Autocratic democracies

Published: August 17, 2010
The writer is an Indian author and columnist

The writer is an Indian author and columnist

One year, during Independence Day – yours and mine – I happened to be in Pakistan. There were people applauding Indian democracy. Nice people in nice homes were telling me how fortunate I was. I faked elation. I have never felt so different, yet so Indian. Pakistanis have had to deal with military dictators and are therefore understandably enamoured of the ability of Indians to throw out governments every five years.

What no one bothers to look into is that for those five years democracy lets people decide and agree upon certain freedoms autocratically designed for them. The idealism of the leaders is in fact a game plan to maintain the status quo. Democracy does not do away with hierarchy; it adds several layers to it.

There are three factors that confuse Indians and Pakistanis in different ways.

Secularism: It started way before 1947, which is the reason we are still fighting over the leftover manifestos of Partition. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s secularism could not translate naturally into democracy for the very idea of creating a ghetto nation is anti-democracy. Pakistan was created for Muslims and secularism was meant to be the icing on the cake. India did not have that choice; it was busy dividing the pie. Secularism and religion are not at odds with each other. If we call India a secular nation, then we have several religions screaming out from different directions. We confuse multiculturalism for secularism. Incidentally, religion and parochialism have played an equally damaging role in India despite this rainbow nationhood or, perhaps, because of it.

Modern monarchies: Dynastic politics in contemporary times is an insult to the democratic idea. We often justify it as: “Oh, we are an emotional people and get attached to these families.” Indeed. We are the ones who torture and kill our own, sometimes even before they are born. Our subcontinent is a sad case of slavery passing off as human bonding.

Asif Ali Zardari, when he took over from his assassinated wife, said he wanted to be like Sonia Gandhi. This initially meant pulling the strings and slowly coming into the limelight as a shadow figure. Sonia Gandhi forced Rahul into the fray to save her position and act as her frontman and although now 40 he is still ambling across the grassroots terrain.

Speaking about Bilawal Bhutto, Imran Khan had said then: “You can inherit a house, jewellery… but how can you inherit other people’s wishes, dreams? A democratic political party, being inherited — it is mockery of democracy.” It amused me that he wanted Benazir’s son to be like the son of India and it would be wonderful if he “gets educated, and is starting from below — like Rahul Gandhi in India”.

While he seemed to have a legitimate problem with home-grown inheritance, he was using the same legacy in India as an inspiration.

TINA: There Is No Alternative. Why? Because no second rung leadership is created; no one is given an opportunity. People of stature holding important portfolios look like minions in the boudoirs of the ones born with the country in their mouths. But TINA is a coquettish concept. Strangely, it promotes fidelity even as it is poised for a pole dance. It is a riveting sight and prevents the citizens, bonded with herd instinct, from looking elsewhere.

There will be several little people doing big things, but come floods and poverty photo-ops and it will be the sons of the spoils who will be promoted, returning home from exile or slumming it in Dalit shanties. Look, we say, this is what we need. No, this is what we get. Some call it democracy when it really is manufactured consent.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • rehan
    Aug 17, 2010 - 1:47AM

    TINA:Why? ANIT:(AsifZardari Never Inculcates Trust)Recommend

  • Aug 17, 2010 - 3:00AM

    Emotional fools get attached to these families but these families never get attached to these emotional fools. No matter what , the fools will still remain fools.Recommend

  • Waqas
    Aug 17, 2010 - 3:05AM

    Kudos- :)Recommend

  • Aug 17, 2010 - 5:26AM

    Autocratic democracies are their own worse enemies. When an elected government has no credibility, or goal to deliver to the people, its days are numbered. Power comes from the people and not from those whom they elect. This government has lost its moral authority to rule. It is as unpopular, incompetent and corrupt as the military junta of Musharraf.Recommend

  • SKChadha
    Aug 17, 2010 - 8:10AM

    Farzana – Abrasions in democracies exists world over. It is visible even in USA when we see Clintons’, Bushs’, Kennedy’s, Fords’ etc. In democracy all are equal but some are more equal than others.
    Moulding others opinion to your own way of thinking or making them act on your voice is the first lesson of ‘Rajneeti (Politics)’. Any individual or dynasty with its fertile brain and political edge is able to do it in every society.

    Following of a particular leader for years starts developing feudalism which you may term as Goodwill of individual or family. You may also call it Pagri or Jageer as per your choice. The media glare, internal skirmishes of factions in a political parties, personal revelries, financial muscle power etc. all play part in it. Yes, the basic rule is the survival of the fittest and strongest that can have mass appeal or as you rightly said the manufactured consent.

    In this game the literacy of masses also play a vital role. The commonsense in subjects to understand the game or their rights also get maturity with passage of time and logativity of democracy. Getting on top of the ladder where everybody else is trying to pull you back is by combination of ancestry, knowledge, financial & muscle power, wits, luck etc. Every factor has its due role. Nothing to crib about it, as long as, the democracy survives and country is on the path of progress. Recommend

  • indic
    Aug 17, 2010 - 11:18AM

    Partition obsession wont leave us. I dont understand why Ms Versey felt Indian in Pakistan on independence day. What does she feel like otherwise?? Good points about dynasty and secularism.

    @Mr Chadha, are you propagating family politics if there is goodwill when the writer is asking if this good will is enough.Recommend

  • SKChadha
    Aug 17, 2010 - 1:20PM

    @ Indic – In India or Pakistan we mainly have Pater-lineal society. In that way neither Zardari/Bilawal nor Sonia/Rahul are representing Bhutto or Nehru family. What I have stated that rise to the top is due to favourable combination of ancestry, knowledge, financial & muscle power, wits, luck etc. all factors put together. None of the single factor is enough to put you on the top. My comments start from the fact that these are the abrasions in democracy and integral part of any society, whether it is democratic or autocratic. One cannot label a democratic setup as autocratic just by their existence. These abrasions cannot be interpreted as absolutely wrong so long the democracy survives and society is on the path of progress.Recommend

  • Masuud Qazi
    Aug 17, 2010 - 1:37PM

    Brilliant review. And this coming from an Indian is ever so encouraging. Yet you know what, Pakistan will still need some decades to get this right- the distinction between the different forms of democracy- sheer democracy, autocratic democracy, dynastic democracy, dictatorial democracy and whatever one can come up with.
    And people call this dynastic politics, democracy? Lets give ourselves a break! Ring a ring, Bhuttos and the Sharifs. This is dynatic democracy, sheer corruption of rights of the normal man. From generation to generation, an absolutely ridiculous system. Almost equivalent to dictatorship and other ill forms of rule.

    Unless the feudal casting and the whole system isn’t rooted out (which will take years), the purest form of democracy is only limited to a dream. God bless Pakistan.Recommend

  • Mehdi
    Aug 17, 2010 - 3:30PM

    We will have to see Imran’s reaction to his own kids ambitions few years later!

    Very sensible post, ma’amRecommend

  • Aug 17, 2010 - 6:01PM

    I better clarify this: When I say I felt more Indian at that particular time, there are psychological dimensions here. Like one feel more brilliant when one is with stupid, even if it is only written on the T-shirt. There are other reasons too. If anyone is interested, my very first column here expressed the ‘hesitation’…

    Guns and Lollipops

    And, I think societies survive because of factors other than the genre of rule. What is ‘progress’? How many democratic countries in less privileged societies have ever thought about progress for the poor? This is an elitist bubble and dynasties and upwardly-mobile politicians play on this new-found empathy for the smart newbies on the block.

    Thanks for the varied viewpoints, though.Recommend

  • Neeraj, India
    Aug 17, 2010 - 7:20PM

    Farzana, Just because Congress has a dynastic leadership. you cannot call India an autocratic democracy. why this dynastic leadership continues has already been stated brilliantly by Mr.SKChadha in his post above. I need not have to elaborate further.
    Congress party alone do not represent Indian democracy, there are many other parties such as BJP, CPM &CPI etc. which are strictly democratic in nature where regular internal party elections are held and office bearers are elected. Possibility of Advani’s or Prakash Karat’s sons/daughters ever inheriting party leadership is just unimaginable. Yes, Indian democracy is not perfect, but what is perfect in life? With all it’s flaws we Indians can take pride in our democracy. I hope your fake elation as an Indian becomes genuine.
    By the way, I was pleasantly surprised to find you here on ET. I missed you since your disappearance from The Asian Age/DC. I disagreed with you on many issues you wrote, but always found you a treat to read.
    Ramzan mubarak!Recommend

  • rehan
    Aug 17, 2010 - 7:34PM

    @Farzana. On a personal note.Your surname,Versey,is it another spelling for what we have here in Pakistan,Warsi?Recommend

  • Qalandar Khan Mastana
    Aug 17, 2010 - 7:51PM

    “Democracy” is an engine for accumulating power – it is a prime mover that sucks energy from below and delivers it up to the top. It does so, at first by creating a front that appeals to the masses, but once elected, it does what it is designed to do, widen the potential difference and concentrate power, cycle after cycle – like the reversed heat engine. But if the laws of nature are applicable, than this system will proceed toward a state of maximum entropy, if left unchecked – entropy being the measure of disorder. It sustains the aforementioned energy suction action, by temporarily correcting it’s modus operandi, later it reverts back to business as usual.Recommend

  • Amit Kumar
    Aug 17, 2010 - 9:06PM

    I do appreciate your views, but do you remember how much people loved Rajiv Gandhi? That cannot be manufactured. I still remember his words that we have to prepare india for 21st century.
    Who would have thought 1984 (after the shameful communal riot in 1984) that 20 years down the road India will re-elect a Sikh PM. Indian democracy is a work in progress. We all have to work constantly to make it better. The greatest danger of our democracy is not illiterate or poor people but from the skepticism of educated people. Lets get involved with it in what ever way we can.
    India is a great ideaRecommend

  • Anoop
    Aug 17, 2010 - 10:54PM

    I was expecting comments condemning India,democracy and secularism. But, i read Qalandar’s comment at the end.Recommend

  • Aug 18, 2010 - 12:04PM

    I find it curious that the Pakistanis here seem more open to a critique of their ‘democracy’ and leaders than the Indians.

    There is much more to be added and I might do so in a later column. For now…

    Neeraj: I do not entirely agree with SK Chadha’s POV, and have provided a brief reason. Re. the Congress vs other parties, the column did not stop at dynasties; there are the other two aspects of secularism and TINA that fit them rather well. And we must not forget the Shiv Sena dynasty or the DMK one down South.

    Yes, Indian democracy is not perfect, but what is perfect in life?

    Anything that can afford botox and liposuction.

    My “fake elation” was over democracy not about being an Indian. Twisting is so outdated…

    A barsaat mubarak to you, too. And thanks for remembering my past!

    Amit Kumar: Rajiv Gandhi rode on a sympathy wave and, trust me, we would have reached the 21st century whether he told us to prepare for it or not.

    Dr. Manmohan Singh was a nominated candidate of the Congress party. We do not elect out PMs directly, and he did not even contest. Besides, why do we even need to emphasise his religion? Was it like 20 years after the riots the Indian leadership decided to give the community a sop? Makes it sound worse than I thought.

    I agree, India is a great idea, sirji.

    Rehan: Warsi is common to India and Pakistan. My last name is spelled the way it is and does not have any connection to the other one unless someone mixes up their ‘w’ with ‘v’ while pronouncing it.

    PS: A UK minister has resigned because he thought he was not good enough for the job. Would any of our leaders do so? Recommend

  • SKChadha
    Aug 19, 2010 - 7:35AM

    Farzana – It is true that Rajiv Gandhi rode on sympathy wave, but don’t you feel difference between him and others like PVNarsimharao, SitaRamKesri (aspirant for post) etc. in congress. Do PVN or SitaRam were having more mass appeal? OK if you have to choose between Rahul and Priyanka to whom you will prefer and why?

    India’s progression to 21st Century may not be attributed to Rajiv but can we attribute it to either PVN or IKGujral or Atalji for that matter? Is Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution to Indian Politics is anywhere near to Atalji? OK for you who is a better PM between MMSingh and Rahul Gandhi and think if they both fight election against each other, than who will win?
    If on one hand we have Nehru-Gandhi family than on other hand we have Mayawati, Mamta, Lalu, Atalji etc. also in politics and this is the beauty of Indian democratic set up. Think tomorrow in Pakistan if Zardari is pitched against Bilawal? Or if Bhuttos, Zardaries, Sharifs etc. are not at all on the scene as critics want?

    OK, if that be so what is grate in Ambani Brothers, Ratan Tata, Nusli Wadia or for that matter even in Vijaya Mallaya in their business acumen? On the other hand we also have Narayan Moorthy, Sunil Mittal etc. as successful businessman. Compare the business acumen and empires build over time. Similar is the case with all professions whether it is Doctors, Engineers, Lawyers etc. Abrasions apart, the beauty of democracy is that even a downtrodden with his wits and guts can rise on top. Is media not part of creation of such abrasions in democracy?

    Politics is not for Sadhus, Sants and Peers. It is a field to fight for place in competition. A UK minister if he resigns, it is either his fate or losing the race. A leader is not a leader if he resigns and even your expectations are erroneous when you expect this from any Indian or Pakistani leader? Such resignations only lead to deterioration in society unless some more competitive leader is in sight. The democracies mature with time along with thinking of masses. We are not living in ‘Ram Rajya’ and our expectation in a short time of 63 years is too high. Remember even ‘Ram Rajya’ or ‘Shariat’ form of government is also criticized.

    Think and analyze the combination of all factors in all walks of society to rise as I mentioned in my comments? The rise take decades and fall comes in days.Recommend

  • Arshi Saleem Hashmi
    Aug 19, 2010 - 10:47AM

    A good article, Indian democracy may have faults but the very fact that the process continues without interventions is commendable. I like the phrase ” manufactured consent” but then India is not the only one , US and European democratic states all have manufactured consent in the form of ” Public Opinion” surveys that ” demand” and ” endorse” militarization and interventions in the developing world some times in the of ” exporting democracy” and at times in the name of war against terrorism. Recommend

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