The struggle continues —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

We have reason to be careful when someone justifies his or her wrongs against society in the name of democracy. All dictators in the past have justified their actions on two counts — they did everything in the national interest and that what they did was good for ‘democracy’

The dream of a democratic Pakistan remains distant. The struggle for this dream will be long drawn, and there are many in all sectors of society who stand in the way. It is even more distressing to know, without any ambiguity, that the leaders in control have only secondary interest in democracy.

This comment is not without empirical reference; there is plenty from our past as well as from how the directors of the political enterprises have recently conducted themselves on critical issues of national interest.

What can be of greater interest to the Pakistani nation than democracy, genuine federalism, political stability and national security? None of these seem to be among the priorities of the major political players. There are other, personal rather than national, considerations before them.

The personal is very much a part of politics but it has to be subordinated to the larger social good, the law of the land, and the constitution. This is the way personal interest is reconciled with the public interest in democracies.

Some may argue that we should not complain about the way the country has been ruled for the past half year. The people have elected the assemblies and assemblymen have ‘trust’ in the managing directors of their respective family-owned political enterprises. Their refrain might be that if you wish to change anything, change the way voters vote.

True, very true. This is a complex issue of local social structures, caste-based voting blocs, and patronage politics. Therefore, the problem with building democratic politics in feudal oligarchies is that the popular vote legitimises the power of the traditional ruling groups. They become authentic and lawful representatives of the people. You cannot beat that argument if you believe in representative government.

There is a way out in subjecting the conduct of public representatives to legal and judicial scrutiny. Even in mature democracies with powerful civil societies, open media and free debate, judging the conduct of the public office holders has never been left to the voters alone. The vote is the basic requirement for being in the legislature, but that is it.

Theoretically speaking, what remedy is available to a society in which thieves, thugs and plunderers get elected to the assemblies? This is a question that great democratic thinkers grappled with for centuries and found a practical answer: power will be exercised under the law, and whether or not public office holders have misused power or committed illegal acts will be determined by an independent judiciary. This issue is also addressed by structuring the system in a way that power is dispersed with institutional checks and balances.

However, in our struggle for democracy, we are faced with political enterprises that are driven by the profit motive rather than public interest. These entities are determining even the shape of the constitution, accountability laws and the judicial organ of the state. There cannot be a more perverse use of the sovereignty of parliament than what we have witnessed recently, and are likely to witness even more as a few individuals employ this institution to serve their own interests.

Our struggle, the struggle of civil society, the media, lawyers and ordinary folk was for the construction of genuine democracy, in the way the term is universally understood and its principles and institutions applied. We are all disappointed by how a small group has grabbed power and taken control of everything that would make them responsible for what they did during their earlier stints in power.

There was fresh hope and optimism on February 18 that our political leaders had learnt some lessons form their own experience and national history. Expectations were high — the deposed judges would be restored, the 17th Amendment would be repealed, the grand coalition would work together, the economic downturn will be arrested, the Taliban insurgency will be brought under control and we will live in a relatively free and open society.

To repeat Roedad Khan’s telling title of his history of Pakistan, even this dream has ‘gone sour’. The very few with a narrow, self-centred agenda have succeeded in crushing the Pakistani dream. But then the big question is: can they hold on to what they have captured or venture to capture even more political space? And we will face bigger, more troubling questions more frequently on the world stage about our politics and power holders.

But we have an equal right to demand democracy the way we understand it or in the manner it is practiced in the world. We have reason to be careful when someone justifies his or her wrongs against society in the name of democracy. All dictators in the past have justified their actions on two counts — they did everything in the national interest and that what they did was good for ‘democracy’. We hear similar voices of similar spokespersons making similar arguments about democracy and rule of law.

We also understand the evolutionary character of democracy, but also the difference between evolution and retardation; and when it is true and moving forward and when it is false and deceptive.

The politics of Pakistan is in worse shape than ever. And this is happening as the Taliban insurgency gains strength, the most dangerous insurgency in our history. The breakdown of the grand coalition and the fear that the two major parties once again might get locked in a fierce battle over who rules the Punjab will push us in a dark ally. If the sound bites on the media indicate anything, it is that we are moving in that direction.

All the lessons of the past seem to have been forgotten. We stand today awkwardly on a precipice, dangerously poised to fall. The political players may escape to the palaces and mansions abroad, but we will continue to struggle for our democracy.

With all the dangerous decisions already made, including the next holder of the presidency, we can only faintly hope that wisdom and men of goodwill with some heart for the country and democracy will prevail and pull us back from the dangerous path a few men have selected for Pakistan.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at
Source: Daily Times, 2/9/2008


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