The false promise of democracy?

August 14,2018

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In theory, democracy promises a responsive and accountable government that serves the public interests. However, in practice things unfold quite differently, particularly in the developing political systems and contemporarily in the developed systems as well. In a number of cases, we observe that tiny elite captures the power structures and processes to various degrees, under the democratic banner. This phenomenon has triggered a global debate over theory and practice of democracy. Many questions are being raised. The central question is whether democracy is able to deliver what it actually promises?

This question is particularly valid regarding the democratic experiment at home-Pakistan. We are about to make our third consecutive transfer of power through Elections 2018. At this juncture, it is pertinent to ask what democracy has delivered to the common people. To what extent has it honoured the pledge? How it can become responsive to peoples’ needs and concerns?

Before looking for the answers to these questions, let us understand the discourse and practice of democracy in Pakistan. The popular discourse emphasises “continuity” and advises the citizens to stay patient since democracy is a “long-drawn process.” By continuity it means regular elections and the advice for patience implies non-expectations regarding performance. Accordingly, the politicians happily embrace this concept of democracy that demands neither performance nor accountability and the democratic game is just reduced to a power play.

In our context, civil-military imbalance has distorted both the discourse and practice of democracy. As a matter of fact, we have a history of direct and indirect military interventions. It is true that the civilian governments have been overshadowed by powerful army or scared of direct military intervention. Naturally, survival and continuity of democracy became legitimate concerns and they dominated the pubic narrative to the extent of marginalisation of performance and accountability. Consequently, the real issues of people fail to get the attention they deserve as politicians conveniently used civil-military argument to justify non-performance and legitimise their position. This is how democracy is terribly abstracted away from the people’s concerns. However, there seems little recognition that this disregard for real public issues is eroding people’s trust on democratic system.

Translated into practice, this discourse virtually produces a dysfunctional governance system. Instead of expecting the system to deliver, it expects everyone else to let the system work. The standard line of argument is that democratic journey is always slow, chaotic, time taking but self-correcting. So, the embedded message for people is that they should wait for clean drinking water, healthcare, education and security until the fragile democracy gets roots. Meanwhile, democrats may enjoy all kind of security, privileges and perks from public money, in the name of feebleness of democracy.

So, apart from civil-military distraction narrative and practice of democracy in Pakistan are seriously flawed. There is an extremely narrow and reactionary focus on procedural democracy (elections and continuity). Public welfare is assumed to be an automatic outcome of this process that is not the case, at all. Thus, the means-a political system, capable to govern well and deliver has been considered as an end in itself. Substantive democracy-responsive, responsible and accountable, is not even required. It means, our democracy virtually offers little stakes to the common man during the evolutionary phase-foreseeable future. The citizens are just expected to take a civilian government as democratic government even if it behaves like an elective dictatorship, kleptocracy or kingship. Such a discourse ignores the problems of governance, corruption and power abuse assuming that democratic evolution would automatically fix every issue in due course of time.

Since much of democratic discourse is developed in response or reaction to the role of military in many ways, so it has brought in many fallacies. First, a civilian contender to power is essentially a democrat because he/she doesn’t wear uniform notwithstanding his/her regard or disregard for democratic principles. Second, the word “performance” is considered a proxy for supporting military’s role in politics. Third, same is the case with “corruption”; it is rather defended as an inalienable right of underdog civilians’ vis-ˆ-vis powerful generals. Both Bhutto and Sharif dynasties have fully exploited this incorrect reasoning. Most ridiculous is ardent defence of right to corruption among the chattering class. We often hear the argument that whole system is corrupt so what is wrong if civilians do get their share. One wonders how asserting the corruption rights can help foster democracy.

However, this is how our erroneous discourse on democracy empowers the political class to evade taxes, responsibility and accountability, and still present itself as hapless victims of military intervention. Moreover, playing the fear of military intervention serves as instrument of political control to deflect public demands and criticism. Consequently, it is not democracy, but the oligarchic power structure that has grown and the people-bewildered, divided and confused, are the ultimate losers.

No wonder if democracy has become just a farce. The elite has further monopolised power and grabbed the economic resources while the ordinary people (rhetorical political sovereign) remain suffering. Politics, Harold Lasswell aptly defined, is who gets what when and how. Whereas, the predatory elite get the best amenities and opportunities at will, the people are being denied access to the most basic needs such as health, education and shelter. Instead of addressing appalling disparity and creating real opportunities the rulers have wasted away the scarce public resources on the political gimmicks which are economically unviable, to say the least. The scheme like Benazir Income Support Program BISP, Yellow Taxi, and Free Laptop Distribution fall in the same category.

Democracy, for its own viability and survival, has to build the stakes for the ordinary citizens. Any system that remains indifferent, insensitive and unresponsive towards the problems of people finally becomes irrelevant. After all, the patience of people is not infinite. Already, the signs of increasing violence are too visible to ignore. Basically, the persistent failure of ruling elite to provide problem-solving agenda has created immense hopelessness and desperation. It has to be changed for better future. The new elected leadership has now raised hopes of building a ‘Naya Pakistan’.

To translate the idea into reality, we need to revisit the doctrine of democracy. It has to include the concerns of the people for both normative and practical reasons; no system can survive without the support of people. Democracy loses its moral claim when it becomes so indifferent to the real issues. Changing the consciousness of politicians could bring a new approach. Media can make great contribution in this regard, but it needs to balance its corporate interests with social responsibility. However, all this would remain a wish list if the ordinary citizens remain silent spectators-waiting some Messiah or someone else to lead them out of this quagmire. People must stand up and be counted otherwise democracy would remain an elitist power play.

—The author is a social and political analyst based inIslamabad


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