Why Democracy?
By Shafqat Mahmood

It seems odd making a case for democracy in this day and age but military rule muddles many minds, especially young impressionable minds. Constantly fed on the propaganda of how awful the politicians were/are and impressed by procedural efficiency in certain areas of governance, young people, and some not so young, start to believe that dictatorship is a blessing.
General Musharraf's personality, or whatever of it is visible to the public, also impresses a section of our English-speaking elite. He is seen by them as a nice affable sort and a liberal, whose lifestyle and personal habits are no different from their own. This cultural affinity combined with a loathing for 'dirty politicians' -- drummed into their head day in and day out -- makes military rule eminently acceptable to them. What they fail to see are the problems it creates.
It could be argued that why bother with the elite, especially the English-speaking kind, when others less fortunate see the difference between military rule and civilian dispensation clearly. The proof of this being the 2002 elections where, despite official tampering of results, an overwhelming majority was still declared to have voted for the same 'dirty politicians'.
Unfortunately, elections or their results have never mattered in this country. It is the English-speaking elite which rules in one form or another and elections to it are a nuisance because they throw up these uncouth Urdu medium types who have to be pandered to. It is this class that gets tired of civilians and of democracy and ends up as an important pillar of military rule.
History will not wait for them to alter their mindset and change will come whether they want it or not, but it would make the transition smooth if this elite sees that democracy is essential and military rule dangerous. It would require them to go beyond the obvious and in some cases overcome ingrained prejudices, but if we are to avoid labels such as a failed state, genuine democracy and not its contrived caricature would have to be seen as the only cure for our ills.
The merits of democracy are many and entire libraries are full of books extolling its virtues, but I only want to mention a few that are relevant to Pakistan. Democracy is the only system that allows disparate people -- ethnically, culturally and linguistically different -- to come together in a common cause. Why? Because in a democracy everyone feels that they have a stake in the system. Military rule is non-inclusive because the will of one institution, or more importantly of its head, takes precedence over everything else.
In our case, it becomes even more complicated because the Pakistani military is largely Punjabi and when it takes over, other ethnicities and communities start to feel excluded from any meaningful participation in power. We lost half the country after 13 years of uninterrupted military rule and however much Bhutto or Mujib be blamed, the buck stopped with the then ruling general, Yahya Khan.
After seven years of Musharraf, we see similar problems cropping up, though hopefully not of the same intensity. The troubles in Balochistan are not confined to two districts only. The Baloch intelligentsia, its youth and the middle classes, all feel alienated. It may not be out of place to mention that during the eleven years of 'bad' democracy there were no problems in Balochistan.
Sindh may appear to be calm but it is seething within. The party it favors has been denied power again and again. Any hasty decision such as on Kalabagh Dam may set it on fire. The problems in tribal areas need no repeating but we also have problems in the Northern Areas and in Azad Kashmir. Democracy is not a cure-all but it has the ability to co-opt everyone and make at least some of these problems go away.
The second major impact that democracy has is on allocation of resources. The people's money is spent on the people or where they want it to be spent. This was the original purpose for which parliament in Britain was created. We are one of the seven nuclear power states in the world but at number 135 among 190 odd countries in the 2005 Human Development Index of the UN.
This means that while our military is one of the finest in the world, our people are among the poorest. Our cantonments and defense housing societies are as good as any in the first world while our cities and rural areas are vehemently Third World. The people's money has been spent on national security and allied matters and not on them. This can only change if there is genuine democracy.
Democracy and accountability through elections forces the leaders to spend on the people, otherwise they get thrown out. This happened in India recently where despite the slogan of India shining, the BJP was voted out because enough attention was not paid by it to the rural areas. If we allow unadulterated democracy to take hold, the people will force the resources to be diverted towards them.
An important consideration for those that view the relative vigor of a nation is the strength of its governing institutions: one reason why we have begun to fare poorly in this or that index is because our institutions such as the judiciary, the parliament, the election commission etc. are seen to be weak and ineffective. This has happened because frequent military takeovers have made it necessary for these institutions to be undermined.
An independent judiciary would not countenance the abrogation of the constitution, which is the basic law of the land. It would above anything else believe in the rule of law. This runs counter to what the military wants. It wants its takeovers to be legitimized and that can only happen if it is able to force the judiciary to accede to its wishes. This takes away its independence and the respect it has in society.
Similar is the fate of the election commission. How can an independent election commission be allowed if the purpose is to rig elections? Parliament is also contorted to fit a particular need. The democratic one is overthrown because without its disappearance, there cannot be military rule. But, then a dummy is created to give civilian cover to military rule. Such a parliament is nothing more than a decoration, a veneer of wood over hard granite.
Democracy in its essence is another name for competing power centers. It does not allow the judiciary or the parliament or the executive to dominate. This not only ensures freedom and fundamental human rights for the people, it strengthens the viability of a state. While London was being destroyed by the Germans, Churchill is reported to have asked whether the courts were working. When told yes, he said we have nothing to worry about.
There is so much more to say. The river of democracy, to use an Urdu expression, is difficult to gather in a pitcher. But one last word of caution: democracy is noisy and messy and does not always throw up good leaders. But, leaders are less important than the strength of the system. The cure for bad democracy, as has been said often enough, is more democracy.
(The writer is a former member of parliament and a freelance columnist based in Lahore. Courtesy The News)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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