Posts Tagged ‘Monarchy’

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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Individualism, Social Contract, Governance and Modernity

February 2, 2008

In the last few posts we have left a few loose ends dangling: there have been references to individualism in the context of hierarchy, to social contract in the context of monarchy, and to reason in the context of modernity. In this post we will try to tie the loose ends lightly to highlight some of the connections and hope to come back for a fuller discussion at a later time if there is demand.

There is no one better to weave the argument around than Thomas Hobbes (1558-1679) whose famous book The Leviathan (1651) became the foundation for most of Western political philosophy.

Of course, Hobbes did not emerge in a vacuum. The seventeenth century is widely accepted as a decisive turning point in Europe that marked the transition from an old decaying order to a new emerging one that many equate with modern society. 

Very briefly, the conditions that undermined the old order included the role of religion as a source of conflict, the rise of capitalism that created a tension between social hierarchies based on inherited status and acquired wealth, and the mobility of populations that uprooted communities based on stable traditional values. 

In the face of this crisis, the need for a new understanding of the world and a new source of social order became overwhelming and exercised some of the greatest minds of the time—Harvey, Hobbes, Descartes, and Newton (among others). These were the people who rejected the choice of attempting to re-establish the old order based on religious and monarchical hierarchies. Instead, they looked ahead by putting their faith in reason in order to transcend doctrinal differences.

Thus the purpose of Hobbes in The Leviathan was to propose an alternative to a political order based on tradition and on religious and social hierarchies—defined by Devine Will, individual duties (not rights), obedience to the ruler, acceptance of fate, and a reward in the after-life. 

Hobbes’ proposal was very much in the form of a thought experiment based on his understanding of human nature. He wanted to encourage a new way of looking at things and was not really proposing a system to be implemented as he had set it down.

Hobbes began his daring experiment by radical breaks in political thought along two dimensions. First, he accorded a higher priority to the individual than to society; and second, he replaced duties with rights. And, the question he asked was: How would individuals with equal rights constitute a society that would ensure justice based entirely on individual self-interest and reason? Note that in this scheme there is no pre-existing Divine order, no higher meaning, and no pre-ordained duties.

It is here that Hobbes posited the social contract—a voluntary contract signed amongst themselves by all individuals with equal rights to accept an external institution to govern them. There are many details here that are omitted but for us two things are important to note in this formulation. First, it is a model based on equality that does not have a place for hierarchies based on status or wealth. Second, it is a model based on individualism. In fact, to make the point, Hobbes strips the model of all horizontal bonds between individuals—family, clan, ethnic or religious links have no place in this foundation for governance. The only thing that matters is a one-to-one relationship of equal individuals with the state. The exact form of the state is not important; the objective is to institutionalize the concept of power and obligation.

As we mentioned earlier, this proposal by Hobbes was in the nature of a thought experiment. It built on the emerging trends of individualism, equality and faith in reason to propose a radically new basis for governance. These trends continued to grow throughout this period to reach one grand climax in the French Revolution of 1789 with its rallying cry of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. And Hobbes’ model became the foundation for the modern system of democratic governance. 

For South Asians the points to think over are the set of social changes that marked the decline of the old order, the set of fresh ideas that gave rise to new models of governance, and the often revolutionary episodes that finished off the remaining barriers that stood in the way of the transition from the traditional to the modern. 

Hopefully this thinking would lead to a better understanding of the crisis of governance in Pakistan today and the peculiar nature of democracy in India that Ramachandra Guha does not adequately explain in India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.

Students wanting to read more on Hobbes and the seventeenth century should consult On Hobbes’ Leviathan by Ian Johnston, one of the best references we have found and one to which we are indebted for the details in this post.

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Hierarchy, Dependence, Equality and Democracy

February 1, 2008

In connection with the discussion on dynastic succession, our reader had helped clarify our thinking by characterizing both traditional monarchy and traditional religion as institutions marked by hierarchical relations between human beings (see Monarchy, Religion, Hierarchy and Modernity). Further, the point was made that in societies ruled by such institutions hierarchical relations were not limited but extended to all social relationships.

The interesting question that followed was “What is wrong with hierarchy itself?” The answer was contained in the alternative that was posited by the reader: The alternative to hierarchy is not necessarily individualism, just equality.

The importance of this distinction ensues from the realization that hierarchies can never really be eliminated—if nothing else, the hierarchy of knowledge is likely to persist. For example, the hierarchy between an expert and a layperson (say a physician and patient, lawyer and client) cannot easily be eliminated. Nor does it need to be as long as it can be ensured that the expert would not able to exploit this dominance by making the client act against his or her personal interests. And this is where political and social equality come in accompanied by access to an independent recourse to justice.

And this leads to an important conclusion: Our struggle is not against hierarchy but for equality, both social and political. The link between hierarchy and dependence needs to be broken. And our commentator was right in suggesting that a monarchy based not on divine right but on a social contract would be moving in this direction.

(It is important to note that the hierarchy of incomes (income inequality) will also persist. But this is not synonymous with social inequality. That it remains the case in South Asia, with important implications, is an issue we will take up in a later discussion.)

For the moment, we elaborate on political equality and its fundamental importance to democratic governance. Tocqueville describes the link as follows: “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.” 

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.”

As our reader noted: “In a democracy, political officials *represent* or stand in for their people in a particular role and are equal to them in fundamental ways.” Once this equality is compromised, the political system begins to transform itself into a patron-client formulation with all its attendant consequences.

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Monarchy, Religion, Hierarchy and Modernity

January 27, 2008

The thing I like about a blog is that you can tap into individuals who can say things a whole let better than you can yourself. Here is a contribution from a reader, questioning our positions on monarchy and religion, that we can just lean back and admire. 

1. Monarchy and dynastic rule imply accepting hierarchy between human beings at a fundamental level. I think it would be wrong to assume that this hierarchy would be confined just to the relation between monarch and subject. It would have to presuppose the widespread prevalence of hierarchy between husband and wife, parents and children, among friends, at work, and in more diffuse social networks. What the Enlightenment did was to make all people fundamentally equal, whatever their attributes. By accepting monarchy and dynastic rule, I think one is ultimately accepting the continuance of such hierarchies that are morally highly questionable if not repugnant. I realize that the social psychology of many people in rural and urban areas is hierarchically oriented but this is the very thing that needs to change. I do not mean by this that individualism is the only alternative, just equality. In a democracy, political officials *represent* or stand in for their people in a particular role and are equal to them in fundamental ways.

2. The case of religion is a little more complex and depends on the nature of the religious views in question. Again, if the only way for a person to interact with God is through a priestly class, then we are back to hierarchy. I believe the Catholic faith is like this. The Protestant Reformation via Martin Luther allowed man to have a direct and personal relationship with God. This is a little better, though even this relationship is ultimately one based on hierarchy. The great advance of Humanism was precisely that it put human beings at the center of the universe.

3. Finally, one may ask: what is wrong with hierarchy itself? At a certain level and in limited spheres (e.g. a team effort with a leader like a cricket team with a captain) it may be harmless, but when it informs the very essence of social life, then given certain assumptions about human nature, it can be very harmful to the full growth and experience of the creative and productive and other powers of man that help him to reach a higher level of fulfillment. It also inhibits friendship, perhaps the most undervalued of relational forms in the modern world, as well as other such forms. 

4. Is there a way that avoids both hierarchy (and all its sociopolitical forms) on the one hand and Humanism and the Enlightenment on the other or do they exhaust the space? I do not know. But the way in which the latter can be realized can vary greatly from region to region. 

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Dynastic Succession: What is the difference between India and France?

January 25, 2008

In our last post (More on Dynasties and Modernity) we had made the point that “it was the mass of Peoples Party loyalists in Pakistan who were clamoring for the leadership to be passed on to a Bhutto after Benazir—hence the addition of Bhutto to Bilawal’s name.”

As if on cue, an op-ed appeared in The News (January 25, 2008) entitled PPP’s succession — not so flawed. The author, a barrister and human rights activist currently based in the UAE, had the following things to say: 

You will not meet a PPP supporter who will not tell you exactly this–that they want a Bhutto to lead the party. From the workers to the leaders, be they of any ethnic or religious background, all want a Bhutto as their leader.

Contrary to what the critics imply, the Bhutto family has not imposed its leadership upon the PPP, or in some clever way contrived to retain party leadership to hog power. Rather, it is a position that has been entrusted upon them by the people. Through years of struggle and sacrifice the Bhutto family has made a place in the hearts of the poor and downtrodden like no other party in Pakistan. The people believe in their sincerity to their cause and have faith in their leadership. They know that this family will do all it can to ease their problems.

The day before Benazir Bhutto was to arrive in Pakistan, Amar Sindhu, a writer who teaches philosophy to university students in Jamshoro, had gone to do some television interviews. She asked some nomadic women why they insisted on voting for Benazir. “She has been twice prime minister. You are still where you are, in your jhuggis [huts]. What has she ever given you?” They answered, “Allah will give us what we need. We just want to see Benazir happy. She is very dukhhi [sad]. Our votes will make her happy.” 

This fantasy-like, mythical relationship between the Bhuttos and the people baffle the intellectual mind. It defies its logic, spurns its theories and scoffs at its cynicism. It is not something to be understood…it is something that can only be felt. Anyone who has seen a Bhutto amongst the people would know what I’m talking about.

This is very much in tune with our own experiences. In the late 1980s, I once asked a rural voter why he continued to support the Peoples Party when it had completely changed its position on many issues. Because “Bhutto is our king,” he answered. Back in the city, I asked a young physician the same question. Because “Bhutto helped my father when he was in trouble,” was the answer.  

As we have been stressing in these series of posts, we are not taking a position for or against dynastic succession. That would be to lose sense of the context. What we are trying to highlight is the fact that in South Asia dynastic succession has the kind of legitimacy that it does not have, for instance, in France. That is not to say that dynastic succession never had legitimacy in France. But something has changed there—what was quite normal at one time comes across as totally bizarre to a French citizen today.

Whatever has changed in France hasn’t yet changed in South Asia. The ethos of South Asia is still monarchical. It is just that we live in the 21st century where we have to use electoral mechanisms to legitimize our dynastic rulers. And that creates a lot of confusion. 

This is where we find fascinating the clues in Ramachandra Guha’s book that tell us how a new practice finds root in alien soil. One such clue is his reference to ethnographic accounts of the 1967 elections: “These show that elections were no longer a top dressing on inhospitable soil; they had been fully internalized, made part of Indian life. An election was a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years.” (Page 418)  

And “The Indian’s love of voting is well illustrated by a cluster of villages on the Andhra-Maharashtra border. Issued voting cards by the administrations of both states, the villagers seized the opportunity to vote twice.” (Page 736) 

Of course, things are changing; Of course, Indians are spread across a spectrum with different perspectives on dynastic succession; Of course, the electoral space has generated major gains for many; Of course, people have exploited the space rationally for good and bad ends. We are not arguing against democracy or the electoral process here. We are making the point that South Asia still has a large residual monarchical ethos. And we are intrigued by the size of the residual and by how it is changing.

And, in the realm of the mind, the bottom line is that there is a difference between France and India in the perception of dynastic succession. That we know. But what exactly is the difference, how has it come about, and what is happening to it over time? That escapes us still. All we can say is that the old modernization theory with its thesis of convergence leaves us unconvinced.

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More on Dynasties and Modernity

January 24, 2008

We have received more comments from our reader whom we had quoted in the previous post (How Modern is Modern?). 

On dynasties and the new generation:

A more nuanced argument is required on both sides, either to support or refute the position that the next generation is likely to be less tolerant of dynasties. It is possible that those who benefit from dynasties and also those who do not are not willing or able to protest such practices. What can an individual reasonably do if the son of Benazir Bhutto or Sonia Gandhi is inducted into politics? Sonia herself was a reluctant inductee. So, the absence of protest does not mean such practices are readily accepted by everyone. Indeed, there is some evidence that the younger generation is less willing to accept nepotism in business where it is more common than politics. Perhaps the writer has not taken the argument that dynastic rule is a systemic phenomenon far enough: the lack of protest does not necessarily imply uniform acceptance by the electorate but more likely a complicated structure of partial acceptance, partial indifference, and barriers to the formation of protest amongst the rest. In any case, more details on both sides are required to make the case either way. 

On how culturally modern is modern society in South Asia: 

This is admittedly a speculative arena and the following remarks should be taken as such. The writer has put their finger on the key question: what exactly constitutes modernity in this era, globally? Just as Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy,” and his pronouncement may be taken as one marker of the separation between traditional and modern worldviews, so Galileo, the “father of modern science,” may be taken as another. Modernity itself may be said to be constituted by the twin dimensions of inner belief and outer action, Descartes contributing primarily to the modernity of the former and Galileo primarily to the latter. Modern physics and modern science led to the rationalization of the sphere of action just as modern philosophy led to the rationalization of the sphere of belief. But, as has been pointed out above, the two need not go together. So it is possible to be religious in one’s private beliefs but act rationally in the public world. 

If this speculative characterization is reasonable, it may be arguable that the younger generation, especially in urban areas, is increasingly influenced by the successes of modern science without necessarily the successes of modern philosophy. 

This discussion is splitting into two different topics and we would like to bring them together again. The safest approach would be to step back from the labeling of pre-modern and modern because there is something not quite right about being so categorical and also because we lack the domain knowledge to say much more on that topic with conviction.

We would like to confine ourselves to the issue of dynastic succession and the parameters of its acceptance in South Asia at this time. An example might help to illustrate our line of thought. Suppose something happens (God forbid) to Nikolas Sarkozy and it is discovered he has left a will bequeathing the leadership of his party to Carla Bruni. There will be no place in the system to effect such a transition and there probably wouldn’t be a single person in France who would not find the situation entirely beyond comprehension. The only conclusion for a French citizen would be to doubt the sanity of Nikolas Sarkozy—love can do such things to people. 

Since we are talking about France we recall that Foucault laid a lot of stress on what happens at the extremities (the fingertips, he called them) of systems. And at the extremities in France, we feel sure, this would not make any sense.

South Asia is quite different. From what we understand, it was the mass of Peoples Party loyalists in Pakistan who were clamoring for the leadership to be passed on to a Bhutto after Benazir—hence the addition of Bhutto to Bilawal’s name. And Sonia Gandhi, being an Italian, must indeed have been a very reluctant inductee. But the bosses must have felt, whether they themselves believed it or not, that only she could hold the party together—which conclusion would have followed from their assessment of the most acceptable candidate to the electorate.

The reader is quite right in suggesting that this is really an empirical proposition. In Haiti, Papa Doc’s anointment of Baby Doc might have been accepted out of fear; in North Korea the Great Leader’s handing over to the Little Leader might have been due to years of brainwashing. But in South Asia, no such fear or coercion can be adduced as a reason. Rather it seems a rational response by powerbrokers to the demand of the electorate. So, the empirical question is what proportion of the population finds the practice of dynastic succession quite normal (unlike in France), how this proportion is distributed in the population, whether it is increasing or decreasing, and at what rate? One empirical clue can be provided by the trend in a party’s vote bank after such a dynastic succession has occurred. We doubt the Peoples Party would suffer any negative fallout, other things remaining the same. 

Personally, we are comfortable with individuals being religious in their private beliefs and rational in the public world since that is a matter of personal choice. I guess we should also be comfortable with individual preference for dynastic succession—after all that was the norm in monarchical societies and there was nothing really wrong with monarchical societies for a very long time. 

We only got started on this train of thought because Ramachandra Guha, while extolling the rooting of democratic governance in India, felt very concerned at the transition to dynastic succession after twenty years of independence. 

The empirical question that remains to be answered is whether, at its fingertips, the ethos of Indian society is democratic or monarchical? And how is it changing, if it is changing at all?

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