Posts Tagged ‘Dictatorship’

Two Conversations

April 20, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics.

The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance.

I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something done at one point in time could have negative effects later. In any case, I did not feel the attempt would have convinced my companion to rethink his position.

This was a frequently encountered conversation. The preference for a strongman brooking no nonsense and getting things done seems deeply embedded in the segment of society represented by my companion.

What surprised me more was an exchange a few days ago in Karachi with an Ivy League alumnus holding a post-graduate degree. I found my host bubbling over with unusual excitement to the point that I was left with no choice but to enquire as to its likely cause. It turned out that on the way home he had noticed the sudden disappearance of all the road barriers that had fractured the city over the preceding years.

Road barriers

My host could now venture wherever he wanted. It was magic. It had never happened before. For the first time someone had delivered. And, think of it, only someone with ‘real’ power could deliver in such a fashion. Perhaps the really powerful had had a change of heart, perhaps they had seen the light. Perhaps, if they now turned their attention to water, gas, electricity, health, education, we would achieve the nirvana for which the country had been founded.

The number of perhaps were too many for my comfort and it was hard, try as I did, to restrain myself. I advised caution, pointing out that all diligent analyses of politics in Pakistan had established beyond reasonable doubt the negative impacts of strong-arm interventions with consequences that had brought us to the point from where recovery seemed all but impossible.

I have to report I was unsuccessful in injecting any element of doubt in the celebration. Hope triumphed over the evidence I could muster and I was left feeling bad at diluting the euphoria emanating from one of the few victories that citizens could savor in recent years.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being puzzled by the two conversations. What was it that our citizens wanted be they rich or poor, educated or illiterate? Clearly, outcomes mattered the most – security, justice, recognition of identity, a sense of dignity, access to services, freedom of movement, etc. How the outcomes were attained was not really a dominant concern – the breed of the cat was irrelevant as long as the color was not very obviously red.

The second realization was that everyone seemed convinced in their guts that our democracy was not ‘real’ – a musical chair of knaves – without quite having a sense of what a ‘real’ democracy might be like. Whence the bald juxtaposition of ‘messy’ democracy with the imagined orderliness of a messiah – divinely inspired or backed by arms.

Finally, I was struck by the episodic nature of our political analyses with comparisons based on discrete snapshots over time – Ayub Khan’s days being the best, for example. The sense that decisions in one period could impact or constrain choices later seemed striking by its absence. Every period was judged solely by what occurred within it.

What prevents a dynamic view of politics for people who seem to have no difficulty with understanding continuity in personal lives? Do trained professionals offering such political analyses fail to shape public discourse because the audience, further distracted by the predominant in-the-moment frame of TV talk shows, is lacking some essential tools?

I wondered if this might contain a clue to the mystery of why the quality of education provided to the majority remains so poor and why history and political science are excluded from its domain even for those who can afford to attend the best institutions. Is this why those with ‘real’ power, who can place and remove barriers overnight, fail to equip the people with the ability to connect the dots but instead allow the circus of talk shows to flourish without restraint?

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University and was formerly dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on April 19, 2015 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Sleeping Beauty: Pakistan’s Civil Society

September 8, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place?

The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. (more…)

Making Democracy Work

August 12, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

If we wish democracy to work we need to open the democracy-box and tinker with the innards.

Let me illustrate what I mean with reference to an article that appeared recently. The gist of the article is as follows:

The people in Pakistan are angry and frustrated with their President and wish to see the last of him. But the President, no matter how unpopular, was appointed constitutionally and can only be removed constitutionally. The supporting logic is as follows: “If we accept that we want democracy, we cannot cherry-pick from the package. In the 2008 elections, I held my nose and voted for the PPP. There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily. Should we then invite the generals to take over?”

This leads to the conclusion that ‘democracy is the best revenge’: “And therein lies the solution, though banal and unsexy. Democracy, good or bad, is about the inevitability of gradualness. Throw them out when the time comes and punish them thus. That may beget another bunch of jokers but the very fact that elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh, indicates progress. It makes leaders less arrogant and over time, instills in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided.”

I feel we need to go beyond the confines of this logic and this defense of democracy. Let me first reiterate a few observations that can be inferred from the article and then argue why we need to extend the argument further. The first aspect that strikes one is the characterization of the existing system: “There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily.” The second is the recommendation: Let each ‘bunch of jokers’ complete their term to beget another ‘bunch of jokers.’ The third is the logic supporting the recommendation: “elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh.” The fourth is the outcome expected from the process: “it makes leaders less arrogant and over time, instills in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided.”  The fifth is the characterization of the process and hoped-for outcome as ‘progress.’ And the sixth is the alternative to this hold-my-nose merry-go-round of joker-swapping: inviting the generals to take over.

The first thing I would propose would be to put this theory to the test of experience? Two so-called bunches of jokers have had two turns each on the throne and the one having its third stint is the one people are allegedly fed up with. Where is the diminished arrogance and the sense of what should be done and what avoided that ought to have resulted from these rounds?  What do people have to show for the pounds of flesh they have extracted in each round? How many people in provinces/states with small populations can vouch for the progress that has resulted from the process? I would ask following question: If the jokers know that all they have to do is to sit out a term, should they really consider the pound of flesh a heavy price for the opportunity to abuse the trust assigned to them through the working of the prevailing form of democracy?

The second thing I would propose would be to extend the logic of the process into the future. How long does this swapping of jokers have to go on before there would be something to show for it? At the rate that resources are being siphoned off and the country run into the ground, would there be anything left to fight over by the time this form of democracy matures? What is the empirical basis for the hope in the ‘progress’ that is expected to follow from the process? If we simply give the system time would it surely sprout forth a miracle?

The third thing I would propose would be to question the logic of the defense of the existing democratic dispensation. Why should a dysfunctional system be tolerated in which there is no one party a sensible person can vote for and that only offers the prospect of swapping jokers according to a well-prescribed schedule? Must it be tolerated because the only alternative is a take-over by the dreaded generals? Why should we box ourselves into a scenario in which the only alternative to a dysfunctional democracy is a take-over by the generals?

I would argue that a sick democracy and authoritarian rule are not the only alternatives. I would also argue that ‘an accepted succession principle’ and ‘an appointed day’ when people can extract their ‘pound of flesh’ are not enough to justify the acceptance of a sick democracy.  Principles and appointed days and extractions are fine but it is results that should count in the end. Even in India, with over sixty years of uninterrupted and a relatively more healthy democracy, the progress has been meager for the majority. One third of the districts have lost faith in the democratic process, the states on the extremities are restive, and the rising middle class is developing a softness for more efficient alternatives. Even Indian democracy is squeezed from both ends and does not have forever to demonstrate that it can deliver the general progress that is expected of it.

I would propose that instead of shielding a dysfunctional democracy by posing the specter of dictatorship we should examine its modalities to ensure that it begins to actually empower the citizens. Any number of dimensions can be explored. For example, why should we have a first-past-the-post system? Why should we have Westminster-style democracy? Why should the democracy only offer the voters a choice between ‘jokers’? Why can’t there be a provision for write-in candidates? Why can’t there be a provision for a recall vote? Why can’t ministers be required to be vetted for appropriate qualifications by a neutral commission? Why can’t there be a provision for citizen-initiated ballots that would have the force of law? And, so on.

We cannot treat democracy as a black-box that is a take-it-or-leave-it alternative to dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ is an umbrella term for a system that rests on dozens of norms and procedural rules. These rules have to be examined and adapted and stretched for the conditions of each society that opts for a representative system of governance. The rules that are chosen should be the ones that put into the hands of citizens real choices and the means of exerting real accountability, not the dubious pleasure of swapping jokers according to an accepted principle on an appointed day. The configuration of democracy need not be the same in poor, semi-literate and heterogeneous societies as in affluent, fully literate and homogeneous ones. The rules left to us by the British are not sacrosanct – they can and must be revisited in the light of our own needs and experiences.

There is no alternative to democratic governance. But treating democracy as just the antithesis of dictatorship, being content with whatever we inherited, and hoping that a precisely timed succession of jokers according to an accepted principle would deliver a miracle would be shortchanging ourselves. We can do much better.


The alternative to unadulterated democracy is not dictatorship

January 18, 2008

We go back to the quote on the cover of Dr. Ambedkar’s book mentioned in an earlier post:

More brain, O Lord, more brain! Or we shall mar,
Utterly this fair garden we might win

The point we want to emphasize about governance is that the alternative to unadulterated democracy is not dictatorship. But the consequence of reaching for a first-best solution can be the tragic loss of lives we are seeing in Kenya and Pakistan today. 

Fareed Zakaria in his 2003 book (The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad) has this to say:

One effect of the overemphasis on pure democracy is that little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions for transitional countries. Constitutionalism… is a complicated system of checks and balances designed to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of office. This is accomplished not by simply writing up a list of rights but by constructing a system in which government will not violate those rights.

Constitutions were also meant to tame the passions of the public, creating not simply democratic but also deliberative government. The South African constitution is an example of an unusually crafted, somewhat undemocratic structure. It secures power for minorities, both those regionally based such as the Zulus and those that are dispersed, such as the whites. In doing so it has increased that country’s chances of success as a democracy, despite its poverty and harrowing social catastrophes. [Pages 157-158]

What we need in politics today is not more democracy but less. By this I do not mean we should embrace strongmen and dictators but rather that we should ask why certain institutions within our society… function so well and why others—such as legislatures—function poorly. [Page 248] 

The solution is not to scuttle democracy in the Third World… Yet cheerleading about democracy will not solve its problems. There must be a way to make democratic systems work so that they do not perennially produce short-term policies with dismal results. [Page 252]

… if current trends continue, democracy will undoubtedly face a crisis of legitimacy, which could prove crippling… The greatest danger of unfettered and dysfunctional democracy is that it will discredit democracy itself, casting all popular governance into a shadowy light. [Page 255]

Without [an] inner stuffing, democracy will become an empty shell, not simply inadequate but potentially dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the manipulation of freedom, and the decay of a common life. This would be a tragedy because democracy, with all its flaws, represents the “last best hope” for people around the world… As we enter the twenty-first century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world. [Page 256]

More brain, O Lord, more brain! Or we shall mar,
Utterly this fair garden we might win 

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