Liberal Democracy in Pakistan?

Is democracy suitable for Pakistan? The question continues to be asked and has resurfaced recently on social media. Few now explicitly maintain that the country cannot be run democratically. However, many imply this stance by invoking ‘the man on the street’ and claiming that s/he is not concerned with democracy but with the meeting of daily needs. And, the subtext continues, such needs were met better under non-democratic rule.
Reference to the daily material needs of man (and woman) on the street reflects one particular way in which democracy is often discussed – by appealing to its desired consequences. There is, however, another way in which democracy can be discussed and that is in philosophical terms. Let us call these two ways as consequential and philosophical modes of thinking about the suitability of democracy.
In Pakistan, debate about democracy has been predominantly at consequential level. People point to the consequences of democratic rule in terms of economic growth. Those in favour of democracy, refer to the economic outcome in the West to make a case for it. Those against democracy, lament the economic conditions in Pakistan to say that democracy cannot work in the country. Common among the two positions is the recourse to the material outcomes under democracy.
Consideration of consequences is important and useful but it is also contingent, as all empirical matters are. We can find examples of material success and failure under both democratic and dictatorial rules. In the case of Pakistan, the combined effect of country’s poor economic record and commercial growth in some non-democratic countries has led many people to once again yearn for what they consider as good old days of dictatorship.
I do not wish to discuss democracy versus dictatorship from consequential point of view, important though it is. My concern here is moral and philosophical justification of democracy. It is essential to consider this argument for democracy as it will provide those interested in this question a more holistic exploration before making judgement. Hence, this note is concerned with philosophy of democracy. It does not deny that democracy has not yielded positive results in Pakistan. It is about why one should persist with democracy despite failure and struggle to make it work rather than seek refuge in dreams of dictatorship.
Democracy is a form of governance, but not just that. Democracy is an institutional arrangement, but not just that. Ultimately, democracy is a philosophy of life and a worldview about who we are and our place in the cosmos. The fundamental assumption in this philosophy is that each human being is an equally valued individual. An individual is an integrated sum of qualities, values, feelings, desires and characteristics that distinguish one person from others. Each person, you, I and everyone else, is considered as unique being, the site of pains, joys and thoughts. Regardless of our physical differences, as individuals we are all equal. Equality of individuals is a fundamental assumption in the philosophy of democracy. It is by appealing to this assumption that groups – women and black, for example – who were once kept outside the democratic process have fought their way in.
This philosophy further assumes that as individuals we wish to have maximum authority over our own lives and ultimately carry responsibility for our life trajectories. It seems that most people would wish to choose their own profession, life-partner, residence, friendships and so on. Of course, choices are never completely free. There are always constraints. But we seek to maximise the choice within constraints. That the individual desires to be self-governing within the context of social milieu and history is another fundamental belief that underpins democracy.
This emphasis on individual does not make sense without the idea of society, for we are individuals only in a society. Hence, being an individual does not mean a negation of social life, responsibility, consultation and co-operation. Our individuality is rooted in social life but eventually each person is seen as responsible for him/herself. Society can provide experience, tradition and knowledge but it is individual who uses and interprets these in his/her own way. Modern justice system works on this basis and many would argue that the Islamic notion of accountability in the hereafter also assumes this individual moral responsibility.
The intertwining of individuality and society means that a degree of social and political organisation is required. This would entail relationship between individuals, some level of hierarchies, division of labour, modes of arbitration and a sense of security. In other words, society requires governance. Here we arrive at the central issue, the relationship between our individuality and the form of governance in society. And it is with respect to this relationship that democracy becomes morally distinctive from dictatorial forms of political organisations.
What distinguishes democracy from dictatorship is precisely the way it understands the relationship between individuality and governance. In a dictatorship, be it military or monarchical, only the individuality of the ruler counts. People are his (and rarely her) subjects whose individuality does not count. The dictator decides, the rest follow; and this not just in practice but also in theory. No amount of material success under a dictator can deny this fact. On the other hand, in a democracy, philosophically speaking, the individuals are the governors, their individuality counts. People, demos, are the government which is through and for them. Ultimately, in a democracy, the rulers and the ruled are one. All are citizens, none is subject of another; none above the law.
Some reflection will show that this is a very different way of thinking about the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed than what one finds predominant in Pakistan.
For many in the country, the key difference between dictatorship and democracy is the method of acquiring power and leadership position: dictators get into government by force; democrats by votes. And, this is where the difference ends. Both types of leaders are then seen as rulers over a mass of people – a way of thinking not dissimilar to the relationship between kings and their subjects in the past (and in some present contexts). The ruler – dictator or democratically chosen – is expected to hand out goods and services. People beseech them for mercy, as subjects used to beseech kings; complain to them as one complained to kings; become delighted at small concessions rulers make and celebrate the new ruler as if a messiah has arrived – all this only to be disappointed and to start another cycle. This cycle betrays failure to understand democracy as a philosophy. It shows that though we have the scaffolding of democracy our underlying social imagination is that of a king and subjects.
Democracy requires a fundamentally different social imagination or a way to look at the world. It requires that people consider themselves as the rulers and see the elected government only as a delegated authority, their own extended selves. A democratic government is thus an instrument to serve those who have delegated their authority. This is the meaning of Lincoln’s words that democracy is for the people, of the people and by the people.
A further point follows from the above. Just as an employer can delegate authority to his employee but must retain final responsibility, in a democracy people can delegate authority to the elected leaders but must retain final responsibility. When a democratic government succeeds, it is the people who succeed and when it fails, it is the people who fail. A person or a nation that is steeped in philosophy of democracy will never blame a badly performing government as if it was some ‘other’ that failed but would see it was its own part which has failed and which it must now work to redress.
With the above point we can also see why so many democracies have delivered better socio-economic growth in the long run. It is because the people take ownership of their own and each other’s welfare and prosperity. They fail on occasions but learn from it, do the self-correction and move on.
Democracy is ultimately about the power of people who are its final guarantee. It survives as long as people want it to survive. The reason why despite periods of bad governance and socio-economic downfalls, armies in countries such as Canada, France and India cannot contemplate taking over governance is the fear of people. Historically this power of people goes back to the French Revolution.
It can be argued that being based on people’s power, democracy could lead to the oppression of minorities. This is a fair question: democracy alone can certainly degenerate into majority rule. The answer is to limit majority rule within certain principles which safeguards minorities and provides constraints on majority power. One way of doing so is to bring in the notion of liberalism and to qualify the idea of democracy as liberal democracy. Liberalism is an outlook that stresses certain inalienable principles such the centrality of individual, freedom of expression, equality of human beings, minority rights, equality of opportunity and so on. Liberal democracies are founded on these principles and hence provide limit to what majorities could do. Liberalism ensures that democracies have limits to what kind of laws can be made. Democracies in the West are essentially liberal democracies. It is regrettable that in Pakistan the word liberal has acquired negative connotation.
Another common objection to democracy in Pakistan is that it requires a literate population which can understand positions of various parties and make informed decisions. As Pakistan’s literacy rate is very low, it is argued, democracy cannot flourish. This objection is ultimately based on the conflation of literacy and political ignorance. No doubt, a literate population is very helpful in democratic process. But, a literate population is neither necessary nor sufficient for an effective democracy. It is not sufficient because a literate population can also be politically passive and democratically unengaged. It is not essential because literacy and political consciousness are not the same thing. One may not be literate but politically aware and able to make judgements about individual and common good. An oral discourse is always a strong part of democratic process and there is no reason why an illiterate population cannot be fully engaged with democratic process.
To sum up, there are two ways to think about democracy – consequentially and philosophically. In this article, we have engaged with the latter and argued that democracy is not just about elections and economic outcomes. Ultimately, it is about how we see ourselves, what relation we wish to have with each other and how we would like to be organised. It is a philosophy of life and not just a mechanism of power. It is when democracy is adopted as a worldview, as a moral philosophy with which a nation lives, that democracy can take roots in a real sense. It is only than that the failures of governments will not trigger questions about the legitimacy and viability of democracy. It is time that the public debate in Pakistan give attention to democracy as a philosophy. Perhaps those who will be persuaded by the philosophical justification will be less worried about immediate economic consequences and would in fact see no alternative but to struggle for more effective democracy which, it can be argued, would also lead to better economic results in due course of time.


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