It is received wisdom amongst Pakistan’s elite that democracy can never work here because our people are stupid. Actually, the only real reason why democracy has consistently failed in Pakistan is that our elites are stupid.
Democracy is not just the ability to vote for people every five years. Instead, democracy is a political process in which people have the ability to hold their leaders accountable by voting them out. The greater the ability of the people to hold people accountable, the more responsive and democratic the system. This, in turn, requires that decision-making be decentralised to the maximum extent possible so that the people’s accountability can operate on as fine a scale as possible.
Unfortunately, what we find in Pakistan is the exact opposite. What we find is that all opportunities for popular accountability are systematically eliminated except those which are constitutionally unavoidable. What we find is that all decision-making is concentrated into the least possible set of hands so that everybody else becomes merely a conduit for power.
The best illustration of the castration of democracy in Pakistan is the elimination of the local government system bequeathed by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. Yes, it was complicated. But lest we forget, it was also a system in which people were represented through elected assemblies at the union level, at the tehsil level and at the district level, with each level having serious money to play with.
Let me put this in number terms. Today, there are a total of seven popularly elected assemblies (six, if you count out the Senate). In 2007, there were 6,628 more (102 district councils, eight city district councils, 332 tehsil councils, 62 town councils, and 6,125 union councils — minus the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, which did not exist earlier). In 2012, there are a total of 1,207 members of the Senate and the National and the Provincial Assemblies. In 2007, there were 85,210 more people representing Pakistanis in elected assemblies.
The failure to hold local body elections is, in true words, a conspiracy. Every single political party in power in any province of Pakistan has conspired in this murder of democracy. Not one single province has held local body elections for four years and while the courts have recently started to push back, they too must share part of the blame.
In his latest book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces the concept of “Antifragility” as a property of systems. Taleb’s point is that nobody really knows what goes on in big systems and how things interact. The important thing, therefore, is to hedge your bets the way organic systems do so that even a “black swan event” doesn’t wipe out everything. As he points out, it is more harmful to jump once from a 100 metres than to jump 100 times from one metre.
Let me put this in simpler terms. If, God forbid, bird flu was to hit Pakistan, it is likely that the vast majority of Pakistan’s poultry industry would be wiped out. This is because the poultry industry, like many modern agro-businesses, deals in monocultures, one particular breed of one particular chicken. Nature, on the other hand, is always experimenting so that at any given time, there are literally millions of different genes competing for survival. Modern poultry breeding is a fragile system. Nature is antifragile.
The problem with democracy in Pakistan is that our leaders insist on making it “fragile” (in the Talebian sense). They insist that all other rival centres of popular authority are annihilated and they then insist further that all decision-making power gets further concentrated in their hands.
The absurdity of this approach can be seen most clearly in Punjab where a province of 86 million people — one that by itself would be the 15th largest country in the world — is being governed in effect by one person. At one time, Mian Shahbaz Sharif held 18 portfolios in his own cabinet (though, I believe, the number now has diminished).
This is madness. It is also unfair to the people of the Punjab.
Another example of how power becomes not just centralised but concentrated in one person can be seen in the recent elevation of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf to the office of the prime minister. The decision as to who to nominate should have been a consensus one because the PPP needed the support of the PML-Q and the MQM. However, both coalition parties said that they would leave the decision to the PPP. The PPP said that the decision would be made by the Central Executive Committee (CEC). And the CEC decided to repose its entire confidence and decision-making powers in the hands of the co-chairman of the PPP, Mr Asif Ali Zardari.
The desire to centralise power is not one which afflicts executive officials alone. The unanimity with which the Supreme Court now speaks is such that, according to one commentator, “not one judge in these four years [since the restoration of the CJP in 2008] has disagreed on a single point of law in a major constitutional case”. I agree entirely that this is a disturbing sign. Common law courts form a resilient, antifragile judicial system precisely because they allow for a multiplicity of views to exist before being slowly resolved over time. Views thus get thrashed out amongst different judges with different viewpoints. Good points and bad points both get slowly identified. And only the concentrated common sense of the judiciary eventually survives.
By contrast, what one sees quite often is a multiplicity of issues getting decided directly in the Supreme Court, and that, too, without dissent. This is not a healthy development. Dissent is a good thing because it is a sign of life, a sign of independent thinking, and more importantly, because today’s dissent can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. More importantly, we need to give appropriate time for these issues to be examined in detail rather than simply seeking to address all aspects in one go.
Our democracy is weak today because its burden is shared too narrowly. Let that burden be shared across persons and institutions in the way that the burdens of democracy are meant to be shared. And we will then see how antifragile democracy in Pakistan can be.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2012.