Democracy and Governance

Published in the Dawn on July 12, 2004

By Touqir Hussain

Recent political changes have inspired a national requiem lamenting the demise of "democracy" in the country. This raises a question: how can something die which was not "living"? What have we lost? Maybe just a pretence.

Democracy and governance lend themselves each to varying and often confusing definitions. And depending on the definition, the two concepts may or may not be seen as linked, as some authoritarian regimes may be providing what is believed to be "good governance" while some of the seemingly "democratic" systems may be failing in governance. How to escape this semantic trap?

Guided by genuine considerations I would venture to say that perhaps democracy is the form and governance is the substance. The form manifests itself in electoral democracy, sustained by a process of free and fair elections and peaceful and orderly change of government.

But that is not the whole story, because without substance democracy remains hollow. It must embody good governance to empower people, and it can do so only by resting on free institutions, representative government, constitutional liberalism, strong rule of law, and a just and equitable social order.

Otherwise, political power empowers only the dominant social groups and elite who appropriate state's resources for personal gain and strengthen their respective institutions laying a strong foundation for their political primacy and entrenchment. This certainly flies in the face of democratic values.

Democracy is a graded experience which nations acquire by hard work in schooling themselves in literacy and appropriate habits of thought, accommodation and tolerance, and by modernizing social structures with openness to such concepts as rights of man, people's sovereignty and humanistic values. It also involves harmonizing the tribal, ethnic, regional, religious and sectarian divisions, if any.

Two of the most potent instruments of fostering the desired change in the mindset and in dismantling regressive social institutions are education and economic change.

Economic change throws up a middle class who can lead the political action to change the balance of economic and political power thus creating an enabling environment for the expression and exercise of democratic rights.

Not all these qualities can be acquired at once. Progress in different areas does not move abreast. Advance in one accelerates progress in other areas ultimately forming vital tributaries to the democratic stream.

These changes come slowly and painfully and the process faces much resistance from the dominant social groups and the privileged elite which in our case have principally been feudalism and military, ruling through sub-elite groups such as bureaucracy much of which became parasitic over time. Democracy unfortunately is not solvent of these road blocks. In fact there is struggle for power between the two.

Ironically, the electoral democracy in Pakistan has not helped the liberals to play an important role in society. Instead, it has so far enabled feudal politicians to come into power which has strengthened feudalism in the country. As a result, feudal lords' capacity to exploit the peasants has enhanced over the years.

And the military rule helped the armed forces keep the security issue at the centre of national agenda. The military government sought its legitimacy from its claim of being the guardian of nation's ideology, defender of national honour and security and champion of the Kashmir cause.

In a larger context, religion, national security and foreign policy, whether it was US-Pakistan relations, threat from India, Kashmir dispute, Soviet inspired Afghan hostility and subversion, were rolled into one and came to reflect as well as affect Pakistan's political process and social order.

The sense of national aims and direction yielded to passions and empty slogans. Politics became suffused with cant, hypocrisy and fraud. And both democracy and governance suffered.

The institutions became handmaiden of personal power and economic potential and material resources of the country were subordinated either to needs of political survival or personal rapacity. The gamekeepers turned poachers.

As the institutions crumbled or were undermined it weakened the rule of law and social stability which were preyed on by forces of extremism, many of whom were fostered by government support or patronage, and criminal elements.

The state lacked the political will, moral authority and effective instruments of law and order. The worst affected were weak and the vulnerable strata of society who lacked both physical and economic security.

Over the years it generated enormous amount of frustration and anger in the country in every segment of society. The liberal intelligentsia protested in the name of freedom and progress, and the weak and vulnerable masses could do no more than despair and contemplate extreme and illusionary avenues to empowerment swayed by ideologues, demagogues and political opportunists.

The military intervention from time to time was helpful in the damage control, but in due course went on to inflict damage of its own specially to the political process.

If economically the military appeared to have done better than the civilian rule it owed largely to the fact that invariably their coming to power coincided with an enhanced relationship with the US and upgradation of the aid relationship which helped the country to tide over the financial fallout of poor governance by the civilians.

Military's accession to power and the strengthening of US-Pakistan aid relationship was more than a coincidence. In the background was always a critical foreign policy issue affecting the US interests.

Arguably Pakistan in its entire history received more aid during the military rule than the civilian. But there was a pay off: it helped the military to maintain its political profile.

Though Pakistan suffered from poor leadership for much of its history, the nation seems to have a great resilience, a strong will to survive, and a faith-based sense of optimism and exceptionalism, underpinned by its hard working masses and a tiny, but still functional, liberal, modernized and highly educated intelligentsia, at home and abroad, all of which helped to keep the country afloat.

Given the enormity of the self-inflicted damage to the country even survival has been a great achievement. Now with an all pervasive malaise in Pakistan's body politic and the complexity and the range of social and economic problems it faces it is a legitimate question to ask where you begin to put things back in order.

You have here many imperfect choices and overlapping priorities - democracy, social change and political reform, economic development and modernization of society?

Can opting for free and unfettered democracy over other choices, which may require some degree of authoritarian measures, help eventually achieve other objectives.

Or is there a risk? On one hand unrestrained political process may cause disorder and instability in a country badly fragmented and damaged by forces of radicalism and long years of mismanagement, authoritarian rule and fraudulent political process? And on the other, with the level of illiteracy being what it is, the overwhelming proportion of the population living in rural or tribal areas tied to the land under the stranglehold of feudalism and tribalism may continue to be swayed by the landlord, the religious demagogue or the populist? We may thus see same faces in the assemblies who have been rotating in and out of government.

Thus both scenarios may defeat the ends of democracy. The best option for the country was to have persisted with the democratic dispensation, however imperfect, from the beginning of its history.

That unfortunately did not happen and the country has accumulated multiple and mounting problems. Unattended problems have become crises and need an emergency treatment - a critical care if you may call it.

If President Musharraf realizes the enormity of the challenge and wants to do something about it, let him try. After all the military having been part of the problem may have to be now part of the solution.

What is important however is that the president should not be given a blank cheque nor an open-ended mandate. Let him set a deadline for the full restoration of democracy - two years from now perhaps. In this period let Mr Shaukat Aziz concentrate on the economy and education, which will help bring social change, with attendant political dividends.

I am sure he will do well. The president should focus on larger political issues by actually practising "enlightened moderation" with the liberalization and civilianizing of social institutions and the political process.

He should perhaps set up a commission composed of men of character, intellect and integrity, who should hold hearings in the country with political leaders, tribal elders, religious scholars, academics, journalists and bureaucrats to analyze the country's problems, and search for their solution in a larger and long term democratic context.

No politicians should be excluded, in the country or abroad. Let this be an exercise in "truth and reconciliation," if I may borrow this expression. From these consultations a new consensus must emerge about the vision of nation's future embracing among other things empowerment of smaller provinces, and the restoration of 1973 Constitution.

The process should culminate in early elections, let us say towards the end of 2006. Hopefully by then some social change and political reform will bring to power a new generation of politicians.

If the president does that he will have truly played an historical role. Otherwise he will continue to be dogged by opposition and questions of legitimacy, which will be neither good for the country nor for him however well intentioned he may be.