Democracy vs culture - I.A Rehman - Thursday, March 17, 2011

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REGARDLESS of the consequences of the ongoing turmoil in the Arab states in the short run, it should give a fresh impetus to the efforts students of politics have been making to analyse the travails of societies that gained independence after the Second World War.
What has happened to Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, what Qadhafi is trying to avert by making his country desolate, or what some other potentates are hoping to forestall with pain-reducing palliatives they call reforms is not new. Similar was the fate of many Third World leaders who had earlier been hailed as liberators of their people, fathers of their nations.
No more than half a century ago, the leaders of a resurrected China, Indonesia, India, Egypt and Yugoslavia were shining as beacons of light for the large mass of humankind that was emerging from the dark age of imperialist exploitation. The people of Africa, belittled by its plunderers for decades as the Dark Continent, were lining up under revolutionary leaders’ banners of freedom, justice and continental unity. What happened to the bevy of charismatic leaders, their legacy and their societies?
Soekarno of Indonesia was felled from power and grace by the forces he had preferred to colleagues of the freedom struggle and whom he had strengthened by denying the masses the fruits of deliverance from colonial masters. Nasser of Egypt died a broken man, driven to the wall by the forces of tribalism backed by clerics and international moneybags. Nkrumah of Ghana was brought down by the unavoidable corruption of absolute rule. Write the same for Banda of Zambia. Tito of Yugoslavia died just before the nations he had clobbered together unsheathed their knives against one another.
Of the Third World leaders who departed with their reputation intact, Nyerere was helped by his austerity and the decision to retire, Zhou Enlai was protected by the momentum of the revolution, and Nehru benefited from the Indian people’s long history of social evolution.
Where are the people who were led by these great leaders? Have they been able to realise the goals of freedom, equality and progress that had been inscribed on their standards during the long and bitter fight against alien rulers, and for which countless people had fallen along the way? The most charitable answer will be that they are still trying. An analysis of the post-independence political history of these countries may help one find clues to their common predicament.
Except for China, which needs to be studied separately along with other socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union and Cuba, the front-runners in the Third World opted for democratic state structures, many of them under the guidance of experts steeped in the conventions of parliamentary democracy of the Westminster style. This system presented serious problems that the builders of new states, in the flush of victory, chose to ignore.
The most critical issues faced by these countries were, first, the transplantation of a system of political equality of citizens in societies that were violently hostile to the concept of social equality, and, secondly the absence of a sufficiently large section of the population with a stake in the democratic system. Besides, they lacked the human resources needed to manage affairs democratically. Most of these countries instead of meeting these shortages chose to plod on and gradually deviated from democratic norms, especially after the knowledge gained under articleship with the former rulers was exhausted, as happened in Pakistan in the mid-1950s. They started relying more and more on the military and civil bureaucracy, especially the secret services, for suppressing dissent and frightening the populations into quiescence.
Most of these new states had weak economies. Whatever development had taken place was designed to subserve the colonial powers’ economies. They jumped at any offer of aid regardless of the level of its appropriateness to their needs or their capacity to use it for national good. On top of all this the Cold War played havoc with many countries. On the one hand they got addicted to aid, lost the habit of thinking ways out of their problems, and on the other hand the imbalance in civil-military relations and the latter’s ascendancy at the cost of the former laid the foundations of an endless game of seesaw between democrats and authoritarian elements.
These developments took place in a period of humankind’s unprecedented awakening across the globe to the concepts of freedom, justice and prosperity as rights no people could be deprived of. The message to new democracies was that no regime could sustain itself by force alone; that it was necessary to nourish pro-democratic forces by freeing their people of undemocratic relations — tribalism, feudalism and social stratification on the basis of belief, ethnicity or caste — and by creating channels for developing and training human material in the art of good governance, such as a vibrant academia, a free media, robust trade unions and autonomous professional groups.
All the Arab states facing trouble these days, and quite a few other countries, are paying for their failure to meet these demands of a democratic polity. Since these countries were afraid of strong political parties their leaders became aliens to their own people who could not learn any means of replacing incompetent, corrupt and selfish leaders except through upheavals backed by any party whose bona fides could not be checked. Thus, democratic experiments were wrecked by the rulers’ failure to free the people’s culture of pre-democracy, even pre-political, assumptions.
India is generally considered to have escaped the decline discussed here but India has earned credit because other countries have fared worse. Further, India had started deriving strength from an indigenous capital that aided the freedom struggle as part of its conflict with the colonial power’s capital. India also benefited by staying out of Cold War politics for a considerable period.
For Pakistan all this is not a matter of academic interest only. The colonial pattern of governance adopted by it has completely decayed and cannot be repaired. Neither those in power nor those waiting in the wings can put the state back on democratic rails without creating an environment conducive to the founding and flowering of democratic governance. Many observers have attributed Pakistan’s trials to a failure to resolve the contradiction between democratic precepts and the culture/mindset of the population.
Pakistan needs to develop a democratic culture, they often argue. But political culture is only a reflection of economic and social relations and unless these relations are changed it will be impossible to foster a culture a democracy cannot do without.

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