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On Democracy and Democratisation in Pakistan

by M B Naqvi, 31 July 2009

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The Daily Star, July 30, 2009


MOST discussions in Pakistan turn toward the history of Pakistan where military rule occupies 40 years whereas nominally democratic governments lasted for just 20 years or so. The conundrum is; why is it that Pakistan is so prone to military dictatorships while India set up democracy in 1947 and is still being governed by it, except for the blip of an Emergency. Nor did the Indians scurry around in search of an ideal and workable constitution.

What is so special about Pakistan that military dictators tend to takeover frequently? Today, too, there are whispers that another might be on its way. But the question persists. Why? Pakistanis have never had the pleasure of a generally respected constitution and a stable democratic dispensation.

One school of thought is blunt. In the ideal Islamic dispensation, there is no scope for democracy. After all, sovereignty belongs to Allah and men are asked to fear Him, and not participate in sovereignty with Him because that will be shirk or kufr (becoming infidels). In the state of Medina, there were four non-controversial Caliphs, while the Prophet himself ruled initially. All of them were autocratic and had no checks and balances on them. Islam flourishes in autocracies and military rule is in tune with democracy, if not a part of the Islamic ethos.

There is another school that emphasises that so long as the society remains dominated by feudal lords it can never achieve true democracy, because democracy means wide dispersal of power. Feudalism concentrates power in the hands of a few feudal lords. Unless Pakistanis abolish absentee landlordism as such, hoping for democracy is unrealistic.

There is yet another school, the Left, which says that the best democracy will be a classless society. It says that while classes exist, the lower classes must unite and struggle against the elite class. The struggle for egalitarian economy is a prerequisite for eventual democracy that will last as well as have substance. A classless society will facilitate dispersal of power, and guarantee that such a democracy will not be easily overthrown for fear of a revolt by the people.

In class-based societies democracy cannot flourish, except in the western countries. It is prospering in India because there are virtually no big feudals. It is not that there are no intelligent people in Pakistan. They feel pain and humiliation whenever a new military dictator makes his first broadcast. There have been four military adventurers who sacked a formal democratic system of government and a constitution that was being worked upon.

True, common people were not satisfied with the nominal democratic government of the 1950s, or failure of democratic rulers. But no politically conscious person has ever welcomed a military dictator, though common people remained uninterested largely because of absence of political consciousness. It is true that common people can always be mobilised by political workers. The people, deep down, like equality, rule of law and a government with checks and balances. All such ideals were present in various mobilisations that took place even in 1950s. The people cannot be blamed for liking military dictators.

How did Ayub Khan, the first military dictator, go? The country had shown in no uncertain terms that it did not like dictators. And, yet, what happened? Though Ayub Khan, politically beaten, agreed to all the demands of the opposition political parties, he was pushed out by another general. The latter promised and indeed implemented quite a few reforms demanded by opposition parties. He held the first free and fair election. The feudals trick until then was to prevent the passage of any constitution whatever.

Yahya, however, held a fair election but refused to accept its results. The rest is history: East Pakistan rose up in revolt and fought hard. Later, India, for its own strategic purposes supported the Bengalis. The result was the 1971 war and the utter defeat of Pakistan. East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

Crocodile tears are shed in Pakistan and they call it a trauma. But the fact is that even middle and professional classes in West Pakistan did not want to know what was going on in East Pakistan through most of 1971. It is doubtful if any group seriously felt hurt by the event, though there are individuals who did. Some Pakistan army generals rose in verbal revolt against Yahya and his deputy. Two other generals put Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on the gaddi.

Bhutto was an experienced and shrewd person. He quickly grew in his own job and did what his nature demanded; to become another autocratic ruler of Pakistan by concentrating all the levers of power in his own hands. Bhutto’s contribution is fine in one respect. He helped write a democratic constitution; but he did not live under it and made amendments forthwith. The army tolerated him for seven long years. His own nominee, General Ziaul Haq, having superseded many senior generals, sacked him and later hanged him.

Ziaul Haq was a typical military dictator. His ideas were in tune with rightwing parties, particularly of the religious Right. He favoured Jamaate Islami and formed a coalition government of all the rightwing parties. He undertook further Islamisation of Pakistan. He also put Islam at the service of US by helping America defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, and brought much travail to Pakistan.

He propagated, through the controlled press, that democracy was un-Islamic, indeed anti-Islamic. Dictatorship suits Islam was his refrain. He set up a Federal Shariat Court that held all land reforms to be anti-Islamic. The result is that the structure of Pakistan society is the same as it was in 1947 or in the colonial period. He brutally suppressed various pro-democracy movements after misleading the first one of 1977.

After him, the army set up a troika of power — the army chief, the president and the prime minister — under the mutilated 1973 constitution. Real decision making on all key issues was done by the GHQ. The president ensured that GHQ and America’s policies were followed. The prime minister was something of a servant to the president. The period lasted 11 years, in which the Prime Minister House saw five prime ministers walking in and being thrown out. This distribution of power prevented any reforms or development of the economy or tranquil politics.

Finally, General Pervez Musharraf, a nominee of Nawaz Sharif, overthrew his benefactor. His regime ended only a year and a half ago. But it did untold harm to Pakistan; runaway inflation, sinking economy, current account deficit alongside the fiscal one. Pakistan is at its nadir today largely because of Musharraf.

This dismal background makes the query poignant. Why is Pakistan fated to be buffeted and misled by military dictators? The best answer that Muslim League stalwarts came up with was that the people of Pakistan were not prepared for independence; they lacked political awareness or a tradition of political activity.

Why is democracy not suited to Pakistan, or why are Pakistanis not suited to democracy? It is really a circular argument and leads nowhere. The leftists and centrists today ask why be satisfied with the partial democracy of today? Why not have more democracy? As I.A. Rehman put it: if democracy is defective today, pour in more democracy; make the dispersal of power so widespread that at least two or three lac people feel threatened by the demise of democracy. They will not let that happen.

M.B. Naqvi is a leading Pakistani columnist.