Monday, November 26, 2007

The Pretense of Democracy


Maryam Sakeenah

'No timeframe for elections', the headlines blared as the latest from the President. The next day, a stunning somersault after the storm the statement had kicked up: 'Elections to be held in January.'

This might be great news, but it doesn't make a lot of us any less despairing of the state of affairs. The stroke was played with ingenuity for it will buy the General more time to let the raids, crackdowns, arrests, operations, police-boot-kicks-in-faces and baton-charging of lawyers, professors and students go on. After all, the ends justify the means. The great end in sight is the Restoration of True Democracy, as defined by the Father of True Democracy. To this end, the forthright soldier is committed. The announcement will help quieten down the endless stream of criticism directed at the unscrupulous regime from the outside world. The fragile 'progressive image', so painstakingly put up with all the marathons, Sufism conferences, obscenity galore and crackdowns on madrassahs and masjids is at stake.

The General is intelligent. He knows showing a simple readiness to hold elections can be a great whitewash for all the crimes, the high-handedness, the atrocities. He knows Democracy is the Elusive Beloved, the be-all and end-all of our political endeavour, the one thing to be lived and died for. And, all said and done, he knows we don't know a jack about what democracy means.

He is right. For this is why democracy here is little more than a magic word you use and abuse as a justification, an excuse and a vindication for a regime's dirty methods. All dictators have used the rhetoric of democracy to keep the nation dumbed down. It is all being done to strengthen 'true democracy', you know. we all serve that one great end, and have been serving it these past 60 years.

And yet, I repeat: we don't know a jack about what democracy means or what it truly involves. To us, democracy is a periodic balloting exercise. Full Stop. We know little more than that, and this is why holding a vote becomes the one criterion for any regime to get its legitimacy or to win approval for its methods. And this is exactly why Musharraf had to announce elections: the disquiet around the world needs a hushing up. The magic wand of the declaration to allow a vote has done the job remarkably. However, a vote held under a regime with credentials such as these has no credibility and is a very flimsy cover for its illegitimate methods. But then, who wants to dig in that deep?

The celebrated declaration doesn't brighten up the faces around me. It doesn't bring a promise of deliverance. It means little as life goes on with its vicious monotony, sun up to sun down, leaving the common man to bear his ordained lot.

Notwithstanding the frequency of election dramatics, our socio-political setup is a messed up morass of feudal hierarchies, a patriarchal setup where clout and political weight, pressure groups, lobbies, rhetoric and demagoguery count. The system breeds poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, misery and helps to maintain the status quo for its self-perpetuation.

Because the ignorant, illiterate man can never acquire the political consciousness to discriminate. He can never question why or stand up for his right. The hungry man will be so completely trapped in his hand-to-mouth existence, he wouldn't ever think beyond the next meal. The human being trapped in a minimal existence is the politician's strength. His stunted mind, his minimal self can never threaten. Like the sheep who are taught to keep up the chorus, 'Four legs good, two legs bad,' and overnight, are taught to unlearn and relearn the expediently modified version: 'Four legs good, two legs better.' The rhetoric does the trick: for the glorification of he State. For welfare, progress, development, freedom, democracy. The sheep keep bleating in chorus reassuringly, and the leader keeps up the chest-thumping, his rhetoric heavily laden with the glamorous word, 'democracy.'

Despite the electoral exercises, the voting and the ballot box, such a system cannot but throw up leaders of the same crop. The system is designed to create more of the same, to give security and perpetuation to the status-quo and to bring into power people who do not threaten the system with promise of change but in fact are products of it and dependent on it for political survival. So long as feudalism, social inequality and injustice thrive, the system will never bring to the fore any freshness. Making a graduate degree a necessary condition for an assembly seat will only bring in more fake degrees. Increasing women seats in the assembly will only bring in wives, daughters and sisters of the same crop. Implanting an election exercise on top of a rotten system can never truly democratize. It keeps bringing in, by turn, the same sequence of faces. The change has to be from the grassroots.

Plato believed that democracy of the vote was a self-destructive system because, as Will Durant interprets him, "the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best people and the wisest courses to take. To get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play. The crowd so loves rhetoric and flattery, that at last the wiliest, calling himself the 'protector of the people', rises to power. In democracy we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. The people blindly elect the lesser of two evils presented to them as candidates by the nominating cliques. To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office and selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good_ that is the problem of political philosophy."

To create such a system, there needs to be done an overhauling of the status quo from the grassroots, and without the hypocrisy of voting. Durant, commenting on Platonic thought further writes, "True democracy means perfect equality of opportunity, especially in education, not the rotation of every Tom, Dick and Harry in public office. Public officials shall be chosen not by votes nor by secret cliques pulling the unseen wires of democratic pretence, but by their own ability as demonstrated in the fundamental democracy of an equal race."

A truly democratic system, therefore, is not merely one in which people go to the vote, but one in which the fundamental, core values are social justice, economic and social equality, liberty and respect of the individual human being. A genuine system is one in which the social and political machinery is geared towards reinstating and protecting the respect, dignity and basic human rights of the individual; in which, as the Prophet (S) of Islam said, "the honour, life and property" of an individual is safe.

A true political democracy rests on social and economic democracy as its basis. Such a system naturally engenders from within itself, a genuine political hierarchy which acts in service of the system, to maintain the core values of justice, fundamental rights, freedom and equality.

Every crisis, they say, comes with an opportunity. The crisis we are living through presents such an opportunity too. In the current scenario, we are witnessing the collective resentment of literally all departments and shades of life against the autocratic system_ the front against this government consists of lawyers, journalists, professors, students, religious leaders and members of the civil society. For the first time in history has Pakistan's civil society assumed this role to fill up the vacuum created by the opportunist, self-serving politicians who failed to deliver. Any genuine change has to come from the civil society. When the rot of parliamentary democracy fails, it is the civil society that must rise to the fore as the guardians of the values that got trodden on in the melee_ justice, equality, fundamental human rights. It is the civil society that is qualified and imbued with the potential to turn the tide and become the ground-layers of a genuinely egalitarian order we have been dreaming of since long. It is an immense opportunity. If the civil society fails to rise up to the occasion, the rotten, exploitative order might win over once again for another, prolonged hypocrisy. It probably is, as that pioneer of our freedom had said all those years back, 'Now or Never.'