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February 1, 2014



Five uncomfortable truths

The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
As Pakistan continues to stumble down the path of its experiment with democracy, let us acknowledge that, unsure and erratic as our steps may be, we have, in fact, been stumbling in the right direction.
A remarkably uneventful transition of power. An emerging but uneasy tussle for balance between institutions. Treasury and opposition benches at each other’s throats but mostly resolved to keep the fights within the political arena. An unbridled, outspoken, and often unruly media bent on keeping everyone on their toes. An involved and demanding but unsatisfied and impatient electorate.
Within each one of these dynamics could be an implosion waiting to happen. Put together, however, they may also be early signs of a polity struggling to learn the unfamiliar routines, peculiar idioms and exotic rhythms of a new language: democracy.
It is, of course, too early to say which it would be. But the surest sign of a tilt towards the later possibility is when society begins to recognise that democracy – even in the best of times – is a messy affair. These, however, are not the best of times. One should expect, therefore, a messier mess.
By the same token, the surest threat to democracy is to impose upon it expectations that are unrealistic, burdens that are unfair, demands that are inappropriate. For the naïve this can become a recipe for heartbreak. For the cunning it is a tactic to invite autocracy. Here, then, are five uncomfortable truths about democracy which we would all do well to remember as we resist the temptations offered by those who offer enticing non-democratic short-cuts to prosperity.
Democracy can be noisy. Pakistan’s national conversation – and not just the one we see on our television screens – is both loud and shrill. Such decibel levels should not be wished

on friends, but they are only to be expected in a democracy as young, a society as fractured, and a sentiment as inflamed as our own. Next time you are incensed by the noise unleashed by democracy, think about the pain of the silence inflicted by its alternatives.
More than all else, democracy is about voice. Many voices. More than 180 million voices by some estimates. Maybe closer to 200 million. In either case, no one should be surprised that the conversation is noisy. If it were anything but, it would not be honest.
That politicians, journalists, and citizens are all still new to the amplification that technology now affords them does add to what can seem like ear-splitting raucous. But the discordant shrill that makes so many so uncomfortable comes not from the multitude of voices. It comes from the deep divisions in society. Those divisions, in turn, have not been a product of democracy. They are a reality constructed by a lack of it.
Democracy can be cruel. We love democracy – those of us who do – because we believe it will give us a voice. It will reflect our views, our aspirations, our ideals, our preferences. The uncomfortable truth about democracy is that it does all that for those whose views are represented by the majority. Of course, we all believe that we ourselves speak for the majority.
In reality, it cannot be so for everyone. The uninitiated and those who have been bred in autocracy ascribe failure to a democracy that does not reflect their views, their aspirations, their ideals, their preferences.
It is a cruel realisation that others may not think as we do, believe as we do. Indeed, the greatest test of one’s democratic mettle comes when one’s views are not shared by the majority. The arrogant response is to seek a right to a voice greater than that of others: because we are educated, rich, empowered, etc. The democratic response is to convince others of that which you believe in.
Democracy can be inefficient. Democracy defines good governance as representation. Autocracy defines it as efficiency. Nothing confounds the autocrat more than the inefficiency of democracy. Nor is any excuse used more often in the imposition of autocratic regimes than the promise of efficiency.
The uncomfortable truth about democracy is that it is not a good system to choose the smartest person. It nearly never does. Nor is it meant to. One should be very wary of those who seek from democracy, or seek to impose upon it, simple yardsticks of efficiency. Scratch them at the surface and you shall find autocratic spirits lurking underneath.
Those who seek good governance in democracy are, therefore, ill advised to simply borrow metrics from the managerial worlds of business. Countries, after all, are not businesses. And citizens are neither employees nor customers. Indeed, there is much that can be learnt from the world of business – particularly about service delivery – but never at the cost of the essential lesson that in a democracy efficiency flows from the fairness of process, and not the other way round.
Democracy can be funny. In a standard deck of 54 cards, there are two jokers. One should expect a few in every parliament too. Indeed, you find them being elected in every democratic system; big and small; old and new. They are elected because they, too, are a reflection of you. (And, of course, me).
One does not wish to trivialise the point, but the uncomfortable fact is that democracy will throw up funny results – in terms of people as well as policy. Results that many will find unappealing. The unfunny realisation is that a democracy reflects that which already exists in society. To find fault in that which democracy throws up is essentially to find fault in ourselves.
It is far more easy to deflect blame in an autocracy than it is in a democracy because democracy demands responsibility. As George Bernard Shaw famously remarked, “democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” A good democracy also ensures that we will be governed no worse.
Democracy can never be complete. There never was a perfect democracy, and there never will be. This one fact, uncomfortable while it is, gives comfort that democracy forever seeks to better itself. It is not simply, as Winston Churchill suggested, better than all alternatives. It is also that there is an imbedded logic of self-betterment within the democratic polity.
Baked into the yeast of the democratic cycle is the essential tension between those in power who seek to retain it by ‘doing good’ and those who seek to assume power by convincing an electorate that they can ‘do better.’ True, it is not quite as simple as that. Nothing ever is. But at the level of basic principles, democracy is a system that – in its purest form - seeks constant self-improvement. A ‘learning system’, if you will.
One is not starry-eyed enough to assume that Pakistan is quite there. Or anywhere near there. (Indeed, no one ever might be). But it is rather interesting to see the seedlings of this logic sprout in Pakistan. A careful look at Pakistan’s political landscape suggests that all the major political parties of Pakistan are, in fact, in power somewhere in Pakistan today. Even as they spend much effort in tearing down each other, they are clearly aware that they will be judged by the voters also on what they do in places where they have power.
The resulting interplay – as evidenced in their statements, their ads, their policies – suggests that they are already planning, even campaigning, for the next election. That may be one more indication that stumbling as we are, we are stumbling in the right direction.
Twitter: @adilnajam