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January 16, 2020

An ambush of democracy?

Opinion

January 16, 2020

Bertrand Russell famously said in ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ that “in all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted”.

A question mark could be hung (pun intended) around democracy of the kind we have seen operate in Pakistan over seventy years.

Now no one can dispute the beauty and efficacy of genuine textbook democracy – especially in an ethnically-split, sectarian-rent and politically-polarized country like Pakistan. Much of the implied social contract between the state and large sections of society appears to have vapourized. Half a century back a genuine application of democracy might have saved Pakistan from division by assimilating political differences and providing economic justice. This did not happen then and may not happen now.

Our sterile democracy begins and ends on election day only and no wonder there is constant trouble, turbulence and turmoil. Why would anyone root for a democracy that has managed a literacy rate of only 58 percent in seven decades (which actually fell by two percent last year)? Why would anyone support a democracy that has failed to provide decent healthcare, family planning services, educated employment, clean drinking water and sewerage services for all the people? Above all, why would anyone rally to a democracy that is helpless in guaranteeing security of life and liberty, human rights in police stations and prompt justice in law courts?

The rot started early. The federation’s inability to embrace provincial governments of a different hue in (former) NWFP and Sindh during the formative years was not helpful and the language controversy in East Pakistan was best avoided. Our politicians failed to produce a consensus constitution for seven years till the first Constituent Assembly was dissolved in 1954.

Then the rejection of the 1956 constitution on the day of its adoption by religious minority parties and the largest Muslim political party (the Awami League) from East Pakistan was a bad omen.

The short-sighted political ploys of introducing parity between East and West Pakistan and the merger of the four provinces and states into One Unit caused even greater distress and loss of political camaraderie. The three politicians, governor-general Ghulam Muhammad, president Iskander Mirza and prime minister Chaudhry Muhammad Ali who were behind these ill-founded stratagems, were all intelligent former bureaucrats. As politicians, they all disappointed.

These political arrangements were continued by Gen (later president) Ayub Khan in the 1962 constitution which itself was uniformly rejected by both the most populous as well as the smaller provinces. There followed much political strife, violence and a war before Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assumed power and managed to present a consensual constitution in 1973. Immediately after doing so he suspended crucial portions of it to secure his rule.

Then came the long nightmare of General Ziaul Haq’s rule, following which another two decades of progress were lost by politicians on either side of General Musharraf’s ten years of misadventure.

The one common factor in all the misfortunes cited above are the professional politicians who cleverly moulded democracy to suit their whims and fancies. MIT Professor Donald Schon coined the term “dynamic conservatism” to describe how organizations, like our political system, inherently fight to avoid change.

It must be noted that three military dictators after their coup d’etat also became full-fledged politicians in due course – Ayub Khan after the fake elections in 1962, Ziaul Haq following the farcical referendum and Pervez Musharraf after the dubious 2002 elections. There was as such little difference between them and the three crafty bureaucrats-turned-politicians.

An astute observation, wrongly attributed to Einstein though, states that the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting the same result. We have seen the painful results of our politicians’ rueful performance through a supposedly democratic model in a dozen general elections over three scores and ten years. Another twelve elections are unlikely to bring about any meaningful improvement in the land until our politicians mend their ways.

The foundational pillars of democratic governance must comprise competence and consensus in a structure where there is no room for unsupervised discretion. Democracy in actual practice in most developing countries is more of a facade even with ingredients like a written constitution, regular elections and a bill of rights.

Proponents of democracy would need to explain why someone like Nelson Mandela is succeeded by a Jacob Zuma through an elective process. And how dubious politicians in important countries like Britain, United States and India are elected to the highest office in the presence of some very competent and honourable opponents.

On the other hand, the world has seen remarkable leaders emerge who without strict democratic credentials have transformed their countries in doubly quick time. The pity is that redoubtable leaders like Park Chung Hee, Lee Kwan Yew, Mahathir Mohamad, Xi Jin Ping, Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan only emerge through chance. A happenstance!

In Pakistan’s case due to our sub-par politicians the country continues to stultify and stagnate despite its rich endowment and immense potential. Most Pakistani politicians have been mediocre or worse in terms of intellect and integrity. If we were to compare the academic qualifications and achievements of senior bureaucrats with the elected constitutional office-holders and parliamentarians over the past fifty years the results would be very embarrassing for the politicians. (Maybe only one percent of the politicians in parliament and assemblies would be able to qualify for the central superior services examinations for example).

A new book on Indian politics, ‘When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics’ by Milan Vaishnav states that nearly 20 percent of Indian politicians contesting elections face criminal prosecution and that in the Lower House of parliament a third of the members are accused of criminal charges of various sorts. Further, accused candidates are three times more likely to win their elections. Would the position be any different in Pakistan?

Democracy is about deliverance from pain and delivery of hope. This does not happen in Pakistan where the conditions are getting from bad to worse.

The problems in the immediate future would be more daunting than those faced earlier in view of the increasing population and scarce resources. The solution to our problems exists and it is based on the principle that the ruling politicians alone do not have the monopoly on decision-making and they cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over the opposition parties and the bureaucracy. Actually, the combined opposition parties represent more voters than the ruling party.

It remains the duty of the judiciary, the ombudsman and the media to ensure that the ruling regime is constantly held to account or, as Churchill said, to get an insurance policy against poor governance.

Email: [email protected]

The writer works as executive director of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Sciences and Technology.