A bottlenecked democracy

Published: August 31, 2017
The writer is political analyst and social activist. 

The writer is political analyst and social activist. bari.sarwra@gmail.com

To commemorate the 800th anniversary on 15th June 2015 the British sovereign returned to the place where rebellious barons had forced King John to put his seal on the Magna Carta. It was a watershed agreement in the English history, because it established the principle that everyone has a right to a fair trial, everyone is subject to the law — even the king, it imposed restrictions on the king and limits on taxation without representation. It laid out the first stone for democracy in England and beyond. What had happened prior to Magna Carta? In 1215, King John had lost some battles in France and imposed heavy taxes on barons in England. The barons rebelled and forced the king to sign the charter. Lesson — ‘hope lies in contradictions’ and if not resolved peacefully, disruption will take place. For better or worse, that depends how the opposing parties behave. Both the parties resolved the contradiction. Unlike the English elites, our elites very often failed to resolve contradictions as each one tried to grab all powers.

Foundations of our state structure and politics were largely laid during the colonial period and our successive governments (ignore military dictators) ‘nurtured’ the Westminster-style parliamentary system. Yet most prime ministers preferred to behave like president at best, or like a king at worst. Ask any ordinary folk on the street, and he would most likely say — Mr Nawaz Sharif’s style of governance resembles that of kings. Isn’t it true that except his dynasty no one can pass through the hole of the power needle? Bhutto — Zardari clan largely resembles Sharif’s. It is evident that both the dynasties have rolled back the country towards the point which most countries have abandoned a long time ago. Neither Jinnah nor his close associates had ever thought that the country they were going to create one day would be ruled by kleptocratic dynasties.

The Panama corruption case has the potential to reverse this trend. But a very powerful convict, whose shrewdness has blinded many smart writers and honest civil society icons, is bent upon sabotaging the gains. After the disqualification, he said the country needed a new social contract and a revolution. Wonderful. He and his younger brother have been ruling the country since 1982, minus Musharraf’s stint 1999-2008. Amazingly whenever he was in power, he had never uttered a word about any reforms (which are due for a long time) let alone a new social contract. Suddenly, what wrong does he find in the current arrangements? His party is still in power, wherever it had been before his disqualification. His handpicked man is prime minister, all the 53 members of his cabinet and acting president of the PML-N too. PM Abbasi proudly says he would always follow his boss. He received though unlawfully complete support from the pliant state for his defiant GT road show. Yet, he repeatedly accused the five honourable judges and his cronies have been using threatening language against judges. No one dared to stop them from this perpetually committed contempt.

In short, he is the defacto ruler of the country and simultaneously he is acting as an opposition leader too. The government and the opposition all immersed in him. Could you imagine King John had thought to act like barons too?

His defiance requires detailed analysis. Meanwhile suffice to say Mr Sharif (if not largely) has successfully grabbed significant space of the opposition too as many people now believe that he is a victim of injustice. Resultantly, the opposition’s space appears to be visibly hazed. This is indeed a big grab. But will this sustain? I doubt it very much. Isn’t it a deception of the highest order? Even Machiavelli and Chanakya could not have imagined this.

This duel being performed by a single man reminds me of this joke — a man kills his father and then tells judges not to hang an orphan. A son who kills his father and then pleads for mercy doesn’t deserve any pity. Or, a man who kills his sister for honour should not be allowed to hide behind the Qisas and Diyat. Similarly a man who siphoned off billions must not be spared. Instead of abandoning him, he is being portrayed as a great hero and a real challenger to the establishment, while his party continues to rule the country as it wishes to. Acting simultaneously as a ruler as well as an opposition is against the science of politics. I hope it won’t work and if it does, a king would soon rule us.

Consider this. Unlike France, the UK democratic development remained relatively peaceful. But, upheavals did take place. And each upheaval was to be led by those who had been either suppressed or ignored in the then ‘democratic’ arrangement. Each upheaval widened the social roots of democracy. Elites are elites, yet the elites of UK behaved differently from the elites of France. And it made a huge difference. The French royals refused to read the writing on the wall and finally the French Revolution slaughtered them all, while the English royalty often compromised and let the developments take place. For example, the industrial revolution gave birth to new social forces — capitalists replaced feudal lords. The royalty was further pushed back. When working classes of the UK transformed into a political party, the bourgeoisie had to accept it. The Labour Party creates space for its politics, democracy deepens and the welfare state emerges. We find similar pattern in most European countries, the US and South Korea. In short, these developments gradually removed bottlenecks to democracy. This doesn’t mean that Western democracy has become a participatory in nature. It may go through many more battles. The current wave of ultra-nationalism has already put democratic forces in danger in the West.

Here leaders of major parties instead of following democratic values have criminally undermined them. Suffice to state parties lack internal democracy, never hold party convention — an annual practice that was common during the colonial times — never hold party election, constituents and local party chapters are denied to elect candidates for general elections, actively promote dynasties in every constituency, labour, women, minority and youth activists are individually bribed by inducting them in the [separate] wings. Through this labour movement has been successfully depoliticised and corrupted, powerful families are allowed to grab as many constituencies and cabinet portfolios as they wish to (note, in the first constituent assembly of Pakistan, no two members were related to each other), MPs hardly attend assembly sittings, neither are they accessible to their constituents, and above all most leaders of major parties encourage organised corruption.

This is an extremely organised attempt to block not only the party members/activists from reaching to higher levels of hierarchy of the political parties but also to keep social roots of democracy extremely narrow. Consequently, path to power is being almost closed for citizens as well as for social movements. This democracy is completely bottlenecked by the very powerful and organised kleptocratic dynasties. Let’s leave it to our elites, whether they want to follow the French way or the British.

This made me sick to my stomach. But every sickness has a treatment. Our Constitution provides sufficient guarantees to reclaim the lost space and the judiciary has paved the way. Let’s join hands to protect our judiciary from the pressures of kleptocratic dynasties.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2017.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • ishrat salim
    Sep 1, 2017 - 10:21AM

    Very well written and analysed. I will save this and forward to my friends and relatives who seem to be literally ignorant to the facts mentioned by you, but argues without facts of history. Recommend

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