The News: Democracy: in theory and in practice
by Syed Mohibullah Shah
Who doesn’t want a society whose affairs are managed by the consent of the governed; where all members are guaranteed equal treatment before law and equal opportunities for improving their lives are mandated for all?
That is the hallmark of a civilised society. That also is the theory that defines democracy. After all, democracy is not a divinely ordained mode of governance. And it is not just the name but adherence to and implementation of these fundamental values that make democracy superior to other forms of government.
But pasting a label of democracy over the myriad ways in which its fundamentals have been cynically violated over the years has not only resulted in eroding the faith of Pakistanis in democracy, its dysfunctional governance has also been weakening the state and making it vulnerable to all kinds of non-state actors.
If the game of governance is only to be played by ‘labels without substance’, then the terror outfits have come up with a trump card of their own. The non-state terror outfits now threatening the state itself are also using the label of Islam to capture power and use state resources for their own ends. Will it be too much to say that just as the conduct of the latter has little to do with the spirit of Islam, the conduct of the former in many ways has also had little to do with the culture and spirit of democracy?
The bitter truth is that the name of the game of governance being played in Pakistan for a long time is neither democracy nor Islam. Most players on both sides are using politically or religiously correct labels in pursuit of power for themselves. They make inroads into a hapless and repeatedly exploited mass of people, made fearful of the future as they see the potential of the country and their own future being wasted away at the altar of self-serving players of the game.
It is moot whether if the practice of democracy had even largely adhered to its three fundamental principles mentioned above, would there ever have been any space for such extremist ideas and medieval savagery to be presented as an alternative to the people of Pakistan? Or for outside interference, where even small countries now seem to walk all over us – the seventh most populous and atomic power of the world?
The problems we now encounter – energy outages, broken economy, security scares in urban areas as well as the countryside – haven’t descended from the skies above. They are a creation of our own policies or lack thereof – results of dysfunctional governance which often placed individual or partisan interests over and above what the state and people of Pakistan needed.
The prime minister recently revealed that during his meeting last year with President Obama, the American president wondered how a country that has not solved even its electricity and gas problems had managed to become a nuclear power.
Once the political leadership had set the goal, the development of the country’s nuclear deterrent was diligently and successfully pursued by its armed forces away from political and partisan interference. Otherwise its fate may not have been different from what has befallen this country, which sits upon one of the largest energy resources in the world and yet its households and industry have long been suffering under gas and electricity outages.
A recent example should make things more clear. Despite several handicaps, the police and Rangers have reduced the crime rate in Karachi and won praise from all quarters. Everyone agrees that this would not have happened – as it did not happen for many years – without ousting partisan politics which often played both sides of the wicket. Pakistan used to be like that when it became a shining example among developing countries. It can happen again, if we learn the right lessons from how we achieved nuclear power status and are reducing crime rate in Karachi.
One attempt made to bridge the gap between theory and practice through peaceful means was made in January 2013 when Dr Tahirul Qadri led a march of peaceful and disciplined men, women and children to Islamabad and argued chapter and verse how various provisions of laws and constitution of Pakistan were being violated and urged reforms through their implementation.
The only other party that had been campaigning for change in systems – not just faces – dithered in taking timely decisions and ultimately the status quo forces within the party (the PTI) prevailed upon Imran Khan. Tahirul Qadri and the large gathering that braved rain and the icy cold winter of Islamabad for three days made their point. The biggest loser – who would otherwise have been the biggest beneficiary – was none other than the PTI itself as Khan must now have realised, when no one from the status quo entities is seriously addressing his grievances flowing out of the very concerns highlighted by Dr Qadri.
But blocking attempts to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of democracy has been opening space for forces propagating change through violent means. One of these uses the label of Islam to project its medieval worldview and brutal savagery. Just as one group wants to use the label of democracy to acquire power and control resources of the state, the other uses the name of Islam in pursuit of the same power and control over state assets. In between are the silent majority – whose franchise is stolen as Nadra reports have confirmed and who are denied equal treatment and equal opportunity by the myriad exemptions, privileges and insider activities of their leaders. What stakes would this hapless mass have whether one label wins or the other?
Without reforms in governance, our problems will continue to multiply, the vulnerability of the state will increase and so will the costs of recovery and rectification. If our political leadership shows the vision and the courage to do the right thing, no outsider would be able to interfere in our affairs nor would we be complaining of encroachments on our sovereignty. This is as true for economic management of the country as it is for its security management. That is why the activity seen on controlling terror outfits after Gen Raheel Sharif has taken charge as army chief should be welcomed as it would provide the necessary incentive for durable peace.
The time for the leadership to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of democracy is long overdue. This would restore faith in the system and give a sense of ownership to the people – who are the ultimate protectors of democracy. Serving Pakistan in leadership positions should be an honour and not be degraded to ‘passing time’ and ‘passing the buck’ in singular pursuit of completing the tenure while a mountain of problems keep piling for the people and the state. Most of our problems have been products of dysfunctional democracy. If we take care of democracy, it will take care of all our other problems.
The writer designed the Board of Investment and First Women Bank.