Lately, I have been observing comments in the news media about the impending presidential elections in Pakistan. Several commentators have said that this is a repeat of the Rafiq Tarar saga when a nonentity was made president, that this does not augur well for democracy, etc. While this criticism has some merit, I want to argue that we are simply trying to put the cart before the horse and being too impatient. This was our first normal transition from one elected government to the next. In the grand scheme of things, this might not matter, but in Pakistan, where ostensibly we have had at least 25 years of democratic government, this ‘first’ is very significant. Expecting too many things so quickly is simply impatience.
One of the interesting jobs of the historian is not to inform people of something novel or new from the past, but to simply remind people of past events and their relevance today. Therefore, perhaps it is worth recounting how democracy was achieved in Britain — the first modern democratic country. We all know that King John was forced to sign the great charter — the Magna Carta — in 1215 by the barons, which enshrined a few rights and significantly, curtailed the power of the monarch. The Kings Council, set up under the Magna Carta, eventually became the parliament of England, and was split into the House of Commons and the House of Lords in 1341. Thereafter, gradually, parliament began to assert itself, and by the end of the civil war and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, parliament established itself as the central power with the monarch’s role increasingly limited. The 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1701 Act of Settlement further consolidated the pre-eminent position of parliament. However, until the Reform Act of 1832, a very small proportion of the country was allowed to vote and constituencies varied between 20,000 and seven voters! Women only received full voting rights in 1928.
The reason for narrating the above is to show how long it took Britain to establish what we call ‘democracy’. It was a process which took nearly a thousand years, and in some ways, still continues. It also shows that democracy is never perfect — in any age. Therefore, while no women and very few men had the right to vote before 1832, this did not mean that Britain should not have had a parliament and elections. We can now laugh that some constituencies till 1832 had seven members, but even such ridiculousness did not mean that the process should not go on. Achieving democracy is a process, where the process is as important, if not more, than the final product, and cutting it short and steamrolling it is not healthy.
We, as a country, have become very impatient. Maybe it is result of our convoluted trajectory, or environmental factors. So, if something cannot be done in 90 days, we are not interested and we can barely tolerate differing opinions. This impatience is dangerous for us, as it removes our sight from the long term and only makes the short term significant. No person, let alone a country, can survive like this.
The choice of Mamnoon Hussain might not be ideal, but can we at least appreciate that we are going to get an elected president? Even in India, with a much longer democratic history than ours, there is often disagreement over the choice of president and, in fact, Jawaharlal Nehru was rather unhappy about the choice of India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, thinking that he was too communal. Choosing someone who represents the whole country is never an easy task. We also have had a perpetual tug of war between presidents and prime ministers, and therefore, perhaps the loyalist choice of Nawaz Sharif should have been expected.
Pakistan has just started on the road to democracy and we must not derail it by wanting perfection at each stage. Yes, elections will be rigged in places, governments will not always act properly and the choice of president might be difficult but the important thing is that the process must go on. It is indeed from the process itself that real change will come.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2013.
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