By Raza Habib Raja
The statement issued by MQM chief, Altaf Hussein, calling for Army’s intervention to “correct” the corrupt politicians has stirred the political landscape. Mind you MQM is not a very popular party outside Karachi and Hyderabad and yet presently his statement is getting nods of approval from various quarters particularly from the middleclass. Since most of the people do not want to be branded as “undemocratic” therefore approval is subtle at times but you can still see that it is there. Most interestingly majority of the middleclass people I have talked to, particularly from Punjab say that they are actually reviewing their previously bad opinion of MQM!!
Right now the affluent middleclass is again at the forefront demanding implicitly and at time vocally that democracy should be purged. Of course the liberal side opposes it and should oppose it but at the same time most of the “defense” from the liberal quarters does not go beyond name calling and allegations. For example a typical response would be to brand middleclass as bigoted and authoritarian with naïve understanding of geopolitical culture. Moreover, standard references to disrespect of “unwashed’ masses would be made. And of course this is supplemented by terms like drawing room gossip, reactionary , chattering classes etc.
Defense of democracy has to be realistic and not based on lauding passionate speeches about unwashed masses particularly when politicians apparently care little themselves about the masses. The central thrust should be to present first a convincing case as to why democracy is a better option compared to armed dictatorship and frankly a very strong case based on historical evidence exists despite chequered history of democratic regimes. And yes admit the shortcomings of the politicians also as weaknesses of politicians are not necessarily weaknesses of the entire political system.
Spinning facts to absolve politicians of their follies is not the way. Simply assuming that everyone is just bigoted or plagued by bias is also a form of denial. And interpreting everything as a grand conspiracy of the establishment mirrors the general mindset of the Pakistanis who have developed this habit to see everything through the conspiracy paradigm.
When you try to convince you take your case to the opposite camp BECAUSE you are trying to change mindsets. Calling those people “reactionary” is not going to change mindset particularly when some of them have a well argued case. And yes tagging notes to likeminded people on social websites like Facebook will not stir debate. Preaching to the choir never does! Fight needs to be taken to the mainstream.
And we need to convince as middleclass mindset though electorally weak in numbers is extremely powerful through its dominance in Media, Corporate and what are known as “establishment” institutions like Judiciary, Civil Services and of course armed forces.
That brings us to a related question: does the middleclass hate democracy? The answer cannot be a definite yes because it’s the some apparent outcomes of the democracy in our part of the world which it detests. It does have concerns which periodically surface when democratic rule is again given a chance. One cannot conveniently dismiss every concern by branding it as reactionary or a manifestation of deep rooted insecurity about losing privileges the status quo offers. One can blame armed forces for harboring such insecurities but not the entire middle class.
For the doubters let me remind that when elections of 2008 took place there was a severe hatred against army and it was expressed by the SAME middleclass. In fact so much so that General Kayani immediately upon assuming command as CNC had to withdraw army officials from various civilian posts. At that time even Zardari had a favorable impression and in fact several polls were revealing that by and large public was in the process of reevaluating their opinion about him. So the notion that middleclass simply hates him for the sake of hating is slightly exaggerated. There is more towards the current surge of hatred against the President.
So then what are the reasons?
In Pakistan, democratic regimes have been short on providing stability. One thing this class really loves is stability which too some extent is an outcome of its pro status quo orientation. Democracy in the developing countries, particularly if it’s not “regulated” tends to bring chaos as coalition building and consensus formation process does not develop quickly. Consequently the romantic love for a strong ruler intensifies each time the politicians indulge in destabilizing and chaotic practices when given a chance. It’s a small wonder that whenever army has intervened directly, there has been a sigh of relief from the middle class. And historically armed forces have intervened when political chaos was reigning supreme.
However the most persuasive and unfortunately convincing argument is about the quality of governance. The executive has often overstepped its authority and has used mandate as a justification for anything from nepotism to controversial allocations of contracts. Moreover, the justification is also supplemented by the argument that if people do not approve of these “steps”, they will remove the government in the next elections. These repeated acts which use explicit justification of a public mandate, has at times alienated middle class from the notion of democracy itself. Moreover, one has to understand the some of the interventions (though not all) by the armed forces were actually an outcome of the chaotic situation the politicians had brought.
Obviously the arguments against democracy by this class also constitutes anti feudal sentiments. It is often pointed out that the representatives of the people are actually feudal lords who come to the power through votes and in this way the feudalism is further strengthened. In fact according to some elements of the middle class, democracy is even more problematic as it creates an umbrella of legitimacy due to mandate.
But then questions arise as to what has given rise to the above issues.
One of the major problems in Pakistan is that it still is an agriculture based society with a strong social patriarchal structure which thrives on contact building. Now this contact building and largely obliging culture comes into full play when political class is in power. People who have voted EXPECT to be given a share in the governance and this in turn has given rise to out of merit job allocations and contracts. Expecting favours is culturally deep rooted and democracy merely facilitates it as the ruling class is accountable to the voting public. This practice of obliging of course seriously undermines quality of governance. The apparent advantage that Middleclass sees in the military establishments is that these are apparently insulated from such kind of pressures. Moreover majority of the people while growing up have seen military a shade away from normal civilian life even during the martial laws. The disciplined look, insulated from public pressure creates this strong impression that military won’t be obliging the way Politicians are.
Secondly it has to be realized that Parliamentary democracy has evolved in the industrial societies and is functionally geared to address the needs of that kind of society. Western model of universal suffrage also presupposes educated and informed electorate, established social voluntary structures like unions, associations, mature and responsible media and above all a strong tradition of constitutional liberalism which is underpinned by independent courts, separation of powers and strong emphasis on individual liberty.
In the Western world these features evolved before the advent of universal suffrage. Farid Zakria’s excellent book titled as “future of freedom” chronicles the development of constitutional liberalism in various countries of Europe and argues that such development needs to precede democracy for it to be stable, sustainable, and for ensuring that governments remain accountable in every respect. Zakria argues giving historical examples that voters alone cannot make the government accountable without a strongly entrenched tradition of constitutional liberalism. In fact historically countries where democracy arrived before these traditions have fallen victim to chaos and eventually despotic rule by some strong man. Chaos, if developed would naturally be countered by establishing authority and unquestionable subservience which normally comes with military rule. That of course does not justify Military rule but provides a reason as to why it often takes place and why some people are obsessed with it.
Another issue which has to be kept in mind is that democracy would need independent institutions like Judiciary and Media no matter how “reactionary” these are to ensure that it remains on track. And these institutions do not automatically develop through voting process. The notion which has often proven irrelevant in a country like Pakistan is that voters alone can provide the necessary accountability. This unfortunately is not even true for developed countries. First of all mandate does not necessarily reflect complete will of the people due to principal agent problem and moreover vote received in an election does not necessarily validate every step taken by the Government during its reign. Voters eventually appraise the OVERALL PERFORMANCE of a party, not every step. So therefore claims that if voters do not approve of a particular controversial step, they will vote the party out in the next elections is not a valid argument. For democracy to be effective strong and INDEPENDENT institutions, even if they are “reactionary’ are needed!! Due to this factor, there is a legitimate rationale for judiciary and media to keep a check on the government during the interim period. Independence of these institutions is a prerequisite on these grounds. And
So what is the way out?
First the convincing has to explicitly RECOGINIZE these problems and liberal intelligentsia has to support independent institutions and check and balances. Yes it includes this vulgar media also!! Sorry but even if it is vulgar, it is needed!!And yes STOP defending political class when it merits condemnation and please stop interpreting criticism as merely “reactionary”. Trying to defend incompetence through spinning factual position and branding everything as a grand conspiracy of the establishment will not do. If anything it further insulates the political class from political discipline and questions the credibility of the liberals themselves.
For democracy a culture of accountability has to be there and that culture may even at times evolve through excessive lynching (provided that does not result in army’s intervention!) phase into more mature criticism. Yes at times media is unfair but it is OK if it points to nepotism and poor governance. The argument which should be given is that we should stick with democracy but also strive to cultivate a culture of accountability and strong institutions.
What the stability obsessed crowd should be made to understand is that the solution is not replacing democracy with autocratic rule or judicial rule but by ensuring the mechanism which ensures that chaos does not develop and governments do not become excessive in their conduct. Democracy may not be a perfect system but a modern and ethnically diverse state needs it. The central thrust has to be on recognizing where democracy is faltering and how to ensure that those areas are strengthened.
Second and the most important argument is ethnic fabric of our country. What is often overlooked by critics of democracy is that for an ethnically diverse country such as Pakistan, lack of democracy will be catastrophic and in fact historically every dictatorship has resulted in increased feeling of marginalization. Democracy is the only workable framework in a modern industrial society which can tap diverse voices and ensure integrity of the state through preservation of diversity through negotiation and renegotiation. Just simple analysis in chronological order can prove the point that after each dictatorship the feeling of depravity and anger has increased. Bangladesh and bloody 1971 episode owed a lot due to lack of consensus building which only democracy could have ensured. Ayub era despite apparent high growth rates delivered a broken Pakistan.
Zia regime instilled hatred in Sindh and Mushrraf a lot of hatred in Baluchistan. An ethnically diverse and now charged up country cannot exist without democracy. Democracy may have proven short on quality governance (for that matter so has dictatorship) but it is the only workable way to ensure that diverse voices are heard and their concerns are properly incorporated in the policy framework.
Third people have to be reminded that every military dictator’s regime ended with some kind of public protest which actually went too long because the dictator was not politically feeling the heat the way a political government would. They even went on suspending courts! Protests went on and eventually far more frustration was felt and of course when the dictatorship ended Pakistan was in a more miserable state.
Fourth, while Military regimes may have provided a façade of stability, there is nothing to support that military dictatorships fared any better in financial corruption. And moreover systematically the resources were transferred to bolster the army schemes and industries. Of course due to censorship most of the corruption scandals never came to light. It is a fallacy that only politicians are corrupt.
We need to win the battle of minds and address skepticism through concrete, rational and factual defense of democracy. We need to reinforce an obvious truth that a modern industrial society which is so complex needs democracy and the solution is to push for better governance within democracy not substituting it with dictatorship.