COMMENT: Democratic failings —Salman Tarik Kureshi - Saturday, December 04, 2010

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No serious intellectual anywhere (other than the mouthpieces for al Qaeda and suchlike) queries the validity of constitutional democracy as the basis for running a state. In fact, formal democracy, from its emergence in Switzerland, England and the US over the last three centuries or so, has gone from strength to strength in its evolution

There is a distinction between the reporting in the main pages of a newspaper and the musings by op-ed writers (such as this scribe) on this feature page. More than even the difference between news and views, it is expected that the former will be bang up to date, the immediate events that have happened only a day before, while the latter is about things that are more long-term, the fruits of reflection, analysis and insight.

It seems to me that this is where our TV anchors often get it wrong, failing to grasp that their role is analogous to that of a features editor, who permits individuals to present their varying opinions in one place for the readers/viewers to gain perspective. Seen thus, the role demands a measure of sobriety that is not usually apparent in the expostulations and expletives that pass for discussion on TV. Therefore, while the other pages of this paper may have Wikis leaking all over the place and the price of sugar or gas or whatever may be hitting whichever heights, here one must write against a longer-term perspective.

My piece today has been triggered by a highly educated relative of mine, a top professional, who has demonstrated outstanding abilities and achieved unusual success, both here and in other countries. Commenting on the numerous failings of the present government, he remarked, “Democracy clearly doesn’t suit us and, anyhow, even the ideas of democracy are nowadays coming into question by intellectuals everywhere.” Now, to my understanding, no serious intellectual anywhere (other than the mouthpieces for al Qaeda and suchlike) queries the validity of constitutional democracy as the basis for running a state. In fact, formal democracy, from its emergence in Switzerland, England and the US over the last three centuries or so, has gone from strength to strength in its evolution. It has freed nation after nation from monarchist, imperialist and feudal oppression. In more recent times, democracy claims to have fought and won wars against both fascist and communist totalitarianism.

Even the earlier accepted ‘development’ shibboleth that, for economic take-off, developing countries require to be hard-driven by the whip of a dictator is no longer accepted. One of the ‘horrible examples’ has been in fact Pakistan itself, which has seen a succession of tin-pot tyrants, claiming economic development as a raison d’être. After all these decades, however, Pakistan’s comparative position is that it remains among the bottom 40 countries in terms of per capita GDP, while its internal socio-economic indicators continue to worsen.

Clearly, then, democracy has never been a more near-universally favoured means of ordering the state than it is today. So much for that. But is the contention that it may not ‘suit’ us in Pakistan in accord with the evidence? The poor track record of our present parliament and government would seem to support this view. Now, while partisans of constitutional democracy can argue endlessly that the failings of a particular regime do not condemn an entire system, the other side could equally suggest, first, that there must indeed be something very wrong with a system that produces such bad regimes and, second, that Pakistan cannot afford these ill-governed interregnums anyhow.

Let us then take a quick look at Pakistani democracy’s past record. The follies of the eight governments (four elected and four caretaker), who held power between Zia’s death and Musharraf’s seizure of power, are too well known to need recounting. However, democracy’s proponents point to the massive constitutional distortions and the grotesque socio-cultural disfigurements perpetrated by the Zia regime, which crowded the space in which those governments operated. Worse, Zia’s powerful legatees, in the persons of President Ishaq Khan, General Hamid Gul and others, effectively castrated the governments of that period. It can be justifiably argued that democracy did not fail; it was deliberately made to fail.

Let us go back further, to the time of the father of Pakistan’s constitution. ZA Bhutto’s party won a massive electoral victory in the regions that are now Pakistan and enjoyed public adulation, enthusiasm and support that no leadership before or since can claim. Pulling together ‘the pieces, the very small pieces’, an ambitious programme of reforms was initiated. We are not considering here the merits or otherwise of measures like nationalisation, only noting that the programme of radical changes was far-reaching and deep. Bhutto’s was a hyperactive administration (in sharp contrast to the somnolence of his party heirs today). But his style was abrasive and often vindictive. He created his own worst enemies, sometimes out of his natural allies. In 1973, he dismissed the government of Balochistan and forced out the government of NWFP, causing a major insurrection to develop in Balochistan. The armed forces, quiescent and under control as a result of defeat in former East Pakistan, had now to be cultivated and built up again. Repeatedly used, they were soon again a power in themselves. In 1974, the government sought to appease the religious lobby by turning against the Ahmedi community. In 1977, thumping on the arm of his chair and proclaiming its power, Bhutto banned alcohol and declared Friday as the weekly holiday. A government with such an authoritarian style, underpinned by the Army and the Mullahs, could scarcely be claimed as an exemplar of democratic values.

Go back to the very beginning, to Pakistan’s first government and parliament. Is it not relevant to point out that, by 1949, the year when India enacted its constitution, our constituent assembly had only managed to pass the Objectives Resolution? By 1954, our assembly — elected in 1946 under the Cabinet Mission Plan for an undivided India — was still waffling and playing political musical chairs when Malik Ghulam Mohammad staged his coup d’état.

My reader may at this point query that, if none of our past episodes of constitutional rule can be called democratic, then are our present rulers the first ‘properly’ democratic rulers we have had? And is this not then an appallingly bad advertisement for democracy in Pakistan?

Precisely, and therefore the exceedingly heavy weight of history sits on the weak and fallible shoulders of Messrs Zardari, Gillani, Sharif, et al. Can they, even now, straighten up and bear that weight forward? On that depends our future.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

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