Rubina Saigol July 06, 2010

‘Democracy’ is the most overused word in Pakistan, one that is also the mired in controversy and misunderstanding. It is an evolving discourse and has multiple, and occasionally, contradictory meanings. For orthodox Marxists, democracy signified the triumph of the merchant and industrial classes over feudal classes.

In Pakistan however, a unique version of democracy co-exists with an array of economic arrangements in different parts of the country that includes feudal land ownership in interior Sindh and parts of the Punjab, tribal forms in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and capitalist development in parts of all the provinces and in large urban centers. Additionally, the military and civilian bureaucracies wield enormous power, supported by large landowners and capitalists whose interests are in turn protected by these state institutions. Clashing interests generate competing versions of democracy.

The government chooses to define democracy almost entirely in terms of elections, voting and majoritarianism. For the government the fact that someone is elected by popular vote means that he is above the law. If the elected person has committed fraud or some other crime, he cannot be held accountable for the people want him irrespective of his behaviour. This is the argument that has been made in favour of Jamshed Dasti. Here political legitimacy is conflated with legal legitimacy. If a person has political legitimacy, he is legally unaccountable. The government is not too concerned with issues of the rule of law or the principle of equality before law.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan seems to define democracy exclusively in terms of rule of law but is less concerned with the principle of the separation of the powers.  It thus seeks to make appointments that are the exclusive domain of the executive. It arrogates to itself the power to set the prices of sugar and control traffic jams in Karachi. Even the right of the parliament to make and amend laws is viewed with scepticism and it seems that some elements among the lawyers community are overzealous in attempting to subordinate all legislation and constitutional amendments to judicial dogma.

The religious parties seek to ensure that religion remains the dominant ideology of the state and is reflected in its laws, policies and actions as well as the official curricula and media. For them, democracy in Pakistan must be subject to religious provisions. They believe that a true democracy is one in which the state privileges one religion over others and establishes its hegemony over all citizens and all institutions. They support the mainstream parties in return for concessions on the issues of women and religious minorities. The appointment of Maulana Sherani in the Council of Islamic Ideology is a case in point. Another example is the support extended by MMA to Musharraf’s 17th amendment in return for retaining power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The mainstream political parties view democracy as the means to personal gain and privilege. For them, democracy is business by another name. They seek to further the interests of their class — whether in the form of sugar cartels, the refusal to impose the agricultural income tax, or to win tax exemptions on capital gain. These classes are provided protection for their property, business and interests by the military elite which, in turn, manages to win a huge budget without transparency and accountability regarding how the money is spent. Additionally, the military wins plots, houses and kickbacks in defence deals in return for ‘allowing’ these parties to remain in power for specified periods and to pursue their business agendas. The various ruling groups— feudal and capitalist parties, religious parties, senior civil and military bureaucracies (including judiciary) — collude and cooperate in maintaining the status quo of power and privilege in Pakistan. The differing, and apparently conflicting, versions of democracy are weapons that are used in furthering the power of the classes whom they represent.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2010.


Fardad Ali Shah | 11 years ago | Reply Well written! Democracy as was originally conceived by it’s inventor has been totally defaced and is now a soft tool of exploitation of the people in the ways and forms as mentioned by Rubina. We always say Pakistan has not seen real democracy. If we continue like this, I think we may not hold until we reach that ‘real’ democracy (whatever that means). Political parties are infested with nincompoops with eyes always on the ‘booties’ of ‘democracy’ than anything else, eagerly awaiting their turn when their predecessor is kicked out for the same very reason. The public is as educated as to re-elect Jamshed Dasti and his likes time and again because he extends sifarish for his workers, trampling merit on the way ofcourse, creating despondency in the society. In Pakistan Democracy should be replaced by ‘Meritocracy’. It answers all the questions which Democracy, Militrocracy or any other cracy fail to address.
Marvi Sirmed | 11 years ago | Reply Good perspective. But it is also quite common here to malign civilian and elected governments by terming them "Non-democratic". Interstingly, this adjective is not used for the dictatorial regimes in our general societal discourse. It is also noteworthy that these popularly elected regimes are almost always maligned in public sphere making use of religion, morality and "Corruption". The sudden upsurge in number of cases of fake degrees is just one example. Ironically, most of these (fake) degrees holders were there in the last parliament, and some of them were with the king's party. Nothing happened. Judiciary sat on the cases of Modrassa diplomas being equivalent to the graduation degrees. And suddenly every day we're hearing the news of couple of degrees being "fake". More interesting is the fact that the class raising more of this noise against "corrupt", "morally bankrupt", "fake degree holders" and "non-democratic" elected people, ws the one who normally does not vote! The people who vote - normally rural Pakistan and urban lower middle class, do not consider them issues of vital importance. We really need to think about how we want a democracy to evolve in our country. High time it is.
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