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.
With representative governance, sovereignty, at least in principle, rests with the people and the potential of the exercise of this sovereignty, whenever it is realized in actuality, is profound. The transition from a subject to a citizen, so far quite incomplete, is pregnant with possibilities.
This transition is not going to be easy by any means – note that citizens continue to act as supplicants and representatives who can bequeath office to next of kin as dispensers of largesse. The attitudinal hangover from the monarchical past is huge and telling. There is still next to no accountability and transfer of power remains fraught with intrigue and uncertainty.
The reason, if one thinks of it, should be obvious. In regions where rule by representation was born, it was preceded by a prolonged process of socioeconomic change that provided its underpinnings. In 17th Century Europe religious conflicts discredited divine authority as the fount of sovereignty, the emergence of capitalism made peaceful coexistence attractive, and urbanization replaced the power of communities with an individualistic ethos. Not surprisingly, it was a period of immense intellectual activity in which alternatives to rule by divine right and religious precepts were furiously debated and the notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled came to the fore. It was postulated that the ruled might cede power to a sovereign in return for the recognition of some rights as citizens.
These ideas nurtured the movements for liberty, equality and fraternity that swept away feudal power, realized social equality, made access to rights independent of patronage, thereby creating the foundation on which governance based on one-man-one-vote and the politics of ideas could be erected. Even then, it was over a period of three centuries that all the rights of citizenship, civil, political, and social, were fully secured – recall how long it took women to get the vote.
This process of change and social leveling preceding the emergence of representative rule in Europe has been stood on its head in South Asia. Representative governance with full suffrage exists but patrons and clients remain in place; political rights are available but civil and social rights are virtually non-existent. The hangover of the past is so pronounced that our representative system is really disguised monarchy in democratic garb – witness the prevalence of dynastic rule in South Asia.
There were individuals in South Asia aware of this reality and its immense challenge. As early as 1948, Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, made the following observations:
“Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value… How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
This implies that South Asia has to achieve through the political process what socioeconomic change and social revolution accomplished in Europe. It is this aspect that deserves attention. This is also why it is less relevant to ask who to vote for in the next elections than what one ought to be doing to ensure that representative government begins to deliver for the people.
Democracy is not a thing as some talk of its coming and going might suggest. Rather it is a set of institutions comprised of rules moored in a particular socioeconomic context and modulated by a particular power structure. Our intellectual focus should be on understanding the context and examining the rules to see how they might be altered to make the institutions more accountable to the people. To take just two examples: why do we have a first-past-the-post system to elect representatives and why don’t we have a citizen’s referendum to recall representatives who fail to respect their mandates?
This will be a slow evolution but there is no acceptable alternative. Another look across the border would make us realize that despite the perception of minimal change, erstwhile subjects are continuing to claim the rights of citizenship – the rights to information and timely delivery of services being just the latest of gains.
There is no example in history where rights have been conferred on the ruled as favors. They had to be fought for by means that were appropriate at particular moments in time. In South Asia today, understanding and crafting the institutions of democracy are feasible choices available to the people. It will take more than casting a vote once every five years and hoping for a savior to achieve the outcomes that we desire.
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 April 1, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.