In praise of elections

Democracies usually welcome candid foreign input with open arms

Farrukh Khan Pitafi April 13, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates


There is something fascinating about the electoral process that has always excited this scribe. If democracy is a fairytale (most likely the Brothers Grimm version), election is its true miracle. That is why since 1985 while still in elementary school one found it impossible to resist the thrall of this process.

In the past two decades, the interest expanded to include foreign elections. Initially, it was a deflection or coping mechanism. When you are hard-pressed to offer instant opinions on everything under the sun and you are sure that some of these reflections on the grim reality around you can land you in thick soup, what do you do? Deflect. But pray by what method? Collect enough information about foreign polities that you develop a coherent system of knowledge. The journey afterwards is easy. Democracies usually welcome candid foreign input with open arms. So, you get another shot at being honest without getting a bone-rattling pushback. At least, that is how it all began.

Then came the pull. A clue to democracy’s charms lies in its name. It comes from the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power or rule). I am interested in demos. In my foreign travels and exchanges what I have enjoyed the most is the interactions with the common man on the street. What strikes me above everything else is how similar we all are. For instance, the country may change or perhaps some privileges but common folks display the same measure of effortless and unrehearsed simplicity and heartwarming honesty. And with the way of the world as it is one feels that their issues and problems are also the same. In my humble view, to know the people of a nation is to fall in love with them. And as the heart grows fonder, so grows your interest in understanding them. However, this growth in interest is not driven by a confirmation bias. It also helps if you are either devoid of all prejudices or spend a good time identifying and extinguishing them. To understand this phenomenon perhaps a term used by internet experts may help. It is called a filter bubble. Wikipedia says this about filter bubbles: A filter bubble is a state of intellectual isolation that can result from personalised searches, recommendation systems, and algorithmic curation. Google’s AI adds: (it) occurs when algorithms isolate users from information and perspectives they haven’t expressed interest in.

The issue here is not the perspectives but interest in a topic. If you do not follow, just go to YouTube or another social media platform and see what happens when you look up and consume content related to one particular topic. Soon all recommendations are about the same topic. Now, these highly skilled algorithms are a recent phenomenon. But the chemical reaction between my primitive mind and the internet is decades old. In short, when an election approaches I am left transfixed.

And understand this transfixing, please. While qualitatively for obvious reasons it is different, but in essence it is the same one which is exhibited by crowds when they gather around the site of a road accident, do nothing and just watch. There is a good chance that you are repulsed by this analogy but I plan to connect it to something more intrinsic and primordial. The helpless state of an onlooker reminds me of the television series Westworld in which human-like androids are thrown for a loop whenever they come across a situation which is not covered by their programming. In terms of these crowds, this deep fascination is likely triggered by their fascination with their own vulnerability and mortality. As someone who has never partaken such an activity, I won’t be able to tell you precisely what they seek to achieve by being beholden to such a gory sight. But, I can tell you about what fascinates me in an election. The majesty of all moving parts and how an ordinary man or woman, often under-equipped or under-educated for such a task, navigates through all these hoops. What a gorgeous and glorious exercise it is in expressing the popular will.

Needless to say that the dopamine rush, thrill or high you may get from watching a closely contested sports match I get it from meticulously studying an election. The bigger and messier it is, the better. So, this piece may come as a fair warning and as an apology, dear reader, if in the coming days you feel that my work is obsessed with one election or the other. It is a safe bet that until June it might be the Indian election where the world’s most populous democracy (nearly 960 million eligible voters) and until November the US where the world’s most powerful democracy (superpower, hello) go to vote. I am taking such pains to explain all this to you because I have noticed that people often think that I have a say in the matter. I do not. In fact, if you want to understand the degree of helplessness in the matter just go to an office common or living room where cricket lovers sit transfixed by the sights and sounds of a cricket match.

I have recently encountered two obstacles in pursuit of this interest. When you spend so much time collecting information about one particular subject regarding a topic, you want to share it with others. But the focus of our media landscape, in the past one decade, has shifted so drastically that it shows little interest in the outer world. In fact, I see a hectic Pavlovian effort to keep people obsessed with the inane he-said-she-said political debates. This is why I restrict my work mostly to the English medium, because here you still have some tolerance left for such content.

The second obstacle has come in the shape of the inexplicable pushback from some Indian readers in the past decade who seriously mind us discussing their politics. Here is my answer to that. Once upon an unhappy time, I had the bad habit of taking positions and inadvertently becoming a prop in fights which are infinitely bigger than my own existence. But the 2020 US elections were really illuminating for me when I refused to take a side and my mental health improved incredibly. The 2024 Pakistani elections further solidified my faith in this approach. So, I am here to study and discuss the elections not to seek to alter their outcome. I hope it helps to mollify my detractors.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2024.

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