Surviving "Uninformed Democracy"

Former Foreign Minister of Mexico Jorge Castaneda wrote something painfully familiar in a recent NEWSWEEK article, “Mexican people must rally behind the idea that democracy works. Too many Mexicans remain cynical or uninterested in their country’s evaluation, perhaps because they are jaded by cronyism and the corrupt patronage system that defines Mexico in the past. Beyond that advanced countries can help promote the notion that enlightened economic and foreign policies –” and by enlightened I mean policies that are open and internationalist and not reactionary or parochial having a positive effect on the daily lives of all citizens. And they can reinforce the importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights to a country’s advancement,” and further; “Mexico has never had an easy time transferring power. From independence and through most of the 19th century, coups, insurrections, civil war and foreign interventions were the rule, power was rarely transferred in an orderly, peaceful and democratic fashion”, unquote. Jorge Castenada could well have been describing Pakistan since its creation in the middle of the 20th century, and even upto the present in the early years of the 21st century, except that cronyism and corrupt political patronage are very much alive and well.

We are living in a “uniformed democracy”, if not under classic military rule only marginally the next worst thing. The major saving grace for the Musharraf military regime, a free media and an almost complete freedom of expression, has kept the pressure cooker from exploding. On the other hand, by institutionalizing selective accountability, the regime sabotaged what could have been a lasting legacy. The laws of the land must be applied equally to all citizens, any future democratic government will certainly take to task those among the military and bureaucracy who have made “killings” in various deals, real-estate, etc and/or are found living beyond their means. This may include those among the NAB who, by ignoring blatant cases of wrongdoing and themselves living beyond known means of income, put themselves open to charges of culpability if not actual complicity. Instead of plans for a safe exit for military rule, an instinct for self-preservation furthers the continuation of the status quo.

The Pakistan that died on Dec 16, 1971, was ruled by a military dictatorship and was re-born immediately thereafter, first as a civilian dictatorship and then in a truncated democratic version. It has since survived two longish stints of military rule. By failing to provide good governance, politicians are to blame for not being able to sustain the process of democracy, the men in uniform must take the blame for being willing (and opportunistic) in taking advantage of the frustration of the masses. Resentful of being ruled over by the military, the acquiesces, bureaucracy partly out of fear and partly out of an inherent contempt of politicians that they share with the men in uniform. They exercise much more real power under the aegis of military authority than when answering to political masters and their political compulsions. Through distribution of State lands, both civil and military administrators have become landowners, by joining the gang they now have a vested interest in preserving the rule of the privileged class. Given that more than 95% of the Armed Forces, serving and retired, do NOT own any agriculture land except that inherited from their forefathers, why should the vested interests of a handful give such an adverse perception to the good name of all the Armed Forces? The present military regime has inducted far more military persons into the establishment and semi-government corporations than at any time in Pakistan’s entire history, whatever the present military regime may profess and whatever their real intentions, uniformed personnel on civil deputations is a jealous prerogative, and this without the accountability inherent in a transparent democratic system.

The Indians had far more problems at independence in 1947 (and continue to have many more regional ones), we sabotaged our own future by giving only lip-service to land reforms, the impetus for parting with East Pakistan started in West Pakistan in the 50s, instead of vice versa as is the conventional wisdom. The demand by East Pakistanis for separation from West Pakistan became a fact of life in the last 5 years till 1971. East Pakistan had a homogenous society ruled by the middle class party, if this numerical majority had come to power they would have destroyed the lifestyle of a handful of feudals who ruled (and still rule) the roost in West Pakistan. This was not the wish of the vast majority but that of a powerful minority, supported by noveau landowners from among the bureaucracy and military. In a country created by the will of the masses we abrogated our future to the myopic will of a privileged few. The vast lands owned by the Nawabs, Sardars, Pirs, Khans, etc were mostly doled out by the British as reward for loyalty to their alien rule, by not carrying out land reforms in letter and spirit we mortgaged our democracy to hereditary rule. For Pakistan to survive, land above an economical acreage and that from absentee landlords must be resumed by the State and given to those in agriculturally economical lots to those who actually cultivate that land i.e. the mass landless who live in penury and poverty. Was Pakistan made to perpetuate slavery? Without land reforms already available on the statute books, in the way carried out by India (and they had multiple more Maharajahs, Princes, Nawabs, etc), there is no hope for an unfettered democracy. In the rural areas landowners will always be able to dictate the outcome of an election. Whatever its sincere intent a military regime is hampered from carrying out land reforms because of the vested interest among its hierarchy, past and present.

We will not survive as a nation until we carry out extensive reforms of the judiciary and the police. A good start was made for overhauling the police system at the start of Musharraf regime in 1999, like all good intentions this was frustrated by vested interest. In the end very little change took place! Similarly the superior judiciary can only be held accountable by the judges themselves, NAB itself should be headed by a retired judge (instead of a serving Lt Gen) of impeccable character. In the absence of land reforms, we must learn from the recent Ukraine experience and carry out structural changes in the method of elections to ensure the will of the majority, the very essence of democracy. First of all, there must be a second run-off elections unless one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. This is a must to break the stranglehold of a vested minority (the privileged few) that continues to rule the majority in the most flagrant violation of the norms of democracy. In the “first past the post” system any candidate who gets between 25 to 30% of the vote gets elected and re-elected time and again while the frustrated majority trips to the polling booth become gradually less and less in sheer disenchantment of the electoral process. Multi-party system is inherent in any democracy, indeed is an essential part of it, but to stop horse-trading and manipulation in utter disregarded to the ideology stated (and objectives thereof) of the political parties run-off elections should also apply to political parties also, with these getting less percentage votes than the two major parties forming a coalition before the second round. In a democracy good governance enjoins smaller parties as a part of a coalition, a two-party process is the sign of a mature political system.

For good governance there is no substitute to democracy, an unadulterated one at that. The basis of good governance is transparency and an independent judiciary, and adherence to the rule of law not only by the citizens of the State but primarily by the government and its functionaries. Despite India’s multitude of problems, because of sustained democracy India is a dynamic entity among the comity of nations, while we, despite our great human resource and national potential, are still struggling for an identity, if not actual survival. The prescription may be difficult for the privileged few to swallow, “a continuous dose of unadulterated democracy”, the uniform being important but subservient, not a dominant part of it.