Democracy on the stand

The democratic ‘experiment’ in the subcontinent (albeit a limited edition) was introduced more than a century ago by the British. It took almost half a century before people in the Pakistani part of the subcontinent experienced voting based on ‘Adult Franchise’. From 1909 till 1970, voting rights were restricted by one’s level of education, status of landowning and government/military service. It was an indirect method in which a certain segment of society was allowed to represent everyone else in that particular society. The educated, wealthy elite played a crucial role in pre-partition and post-partition politics, particularly in Pakistan. All India Muslim League was essentially a clique of landed aristocracy and educated elites from different parts of India. The League was formed by members of the elite in Dhaka, with very few Bengalis in attendance. Even after partition, leadership of Muslim League in East Pakistan belonged to wealthy families that had settled in Bengal many decades ago. This one of the reasons that provincial elections in the province were delayed from 1951 till 1954. When the elections finally took place, Muslim League was trounced by a combined front of Bengali parties. It was a portent for things to come.

Before partition, the last elections for provincial assemblies were held in 1946 and the assemblies had a lifespan of five years. Provincial elections were held only in Punjab during March 1951. A few days before the election, the infamous ‘Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case’ was unveiled that reportedly aimed at staging a coup against the government. During the Punjab elections of 1951, widespread rigging was conducted by the sitting government (led by Chief Minister Mumtaz Daultana) to ensure victory. The tactics worked and the Daultana throne was saved. National elections were scheduled to be held in January 1959 but Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan had other plans. The coup d’états of October 1958 disrupted the flow of even the limited and flawed democracy that we had. Ayub Khan devised his own brand of democracy in the form of ‘Basic Democrats’. During the Presidential elections of 1965, another bout of rigging ensured that Fatima Jinnah lost to Ayub Khan.

From 1970 till 2016, ten national elections have taken place. Three of these elections were held under direct or indirect military rule (1985, 2002, and 2007). The see-saw of governments during the 1990s exhausted voters and during the 1997 elections, an all-time low voter turnout was recorded. When the second Nawaz Sharif Government (1997-99) was removed through a coup, there were no signs of widespread disarray or unrest among the populace. People were getting tired of the democratic musical chairs played by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. In 2013, a democratic transition (from one elected assembly to the next) happened for the first time in our history. By 2018, the historicity of that moment is going to seem ancient history. If a whole generation of military officers finish their careers without participation in a military government, the future of democracy in our country would be bright.

With this hope in mind, one has to look back and examine what democracy actually means for a country like Pakistan. We are a post-colonial, semi-feudal, patriarchal and religious society. Democracy cannot function without participation of large swathes of society (women, lower economic classes and religious minorities). As an economy, we don’t have the requisite level of industrialisation to sustain the economy and our foreign policy is almost entirely controlled by the military. We have to work with what we have, keeping in mind all these impediments. There is no magical solution to all of our problems, and democracy (in its current incarnation) doesn’t offer a lot for our particular set of issues.

There is a lot that our political parties could’ve done but chose not to. The threat of military rule was not present during the first decade of our nation’s history which the politicians spent squabbling with each other. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had the glorious chance to rewrite our history and he spurned it in a blaze of glory. The 90s consisted of high-octane political drama with twists and turns at the behest of establishment. Since 2008, two successive governments have been given the mandate to alter the course of our history. While the military can (and does) jealously safeguard the nuclear facilities, foreign policy and its ‘strategic assets’, no one is stopping the politicos from spending the money they have on education, health and human development.

In Punjab, mega projects are limited to Lahore and other cities have to wait for years to get even small things done (Wazirabad’s unfinished cardiac hospital is one example). Sindhis outside the major cities, almost everyone in Balochistan and many parts of KP are yet to see any fruits of a democratic government. There are no military trucks standing in the way of building infrastructure in Rajanpur or Badin, no one from the ISI stopping politicians to develop a trauma centre in Quetta, not even a whiff of disapproval from the GHQ if flood-swept roads are upgraded in periphery of Sialkot. The ghost schools in Sindh were not manned by Rangers, mind you. The plan to give chicken to girls in Punjab’s’ schools was not prepared by General Zia. Parties have chosen their ‘turfs’ and rarely move out of those comfort zones, be it the MQM in urban Sindh or PMLN in the trading class of Punjab.

While one can (and should) blame the military for its excesses and infractions, politicians should leave no stone unturned to deliver as much as they possibly can. For a voter on the street, uninterrupted electric supply matters more than the eighteenth amendment (as the PPP sadly discovered at the last elections). Social change is not necessarily included in the job description of political parties but in a society like ours, they have to play their role in promoting gender equality, income equality and interfaith harmony. Democracy is not just about the voting; it is an entire package of responsibilities.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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