Posts Tagged ‘Monarchy’

Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission

March 25, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The Taj Mahal was the nub of the argument in a recent opinion by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque on the Planning Commission (Should we have a planning commission? The News, November 3, 2015). I feel both sides of the argument were misplaced and am elaborating my view in keeping with the exhortation of the author to “let the debate go on.”  

Dr. Haque quoted Khawaja Asif as saying that “If there had been a Planning Commission the Taj Mahal would not have been built!” He then retorted by writing: “First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.”

There are two questions at issue: Should the Taj Mahal have been built? And: What is the role of the Planning Commission? In addressing these questions both sides have lost sight of the most crucial ingredient in any debate – the context.

I suppose what one would like to see across time is the avoidance of outlandish projects. In the context of its time, that of the age of monarchy, the Taj Mahal was not at all outlandish. In fact, it was quite the norm – from the time of the Pharaohs, kings and emperors built mausoleums for themselves. The only difference as far as the Taj Mahal was concerned was that it was particularly elegant – truly a marvel of aesthetics and architecture.

It is also misleading to say that there was no planning commission in the age of monarchy – the advisory body just assumed different forms. In fact, the caliber of the nauratans in Akbar’s court far exceeded that of those who pass as ministers these days. There is little doubt that emperors sought the guidance of their advisors but it is more relevant to recall that in those times all wealth and property belonged to the monarch who ruled by divine right – the monarch was not answerable to anyone for his or her choices.

Under the norms of monarchy, it was perfectly acceptable to build the Taj Mahal. Ironically, even if a Planning Commission had been present, it would have congratulated itself for approving the construction. Over its lifetime, it has generated far more in tourism revenues than its cost – something a Planning Commission is intended to ensure. Not just that, it has become an iconic symbol of India, making the country known in the farthest corners of the world. The payoff to the project has been huge.

In that light, similar investments in pyramids, cathedrals, mosques, palaces, and forts during the age of monarchy are what constitute the cultural heritage that is a huge draw for modern-day pride and pleasure. To write them off as whimsical is to be both ahistorical and short-sighted.

The above notwithstanding, we have moved on to the era of representative governance in which the wealth of the nation belongs not to the state but to the people to whom the state is accountable. So, contrary to what Khawaja Asif implies, the state is not entitled to build a Taj Mahal today without the consent of the taxpayers.

This is not to say that a Taj Mahal cannot be built in our time. It can, as long as the builder is using his or her own money to do so. For example, Donald Trump can quite lawfully build the Trump Taj Mahal (note the value of the name) in Atlantic City, Ahsanullah Moni can build one in Sonargaon, Mukesh Ambani can build an Antilia in Mumbai, and our own rulers can construct palaces with gold-plated faucets in various places. No one can object except to question the taste and the sources of wealth in some instances.

But the state or representatives of the state cannot make such edifices using the money of taxpayer. In our times, these would be outlandish projects and the Planning Commission is intended to prevent them by keeping the monarchical proclivities of our rulers under control.

And that brings us to the real issue – the fact that under a representative cloak our rulers continue to harbor monarchical tendencies and ambitions. It is very hard for them to submit to the control and accountability of citizens or of institutions designed to act as watchdogs on behalf of citizens.

The fact that the state controls the appointment of officials to such institutions renders the latter ineffectual. The further fact that most officials appointed to such institutions themselves aspire to become part of the darbar puts paid to any remaining institutional effectiveness. Given this contextual reality, there is really no point in having the kind of hobbled and crippled planning commission that we have today.

Dr. Haque is also quite right in his observations about the foreign donors who are supposed to assist with projects in Pakistan. Most of their representatives assume the mentality of colonial governors who know better than the natives what the natives should get. They are just as impatient with watchdog institutions as the native rulers.

In order to keep in check the anachronistic tendencies of our native rulers and foreign benefactors, a planning commission acting on behalf of citizens is essential. However, expecting the one we have to fulfil that function is to be completely unrealistic. What we need is a People’s Planning Commission, a set of experts appointed by civil society, to rigorously evaluate and critique all projects proposed by the state. In our neo-monarchical era citizens have to strive for creative ways to protect their interests.

This opinion appeared in The News on March 25, 2016 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Back to Main Page

A DNA Test for Our Democracy

August 28, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Ask any good doctor. There’s no way to treat a disease without a definitive diagnosis. Treat a cancer as a stomach-ache and the consequences are bound to be fatal.

That’s common sense. Now apply that common sense to our system of governance. We have it from the highest authorities, again and again, that the system is diseased. Every fresh group of rulers swears that the previous set has left a ‘sham’ democracy and promises to transform it into a healthy one.

What exactly is this disease that turns a healthy democracy into a sick one so quickly and why has every effort failed to find a cure?

I wish we were at the stage where we could sensibly address this question. We would examine the diagnosis that the disease emanates from the dishonesty of the previous set of rulers. And we would patiently argue that reconfiguring the same set of allegedly dishonest rulers is not likely to lead the sick democracy back to health.

But we are not at that stage because we are confused about the identity of the patient. Think of a community that paints an ass with stripes and starts calling it a zebra. After a while, with much backslapping from interested participants, it convinces itself that it is indeed dealing with a zebra. Some jump up and down, others are willing to swear by it, yet others are indignant if its credentials are questioned. Yet underneath the stripes, all there is, is an ass.

The problem manifests itself when the animal falls ill. Instead of treating the ass, we begin giving zebra-revitalising remedies to what we think is an ailing zebra. Far from getting better the poor animal becomes sicker and sicker till it is literally on its deathbed. Does that come as a surprise?

The reason we can never nurse the sham democracy back to health is that we are not dealing with a democracy at all. What we have is a monarchy dressed up as a democracy, partly to feed our own pretensions and partly to appease our benefactors who would deny us their largesse if we were not seen to be wearing the right stripes. We are eligible for the largesse but we also have to pay a huge price to maintain the illusion and that is the endless charade that makes up our nights and days.

Everyone admits we don’t have a true democracy. And, of course, we don’t have a true monarchy either. What we have is a hybrid. But it is not difficult to disentangle a hybrid and identify its dominant component. There are a number of Western democracies that reveal elements of a plutocracy. The predominant gene – the DNA – of our hybrid is that of a monarchy. Which is why no matter what we do it very quickly starts to manifest the typical characteristics of a monarchy.

What are these typical characteristics of a monarchy? I will enumerate them briefly and leave it to the interested reader to think of examples.

First, look at the intensely dynastic nature of governance in all of South Asia. Where else in the world does one find anything remotely like it? Where else is there such popular acceptance of the replacement of a ruler by a blood relative quite independent of the qualifications or experience of the latter?

Second, just as at the top, look at the most acceptable replacement for lower level political representatives who happen to die in office. It is not the most competent eligible member of the late incumbent’s political party. Rather, by popular acclaim, it is the most available relative – political experience or ideological compatibility is not a requirement.

Third, look at the absence in our country of any orderly mechanism for change of rulers.

Fourth, look at the ease with which political representatives change sides and switch loyalties gravitating towards the most powerful contender to the throne. And look at the absence of any censure of such behaviour by the subject population.

Fifth, look at how our intelligentsia legitimises every new pretender to the throne finding silver linings in the piety of one or the boldness of another, pleading for him or her to be given a fair chance now that he or she has ascended to the top.

Sixth, look at how rival contenders are dealt with, either incarcerated on unproved charges or sent into exile.

Seventh, look at how completely arbitrary rules are decided upon first and only later rubberstamped by a body called a parliament.

Eighth, look at how politics revolves around factions, personalities and loyalty groups defined by ethnicity, sect or language, never around ideas.

Ninth, look at how every ruler begins to hear divine voices confirming that he or she has been specially chosen to save the nation.

Tenth, look at the system of patronage through which favours, resources and jobs are parcelled out and distributed.

All these are very obvious and typical characteristics of monarchical rule. And both the rulers and the ruled are quite comfortable with them. It is not too far-fetched to say that the ethos of the country is monarchical. At the very least it is not democratic. Fellow-columnist Ahmad Faruqui has referred me to an interesting finding from the University of Michigan’s World Values Survey that most of the Muslim countries surveyed think highly of democracy with Pakistan being the outstanding exception.

Recognising what we have as a disguised monarchy might give us a much better chance of figuring out a transition to a democracy – history is replete with examples. Persisting in the belief that we have a sick democracy and treating it with yet another set of new clothing will only keep us going round and round in circles.

An ass is a very sturdy animal capable of yielding much useful output. We cripple it by treating it as a sick zebra.

This op-ed appeared in The Daily Times on November 7, 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Back to Main Page

More on Violence in South Asia and the Great Jihad

March 10, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

June 21, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

The peculiar thing about South Asia is that it has not had a social revolution. Compare it with Europe or Russia or China where feudal, monarchical or other pre-modern forms of governance were swept away to be replaced by new ruling classes. Social revolutions preceded modern forms of governance, democratic or autocratic. South Asia moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwifed by the British, but the same social class remained in charge reinventing itself in new roles.

What are the implications of South Asia skipping a social revolution? For one, our forms of governance are modern only in appearance; their spirit remains essentially unchanged. For evidence, look at the amazing prevalence of dynastic rule across the region, from the upper echelons down to the composition of the subnational assemblies. The ethos of the region remains distinctly monarchical, both for the rulers and the ruled, with the latter now legitimizing the dynasties through the free exercise of their votes.

It is no surprise then that we are saddled with the social outcomes of monarchical rule – a narrow elite enjoying the highest standards of living (a la the opulent royal courts of yore) with the majority of the population completely marginalized. For evidence, look no further than the paradox of India – uninterrupted democratic rule and aspirations to global leadership combined with grinding poverty and malnutrition in children worse than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is social conditions like these and the virtual disregard for the misery of the poor that prompt our question about revolution. Will this callous disregard ever cease without the sweeping aside of a royal class masquerading as representatives of the people?

Perhaps not, but then again, a revolution is no picnic, at least a revolution of the type we have been referring to. Just thinking whether the ideology of the revolution would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. The scariest aspect of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might drive any revolution in South Asia today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.

Contrast the above with the intellectual bankruptcy of present-day South Asia. Whether it is the Maoists in India or the Islamists in Pakistan, their angst can be defended but their passions are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Watching our public intellectuals on TV is a foreshadowing of the future if their ideas were to be turned into reality. There is little doubt that the cure would be worse than the disease.

So we are in a bind. We need a social revolution but can see quite clearly that any traditional revolution would likely be a horror story that would make Pol Pot look good. In any case, the time for old style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern regimes have too much firepower and control at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that.

What, then, is to be done? One suggestion is to aim for an intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds, an overthrowing of the thrall in which our rulers have enmeshed us for decades – a declaration that from today we cease to believe the lies on which we have been fed, nurtured and reared.

Let me explain. Every country of South Asia has a dominant narrative, one that has been cultivated at great expense, and one to which the majority of the populations have subscribed without question. We have not arrived at these beliefs as a result of our own independent thinking. Rather, we have imbibed, like mother’s milk, the narratives that have been made available to us. Had it been otherwise, we would not see the majority of Indians and Pakistanis, say, holding such completely contrary and polarized perceptions of each other.

Why do we subscribe to these narratives? We are more than ready to argue, with passion and conviction, that the ruling class of the US, for example, has misled its population with a completely false narrative about Iraq, one resting on nothing but blatant lies and misrepresentations. If we believe that, what logical basis do we have for arguing that our own rulers cannot use similar narratives to mislead us in order to further their narrow self-interests? Are we seriously arguing that our rulers are more moral, made of better stuff, when at the same time we castigate them for the most venal types of malfeasance and corruption?

Clearly this is an indefensible position, an acknowledgement that we have forsaken independent analysis, allowed our selves to be brainwashed, and turned into our own enemies. The false patriotism stoked by hyper-nationalism has turned us against each other and ultimately against our selves.

So the starting point of our revolution is the declaration to our respective rulers – WE DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU SAY – WE WILL FIND OUT FOR OURSELVES.

And then, let us use the power of the new technologies to really find out for ourselves. Each one of us should set aside his/her biases and prejudices and seek out a partner from across the border. Let us enter into a myriad conversations unmediated by the rulers or the pundits on TV. Let us talk as one human being to another; let us educate ourselves about our lives; let us generate a new narrative from the ground up.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario – a hundred thousand cross-border marriages! Do you believe that would change the social and political dynamic of South Asia? It is a hypothetical proposition, but can a million conversations begin to have the same impact?

THINK. We need a new revolution for new times. We have nothing to lose but our prejudices. We might just lose our rulers as well and would that not make for a better world?

Back to Main Page 

South Asia: In Search of Roots

January 21, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

There are two theses about South Asia that I keep returning to often and feel strongly about – that democracy is alien to South Asia and that the British period was epiphenomenal. But I haven’t been able to bring the two together to my satisfaction. Oddly enough, it was a column on mathematics (Finding Your Roots) that suggested a way out of the quandary. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that odd; what I needed was a different paradigm, a new way of looking at my problem.

Let me first lay out the two theses. The claim that democracy is alien to South Asia was articulated clearly and early by Dr. Ambedkar and I have quoted him frequently to that effect: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” and “In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

The claim that the British period was epiphenomenal (an epiphenomenon being a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon) is supported by the evidence. In Dr. Ambedkar’s analogy, one could say the Indian soil is reclaiming its place and the top-dressing is becoming thinner by the day.

In order to push my understanding of South Asia, I have kept resorting to a thought experiment. Suppose an interlocutor, with no prior knowledge of the region but familiar with European history, were to ask me to convey the essence or capture the ethos of the region in one or two descriptors, what descriptors would I choose?

Let me restrict the discussion to India for the moment simply to retain the focus on the issue of interest. Would I say ‘India is a democracy’ and assume that the interlocutor would be able to imagine a fair picture? Or would I choose the descriptor ‘secular’ and hope that the image that would form after passing through the interlocutor’s mental filter would be an accurate one?

I believe there would be agreement that these would not be the best descriptors.  If I said instead that ‘India is hierarchical’ the interlocutor might infer a better sense of the foundations of Indian society. This would capture Dr. Ambedkar’s description that “by reason of our social and economic structure, [we] continue to deny the principle of one man one value.”

If I added to that by saying that ‘India is religious’ and ‘India is dynastic,’ the interlocutor’s overlays on the foundation would also be accurate. Caste and religion based elections would corroborate the first claim and he/she could crosscheck the second by looking up a research site that showed, among other interesting facts, that every member of the lower house of the Indian parliament under the age of 30 has inherited his or her seat.

So far there is not much new in what I have said. All I have done is to buttress my claim that one would get the most accurate conception of India (indeed of South Asia as a whole) if one were to use the image of a religious hereditary monarchy as one’s starting point. The situation has evolved, of course, but this still remains the best starting point for the kind of interlocutor I introduced in the thought experiment. He/she would be able to refer to the knowledge of the religious hereditary monarchies of Europe and understand South Asia better than if the starting point had been a secular and democratic republic.

Anyone who knows South Asia well knows that the people’s representatives think of themselves as monarchs; that bureaucrats fawn over the representatives much as courtiers would fawn over monarchs; that well-off citizens respond to any attempt at accountability with the retort ‘Do you know who I am?’; and that the rest, the vast majority, think of themselves as subjects in a mai-baap culture, leaving their fate to the benevolence of the lords and at the mercy of a transcendent power.

The insight that is new to me, and that I credit to the article on mathematics, relates to an understanding of the path that we have followed since the departure of the British. For example, the database on dynastic politics mentioned above shows that only 18 percent of the members of parliament over 50 years in age had inherited their seats. The percentage rises to 47 for those below the age of 50 and to 100 percent for those below 30. So it is clear that the aristocratic system based on heredity that the British had displaced is reasserting itself – the Indian soil is pushing aside the British top-dressing; the primary phenomenon is reasserting its primacy over the epiphenomenon.

How do we understand this trajectory? In the paradigm suggested by the article on mathematics, we can think of India as a very complex system of equations. But every system of equations, no matter how complex, has a solution – in mathematical terms, a ‘root’ (of which there can be more than one). In the context of our discussion, the ‘root’ we are looking for is the true ethos, the best descriptor, of Indian society.

Let me illustrate this idea with the simplest of examples. Take the equation 3y = 21. This is easy to solve analytically; we know that the value of the unknown variable y that ‘solves’ this equation is 7.  In mathematical terms 7 is the root of the equation.

Now there are other, brute force, methods of solving equations because most equations are not this simple and are solved by machines using algorithms which are iterative processes following simple rules. Let me illustrate a brute force method for this simple equation to be employed by a dumb machine that had no prior idea of what the true root might be.

The machine can begin the solution process by choosing an arbitrary root, say 1. It will substitute 1 for y in the equation and derive the result 3 = 21. This is clearly not true. Next, the machine will note that 3 is less than 21 and infer that the value of y needs to be increased to make the two sides equal. In the next iteration, it will increment y by a fixed amount (say 0.5) and repeat the process. After a certain number of iterations the two sides of the equation would balance (21 = 21) and the machine would (triumphantly) flash the message that the true root of the equation was 7.

Now here is how I employ this paradigm. Let us keep thinking of India as the simple equation 3y = 21 (in reality it is better thought of as a complex system of non-linear equations but we don’t need to venture there). Before the British arrived everyone knew what the system was like (it was what Dr. Ambedkar characterized as the Indian ‘soil’). The ‘root’ of this system was 7. The British didn’t think much of this system; they wished it to be in the image of their ‘superior’ system – they wished to create an Indian system whose root were 1.

Now two things could have happened following the British transplant. Either the graft would have been so attractive that the system would have realigned around it and transformed into one whose  root was truly 1 (the top-dressing would take root); or the newly imposed solution would trend inevitably towards the true root (the soil would reassert itself and reject the graft). Clearly, the British had hoped for the first outcome. This was what Macaulay had in mind when he had said: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” The outcome was less certain in Dr. Ambedkar’s mind – he finished his thought, quoted above, with the question: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

The ‘life of contradictions’ had to resolve itself one way or the other. With the benefit of hindsight we should know quite clearly the direction in which it has evolved – the drift has been towards the status quo ante, most clearly in the smaller countries in South Asia and least obviously in India which has retained the form while shedding the content.

Needless to say, things never go back to exactly where they were after a system is subjected to a shock – this we know from another concept (hysteresis) in physics. The different countries in South Asia have all followed varying trajectories and moved at different speeds in the drift towards their roots depending upon intervening events, rates of economic growth, and the quality of leadership, etc.

But notwithstanding these variations, the fact remains that a ‘religious hereditary monarchy’ remains a better descriptor of a country in South Asia than a ‘secular democratic republic’ – the reality is different from the appearance. This conclusion is not a value judgment, just a statement of fact. There is nothing inherently wrong with a religious hereditary hierarchy. In fact an argument could be made that the British epiphenomenon was harmful for South Asia; without it South Asia would have tended faster towards a political configuration that would have been much more organically rooted in its soil. Now we can only speculate on what that solution might have been like.

Postscript: A concrete example might make the argument clearer. In 1947, Mr. Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly his hope was that Pakistani society would realign itself around this secular, democratic core. Instead, it moved back fairly rapidly to its anti-secular, anti-democratic ethos. The type of liberal, secular gentlemen epitomized by Jinnah are now a dying breed and on the endangered list in Pakistan.

Back to Main Page 

Governance in South Asia: States and Robber Gangs

June 13, 2010

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia.

Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout. (more…)

Democracy: Corn Flakes, Cabbages and Kings

April 19, 2010

By Anjum Altaf


Editor’s Note: With reference to the discussion sparked by Vijay Vikram’s post (Arundhati Roy) we are reproducing an old article that is relevant to the issue.

I don’t believe in the corn flake theory of governance.

The corn flake theory equates systems of governance with brands of cereal. It presumes that just as one can go into a supermarket and pick any brand of cereal off the shelf, one can go into the supermarket of governance systems and select the system of one’s choice. It could be democratic, autocratic, monarchic or ecclesiastic — whatever suits one’s needs or fancy. (more…)

Ghalib – 9

September 18, 2008

With reference to the politics of Pakistan we had explored the topic of impeachment in an earlier verse. This week we lean on Ghalib to talk about the new leadership.

chaltaa huuN thoRii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahiiN huuN abhii raahbar ko maiN

I go along a little way with every single swift walker
I do not yet recognize the guide

For our purpose, the interpretation of CM Naim is most appropriate:

“The world is full of false leaders. I still do not know who the real leader is. I get deceived by every appearance of rapidity and movement. Every time I see someone proceeding with rapidity I think him to be the guide and walk after him a little way. But that little experience tells me that the man is not the guide I seek. Or is it that I am restless and get quickly drawn to another rapid-mover?”

This is a charitable interpretation: I am ignorant; I believe in every smooth talker; I realize after a while I have been conned but I learn nothing from the experience; I repeat the same process with the next smooth talker; I do not know how to recognize a real leader.

Seems like a description of the Pakistani intelligentsia – Ayub Khan was so blunt and straightforward; Bhutto so charismatic; Zia ul Haq so meek and humble; Musharraf so liberal and enlightened (he even played with dogs).

And Zardari? Listen to this: “I found him charming, easygoing, unpretentious and fun to be with. At the dinner I was struck by the simplicity of his taste in food.” This is part of an op-ed in which the writer signs off with his doctorate from Oxford.

Good to know our rahbar has simple taste in food.

But let us now push a little beyond Ghalib. Is it really the case that these intelligent, literate people are unable to see through these successive smooth talkers out of ignorance? Or is it that they recognize full well the situation and understand that walking a little way along with every smooth talker is to their advantage?

Should we give them the benefit of intelligence? If so, it will shed a different light on our society and culture. We have remarked in a number of earlier posts that we have a monarchical and hierarchical culture in South Asia masquerading as a democracy. An essential characteristic of a darbari culture is sycophancy. At the level of the common man, the phenomenon of lotas is well recognized.

In a hierarchical society where merit does not count for much the goodwill of the monarch is all-important, especially for those who have little merit to start with. And from this follows the importance of fulsome but hypocritical praise.

Sir, your taste in food is so simple!

Are we being too harsh?

See the parallel post on this verse at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

Back to Main Page

Straws in the Wind

April 21, 2008

By Samia Altaf


There is a point of view that the political culture of Pakistan is more like that of a monarchy than of a democracy. The external appearance of the political system is that of a democracy; its internal spirit is that of a monarchy. A lot more can be explained better when events are looked at in this perspective.


Take for example the exiling of political opponents, inconceivable in a modern democracy but quite common in earlier monarchies. The phenomenon of ban-baas finds frequent mention in Indian history and the banishment of English pretenders to France was not uncommon.


Similarly, the arrest of individuals on arbitrary charges and their incarceration in dungeons if they displease the ruler of the day is also a phenomenon associated with monarchies. Large cabinets and the movement of an entourage with the ruler are more akin to durbaars than to the small governments of contemporary democracies. Dynastic succession provides the strongest evidence and is the most difficult to explain in any other framework. Because it occurs across South Asia it suggests a deep-rooted societal ethos not confined to particular religions or ethnicities.


But the evidence of a monarchical ethos does not necessarily rest on such major phenomena. It is when the manifestations can be found in minor, seemingly everyday occurrences that one is forced to acknowledge the extent it is a part of the subconscious psyche of the region.


I was reminded of this on reading the news that the Prime Minister had taken notice of the ban on Shoaib Akhtar and directed the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to revise the decision.


If correct, how else would one interpret this except as a firmaan from a ruler? One would presume that the Board had taken note of a transgression and constituted a panel that heard evidence based on which it reached its decision. One would also presume that a process exists for the aggrieved individual to file an appeal against the ruling.


How does a Prime Minister come into this and overrule the entire institutional process? It is understandable only if one thinks of the ruler as a monarch who has absolute authority. One can think back to the adl-e-Jahangiri where a complainant would appeal directly to the monarch and the latter would adjudicate based on his assessment of the merits of the case.


In that context, the holding of open kutcheries still remains quite popular in modern-day Pakistan. Individuals with parchis wait for hours to hand them to the ruler who scribbles orders to his viziers for compliance – a transfer, or restitution, or relief from bureaucratic harassment. The monarch dispenses justice and moves on.


The argument that the PCB was not democratic is ironic. If so, it only confirms that another monarch had appropriated the Board earlier with little protest by the citizens. In all likelihood nothing will change in the functioning of the Board except the faces.


I am not blaming the Prime Minister who is a nice man having vowed to change the system and bring back true democracy. My point is that perhaps it did not even cross his mind that he was emulating a monarch and that this was a quintessentially monarchical act, albeit a minor one. That is because the monarchical ethos is bred in the bone in South Asia.


Examples of the phenomenon will continue to recur with regularity. Take for example the Information Minister’s characterization of the repeal of the PEMRA strictures as a “gift to the media.” Not the concession of a right, but a monarch’s gift that could be taken back just as easily as it has been granted.


Or, take the gesture of the Punjab Chief Minister to convert the CM’s office to a university for women. A generous act indeed but once again quite an arbitrary and whimsical one. No need to consult anyone – the monarch knows best the optimal use of the facility and who is to question the appropriateness of the decision.


One enters as a democrat and begins morphing into a monarch before the day is done – the minor manifestations are the most revealing. It might help to keep pointing them out.


Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on April 21, 2008.


Back to Main Page


Reflections on a Very Large Cabinet

April 11, 2008

By Samia Altaf 

I don’t really care if the cabinet eventually includes all 342 members of the national assembly. As an analyst, I am interested in understanding what the size and distribution reveal about the nature of politics in Pakistan. I want to explore why an Opposition, vociferous in its condemnation of the previous government’s excessively large cabinet, feels so compelled to go one better when it inherits power.

What is going on is obvious – a largely indiscriminate division of portfolios without matching qualifications to job requirements. Why it is going on is of greater interest. Mark first the discussion about who should get what. A lot turns on the ‘deservingness’ of the candidates. How unfair to deny X who spent the most time in prison while the leaders were exiled? How about Y who had her assets confiscated and was humiliated to boot?

This is the politics of reward. The spoils are distributed to supporters displaying the greatest loyalty in the greatest adversity. Next, it is the politics of appeasement – nobody important can be left out who would promptly switch loyalties to the other side. And finally, it is the politics of pacification – all those who might create problems in their home districts would be safer amusing themselves in the capital. Add up all those who can assert a claim on the state and it turns into a very large number.

Now think: How is this any different from the Mughal durbaar at Agra or the court of the Sun King at Versailles? Imagine all the favourites and potential troublemakers dallying at court under the watchful eye of the Royal Intelligence. And instead of going off for foxhunts in the Bois de Boulogne, large contingents fly off for the modern equivalent at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Understand I have nothing against democracy and this is not a brief for authoritarian rule – there is no difference in this regard between the two in Pakistan. And that is the point. It is the nature of our politics that drives this phenomenon and it is this nature we need to understand to intervene in a meaningful way. Simple homilies about the return of true democracy will make not one whit of difference to our fate.

Perhaps Pakistan needs a super-sized cabinet because it is neither fish nor fowl in terms of governance. A democracy doesn’t need to deal with loyalists and potential turncoats; an authoritarian state like China doesn’t need to please anyone as long as it delivers to its citizens – the number of ministries is down from 100 in 1982 to 28 and is to be reduced further to promote efficiency; and a monarchy can distribute jagirs to loyalists while entrusting governance to the qualified – Akbar’s nau ratan were truly nine gems.

Pakistan can best be characterized as a monarchy dressed up as a democracy, sometime less, sometime more authoritarian. In this state, ministerial and public sector portfolios are the only jagirs that can be distributed openly and without disapproval. It is an interesting irony of our mixed-up governance that there is much greater public outrage attached to the much less damaging distribution of the modern-day version of real jagirs, the allocation of valuable parcels of urban land.

There is no questioning of the huge cost to the efficiency of governance when three butchers are entrusted the job of one baker and the practice will continue until someone in civil society begins to push back. After the independence of the judiciary let us put this as the next item on the agenda.

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on April 11, 2008.

Back to Main Page