May 062008

Unless the existing gap between the rich and the poor decreases, it will remain impossible for our states to forge a stronger bond of nationality, and existing inequalities in our midst will continue to exacerbate tensions within a heterogeneous populace

There are many countries around the world where a majority of citizens do not really exercise their right to vote. But focusing on the need for promoting political democracy is not enough to help resolve this issue. Due attention needs to be given to promoting economic and social democracy as well, so that ordinary citizens within such countries are included in numerous other aspects of life in addition to merely being expected to vote. This is the only way forward with regards to enabling democratic governance.

It cannot be denied that political parties have their own vested interests and need to favour their own constituencies, which makes it difficult for them to accomplish this goal on their own. Thus, civil society needs to step forward and try to coordinate how the needs of varied communities of citizens can be prioritised so that no one remains socially excluded from mainstream political processes. Unless this happens, genuine democracy will not be able to take root and the problems of capturing vote banks of disempowered groups to gain power, and of voter apathy, will continue to persist. For those who say that democracy has grown exponentially over the last few decades, the mere fact that justice, equality and poverty still prevail should be indicative of the fact that the collective will of the majority is yet not in force.

Implementing the principle of participation, beyond simplistic measures like trying to increase voter turnout, is not so easy however.

Consider the context of our own country for example. The framework for building political institutions in the Subcontinent was put in place by British colonialism, impelled by the Indian National Congress and Muslim League during the period of the two World Wars, which led to the articulation of the Government of India Act of 1935. Although based upon a limited franchise of less than 20 percent adult electorate and encumbered by the burden of communalism, the unfairness of nominated assembly members, as well as pre-emptive powers given to the Viceroy, the Act of 1935 nevertheless did recognise that democracy itself was an eventual end result, which has to be based on the principle of universal adult suffrage.

While Congress subsequently opted for pursuing this goal despite the many implied real challenges, Pakistan chose a rather different course. Scholars point out that Pakistan’s decision to bypass democracy had to do with the compulsion of articulating a binding sense of common identity immediately after the trauma of partition, and in view of the looming threat of Indian hegemony. But this led our state to be too eager to homogenise the plethora of regional and primordial social, sectarian and cultural formations contained within the borders of Pakistan.

Some political historians have realised how Pakistan has in fact been deviating from the basis for all successful polities in the South Asian historical matrix. Successful political regimes dating back to the earliest states and dynasties had used a political model of multicultural accommodative politics, which fits all the regional components into a federal structure allowing ‘differences’ to thrive under an ideologically neutral, or at least, accommodative political doctrine. Unable to do the same, the Pakistani state has instead chosen to exhibit rather authoritarian and elitist tendencies.

There is now an evident need to deal with the growing economic and regional disparity within our country. This in fact is a challenge that many developing countries are also facing. Why is it that the problem of inequity continues to persist in so many developing nations?

Perhaps this is because we, as nations, still do not pay enough attention to the majority of our citizens. One thing is for sure, unless the existing gap between the rich and the poor decreases, it will remain impossible for our states to forge a stronger bond of nationality, and existing inequalities in our midst will continue to exacerbate tensions within a heterogeneous populace. Evidence in this regard is unfortunately ample, not only within Asia but in Africa as well.

The most important step in reducing inequality is to begin tackling the problem of poverty more seriously. Yet despite the repeated efforts to improve the lives of poor people, it is often those who are undeserving who keep skimming off development funds specifically meant for those most in need. While corruption is one reason why this happens, but that is not the end of the story. There are many other reasons why the poor remain poor and the rich keep getting richer. Unfortunately, some of these reasons have to do with the perceptions of those who are working to help alleviate poverty.

Even when funds are allocated for the uplift of geographically marginalised and poor pockets of a country, development interventions on ground too often fail to engage with poor people directly. They instead consider influential people within a given community to be legitimate representatives of these poor communities. Yet, considering these informal local powerful actors, be it a tribal elder or a zamindar, as the genuine representative of all people within a given community, raises concerns around the potential for misallocation of resources even within poor communities. These informal influentials have elusive sources of power, based on which they can either oppose or promote external interventions with regards to their own self-interest, which is not always apparent or easy to predict.

Moreover, the initial reliance on locally influential persons creates an image in the minds of the poor, of development processes being associated with the better off and makes it difficult to build relationships of trust and openness with the poor. This is not to say that these informal influences have to be avoided at all costs, it is just that development practitioners should try to get away from the notion of partnering with them to gain greater acceptability amongst local communities.

Unless this is done, local level influentials will continue to control how development funds are allocated at the grassroots level, and use this influence to consolidate their own power, instead of enabling the poor to become more than vote-banks, and instead proactive citizens of their respective states.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at

Courtesy: Daily Times, 6/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:20 pm

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