Posts Tagged ‘Monarchy’

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.

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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

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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.

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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.


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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.

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Dynastic Succession and the Culture of South Asian Politics

March 28, 2008

By Samia Altaf

An editorial in The News on March 21, 2008 (“Bilawal to the rescue”) got it wrong when it expressed sadness at the “strange dynastic politics that have taken root in the region.” Dynastic politics have been rooted in the region much like they were in most other parts of the world in the past. The distinction of South Asia is that, unlike elsewhere, it has not left dynastic politics behind.

Three centuries ago it was quite normal to have a Dauphin and a regent in France. Today, a French citizen would be completely nonplussed by the thought of such a practice. In South Asia, however, the practice is not only familiar, it is actually demanded by the citizenry. How else would one explain a democratic India feeling the need to transplant Rajiv Gandhi from an airline pilot to a Prime Minister? Examples abound across South Asia and are too well known to bear repetition.

This is important to understand because it has a great bearing on the nature of our politics and our culture. The fact of the matter is that the institution of political modernity has been bequeathed to South Asia by British rule. But it is just another institution that has been incorporated into the tradition of the subcontinent. Rational people have used it for their individual ends much as rational people would use anything else like, say, a telephone network.

At heart, the South Asian tradition has remained steadfastly monarchical – both the rulers and the ruled think of their world in a monarchical perspective. Is it any wonder that a person like Mr Musharraf seems so surprised at the barest hint that the law could apply to him? Is it a surprise that he can violate the Constitution and promise to abide by it at the same time?

In a monarchy there is a set of people who believe they are born to rule. “Do you not know who I am?” is the typical response of a member of the ruling class when asked for an explanation. Then there is a group that believes it can prosper in an arbitrary system only by pleasing the ruling class – hence the obsequiousness and the ji huzoor part of our culture. Amongst the dispossessed there is still the vestige of that hopelessness that gives rise to the maii baap fatalism – the resignation that attributes everything to the Divine Will that elevates some to kingship and reduces others to poverty in accordance with some unknowable cosmic plan.

Without an intellectual revolution like the Enlightenment or a social cleansing like the French revolution, these attitudes are changing very, very slowly. It is the uniqueness of our region that political modernity has preceded social modernity unlike anywhere else in the world. The aristocracy in France was violently replaced by a rising middle class that then instituted democratic rule based on individual equality guaranteed by law. In South Asia, the ancien regime survived intact into the era of modern politics and continued to remain above the law.

Applying the law to a person like Mr Musharraf is a monumental challenge because as King he can easily exile his rivals, dismiss the judges, change the law itself, and get away with it. The really big surprise this time was the unimaginable realization that he couldn’t. It is still difficult for people to believe the outcome. But the tendency of the incoming democrats to assume the airs of monarchs and elevate their own selves above the law has been witnessed many times before.

Is this a re-run or is there a slight movement in the right direction because of the resistance of the rejuvenated lawyers? Will Pakistan become a little less monarchical and a little more constitutional like India? Let us wait for the movie to end before we stand up and start the applause.

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC. An abridged version of this article appeared in The News on March 27, 2008.

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