Democracy and transformation
IT is uncertain whether the wretched show in Islamabad is drawing to a close or entering a new phase. Maybe the floods are a divine warning to our so-called leaders to stop fiddling while Pakistan drowns. There is desperate hope that some good may yet come out of the ridiculous shenanigans of almost a month. But do any of our leaders look as if they will learn anything from this tragicomedy that is pure tragedy for the people? As for the media, it is orgasmic over ‘script writers’, ‘connecting the dots’, ‘Kayani doctrines’, ‘Plans A, B and C’, division of national policymaking between elected civilians and the permanent ‘deep state’, etc.
None of the main cast inside and outside parliament, with honourable exceptions, has emerged with any credit. It is pure fantasy to think this soft state spectacle can translate into movement towards better governance and more inclusive and institutional democracy. The political system is simply proof against any serious commitment to addressing the fundamental needs and entitlements of our people. Not even the indefinite ‘postponement’ of the visit of the president of China, our most important friend and neighbour, can shame the shameless. The attempt to drag his visit into our political wrangling is unforgiveable.
Can the prime minister now take responsibility and rise to the occasion by enabling fresh, free and fair and non-controversial elections under a genuinely independent caretaker government and a credible election commission, even if he is understandably and justifiably convinced that neither law nor established fact compel him to do so? Can this, including essential minimum electoral reform, be done in 90 days? Or will all the change we can look forward to amount to what the French say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change the more they are the same.) That would be the confirmation of a failing state. Anybody concerned?
A social and political change cannot be brought about by political theatre.
Democracy has become a mantra. It generally means the rule of the people. Plato despised it as the rule of the mob that inevitably led to dictatorship and tyranny. The authors of the US constitution were slave-owners and ardent advocates of Enlightenment democracy minus the unenlightened masses. The US has by and large adhered to this rule of the one per cent. Churchill regarded democracy as the worst form of governance except for all the others. Lee Kuan Yew observed democracy was like a Rolls Royce. It is the best car on the road. Buy it if you can afford it. If not, it will be the worst investment you can make. He said for democracy not to be a mockery of itself, the people would first need to have an economic stake in it. Otherwise, they would simply ask for the moon. We have democracy without governance and electricity!
Real change takes time. But what should be possible is to get onto the right path and make progress towards it. This will require scale and quality of effort, the progressive emergence of an appropriate political culture and the development of essential institutions of governance. This will entail a colossal investment in the full range of human resource development. Does our power structure, as reflected in our budget allocations and revenue collection, permit this? Our politically astute ‘leaders’ have other priorities, ranging from nursing their bank accounts to nursing their egos.
A social and political transformation can never be promoted by ‘long marches’ and political theatre including passionate and rehearsed declamations. It means achieving what today may be considered ‘impossible’ by releasing the people’s pent-up moral, social and intellectual energies on an unprecedented scale. It comprises focused and continuous activity, analysis, consultation, discussion, mobilization and organization at every level of society. Only such a participatory process can maximize ownership of political agendas, policies and goals. Does any such vision even occur to our essentially uneducated and uninterested ego-stricken political peacocks?
The greatest barrier to national transformation is said to be the intolerance of religious orthodoxy that permeates our entire society. This is true. But the message of Islam is clearly inclusive, indeed universal, tolerant, mindful of exploitation and oppression, and congenial to rational inquiry. It was centuries after the Prophet (PBUH) when the school of tradition and consensus politically prevailed over the school of informed opinion and reasoned reception. The doors of ijtehad were closed. This was a political development within a religious tradition which provided the basis for orthodoxy for the next 1,000 years.
It enabled the community of believers to survive two calamitous encounters: the destruction wrought by the Mongols and the humiliations inflicted by the West. But it also circumscribed the nature and effectiveness of the responses of Muslim societies to the challenges of modernity and globalisation by inhibiting the internalising of the scientific temper, including the spirit of rational enquiry which had once been the pride of a confident Islamic civilisation.
Many of Islam’s greatest thinkers, including Allama Iqbal, have sought to ‘reopen the doors of ijtehad’ to allow the reception of Islam’s eternal truths in a manner compatible with a successful engagement with contemporary challenges.
However, intellectual, moral and political passivity — in the face of an intolerant, ignorant and violent conservatism that sets a narrow interpretation of divine injunctions against the liberation and welfare of the Muslim masses — has largely frustrated efforts at reforming religious thought. As a result, Muslim societies have generally been denied progress in scientific knowledge, technological development, political freedom and well-being. Our opportunistic leaders are irredeemably irrelevant.
A transition to modernity has to be achieved, or be under way, for concepts such as democracy, the constitution and the rule of law to be effective and meaningful for our people and society. Otherwise, they will tend to reflect, even legitimise, the control of prevailing power structures and practices inimical to social and political progress. Without massive investments in education, health, socio-economic security and institutional capacity, the conventional checklists of democracy and good governance will never amount to progress towards transformation.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.