The politics of losing gracefully
Democracy is not always civil.Sometimes you can only exhibit grace by being uncivil,so be loud, noisy, messy and fight
A new talking point is emerging in post-election Pakistan, which goes something like this: Do not mention or say anything about vote-rigging because even to imply such a thing means one is being “ungracious” in defeat.
As reports of voter fraud and rigging started to emerge, self-appointed champions of democracy rushed to social media to say that it was best to forget about it and lose gracefully.
One former high-ranked PPP official pointed out that in 2008, his party had overlooked similar voting controversies in the name of “reconciliation.”
Another official expressed wonderment at why there was so much fuss over one seat. After all, one seat would hardly make a difference, would it?
Their points are well-taken. One or two seats will not have an effect on this election’s outcome. The voters have given Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) a strong mandate, and nothing will change that.
But, here is why vote-rigging does matter- democracy is not just about having an election. Even Saddam’s Iraq had elections. Even Stalin’s Soviet Russia had elections.
Instead, democracy is about a shared feeling between citizens. For it to work, we all have to believe it works. Voters need to have confidence in the democratic process. They need to know that the process was fair and legitimate. Without this shared confidence, you don’t have democracy. You just have a silly ritual where people are putting their thumbprints on pieces of paper.
To quote Tom Stoppard,
“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”
So, even if a lone polling station in a single constituency was compromised, it needs to be investigated thoroughly. In the interests of a democratic Pakistan, all parties should be working to alleviate the concerns of voters who feel cheated, rather than dismissing them as “sore losers”.
This brings me to a second all-too-common talking point, which is the constant exhortation to be “civil”. Anybody who expresses any legitimate anger over an unjust situation is promptly told to be civil.
Here’s a secret, democracies are not always civil. The democratic public sphere, by nature, is loud, noisy and messy and, yes, at times, downright rude. That is how it should be. When the diverse citizens of a multicultural nation all clamour to raise their voices at once, there is bound to be incivility.
There’s nothing graceful about remaining silent or stoic in the face of injustice. Telling people to be ‘civil’ is often a way to exclude them for not adhering to elite or middle class norms of sociability. It’s a way to say,
“I don’t want to acknowledge your anger.”
But, anger can sometimes be useful and productive, even necessary. As Arundhati Roy put it in a response to those who tell her to tone down her rhetoric,
“[They say] Shhhh…you’ll wake the neighbours! Well, I want to wake the neighbours. That’s my whole point.”
Indeed, sometimes you have to be loud enough to wake the neighbours. Sometimes, you can only exhibit grace by being uncivil. This might be one of those times.
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