Posts Tagged ‘Governance’

A Radical Road to Better Governance

October 13, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Consider the state of Pakistan today. There is a crisis when it doesn’t rain. There is a crisis when it does rain. If it is not the season of drought it is the season of flood. In each, foreigners are beseeched to dole us out.

In seventy years citizens have not been provided with clean water, with decent education, with basic health, with adequate transport. Half the population is illiterate. Half the children are stunted. Half the young are jobless.

Five thousand years ago, Mohenjodaro functioned better than our cities. The sight of Karachi drowning was a disgrace. Parts of Lahore were no better. Is building new cities an acceptable response? If the old ones cannot be held together why would new ones be run better? Especially when every new cohort of managers, on average, is worse trained than the one before. 

People might invent excuses but this state of affairs is the cumulative result of atrocious governance. The Supreme Court of the country has labeled one of its governments a mafia and this charge has been bruited all over the world to leave no doubt of the intentions and actions of many of the country’s previous governments. It would be hard to find a project, big or small, untainted by a scam. Even Zakat and BISP funds have been fiddled with which should leave no doubt of the depths that have been reached.  

In situations like this international organizations recommend a regimen of Good Governance. They pretend, for reasons that suit their business, that a leopard will change its spots while they continue to lend it food to eat. This is no different from believing that if the aristocrats of France had been pampered and advised on good governance they would have given the peasants bread instead of cake. The peasants knew better.

Given that the leopards will not change their spots, what are the options for better governance? We live in the age of representative governance and there is no way we can go back to monarchy even if we can dig up a successor to Akbar the Great from under some rock. Dictatorship is not an alternative either given the immense damage that has been inflicted on Pakistan, including its breakup, under its dictators. In any case, there is no reason for citizens to yield their sovereign rights and become subjects again.

So, what do citizens need to fight for to get better governance within the framework of representative rule? The choice now is as stark as it can get. They can, as Arundhati Roy put it for India, “keep voting for the people who are leading us into penury and war, tearing us apart limb from limb,” before adding sarcastically “At least they are building us a grand temple. And that’s not nothing.” Ours will give us a new city, a flaming BRT, and the highest, longest cable car in the world that will attract millions of tourists.

They could continue to vote for the spotted leopards or they could consider fighting for something that would really deliver the promise of representative rule — transferring power into their own hands from those of predatory elites who rotate it among themselves while promising change. Once again, one has to turn to the French to see through that facade: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

It is time for citizens to make their voices heard, to articulate how they wish to be governed, to demand what they want from their governments, to take government into their own hands. The time for lying back, allowing any misfit to take over, and hoping for the best should be over.

I am an advocate of sortition — the choosing of governors for fixed terms by random ballot — a practice with a heritage going back to Rome. It is an extreme measure but it is time for extreme measures. Nothing can be worse than what we have and the hope for a miracle has been dashed too often to remain credible. God will not help those who do not help themselves.

We need to put the responsibility for governance into the hands of a set of ordinary citizens who are representative of the population. Who know what it means to drink polluted water, to be miseducated, to be denied health care, to be unable to cross a signal-free corridor without walking a mile, to be offered a job as a janitor after graduating from a diploma mill. Let them define the priorities and engage experts if they feel the need for them.

And they might be able to get there without a French Revolution if they can force the aristocrats to accept an amnesty, something the latter are very fond of when they give it to each other. Let the aristocrats take whatever they want and leave for their homes abroad. This country is rich enough to rebuild itself from scratch. Its real capital are the people whose output has been appropriated all these years. Let them work for themselves for a change. 

Once we truly have a government of the people, for the people, by the people, we can evaluate different choices to move forward. For example, given the disastrous condition of our cities, we could lease a few of them for twenty-five years to those who have shown how to manage big cities well. The Japanese run Tokyo, a metropolis of 26 million people, like clockwork; let us request them to take charge of Karachi. The South Koreans manage Seoul equally well; Lahore could go to them. The French have done fine with Paris; they could do the same for Faisalabad. An so on. As it is, we cannot even collect urban waste without the assistance of foreign firms. Why not let them deal with the entire mess.

This is not as outlandish as it might seem. The economist Paul Romer, a Nobel Laureate, has proposed the concept of a charter city managed by a guarantor administering it under mutually agreed terms and compensated from the revenues generated by the city. There is thus an in-built incentive to increase city revenues by making it more peaceful, livable, efficient, and productive.

There is also a real-life example of using competition among different guarantors to ensure high levels of performance. It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s strokes of genius, very soon after 1947, to set up a string of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) each run by a different technologically advanced country. The success was beyond expectations. The IITs ranked with the best in the world and their graduates put India on the technology map both in industry and in academia.

This path to the future is bold, daring, and perhaps outlandish. But with our cities sinking and our lives crumbling, we have touched rock bottom. The choice now is very stark. It is between going under or having any kind of future at all. It is hardly a choice. 

This opinion appeared in The News on Sunday on October 11, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

Back to Main Page

Governance Trap

July 18, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

It was back in the time of one of the dictators who was giving the Pakistani political system one of its fresh starts. He had given a message to the people to take advantage of new elections and replace dishonest incumbents by voting for “good” people. At the time I was doing fieldwork in rural Sindh in a constituency where the incumbent was a known criminal and I put the proposition to a peasant asking him if he would vote for a “good” candidate. The illiterate peasant took all of three seconds, looked me in the eye, and replied: “Saeen, will the good man get my son out of prison?”

Therein lies the insight that goes to the heart of the Pakistani political system. It is obvious to illiterate voters but escapes many a sophisticated analyst. In our deeply hierarchical society, most people are dependent on patrons who can act as intermediaries with the state — both to negotiate legitimate claims of the powerless and to protect them from exploitation. In such a context, there is no place for “good” representatives — the more powerful and connected the patron, the better. Not surprisingly, voters are indifferent to the criminality of the patron, nor are they concerned when their political representative hops from one party to another. In fact, it is considered a quality of a powerful patron that he is always aligned with the winning side in order to better leverage the organs of the state.

Analysts who use terms like ‘alas,’ ‘if only,’ and ‘unfortunately’ in their expositions of Pakistani politics and bemoan voter indifference to party-hopping miss the point entirely. It is not that but for a few favourable turns of fortune Pakistan would have been in a much more healthy political state. The problem is deeply structural. Pakistan has been enmeshed from the very beginning in a governance trap and there are no prospects of escape without structural interventions. The proof of the first part of this assertion is that no matter how many times in the past the system of governance has been given a so-called fresh start it has ended up not just exactly in the same dysfunctional state but in a worse one.

Anyone who doubts this claim needs only to look beyond his or her nose. Observe what is happening to Imran Khan’s party. The leader who promised to eliminate corruption in hundred days with a hundred honest people is furiously surrounding himself with the same old characters he was decrying a few months ago. One can infer how the structural imperatives of the electoral system are squeezing out the “good” candidates.

In this structural scenario, it is incredibly naive to hear the opinion that Imran Khan deserves a chance because he is an untainted newcomer while everyone else has had a turn and that once he has had his stint the political system would attain a higher equilibrium. What is there to guarantee that after another messy round of misgovernance there would not be another newcomer claiming the right to have his or her turn at the wheel? Repeating the same process based on nothing more than hopes and prayers is not a sign of wisdom.

The governance trap described above is immune to the personality of the leader because the problem is structural. Neither the upright Ayub, the cosmopolitan Bhutto, the pious Zia, the liberal Musharraf, nor the pragmatic Sharif could effect any sustainable reform in governance that made a meaningful difference in the lives of the majority.

The major structural determinant of Pakistan’s governance system that is responsible for its pathological circularity is the reality that the protection of citizens is ensured by the same person who is meant to represent their electoral preferences. Only when these two functions are separated, rights being ensured by neutral and effective institutions and political preferences being channeled by elected representatives, can a semblance of the democratic ideal emerge. A democratic political system rests on a foundation of law and order, impersonal entitlement to rights, and recourse to a fair system of justice. As long as citizens need to appeal to their political representatives to get their sons out of jail, their mothers admitted to hospitals, or find their nephews a job in a state-owned enterprise, we will continue to recreate the same dispensation no matter how many times the process is repeated.

Of course, it should be obvious that the above-mentioned institutional transformation is very far in the future in Pakistan and cannot be hurried beyond a point. These transformations occurred in Europe over centuries of democratic struggle. They cannot be expected in countries without a tradition of mass struggle and where the system of governance is a legacy of a departing colonial power.

In our socioeconomic context, the only recourse is to lobby for changes in constitutional and electoral rules that can be leveraged to minimize the negative attributes of the present system. For example, what is there to prevent introducing a rule that any candidate who switches political parties a year before a forthcoming election would have to sit out the election cycle? Why should parties be allowed to indulge in horse-trading in nominating candidates instead of instituting party primaries in which voters also have a say? Why do we have constituency delimitations in which the urban vote is under-represented? Why should we be stuck with the first-past-the-post system in which spoiler parties can be introduced to fracture the vote? Why do we need a parliamentary system in which even a very competent leader cannot survive without a large number of local strongmen?

It is not really a surprise that very little attention has been devoted to discussing the set of electoral rules that can lead to distinct improvements in political representation. Rather, it is much easier and much more entertaining to focus on a horse-race speculating about odds and handicaps and the shenanigans of the linesmen and the referees. It is such short-termism that portends a bleak future in which all we can hope for is more of the same if we are lucky.   

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 16, 2018, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Back to Main Page

Governance in Pakistan: Context Matters

August 13, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

In real estate, the mantra is Location, Location, Location. In governance, it ought to be Context, Context, Context. But while we have grasped the first, our appreciation of the second is deficient because we emulate first-world practices without sufficient appreciation of our conditions.

Take poverty alleviation as an example. In countries where 80 percent of the population is affluent and 20 percent in distress, there are many ways of addressing the situation using transfer payments. Reverse the percentages and all those remedies become financially infeasible. The surplus does not exist to sustain them. Countries like China and South Korea have reduced poverty by creating jobs not by distributing welfare.

Apply the same analogy to governance. In countries where 80 percent of public servants are law abiding and 20 percent otherwise, there are a certain number of ways available to ensure accountability without derailing the system. Reverse the percentages and none of those ways are likely to yield the desired results without unintended consequences.

Let’s put this to the test and ask on oath all holders of public offices in Pakistan to raise their hands if they believe they are honest as determined by the limited criterion on which the prime minister has been disqualified, i.e., for not declaring an income that was due but not received. Then add, as one should, the criterion of incomes received but not due. Let us then subject them to an investigation with no statute of limitations by teams including members of the intelligence services.

How many do we expect standing at the end of the day and do we really believe we can run federal and local governments and public agencies with this number of individuals? If we don’t, we have to admit that attempting to eliminate dishonesty via such a top-down approach is either an example of intellectual bankruptcy or of mendacity and abuse of power.

And that brings us to the crux of the contextual issue. In countries where 80 percent of public servants are unlikely to withstand scrutiny, who shall guard the guardians? Giving discretionary powers to some agents of the state like inspectors, regulators and policemen to apprehend violators is only going to end with endless side deals in which millions of Rupees change hands without any impact on accountability or corruption. Rather, people will invest money in cultivating networks and godfathers that protect them or find ever more creative means to beat the system.

Is it any wonder that the kinds of accountability agencies that deliver in rich countries only end up being used to harass and nab political and business opponents in poor ones? At the worst of times the guardians end up striking deals, proclaiming amnesties, and forgiving each other. At the best of times, one or the other gets run over and the game begins anew with the distribution of sweets, high hopes and loud proclamations that not even the short-term winners believe.

It is hard to conceive that the intelligentsia applauding the elimination of corruption in such a partisan and blood-thirsty manner does not see that it makes no structural difference whatsoever. In this regard, the understanding of common people is much more sophisticated. They are under no illusion that any of their public representatives are, or are likely to be, honest and truthful. Ask the person on the street and he or she would inform you without a moment’s hesitation that “they are all thieves.”

Given their appreciation of the context in which it is virtually impossible for an upright individual to be elected, what then is the criterion they employ to choose their representatives? Very simply, they base their choice on the pragmatic consideration of which thief or set of thieves is going to deliver more for them or their community. Whether this is a sound criterion or not, it is much more in consonance with the socioeconomic reality than the good intentions of the saviours of the nation who supplant the choice of the people with their own, often biased and self-interested, selection of kosher representatives.

This argument is not to suggest that nothing should be done about corruption, only that the way we are going about it is at best foolish and at worst dishonest. We need to find structural remedies for structural problems and these can only be sought in the intelligent reformulation of constitutional and bureaucratic rules. Term limits, shorter electoral cycles, staggering of national, provincial and district elections, recall provisions, and credible due processes are only the most obvious places to start but there are many other reforms to limit the abuse of power and strengthen the hands of citizens and voters.

None of these would be possible unless we pay attention to the context in which we exist and operate.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on August 2, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Back to Main Page

A Unique Ruling Class

March 30, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Do you remember the time when the necklace donated by the Turkish first lady for flood victims disappeared? After much search it was discovered in the possession of the prime minister of Pakistan. The explanation he offered was that he had close ties with the first family and first lady was like a sister to him – “The necklace belongs to my sister and is with me.”

Now the former chief executive and president has disclosed that the Saudi monarch gave him millions of American dollars to buy apartments in Dubai and London because he “was like a brother to me” and “I was the only one with whom he used to smoke.”

Why are only Pakistani leaders fortunate enough to find such generous brothers and sisters and does this phenomenon, beyond its surreal aspects, merit some serious deliberation? We know of rulers patronized for being the ‘running dogs of imperialism’ as the Chinese used to call them, but is there any other country whose leaders get tips worth millions of dollars just for being nice guys loitering around swimming pools?

Just in our neighborhood, can you imagine, say, Manmohan Singh or Vajpayee pocketing a cool few million to buy apartments in fancy places? If not, what does it signify about our leadership and is there cause for concern?

What deserves attention is that unlike the leaders of, say, India or China or Vietnam, almost all our leaders have arranged safe havens abroad where they can recuperate when out of power or seek refuge when things get hot – apartments in Dubai, palaces in Jeddah, flats in London, estates in Surrey, villas in France, ranches in Texas and Australia, and who knows what else where. Some leaders are permanently overseas directing affairs from abroad; others move back and forth as the situation demands; some just fly in and fly out.

The reason this matters is because there can be a world of difference between the attitudes of political leaders who know they have to live among their people when out of power and those that know they can flee abroad to the protection of patrons who can engineer their return at suitable moments in the future under some kind of ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ deal.

Besides, leaders anchored abroad needn’t just stop at furnishing their foreign abodes for the occasional sojourn. They can go all the way and park the bulk of their assets in safe havens while retaining just enough running expenses in local currency to suffice for the odd buying and selling that may be necessary to keep the gig afloat.

This is how one can end up with an extractive economy in which the game plan of the leaders becomes impervious to the risk of accountability or citizen pushback. They can extract resources till the very last moment at which time they can take flight, literally with the clothes on their backs, and be safe abroad until some patron or the other engineers their return after a decent interval.

Think of a country as a ship at sea with citizens as passengers and the leader as captain. The fate of ships in which the captain knows he will sink or swim with the passengers is different from that of one in which the captain believes he can bail out at the first wave of a storm. For the latter there is little need to pay attention to the welfare of citizens. Projects and schemes, billed to serve people, are initiated more as a source of funds to be added to the capital abroad – think of where the proceeds of a game-changer like Reko-diq went. And thus the strip-mining cycle continues before our eyes.

These extract-and-escape cycles undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process. In India, political contestation is still between political parties (except in the Naxalite belt where the extractive economy is at its most rapacious). Pakistan, however, is spawning groups that reject electoral politics and aim to destroy the entire rotten system associated with rapacious elites beholden to outsiders. The virulence of this rejection also removes from their consciousness any compunctions about the destructive consequences of their actions. Unlike the despised leaders, these groups consider themselves locally anchored. They can survive on a bare minimum without luxury apartments and believe everyone else should too till the transformation from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

The contrasting imperatives, incentives and strategies of their respective rulers have led to divergent sociopolitical trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different prospects for their citizens. While democracy slowly evolves and delivers in India, Pakistan has descended into a civil war without end.

At another level, the real question is the following: Why do our leaders, who make so much of national honor, not comprehend there is another option when offered a gift? It is possible to say NO. It really is.

This opinion was published in Express-Tribune on March 28, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Back to Main Page

Democracy in India – 10: Message from Bihar

October 23, 2015

Democracy in Bihar

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy.

Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows:

  • Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest)
  • Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family)
  • Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless)
  • Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family)

What should one conclude?

This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country.

Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as a dhoti/sari pair and a color TV. And this offer to purchase votes is being advertised in public without any seeming consciousness of its contradiction with the premise of representative governance. A sense of irony seems very faraway indeed.

In this series of posts we have covered this ground a number of times without coming across evidence that speaks as categorically as this billboard.

The normative premise of representative governance is that citizens vote for the party that most closely accords with their political, economic, cultural, and social preferences. The unstated assumption underlying this premise is that voters are either not open to or in need of a bribe in exchange for their votes.

Clearly, this assumption is being violated in India and, for that matter, in most countries as poor as India. This violation triggers at least two dynamics. First, political parties enter into a competition to offer the highest price for a vote either in real terms (cash or cash equivalent) or in virtual terms (promises for the future). Since nothing can prevent this competition from spiraling out of control there is no limit to the scale of future promises – Gharibi Hatao being one example – that cannot but remain unfulfilled.

Second, voters having learnt from experience that electoral promises hold little credibility, arrive at the rational decision to maximize their gains from what seems largely a meaningless exercise as far as their future prospects are concerned. Of course, not all voters think in this manner but enough do to give rise to the kind of billboard that triggered this reflection.  So, for a significant number of voters, elections become an opportunity to extract what they can as a price of the one asset conferred on them by the system of electoral governance (on which they were not consulted, not to forget), id est, their vote. Elections assume the character of a mela or festival at which a free meal might be obtained.

This is a cynical and sad conclusion but our billboard tells us that it is real and it should force us to examine the contextual nature of our institutions and reflect on what might be done to overcome these damaging dynamics.

The argument here is not that democracy anywhere else is pristine and perfect. To take the example of the USA, the power of money and media, especially in combination, is becoming ever more evident in shaping the outcome of elections. And the influencing of elected representatives by governments and corporate capital is also not quite a secret – the allocation of public and private money to individual representatives in return for casting their votes in a particular way is well documented. The size of the lobbying industry is a testament to how entrenched is this distortion of governance in advanced democracies.

An illustration of the above phenomenon can be inferred in the Indian case as well. Refer to the slogan at the top of the billboard:

  • Vikaas ki hogi tez raftaar, jab kendr-rajya men ek sarkaar (Development will speed up when the centre and the state are ruled by the same party)

Why should this be the case in a democracy? The implication is that if voters elect a party in the state different from the one at the centre, they would pay a price in terms of impediments in the allocation of funds. This is worse than a bribe because it also implies a threat. If the government at the centre is the government of all Indians, it ought not to act in a discriminatory fashion by obstructing development in states that choose different parties at the local levels.  Voters are being influenced by the exercise of power resulting from control of money.

Here we also see in effect the lingering traces of the monarchical ethos that we have commented on in this series of posts. This is how emperors used to interact with rival kingdoms in their domains. They tried first to overthrow them (The ‘regime change’ of modern times – look at the slogan at the bottom of the billboard: Badlaiye Sarkar, badaliye Bihar – Change the government, change Bihar). Failing that, the practice was to punish the latter by extracting tribute as the price for continued existence – the relationship was very clearly one of conflict and antagonism.

Notwithstanding the above, when the system unravels from the buying and selling of representatives or conflict at the level of governments down to the buying and selling of the individual votes of citizens, things assume a very different perspective. This is so because at that level all mechanisms of restoring accountability are lost. When a government or a representative acts, for whatever reason, in contradiction to the preferences of his or her constituents, one could reasonably expect the voters to express their displeasure in the next election. But when the voters themselves are up for sale no such exercise of accountability is possible.

Good governance, even in the best of circumstances, is a tall order given the power of international and local money in present times. At the level of poverty that exists in India it is doubly more difficult. Given that there are no real alternatives to representative governance, the challenge for concerned citizens is to find ways to resist the commodification of votes. One obvious measure would be for the election commission to disallow the type of blatant billboards under discussion and to vigorously prosecute any attempts to trade in votes.

Back to Main Page

Governance and Human Security

July 28, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

It is useful to raise the chicken-and-egg question in connection with the link between governance and human security: does better governance improve human security or does greater human security lead to better governance? Which basket should we put more of our eggs in?

This is a debatable question and each one of us would gain by thinking it through for ourselves. My own position on the subject was shaped over twenty-five years ago by an interaction in rural Sindh. Since then I have favored the opinion that the causality runs more strongly from human security to governance than the other way around.

In a rural area whose political representative was particularly well known for his misdeeds, I asked a constituent why the voters had not chosen a more “honest” individual. The answer was patient, kind, brief, and spontaneous: “Do you think we do not know what kind of person we have elected? Do you really believe a “good” person would be able to deliver the kinds of things we need to survive here?”

There it was, the micro-foundation of our macro-situation, as it were, in a very few words. The response encapsulated the raw wisdom of those exposed to the vulnerabilities of the real world as opposed to the naive idealism or sly cynicism (take your pick) of those who exhort the election of “good” people whenever the rotten system of governance goes through the charade of a new beginning.

This was the bottom line I took away from the encounter. As long as human security is not assured, as long as fundamental rights (access to justice, access to work) are not impersonally guaranteed, the functions of social and economic protection and of political representation cannot be separated. The need for a powerful patron, the more powerful the better, would continue to dominate the calculus of rational, self-interested voters.

Take democracy as a system of governance and note how Tocqueville describes the conditions for its emergence. “Equality, which makes men independent of one another, naturally gives them the habit and taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs…. This love of independence is the first and most striking feature of the political effects of equality…. As each [individual] sees himself little different from his neighbors, he cannot understand why a rule applicable to one man should not be applied to all the rest… and legislative uniformity strikes him as the first condition of good government.”

Talking about Americans in particular, Tocqueville observes: “As for particular privileges granted to towns, families, or individuals, they have forgotten the possibility of such things. It has never come into their heads that one cannot apply the same law uniformly to all parts of one state and all the men living in it… the idea of intermediate powers is obscured and obliterated.”

Tocqueville is very clear about the relationship of equality and independence to the system of governance: “Since in times of equality no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak… Men’s hatred of privilege increases as privileges become rarer and less important, the flame of democratic passion apparently blazing the brighter the less fuel there is to feed it.” On the other hand, “When conditions are unequal, no inequality, however great, offends the eye.”

I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that Pakistan is characterized by extreme inequalities, by the almost total dependence of some on others, by the strong hold of intermediary powers, and also by the acceptance of these conditions by many as a part of our fate. There is not a single political party with significant following that has a sincere agenda advancing human equality and individual human rights in Pakistan. Since political parties with significant following and non-parties with claims to majority support have all had a turn at the helm of affairs, this assertion rests on strong empirical evidence.

In the absence of any advance in human security, everything else remaining the same, the political formation remains immune to meaningful reform. No matter where and how it is restarted, it reverts back to the form that is compatible with the underlying socio-economic realities—a system of patronage based on patron-client relationships. Thus “good” people rarely get elected; the same “not-so-good” people get re-elected in every round; there is always a “king’s” party; voters do not punish their representatives for switching ideologies or allegiances; and always being part of the winning group is considered a mark of great political acumen.

In this scenario the large sums of money being allocated to governance and governance reform continue to yield extremely meager returns, if any. Recent reports suggest that the quality of governance continues to deteriorate. This is no surprise given the lack of political pressure from below, a lack acknowledged by the fact that no political party considers individual human rights an issue around which voters could be mobilized.

What is to be done in the kind of situation that exists in Pakistan? Referring back to Tocqueville does not yield optimistic or practical suggestions: “All the old political powers in Europe, the greatest as well as the least, have been founded in ages of aristocracy, and they represented and were more or less willing to defend the principle of inequality and privilege. To make the new wants and interests prompted by growing equality preponderant in the government, it was therefore necessary to overthrow or coerce the established powers. This led men to make revolutions…. I do not think there is a single country in Europe where the progress of equality has not been preceded or followed by some violent changes in the status of property and of persons and all these changes have been accompanied by much anarchy and license.”

As we well know from the experience of our leftist parties, however, revolutions cannot be willed into being. The demand for individual equality from below must precede the change and be the motivation for the change. We are not yet at the stage where the demand for individual equality is a serious proposition. We are still struggling for the rights of groups, be they nationalities, ethnicities or sects. The struggle has been for Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sindhudesh, Balochistan, not for the advancement of individual human rights in any given geographical area. Despite the rhetoric, it should be no surprise that the creation of Pakistan has made little difference to the human rights of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The struggle of groups and the stage of development it represents is a subject for another discussion. What does need to be reiterated is that the kind of democratic governance compatible with advances in human security rests on the unqualified acceptance of the individual as the unit of decision-making free to decide according to his or her own judgment without fear of coercion or reprisal. It is incompatible with a world in which governance is a zero-sum game between mutually exclusive interest groups whose leaders convince or intimidate their members to vote in accordance with real or presumed group interests. Democracy cannot fulfill its promise in situations where people feel unprotected as individuals and seek security in the membership of antagonistic loyalty groups.

An argument along these lines never fails to invite the inevitable comparison with India. How, in such a perspective, would one account for the continued existence of democratic governance over more than half a century in India compared to the fiasco in Pakistan? There are a number of relevant answers to this question.

First, we are concerned with the quality of governance in general and not with the form of governance in particular. So the relevant question to pose is how much better is the quality of governance in India, especially as it relates to the most vulnerable groups in society? Has India reached the stage where the dependence of one man on another has ended so that the voter can elect a political representative without thinking of his or her needs for human security and economic and social protection? A thoughtful answer is provided by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy. After enumerating the many contributions of democracy to Indian life, Mehta notes that it has “not delivered millions of citizens from the abject dictates of poverty” and identifies the dimensions of the reality, as he sees it, as follows: “the impunity of politicians, the high-handedness of government, the absence of minimum reciprocity in civic life, the lurking threat of violence, [and] the weak hold of the rule of law over all sections of society.”

Mehta argues that “it is the texture of social relations in the Indian society that fundamentally thwarts us from realizing the goods of democracy… in all our social and political relationships, procedures, habits of thought, patterns of conduct, the influence of inequality is palpable.” And inequality “imposes the profoundest burden when it is seen as denying individuals the minimum regard due to them, or when it constantly puts them in situations that are humiliating.” In Mehta’s analysis this inequality remains the biggest burden of Indian democracy and the explanation for its discontents.

Second, we have to consider the various pathways that lead to the emergence of a democratic form of government along the lines articulated by Barrington Moore Jr. in his old but still relevant book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. In the earlier discussion I have focused on the path where the demand for equality from below is a key element in the emergence of democracy, a process that unfolded, for example, in the case of England and France as successive groups (nobles, merchants) with an independent economic base sought to gain power at the expense of the central authority, usually the monarch.[1] However, a democratic form of governance could also result, especially in post-colonial societies inheriting a legacy of electoral politics, from a power vacuum at the top created by the withdrawal of the colonial power and gridlock amongst the elites when there is no one group strong enough to dominate all the others and no other resolution to conflict is possible except some form of compromise. This was the case in India where no one region, ethnic group or institution found itself with the ability or power to dominate all the others. And this has been a major differentiating factor in the comparison with Pakistan.

Mehta notes that “The desire for democracy is in part a desire to have one’s moral worth acknowledged.” But this has not been the pathway to democracy in India. “The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about…. It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.” Not surprisingly, this pathway has had political positives at the top but few dividends at the bottom: “democracy’s biggest triumph is that it has proven to be an effective—perhaps the only—mechanism for holding India together. It is true that one of the reasons for the relative success of its democracy, and its hanging together as a nation has been the profoundly cross-cutting character of cleavages within Indian society that has made collective action on a large scale, to overthrow the state, quite difficult to mount.”

In elaborating this pathway to democracy in India (a la Barrington Moore Jr.), Mehta highlights the real issue bearing on the relationship between governance and human security in the subcontinent: “India’s experience with democracy is anomalous in one significant sense. India was one of the few societies where a political revolution preceded a social one… India’s social ancien regime survived into democracy relatively intact…. Therefore, the discourse of equality in Indian democracy often seeks to achieve equality between groups. It aims not at liberating individuals from groups or even necessarily eroding the structural logic of the system that makes group rankings possible in the first place.”

Thus, while the form of governance in India has been democratic for over half a century the gains to the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder in terms of human security and individual human rights have been nowhere commensurate. This is not to say that the existence of the democratic form of governance is entirely irrelevant—there is no doubt that it enlarges the political space for those at the bottom, forces a higher level of competence at the top, at least in relative terms, and helps in conflict resolution. But the fact remains that in terms of gains in human security the democratic form of governance is not sufficient or adequate in itself.

Given the above conclusion, placing the eggs in the basket of democracy in Pakistan is likely to leave civil society disappointed in terms of gains in human security. If democracy is being used as a loose codeword for restoration of civilian rule, the focus remains warranted. Civilian rule is preferable to military rule because when dictators run the charade of creating and maintaining a democratic façade it adds innumerable irretrievable complications to national life.[2] However, civilian rule, as has been proven by our experience, is no guarantee of improvements in human security and access to human rights. It only provides a slightly more encouraging starting point for the real struggle that may still not lead anywhere. The social reality is that the political ethos in Pakistan, both of the rulers and of the ruled, remains monarchical. In the age of democracy, elections are the mechanism we are forced to use to settle the succession amongst contenders (both real and the creations of king-makers) to the throne and one that usurpers need to legitimize themselves[3]; the winner of the election, manipulated to a greater or lesser extent, takes absolute control and denies the legitimacy of the opposition often using such medieval devices as forced exile. Rulers, civil or military, very quickly begin to see themselves as monarchs (kings, emperors, or caliphs), all personally anointed by the Almighty with a divine mandate to guide the nation to its salvation. This is an attitude of noblesse oblige, and without any pressure from below (indeed, often with tacit or resigned acceptance) the state has little political incentive to take seriously the issues of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.[4]

So what is to be done beyond the struggle for civilian rule? In the absence of a political coalition to support the demand for improvements in human rights, civil society groups at the present juncture in Pakistan should look for mechanisms to strengthen the instruments of social control over governments, to weaken the latter’s control over critical areas of resource allocation, and to increase the accountability of its actions. Some aspects of globalization can help in this agenda. For example, the growing importance of the private sector in business driven by competitiveness concerns coupled with the fiscal pressure to privatize state enterprises is stripping the state of key opportunities for distributing patronage. Here, social activists must examine the contradictions in their position whereby they correctly identify the anti-people nature of the Pakistani state yet insist on the same state to deliver key services to the most vulnerable without proposing any mechanism for how this circle is to be squared. The fact remains that, in relative terms, the private sector is easier to hold accountable than the state. There is need to find effective means to enforce the accountability of the private sector. The creation of a citizen’s commission made up of eminent individuals acceptable across the spectrum of civil society groups would be a useful first step to interact with the private sector on behalf of ordinary citizens.

The citizen’s commission could also raise the profile and credibility of interaction with the organs of the state. A critical area is the rule of law where the arbitrary power of the state or of one individual over another needs to be curtailed. Mechanisms need to be found to shelter the judiciary from the predatory powers of the executive and to try to ensure easier and more equitable access to and enforcement of justice. Civil society should devote efforts to wrest a lot more input in the design and staffing of the institutions of government providing justice and enforcing the law and a lot more control over the promotion of officials within these institutions. Once again, we learn from Tocqueville that this is not likely to be an easy struggle: “Unable to do without judges, it [the government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than justice itself, between the government and the private person.” Do we need Tocqueville to remind us of this reality in Pakistan? Nevertheless, the efforts need to be made as part of a multi-dimensional strategy to exert pressure on the state.

Other, less difficult, areas need to be identified that can serve to provide the nucleus for autonomous spaces free of state control. Universities are an obvious choice, being the breeding ground for new ideas and reasoned debate, where the legitimacy of state appointments to top positions is very weak and needs to be challenged. Similarly, state appointments to associations representing the arts and sports, do not have any serious rationale. These are areas where a much greater role for a citizen’s commission can be envisaged and advocated.

The accountability of the state can be increased by concretizing its very general promises of delivering benefits to citizens. For example, the state routinely makes the promise to deliver clean drinking water to all citizens within a stipulated time period. Civil society groups could nominate one or two districts in each province as test cases of the government’s credibility and monitor and publicize the progress there on a regular basis. Such efforts could be spread across the spectrum of public services to include health, education, justice, etc. Panels of the citizen’s commission could also strive to win the right to make independent random checks of the efficiency and quality of the public services delivered with the legal authority to make such findings public and claim compensation for damages to the lives or health of citizens.

Civil society needs to be creative in identifying the vulnerabilities of the state at the present time. It was mentioned earlier that in the absence of political pressure from below the state has no reason to take the demands of the majority of its citizen seriously. The same state, however, is much more sensitive to the projection of its image abroad as evidenced by the history of recent gang rape violations in the country.[5] This sensitivity provides a wedge for civil society to leverage its campaign for the promotion of human rights. The use of the media, both local and foreign, would be a vital tool in these struggles as it becomes increasingly more effective in the age of the Internet, cable and satellite television. Scoreboards could be created and updated to report delivery on promises and the quality of the services delivered; every instance of state failure and violation of human rights and human security could be highlighted combined with aggressive lobbying for due process and justice. This would generate an alternative source of pressure for systemic reform.

All these efforts should aim to further the creation and strengthening of a social coalition by targeting benefits and delivering tangible gains to the most vulnerable individuals in society. Even so, it will remain a difficult situation in the short run. The political demand for individual human rights cannot be artificially hurried beyond a point. The continued strong grip of religion is a handicap in this particular dimension because it encourages the acceptance of the state of affairs as divinely ordained and characterizes injustice and deprivation as a test of one’s faith that, if borne with patience, would earn its reward in the next life. Some facets of globalization and international political developments are strengthening this religious grip in Islamic countries quite unlike the weakening that occurred in Europe during the Enlightenment: a Voltaire would find it hard to survive in today’s Pakistan. The weakening of religion in Europe was a major element in the rejection of abject poverty and deprivation as divinely ordained and in the emergence of the realization that they were susceptible to political solutions.[6] Doctrines promoting the individual rights of human beings—liberty and equality, in particular—followed and were the spurs to the demands for representative governments based on the will of the people. Such forces remain weak in the subcontinent. It is still much easier to mobilize people on the elimination of a column for religion in the passport or on real or imagined insults to self-respect related to religious beliefs as opposed to the right to clean water or access to basic health and justice in the twenty-first century.

One should remain skeptical of the returns from electoral democracy in terms of improvements in human security. A creative challenge for civil society would be to examine and debate governance alternatives that might be more promising. Zakaria mentions that “One effect of the overemphasis on pure democracy is that little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions for transitional countries. Constitutionalism, as it was understood by its greatest eighteenth-century exponents, such as Montesquieu and Madison, is a complicated system of checks and balances designed to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of office. This is accomplished not simply by writing up a list of rights but by constructing a system in which government will not violate these rights.”

Zakaria highlights the South African constitution as “an example of an unusually crafted, somewhat undemocratic structure [that] 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.” Malaysia could be considered as another example where customized power-sharing arrangements were negotiated as an alternative to pure democracy and worked to yield meaningful gains in human security.[7] This provides another area of focus for civil society groups engaged with the long-term objective of obtaining meaningful gains in human security and fundamental rights as the stepping stones to the emergence of a workable mode of participatory governance.

I have articulated the position that the political demand for equality and fundamental human rights is the prime motivation for improvements in governance. This political demand cannot be willed into being—the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment were major inputs into the emergence of such a demand in Europe and a continued struggle, as evidenced by the gradual extension of suffrage over more than a century, led to the will of all the people being incorporated into the structures of governance. In the absence of such a political demand in Pakistan, civil society needs to concentrate on locating alternative sources of pressure and exploiting the existing vulnerabilities of the state to advance the agenda for increased human security and greater respect for human rights.

End Notes

[1] A key marker of this struggle was the signing of the Magna Carta, a charter of baronial privilege, in 1215 between the English nobility and King John.  The earliest secular expression of democratic political egalitarianism was voiced in 1647 by the Levellers during the English Civil War. The idea of the natural equality of all men was a major theme from that time on (as reflected in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant) and were an integral part of the revolutionary movements by the end of the eighteenth century (l’egalite in France, for example, rejecting privileges based on birth).

[2] In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria notes that “We live in a democratic age…. Dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mobarak and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe go to great effort and expense to organize national elections—which, of course, they win handily. When the enemies of democracy mouth its rhetoric and ape its rituals, you know it has won the war.” Democracy may not have won the war but it is a necessary façade that has to be maintained by the holders of power.

[3] Note the procedural change from the later Mughal period, as described by G.S. Cheema in The Forgotten Mughals, in which “all ruling monarchs were ‘legitimate’ and the exercise of de facto power was sufficient to legitimize the usurpation of the most outrageous upstart.” Now we need the doctrine of necessity and subsequent elections to provide the legitimacy. Note the similarity in outcomes between elected political representatives in Pakistan and the Mughal nobles of that time: “it is interesting to note the completely apolitical nature of the Indian umara. The readiness with which great nobles switched sides, often in the midst of a battle…”

[4] This monarchical ethos is not restricted to Pakistan although here it reveals its grossest aspects. One does not have to look very far to see that the hold of dynastic rule and darbari culture in all South Asian countries is pervasive and not entirely by accident. And human security remains an outstanding issue in the entire region.

[5] Mehta’s description of the situation in India links this political manifestation with the nature of social relations: “Despite the improvements of the last decade or so, even a basic recitation of India’s human development indices, a casual perusal of their landscape, will bring home the violence built into India’s political economy with unnerving force. But the sad truth remains that we mostly pay attention to these facts, if at all, mainly because they are an embarrassment to us, not because we experience them as profoundly unjust. The fact that we are more embarrassed than outraged by these is a sign of the distances that separate us as citizens.”

[6] In his essay On God, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski writes “Suffering has always existed, but it seems only now to have become such an obvious and compelling argument against God. It is hard to say whether this is because there is more of it now than there was before. Perhaps we just feel, nowadays, that all suffering is unfair. This, however, is the result rather than the cause of our unbelief.” Here we are less interested in arguments against the existence of God and more in the political implications of suffering being seen as unfair and thereby susceptible to change through struggle.

[7] An interesting point along these lines is mentioned by C.M. Naim in his book The Ambiguities of Heritage. He mentions that before 1947 the nationalist ulema had in mind a future constitution of India based on a pact between Muslims and non-Muslims on the pattern of the one between the Muslims and the Jews of Medina. This was a self-serving idea but one wonders if some creative variant not fixated on electoral politics could have avoided the tragedy of a million deaths and the forced homelessness of ten times as many individuals. However, the perverse politics of ascriptive groups, totally incompatible with the spirit of democracy, was too far advanced by that time for creative solutions to have found sympathetic consideration.


Cheema, G.S., The Forgotten Mughals: A History of the Later Emperors of the House of Babar, New Delhi, Manohar Publications, 2002

Kolakowski, Leszek, Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal, London, Penguin, 1999

Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, The Burden of Democracy, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2003

Moore, Barrington, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Master in the Making of the Modern World, Boston, Beacon Press, 1966

Naim, C.M., Ambiguities of Heritage, Karachi, City Press, 1999

Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, New York, Signet Classics, 2001

Zakaria, Fareed, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York, Norton, 2003

This paper was presented in December 2006 at the HRDN conference on Human Security in Islamabad. In the context of this conference human security includes both the economic and physical security of individuals. I am grateful to Professor C.M. Naim for comments on an earlier draft. At the time the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. He is presently Vice-President and Provost at Habib University in Karachi.

Back to Main Page

A Single-Point Agenda for a Better Pakistan

February 16, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I believe strongly that single-point agendas can reverse the continuing decline in Pakistan. The catch, of course, is the unlikelihood of agreeing on one. But there too, I am hopeful enough to make the case.

There are literally thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs) with, rightly so, their own local objectives. The good ones among them are making a difference in their limited domains. The impact at the level of society, however, remains insignificant. This is inevitable given that the organizations are focused on many different tasks, pulling, as it were, in different directions. The cumulative impact is real but diffused.

I believe that without abandoning their local objectives, CSOs can exercise collective influence by agreeing additionally on one global single-point agenda every year. All of them would then pull in the same direction corresponding to the nature of the agenda adopted for that year. The weight of numbers would make itself felt at least to an extent greater than we have been able to exercise to date.

We can find mechanisms for a democratic choice of the annual single-point agenda for which the CSOs would then lobby collectively. This would be different from an Imran Khan-type dharna which is also focused on a few major demands, e.g., an end to corruption and clean election practices, but, for one, is very much top-down, one man’s crusade in the old populist style of politics that has been found wanting in the past.

For another, its demands are such that except for die-hard loyalists not enough people are convinced that Imran Khan could deliver – his party includes leaders who were allegedly on the wrong side in the past. This is inevitable given the structure of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan – it is virtually impossible to win a plurality without compromising with traditional power brokers.

The choice of single-point agendas has to be such that they bring together citizens across the various divides – ethnicity, sect, class, etc. – that ruling groups use to fracture popular movements. Single-point agendas that are impervious to such divisive possibilities are therefore necessary as starting points to have some hope of success.

But even within such single-point agendas, there are critical choices – some would require much more resources than others. Take for example the demand to provide clean water to all. There is no conceivable reason for the failure to do so in the 21st century – the underlying technology is among the simplest. However, the state can plead lack of resources as it has for decades. Similarly, the right to education is a unifying demand but one should anticipate the divisions that would ensue on the content of education.

I have a suggestion for a single-point agenda that is free of such constraints. CSOs should lobby to transfer the prerogative of appointing the chief executives of public sector organizations (PSOs) from the state to civil society. The benefit-cost ratio would be infinite simply because the costs are zero and the benefits, as all would agree, significant. There is little doubt that competent leadership of PSOs can make a huge difference to their performance.

In theory, the state has a claim on such appointments by virtue of being the principal owner of PSOs. However, the state exercises this prerogative on behalf of the citizens who are the true owners and who have delegated the responsibility to their representatives. Given that the state has so grossly and scandalously abused this trust over decades, citizens are within their right to take it back into their own hands.

There is need to lobby for the creation of an independent appointments commission free of state control. Although it is possible to delegate the authority to a bi-partisan committee in parliament, the track record of parliamentarians in Pakistan does not inspire confidence that the arrangement would yield the desired results.

The appointments commission ought to be completely under the control of civil society and comprised of a mutually agreed board of private citizens who have established their credibility over a lifetime of service. It would distract from the subject to suggest names at this stage but I can allude to individuals from the past who would have been eminently qualified had they been alive. I would confidently have nominated people like Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, Professor Karrar Hussain, Justice Rustam Kayani, and Justice A.R. Cornelius, among others. Individuals of similar integrity exist today and would step in to serve the country.

This proposal might seem far-fetched but is very doable. It is also a necessity at this point in time and just raising consciousness about the issue would be a major contribution. Above all, it is a unifying objective that does not call for resources except for the allocation of time divided over millions of citizens. All we need are a few brave CSOs to step forward and organize the challenge.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on February 15, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Back to Main Page

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?  And what greater evidence do we need that our governments have failed at each of these responsibilities? Why can’t we fire these incompetent, dishonest and devious public servants on the spot?

Why not, when we know full well that this is just the tip of the iceberg? Not only are the guards asleep, they are in league with the robbers; not only are the drivers stealing the petrol, they are driving us in a direction far from where we wish to go; not only are the tutors teaching our children theology, they are abusing them mentally as well. To boot, they are charging us half our incomes for their upkeep and funneling our remaining assets into their private accounts.

And what about those who dismiss the servants we have chosen and appoint themselves our saviors by divine instruction and get others like themselves to bless their appointments? What about them?

Imagine if this travesty of governance had been perpetrated by an occupying army. The nation would have been up in arms; there would have a nationalist movement, perhaps even a jihad, backed by appeals to rights and honor and sovereignty. What is it that changes just because the occupiers pretend they look like us, talk like us, walk like us? (Look closely, they don’t – un ke muunh par phitkaar barastii hai is the phrase of choice.)

Why can’t we fire these public servants who are really occupiers and have invaded our country? What changes from the individual to the collective domain? Is it because we don’t want to? Is it because the one looks so straight, the next so humble, the third so enlightened? Is it because we always see a silver lining to the blackest of clouds? Is it because democracy needs time to mature? Is it because the public domain is not our headache? Is it because there must be some reason to this madness? Is it because it is God’s will?

Or is it because we are unable to? We know they are all thieves – yeh sab chor haiN is the phrase of choice – but we can’t collectively find a way to get rid of those whom we have imposed upon ourselves and are condemned, at best, to rotate their marauding turns.

No doubt it is a bit of both but my guess is that the balance is tilting in favor of the second camp. There are now fewer willing to give such governments another chance and more wishing, albeit helplessly, to replace them with something that works for the owners of the country. So how do we put this desire into action? What is that we have to figure out and what is the first step towards a better future?

Clearly, the system we have is deeply flawed if we ourselves are responsible for elevating thieves to positions of power only to be unable to get rid of them; or if we are helpless when God’s angels take over the reins of power; or when high priests and guardians of the faith, unbearded and bearded, accord their blessings to the thieves. There is no way we can leverage this system to achieve meaningful change. The thieves have us by the short and curlies; they are thoroughly amused at watching us squirm and are laughing all the way to the bank.

There is no opening for an opposition of the traditional type embodied in a political party with a ‘good’ leader. For one, money talks and the thieves have the bulk of the money; for another, an hierarchical society is dominated by ‘influentials’ and the ‘influentials’ are the ones lording over us; for yet another, the incumbents have the monopoly of devious means that can undermine a movement of the traditional type; and, fatally, it takes little time for a ‘good’ leader to turn ‘bad’ if nothing else changes in the system.

There is no opening either for an insurrectionary engagement of the familiar type embodied in an armed revolution. For one, the thieves have the monopoly of force they would not hesitate to let loose on their opponents; for another, there are no revolutionaries who can provide a common platform for an ideologically divided polity.

The only way left is a people’s movement, a swelling of the people’s voice that gets so loud it overwhelms the bastions of power and prepares the ground for a new and different order. What is needed is a wave of the popular will that proclaims ‘Enough’ and carries so much momentum it washes away the status quo.

Almost a century later we are back to civil disobedience as the weapon of last resort. We need a unified movement without the need of a unified leadership. We need citizens motivated by the common desire to connect with each other to figure out a way to make their numbers felt without the need for political parties or political violence.

It can be done; it must be done. It needs fresh minds, young hearts, a new vision, a new modality. Let the first few get together and create ‘The Voice of the Pakistani People’ as a forum for collective thought and decentralized action at the individual, household and neighborhood levels that comes together at the village, town, city, province and finally the national level. Let us add our names to the forum till the scroll stretches from one end of the country to the other, from Pasni to Peshawar. Then we will figure out how to make our numbers count and translate our desires into reality.

There is always a first drop the marks the beginning of every flood. There are many willing to unleash a storm – baiThe haiN ham tahhiiyaa-e tuufaN kiiye hue; it awaits a chain reaction to sweep aside the floodgates.


A Peek into the Mind of Pakistan’s Rulers

November 9, 2010

By Ibn-e Eusuf

Sometimes I wish I could afford a few assistants devoted to scouring the Pakistani media on a daily basis. In short order one could have a book called Bizzaristan comprised of the fantastical workings of the minds of Pakistan’s rulers and managers. Alas, I can’t so I will confine myself to reporting on the occasional item that is particularly revelatory of the way in which we are ruled and governed.

A news item informs us that following a charge of incompetence, the principal administrative officer (DCO) of the leading district in the leading province of the country has been transferred and appointed as the Chief Economist of the Provincial Planning and Development Board (PDB). (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.