Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

What Governments Do and Why

August 28, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives.

At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the courting that is important.)

Incentives are the key variable in Downs’ proposition and in normal circumstances a government’s incentives are aligned with the objective of retaining power. Having observed Pakistani politics for decades, however, a circle of friends has inferred a variation that might better explain outcomes in the country. It might also illustrate the nature of the gulf that has opened up between the politics of India and Pakistan.

The essence of the variation is that the incentive of a typical Pakistani civil government (as a whole, not of rogue individuals within it which is a more universal phenomenon) has not been re-election but the maximum accumulation of wealth during any period in which it is in office. For one, the duration of its rule in any given period was highly uncertain given that real power was wielded behind the scene by actors other than itself. Therefore a strategy to satisfy the wants of any part of the electorate might yield no returns whatsoever. For another, it knew, given the paucity of political alternatives, that in the merry-go-round of Pakistani politics its turn would eventually come again. Thus it made strategic sense to build up a war chest to sustain it during its period in wilderness and be available when re-entry appeared possible.

This strategy was abetted by globalization when virtually all Pakistani leaders arranged safe havens abroad to recuperate when out of power or to which to escape when things got hot. Some are foreign nationals ruling by proxy from abroad; others shift abodes as and when the situation demands.

One consequence of the safe havens was that the leaders parked all their capital assets abroad and retained just running expenses in local currency. The operating game plan was then entirely tactical and risk-free – to do whatever was needed to extend their resource-extracting rule in the short term till such time when the music stopped. At that moment, they could take flight literally with the clothes on their backs and await some patron or the other to engineer their return.

With such incentives there was little need or time to do anything for the electorate barring the incidental byproducts of the process of making money (large infrastructure or service contracts, for example). This was quite unlike India where electoral strategy demanded the amelioration of some constituency at the very least. Governments could guess wrong (as with the Shining India strategy) but none could afford to ignore all the constituents all the time.

The complete apathy towards citizen needs in Pakistan is plausible in this perspective. A victim is the democratic process itself. Unlike in India, the real opposition is no longer represented by alternate political parties but increasingly by groups that reject the worldview of electoral politics altogether. The rejection also removes compunctions about the destructive economic consequences of their actions. They can survive on the bare minimum and believe everyone should too till the desired alternative is attained from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

In exploring the fundamental divide in the politics of India and Pakistan, I often think back to the 300 years of the Mughal Empire. Half this period was dominated by the six Great Mughals whom everyone recognizes. The other half was populated by dozens of emperors most of whom few can recall. This was the period dominated by behind-the-scene king-makers who shuffled puppet emperors at will, retaining them only for the legitimacy they conferred.

This could explain how democratic India and Pakistan both remain overwhelmingly dynastic and yet on different political trajectories. I am tempted to conclude that Indian politics is a continuation of the first half of the Mughal Empire while Pakistani politics resembles more the second – the rule of kings versus that of king-makers.

Of course, in the age of democracy kings don’t rule till they die or are deposed – they can take turns in office. From the viewpoint of incentives it makes a huge behavioral difference if a leader knows he has to remain at home when out of power as opposed to one prepared to flee abroad to seek a patron.

These contrasting imperatives, incentives, and strategies have led to divergent political trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different fate of their citizens – the one ignored, the other appeased.

The first completion of the political term of a civilian government in Pakistan could signal a change. Constraining further the power of king-makers could bend the Pakistani trajectory towards the Indian model, itself a variant of the Downs prototype. When that happens, Pakistani citizens would attain parity with their Indian peers. It would make little difference in their immediate conditions but place them on a better political platform for the long struggle ahead.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He would like to thank Nadeem ul Haque for discussions on this topic. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on August 27, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Poverty and Human Rights

June 5, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Is poverty a violation of human rights? I was asked recently to speak on the subject and faced the following dilemma: If I convinced the audience it was, would that imply the most effective way to eliminate poverty would be to confer human rights on the poor?

Two questions follow immediately: First, if that were indeed the case, why haven’t rights been conferred already? Second, over the entire course of recorded history, has poverty ever been alleviated in this manner?

Likely answers to both suggest it would be more fruitful to start with poverty than with rights. Poverty has always been with us while the discourse of rights is very recent. Studying the experiences of poverty elimination could possibly better illuminate the overlap with rights and yield appropriate conclusions for consideration.

We can begin with the period when sovereignty rested in heaven and monarchs ruled with a divine right beyond challenge. For centuries under this order a very small group of aristocrats and clergy lived atop impoverished populations existing at bare survival. This did not mean the kingdoms were poor or lacked sophisticated cultures, just that they were characterized by extreme inequalities and poverty was considered a natural condition, an element of a divinely ordained order, not a social problem. At best, it was to be ameliorated through alms and charity which were deemed moral obligations.

[Since poverty is an ambiguous concept whose definition has changed markedly over time, it is useful to employ a simple characterization for purposes of this discussion. Consider as poor anyone not being able to afford ownership of a motorized vehicle (substitute horse-and-carriage for the age of monarchy). This indicator of ‘transport poverty’ can serve as an adequate proxy for poverty itself as also for economic transformation.]

The first major change in the monarchical social and moral order occurred in Europe, beginning in the 17th century, and over 300 years absolute poverty in Western Europe and its settler colonies disappeared for good. Poverty was next eliminated in Eastern Europe beginning with the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. Parts of East Asia followed starting around the mid-20th century with Japan starting earlier and China still in process. The last region to join was parts of Latin America beginning in the late 20th century.

The point to note is that these various eliminations of absolute poverty had very little systematic relationship with human rights. Only in Western Europe did the process proceed in parallel with the acquisition of rights as subjects were transformed into citizens bound in a social contract. But even here, rights had to be wrenched from the aristocracies: civil rights via social revolutions (the French Revolution, for example, with its explicit call for equality); political rights via the struggles for suffrage; and economic rights via the pressure of labor unions.

In Eastern Europe and East Asia, poverty elimination through accelerated industrialization was accompanied by gross violations of rights and in Latin America the sharing of wealth continues to face a violent backlash by entrenched elites and their allies.

The causes for these transitions were equally varied. In Western Europe, the first mover, they included infusion of colonial wealth (involving violation of rights of natives), emergence of capitalism (with exploitation of labor including children), replacement of communitarianism with individualism through urbanization, wars of religion discrediting divine sovereignty, and the need to protect capitalism itself from its worst excesses and its challengers.

In Eastern Europe the spur was to compete and catch up with the first movers. In East Asia, social insurgencies hastened preemptive land reforms followed by the challenge to compete globally. In Latin America, urbanization finally strengthened the hands of citizens wielding the power of the vote.

Countries with significant absolute poverty today are overwhelmingly in Africa, South and West Asia. In South Asia several characteristics are salient: communitarian identities with weak tendencies to individualism; quasi-monarchical ethos with strong dynastic traditions; sovereignty in some countries still reposed in heaven; leaders aspiring or believing in divine right to rule; populations still more than half rural; negligible economic aspirations to be globally competitive; weak labor unions; poverty still considered a natural condition with charity the preferred route to amelioration; moral crusades retaining precedence over political action.

Given this characterization, South Asia seems barely at the point where poverty is considered a social or political problem; the poor have yet to mount a sustained challenge for the acquisition of civil or economic rights – the few attempts to date having been brutally crushed. The only right, conferred by departing colonial masters, is the political right to vote and entrenched elites are determined to dilute, fracture and negate that by any means foul or fair including in places overturning the electoral verdict by force or manipulation.

It seems a mistake to extrapolate from the Western European experience and associate democracy unambiguously with human rights and poverty alleviation. The relationship is a function of the specificity of history and context. In South Asia, where the power to vote has preceded social equality and civil rights, a prolonged, bitter and often violent and anarchic struggle is very much on the cards – think of the Naxal revolt in India, the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, or the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Poverty in South Asia, much like anywhere else in the world, is unlikely to be eliminated by a voluntary conferral of human rights simply because the form of governance happens to be democratic. The reality is a lot more complex than that.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 4, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It is a summary of a talk presented at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in April 2013.

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The Politics of Urbanization

May 20, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics.

It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out.

It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. (more…)

Pakistan Elections 2013: Reflections

May 11, 2013

The South Asian Idea is opening up this space for your comments, thoughts, and reflections on the elections. Please use the Comments space below to voice your opinions and join the conversation on the future of Pakistan and of the region.

Thanks, Editors

The factual information appended below on the 2013 elections in Pakistan is courtesy of the British Pakistan Foundation who have further acknowledged their sources.

On Saturday, May 11th Pakistan will be voting its new parliament at its general elections 2013. For this reason we have compiled some relevant information to understand how the General Elections will influence the country’s political landscape. Please find below an infographic of AlJazeera on the Pakistan Elections 2013 (click on the link below the picture to view a larger image) as well as some information on the major political parties. (more…)

Thinking About the Elections in Pakistan

April 1, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention.

For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them. (more…)

More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon.

The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples. (more…)

The Economics and Politics of Corruption in India

August 26, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Is there an alternative to taking sides on the Anna Hazare controversy? Could one step back and gainfully employ an historical and institutional perspective to understand it better? Would it help to argue that the mismatch in speeds at which economic and political institutions have rooted themselves in Indian society is contributing to a disorienting disconnect between modern ends and pre-modern means?

The supply and demand of goods and services is mediated through the economic market and Indians have been dragged into it whether they liked it or not; they had no choice. The theory of perfect and imperfect economic markets is well known. In brief, markets can exhibit friction, they can fail, and they can exclude large segments of the population without effective demand. In all such cases, the state has to step in thereby creating the interface between economics and politics. (more…)

Explaining Pakistan’s Drift to the Right

July 8, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance?

My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years. (more…)

Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens

June 26, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.”

Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat: (more…)

Pakistan: What the Bleep is Government For and What is to be Done?

May 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I hired a guard to secure my home and found him asleep when the robbers came. I fired him on the spot. I hired a driver to transport me from here to there and found him stealing the petrol. I fired him on the spot. I hired a tutor to teach my children logic and found him imparting them theology. I fired him on the spot. I am (all of us are) so decisive when it comes to firing private servants who are found to be incompetent or dishonest or devious – khaRey khaRey nikaal diyaa is the phrase of choice. And yet, and yet…

We can’t do the same when we find public servants to be incompetent and dishonest and devious. What, after all, is government for if not to provide the citizens with security, direction and development? (more…)


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