Tuesday August 09, 2022

A look at democracy: Part - II

June 27, 2022

In addition to an academic lens to look at the crisis of democracy, we may also use a behavioural lens. This relates to how communities, individuals, and leaders behave in their personal and social lives. How people respect or do not respect democratic norms in their daily routines.

The behavioural lens to democracy may be wide-ranging and subsume in itself the civic and cultural dimension of a society. If most people within their families follow dictatorial tendencies and the heads of the family impose their own will on all their family members, such families are not going to cultivate a democratic community. Even if regular elections take place and a majority party assumes power, but individuals still tend to favour authoritarian attitudes, that society can hardly be termed as democratic. Behaviourally speaking democracy is about personal choice and respect for others’ opinions.

In a country such as Pakistan a family does not even allow a young man or woman to marry of their free will. If a couple defies the family, and moves out to live their own lives, even that is not acceptable. Many couples who have been married for years, had children and live far away are still not safe. Their families hunt them down; such killings in the name of false honour are not uncommon in Pakistan. You may have a democratic setup at the top with elected governments, but looking through a behavioural lens, the society is in crisis.

If a young man or woman cannot choose what subjects to study or whether to become a doctor or engineer or opt for any other profession, this is also a crisis of behaviour that does not allow people to make personal decisions. Then there is also a civic dimension of democracy that relates to how we behave as citizens. A behavioural lens is all about being considerate and respectful in a democratic society. If there is no consideration for other people in society, we can hardly call it democratic behaviour.

If almost nobody is willing to stop at a traffic signal when it is red, it is a behavioural crisis of democracy. When people do not understand – or do not want to understand – the principle of right of way on streets and try to push themselves in, with a complete disregard to decency and law, the behavioural lens of democracy tells us that it is a crisis. Behavioural and civic dimensions are an integral part of a democratic society, without which regular elections at the top won’t help much. But it does not mean a complete submission to authority.

When we talk about decency and respect it is not about accepting dictates. A democratic society needs to strike a fine balance between respect and submission. Here it is more related to the cultural norms of a society. Democratic behaviour helps us become more sociable – though sociability is not a sure sign of being democratic. There are people who are fairly sociable in gatherings but highly undemocratic in their families. Still, it is safe to say that in public spheres, people of countries such as India or Pakistan are not pretty sociable.

Sociability means cultural behaviour that brings people together in harmony. Sociable people smile at each other, nod in approval, and send positive vibes without violating somebody else’s personal space. These are signs of democratic behaviour which is hardly visible here. Through the behavioural lens of democracy we notice that people appear to be aggressive and hostile. Their mood is ignited at the slightest provocation; even if they have a minor accident on the road, they are more likely to resort to fisticuffs rather than an amicable resolution of the crisis at hand.

This lens also takes us to the conclusion that education should essentially have some effective behaviour-change communication in the curriculum. Civic education paves the way for a democratic society with individual liberties guaranteed. It is sort of a social liberalism that challenges feudal and tribal behaviours that are in essence undemocratic. Behavioural lens is in some cases even more important than other lenses as it exposes the roots of a society as democratic or undemocratic. In countries such as India and Pakistan, democracy is in crisis as successive governments have failed to inculcate democratic norms, and that is the crux of the problem – irrespective of how many democratic or dictatorial governments we have had.

Next, we can use a constitutional lens to look at democracy. It is different from academic and behavioural lenses but does not work in isolation as our constitutions are also a reflection of our academic orientation in constitution-making and the behaviours of those who frame or amend constitutional provisions. Looking at Pakistan through a constitutional lens, we find that it took us nine years to formulate the first constitution as opposed to India which could develop its own within two years by the end of 1949 and promulgated it in January 1950.

Our first constitution could survive only from 1956 to 1958 before being thrown away by Maj-Gen Iskandar Mirza and Gen Ayub Khan, both of whom had no role in the freedom struggle and catapulted themselves to power with the help of the civil and military bureaucracy. Then the 1962 constitution was a handiwork of self-appointed field marshal and president Gen Ayub Khan. The good general usurped power and concentrated all authority in the office of the president, targeting civilian leaders and senior politicians such as Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fatima Jinnah. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there was one constitutional crisis after another resulting in the breakup of the country in 1971.

The constitutional lens shows us that even the 1973 constitution is not ideal as it has had amendments that have changed its shape. There are provisions in the constitution that need improvements or outright removal. The constitution in its present shape is not entirely friendly to all citizens, and has some discriminations embedded within it. We can go on for long discussing the constitutional lens but there are a couple of other lenses too. One of the most significant lenses in an economic lens which helps us see how much a society is divided in economic terms.

If there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor, academic and constitutional debates remain futile. In a truly democratic society, there should be some egalitarian considerations to cater for the underprivileged. We can also call this economic lens a window of equality and equity. There should be equal and equitable economic opportunities. With widespread poverty, democracy can hardly impress anyone. Deification of the market economy deprives people of their opportunities that disappear behind a wall of capital. Finally, two more lenses are important: fundamental rights and gender. It is quite possible that there is constitutional democracy but the government and state institutions violate some fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

The gender lens is a crosscutting lens that we must use to measure levels of democracy in any society. Even in developed countries such as America, China, and Russia, it is hard to find women in high offices. Just look at the list of women in the US Senate or in the Politburo of China and the former Soviet Union and you see how significant that gender lens is. This discussion can continue for long, but the point I am making is that democracy is always ‘a work in progress’ in all countries. Each country has its own impediments in the way to an ideal democracy but we must use multiple lenses to understand democracy and improve it.


The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK.


Twitter: @NaazirMahmood