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Reconsidering democracy

A new political synthesis is required

Reconsidering democracy

Critics of democracy in the Muslim South Asian ethos often invoke Allama Iqbal’s famous verses as an example of how it is a Western system imposed on the East (read Muslim society) by Western colonisers. The lines in rough translation are: “democracy is a system of government in which the subjects are counted, not weighed.”

I am not sure about how much scholars of political theory have investigated the role that regional context plays in the nurturing of democracy in general. Such questions of extraordinary import fall within the purview of political theory, which hardly fascinates Pakistani academics, particularly those dealing in Social Sciences. Thus, profound queries like mal-adjustment of democracy with our (read Asian in general) socio-cultural milieu should be addressed in a systematic manner with scholarly intent and rigour.

Democracy’s widely pervasive connotation designates it as a Western phenomenon, having been imposed on the countries and terrains of the Afro-Asian hemisphere by former colonisers. Many analysts, particularly the ones on the liberal side of the academic spectrum, tend to rubbish such a perception as clichéd, and contend that democracy as a Western construct was an argument propagated by dictators like Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq to legitimise their rule. Both these military rulers contended that democracy is a Western system of governance which, as Ayub Khan once put it, is not consistent with the “genius of Pakistani people”.

To my understanding, pleading the universality of the Western version of democracy is a perception that is far too simplistic. Such Eurocentric notions skirt around the fundamental issue of the impact that socio-cultural imperatives cast on political realities. Underlining the fact that democracy was conceived, nurtured and evolved in the West and introduced in much of Asia and Africa through colonial regimes — and therefore is not congruent with the political traditions of the indigenous polities — may ring true but not entirely. The political elite engineered during the modern era, and unleashed by colonial rulers, was well-conversant with Western democratic norms and ideals. Leaders like M.A. Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru did not subscribe to the political tradition that had a monarch as the fountainhead of government.

Thus, the indigenous leadership was confronted by a duality: these leaders represented modernity in a socio-cultural milieu that had its roots in centuries-old indigeneity.

Most of the nation-states in Asia won their independence because of political action orchestrated and steered by such leaders, anchored in modernity, but with a very strong cultural reference. Nehru’s Discovery of India is a case in point. Similarly, Jinnah invoked a tradition steeped in religious episteme to achieve his goal, the nation-state of Pakistan, which was obviously a modernist project.

Both of these leaders reposed a firm belief in democratic order. But so far as its functioning was concerned, democracy in these countries reconfigured itself. It was markedly different from the Western prototype. The personal charisma of a leader, dynastic politics, and political patronage are the cardinal features of democratic politics in Asia.

Because of these reasons, democratic institutions have not evolved in the region. Institutional development is inimical to the sort of perpetuation that leaders tend to seek in Asian countries. Be it India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the pattern is almost the same. Political parties, their agenda and objectives revolve around the whims of the parties’ charismatic leaders. With a strong leader at the head, political parties fail to practice democracy among their own ranks. Thus, the political parties in Asian polities are devoid of evolutionary dynamism. It is primarily the reason for the phenomenon which, according to Saeed Shafqat, is represented in economic development coupled with political underdevelopment. China, Singapore, and even Malaysia and Vietnam are living examples of that pattern.

More so, in Asian polities, development — whether social or physical — is not contingent on the democratic system per se. Even if democracy is practised in these countries, social and cultural development hardly corresponds with the democratic system. Generally, arbitrary and autocratic decision-making determines the direction of the social movement there. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore or even Jawaharlal Nehru in India exerted their personal will to galvanise the social collective self of their respective countries in the direction they had determined to follow.

One may argue here with a measure of certainty that all the feats of development advocated by those countries could not have been achieved had Lee Kuan and Nehru opted for democratic means for the realisation of social advancement. It was the personalised rule of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Mahathir Muhammad that helped their respective polities to enter in the league of developed nations. One may add Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey in this list too. Erdogan is fast moving from democracy to an autocratic order. One must not lose sight of Kemal Ataturk’s autocratic rule disguised in a democratic garb.

Japan, despite having embraced a democratic system for many decades, has not been able to come to terms with its socio-cultural imperatives. Japan’s phenomenal development in the 1970s and ’80s can be attributed to the innovative instinct of the Japanese people, which had been consistently articulated since the days of the Meiji revolution. More importantly, Japan was absolved of its responsibility towards its own defence and was overseen by the United States after the Second World War. Those imperatives allowed Japan to invest all its energy and resources in technological advancement, and its technological progress stunned the world in the 1970s.

This growth did not happen due to democracy. The same holds for India. Despite having a leader of immense stature like Nehru at the helm for no less than 17 years, the democratic experience was slightly more than a cosmetic one. It boasts of being the largest democracy in the world, but supposedly liberal values have failed to unhinge the caste system that ensures Brahman supremacy in Indian society. Now the curse of Hindutva has overtaken the country. How democracy and Hindutva can be reconciled, and how they can allow each other to exist are phenomena yet to be seen.

While it might seem that this article is building a case against democracy as a system incongruent with the political make-up of the Asian people, I vehemently believe in democracy as the best system. What I am pleading here is that we must review the democratic norms being practised in Asian polities, so that we may come up with a new political synthesis whereby the socio-cultural tradition and democratic ethos are conjoined and made into a workable proposition.

I leave it to my readers to ponder over this question, which I think is integral to any future course that democracy in Pakistan must take.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • Europe too had to struggle to wrest democratic rights from autocrats. There is no special form of democracy suited to Pakistan ‘s social cultural state. The alternative has been military rule. Perhaps it looms on the horizon again

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