Out of a fiery and war-torn haze, a new zeitgeist in Libya will rise with tomorrow’s dawn, a future many hope will be one of a functioning democracy. As we see Karachi ablaze, with over a hundred people killed in a week, people are asking, will Pakistan ever escape its own haze and become a functioning democracy? But is that the most important question to ask?
Commentators expend considerable time asking whether Pakistan is ungovernable and, increasingly, the answers appear sceptical. LUMS professor, Mohammad Waseem, has called the situation symptomatic of the institutional weaknesses within the Pakistani state. Some time ago, Medha Bisht, writing for the Kashmir Sentinel, posed the same problems when asking is “Pakistan collapsing?”
The frames used for analysis invariably involve economic factors, foreign intervention, the ‘Three As’ (Allah, America and the Army), colonialism and elitism. The list could go on ad nauseam. These are important, but another way of looking at the recent disturbances in Pakistan is to consider if Pakistan actually has too much democracy rather than a dearth of it.
The thought that a state can have too much democracy appears antithetical to the ideals of freedom and rationality. The reason the question is worth asking is because it allows us to see events in Karachi and elsewhere in another light. Theorists and social commentators often compound two separate but linked ideas about democracy. On the one hand lies what might be called ‘democracy from below’. This can be seen in the more immeasurable ‘feelings’ of democracy. It can take the form of, for example, people understanding the role they play in the decision-making process. Alternatively, it could take the shape of forming groups, civil society in a de Tocquevilleian sense, in an attempt to influence the world around them. On the other hand sits what we might call the institutions of democracy, such as parties and elections. What it takes for a successful democracy is the linking of both these forms. However, when they fail to link up and one becomes too powerful for the other, democracy can be weakened.
Pakistan, especially in urban areas, does not seem to have a problem with civic organisations. Political activism is evident on its streets even if you look beyond the activities of local and national political parties. On one end of the spectrum are the numerous religious organisations which are present all over Pakistan. The work of the Edhi foundation, for example, is clearly inspired by the faith of Abdul Sattar Edhi. Such organisations represent sites of microprocesses of democracy. They are where for the majority of the population politics becomes a verb and political action takes place. They may not be democracy with a capital ‘D’ as we usually accept it, but they are democratic with a small ‘d’ in how they encourage public participation in politics. On another end of the spectrum are organisations like Kuch Khaas in Islamabad. Those sitting in the cafe in Kuch Khaas may seem a world away from the ambulance runners of the Edhi organisation and, in many ways, they are. However, both represent the strength of public participation in Pakistan, a healthy sign of the democratic process.
The problem arises because this world of small ‘d’ democracy and that of capital ‘D’ democracy fail to line up in Pakistan. Far too often, local political parties and national parties have failed to represent the people. This leaves a disconnect between what is happening at the local and national arenas, and results in growing frustration in those at the bottom of society. Because the avenues for public participation are limited due to the infrastructural weaknesses of Pakistani democracy, local participation often spills out of the formal avenues of activism and onto the streets.
Thus, what could be contained and channelled if the systems were in place takes the form of unruly activism. The question is not whether Pakistan can function as a democracy. It already does, although an imperfect one. The question is whether it has too much democracy for the institutional systems it has in place. To this the answer is clearly yes. Re-engaging the politics of the street with the politics of the state may not solve all of Pakistan’s problems, but it would be a start..
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2011.