November  1999

No patience, no democracy

Pakistani people, both the lay person and the majority of the intelligentsia, are simply not prepared to deal with democracy on its terms

WHETHER it is an out right extra–constitutional military coup as  now, or the military– supported constitutional” coups under the former dispensation, the rationale offered is always the same: the politicians have failed as a class, and some group of people other than elected representatives can best solve the country’s dire economic and social crises.

Always the coup is greeted with temporary euphoria, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment as yet another tinkering with the democratic set–up inevitably fails to solve long–standing problems.

What is most surprising about the latest coup is the lack of outrage expressed by ordinary Pakistanis as well as most of the intelligentsia. What is most surprising is the ultimate lack of surprise at the coup on the part of those who closely follow Pakistani politics. For anyone observing the dynamics of the 1990, 1993, and 1996 interventions, it was only a matter of time.

What is most disillusioning about the current interruption of democracy is that the same segments of Pakistani society that have greeted previous interruptions refuse to learn from past history. What this clearly shows is that the Pakistani people, both the lay person and the majority of the intelligentsia, are simply not prepared to deal with democracy on its terms.

Understandably, the commercial classes are the least committed to the idea of democracy. They are the first to support any military government; they care less about civil liberties and the rights of the working class. As long as they can be assured of a minimal degree of stability in which to do business, they go along. They don’t realise that anything but democracy only leads in the long term to greater instability. For most of the intelligentsia to be in accord with the commercial classes’ liking for military rule, however, is less expected and less acceptable.

Unrealistic expectations about democracy lead to repeated support for rejecting the very processes of democracy. The missing piece of analysis has to do not with the mechanisms of democracy, which are not at fault, but with our own expectations and desires. Pakistanis want painless, quick, instant gratification. Neither democracy nor any other means of governance can deliver what they want. And yet, in their haste to reach the Promised Land, the people of Pakistan keep diminishing the chance that the desired objective of an egalitarian and prosperous society will ever be met.

It is precisely the sky–high expectations of the people for swift (shading into undemocratic) action on the part of their elected political leaders that leads to the politicians justifying autocracy in the name of expediency. Should the people set their expectations at a more moderate level, politicians would find it more difficult to justify autocratic intervention in the normal workings of state institutions.

To the extent that each time the ordinary people and the intelligentsia have refused to outright condemn the previous interventions — those of 1990, 1993, and 1996 — they have been party to the final overthrow of democracy. Imagine a scenario in 1990 when, despite disillusionment with Benazir Bhutto’s first term, an absolute line in the sand had been drawn, and the intelligentsia by and large had refused to accept the presidential intervention. Certainly, the costs of continuing with Benazir Bhutto at that time —  as with Nawaz Sharif in his first and second terms, and Benazir in her second term — would have been high. But under no circumstances would the costs have been as high as those that actually did accrue after the disguised coups.

By the same logic, it is inconceivable that any possible benefits could accrue under the present military government that will not be overwhelmingly offset by the long–term setbacks to democratic governance.
It should be clear by now that the first Benazir government was better by far than the first Nawaz government, and so on for the three succeeding governments. The first Benazir government could treat state institutions with far less impunity than the regimes that followed. Doubtless, this logic will hold for the present regime as well. Simply to get back to square one after each intervention takes monumental work. People make the task well–nigh impossible when they keep supporting illegitimate interventions for the sake of expediency.

People seem to lack the basic characteristic for the survival of democracy that the Indian populace seems to have in abundance: patience. None of the long–term, even endemic and perplexing, problems outlined by the new military regime, are susceptible to short–term resolution. A few years are simply not enough to get the economy back on track, or to root out corrupt politicians, or to deal with deep–rooted ethnic and sectarian violence.
These are tasks that ought to occupy generations. No interim set–up of bureaucrats or technocrats, whatever the duration of power — a year, two years, or even five years — can possibly come up with radically different alternatives to what was already being tried under the four different democratically elected governments between 1988 and 1999.

Pakistan’s basic incomprehension of how democracy functions is highlighted by the remarkable progress of democracy in India. An elitist party has gradually seen its power diminish from its heights of autocratic rule, and dynastic politics has declined over the last three decades. 

Coalitions of parties representing the lower classes, the outcasts, and the marginalised are in the ascendant. No matter how slow India’s economic or social progress, the Indians refuse to discredit democracy for it. Rather the thought has never even occurred to Pakistan’s more enlightened neighbours.

In Pakistan, whenever problems are found to be intractable, instead of doing everything possible to strengthen the institutional foundations of democracy, individual culprits are hounded out of office and democracy itself is questioned.

Certainly, Nawaz Sharif found it easier to weaken democratic institutions because of all our previous undemocratic interventions. The Supreme Court’s actions in the past justifying the overthrow of democracy under the doctrine of necessity are one example of institutions undermining their own long–term viability in the urge to protect themselves in the short run.

Five decades of playing around with democratic institutions almost guarantees that any representative government will have quite a bit of success in generating the perception that it intends to stay in power for good, and that it will undermine democratic institutions with every increase in power. But precisely the worst way of dealing with a democratically elected government that acts undemocratically is to abolish the very process itself. That will only make future governments, even if democratically elected, more prone to try to ensure their permanent stay in power.

Once again, the people’s lack of patience has made them indirectly party to a whole new series of likely witch–hunts. Accountability as it is understood in Pakistan is a pipe-dream. Who will watch the watch–dogs? No answer to this has been found in fifty–two years in Pakistan, nor in the various doomed experiments in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

The solution is simply to make sure that the rascals are voted out of power at the end of their term, and that in the meantime they are not allowed to ensure that their stay will be anything except at the pleasure of their constituency.

In short, having degraded democracy, the people of Pakistan seem to want to degrade it even further, and reduce the chances of having a well-functioning democracy in the future. The benefits of this kind of intervention cannot possibly exceed the devastating costs. What is most disturbing is the cheerfulness of the people, or many of them, as they greet the new regime with high hopes. This reflects nothing but the naivete of the common people as they curse and condemn the existing set of politicians. The intelligentsia is equally naive as it sets out to discover yet another set of technocrats and bureaucrats who can magically rescue the country from its own worst instincts.

Pakistan’s worst problem is that the entire polity has become distorted because of the excessive militaristic or despotic attitude. Priorities at home have been twisted as a result, and civil liberties have had to take a back seat. Absolutely the worst possible response is to further increase the power of the military. Nobody wants to talk about a secular, pacifist, socialist approach to governance, as India shows the capacity to do. But that takes time, and individual and collective commitment. Democracy at all costs would be the slogan then. Right now, it seems to be — whatever works, damned be the ideology. It is a well–set trap, sprung at the least provocation. Escape is 
unlikely without massive doses of patience with the workings of democracy.

Until democracy at all costs becomes the desire, democracy will never work at any cost. Until the principle sinks through that the worst possible elected government is always better than the best possible military dictatorship, democratic institutions cannot begin to gain hold. This is an absolute on which there can be no compromise. The only solution for the ills of democracy is more democracy. 

Anis Shivani
(Courtesy: ‘Friday Times’,Pakistan)

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