, Communication, OGDC, Ogra, Pemra, HEC, etc. The people can be empowered through the devolution of power to the village/town level based on community-based social entities, on the basis of municipal socialism.
The state can pursue a participatory, inclusive and sustainable mode of growth that includes the working class, professionals and the middle strata into the accumulation process that gives priority to the peoples’ needs rather than the dominant elites and their growing wealth. Such a state must address the political economy of resource generation from excessive defence expenditures and wasteful consumption, and the reallocation of resources to address unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, disease and underdevelopment of backward regions.
Greater priority can be given to job creation, better wages, literacy, healthcare, food security, women’s empowerment and eradication of poverty. The widening income gap between genders, classes and various regions/provinces can thus be effectively and comprehensively addressed. There is a need to defend and uphold equal rights and equal protection for all citizens, regardless of their religion, gender, ethnicity, caste and colour. Preserving and conserving our natural resources and the environment and controlling the population explosion is also a dire need to curb our ever-growing carbon footprint. While implementing a thorough population plan for the future of our current and coming generations, the focus must be on human resource development, social services, education and health and the required level of evenly spread physical infrastructures.
Modernisation, reformation and democratisation of all state structures can be initiated to make them people-friendly, cost-effective, efficient, transparent and accountable. This could include the creation of a federal constitutional court; reformation of the civil services to make them specialised and accessible and police reforms among other steps. What is also essential is eradication of systemic corruption, rent-seeking, bribery, commissions, land-grabbing and pilferage of national resources and entitlements for the rich and powerful elites. For this, there can be an across-the-board accountability system that doesn’t spare any individual or institution and pursues due process of law. The eradication of all feudal estates and feudal practices can also be ensured by introducing wider agrarian reforms, which ensure an end to feudal exploitation, extra-economic coercion, landlessness, pauperisation so that our rural masses can live free.
Finally, such a state would promote peace, amity and mutually beneficial cooperation and connectivity and trade with our neighbours and across the regions – South Asia and Central Asia, in particular. A non-interventionist and peaceful foreign policy based on ‘friendship with all and enmity with none’ can be implemented; such a state would also support an end to nuclear weapons and the global arms race to ensure nuclear stability in the Subcontinent and Asia. Benefiting from information and the scientific and technological revolution, such a social democratic alternative would be based on four cardinal principles: secularism, democracy, federalism and socialism.
The writer is a senior journalist.