Getting to True Democracy

By Samia Altaf 

I had struggled with understanding the notion of true democracy in the context of Pakistan politics for years and finally it has become a little clearer. What did it was the Economist’s description of the new Prime Minister as a nondescript feudal landlord and the immediate retort in the Pakistani press that the magazine got it wrong because the Prime Minister’s lineage goes back to the Imperial Legislative Council.

The point is general so there is no need to personalize it to Mr. Gillani. But the inference clearly is that someone who belongs to a ‘respectable’ family that can trace its ancestry back to, say, Bukhara becomes eminently qualified to assume the reins of leadership in the country.

My mind shifts immediately to cricket because cricket provides the best mirror in which to see the idiosyncrasies of our politics. Imagine a gentleman turning up and announcing he had been appointed captain of the national team because he comes from a respectable family of saints that can trace its lineage to Balkh. Or that his great-grandfather was captain of the Sepoys’ Eleven in Meerut. Or that he was the most loyal supporter of the previous captain having fasted almost to death on the latter’s dismissal. The nation would be in an uproar.

So why isn’t there a similar uproar in politics when qualifications are poorly matched to needs? I guess the reason is that cricket is a modern, internationally competitive game to which we have learnt to apply modern measures of evaluation because we can instantly observe the results. We don’t care whether the captain is from Balkh or Bukhara or Burewala as long as he has a track record of leading with competence and giving us the best shot at winning the World Cup. We are even willing to support him by hiring the most competent international expertise with more care and at more cost than we allocate to selecting the Vice-Chancellors of our leading universities.

But representative government is also a modern institution to which we still apply the pre-modern, non-competitive, feudal and monarchical templates of respectability and loyalty. We don’t discriminate between the qualities needed to run the naqshbandiya silsila and those needed to manage a government in a globally competitive economy. We are yet to make the transition Deng Xiaoping made when he said he didn’t care what colour (or breed) the cat was as long as it could catch mice.

I couldn’t help my mind drifting back to cricket with the depressing thought of how we had allowed even our cricket to degenerate with the mixing of sports and religion, how we had negated the best technical expertise with the most ill-matched management appointments based on loyalty and patronage, and how Pakistan had fared in the last World Cup.

It is odd how one thing leads to another. It was the thought of religion in Pakistan that flipped the switch and made everything seem a whole lot clearer. It occurred to me that there was real test we could apply to our progress towards true democracy. I realized that the day I see a Pakistani representative stand up in a forum and begin his or her remarks, confidently and unselfconsciously, with a namaskar or a prayer to the Lord, I would know a giant step towards true democracy had been taken in the country.

Merit and equality are the touchstones of modern democracy. It shouldn’t matter whether my grandfather was from Balkh or Bukhara. What should matter is whether I am the most qualified person to do the job that is assigned to me.

Carry that thought to its logical conclusion. The day a member of our discriminated and decimated minorities whose grandfather was just an ordinary citizen from Khanewal makes it to captain or Prime Minister, without feeling like a second-class citizen, we would have crossed a psychological barrier and made the transition towards a true democracy.

Dr Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on May 5, 2008.

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