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The Perils Of Democracy In Pakistan

By Shekhar Gupta
May 26, 2023 17:24 IST
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Pakistan still has to acquire the patience you need in a democracy.
The patience to accept that even if I do not like the government I have, I must wait till the next election to change it, explains Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: Police officers clash with an Imran Khan supporter during a protest outside the federal judicial complex in Islamabad. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Are you with Imran Khan or against him? We can ask this question in two different ways.

One, if a fair election is held today, will Imran win or not? And second, if he wins, will it be good for Pakistan or a disaster?

The answer to the first question is, of course, Imran will win.

He has the street with him as no Pakistani leader has had, not even Nawaz Sharif at his peak when he could win big majorities by himself.

His loyalists were also noisy and boisterous, but they would never take on the might of the army.

Or, he would not have been removed from power summarily and unfairly thrice.

Imran's popularity has risen to a level not seen in Pakistan before.

It is because his rivals, enemies and critics, including the army brass, are so convinced that he will easily win an election that they aren't about to hold one now.

Or even, given a choice, on the due date in October unless they can disqualify him constitutionally and prevent him from contesting.


The answer to the second question is even simpler.

For sure, if he wins a big mandate, which he most likely will, it will be a disaster for Pakistan.

Because everything he stands for -- extreme populism, angry, retributive governance, Islamism, anti-Westernism (important from Pakistan's perspective), extreme views on India and impatience with modern economics -- will push Pakistan further into the abyss.

Which leaves us again with two questions. One, can you stop him without denying Pakistan democracy yet again?

And second, if an election means the inevitability of Imran in power with a majority, can Pakistan afford it?

Or, if you are somebody sensible within that country, particularly in its army's GHQ or even among its well-wishers abroad, can Pakistan afford at the helm an Imran sanctified by a fresh election?

Anybody who is still not convinced of the perils of democratisation without preparation after the disaster that followed the heady Arab Spring should take a close look at Pakistan now.

Democracy is among the greatest virtues that mankind has evolved over these millennia, a blessing with all its many imperfections.

But it cannot work in a vacuum of ideas, institutions and a larger popular acceptance of what it entails to govern within a democratic but constitutional system.

A successful democracy calls for a deep-set patience with its imperfections.

As also with what is unique to a constitutional democracy: the limitations of majoritarian powers, for example.

Nawaz Sharif lost power thrice because he failed to appreciate it. Imran won't even make any effort to do so.

IMAGE: Imran Khan addresses the media at his residence in Lahore, May 18, 2023. Photograph: Mohsin Raza/Reuters

That's why, in a situation where Pakistan's institutions are weak or vaporising, its judiciary for example, an elected Imran Khan may just be the fatal blow the hapless -- but powerful -- nation doesn't want.

See it this way: Elections are the touchstone of democracy, but the one thing most of the so-called democratic and liberal forces in Pakistan do not want right now is an immediate election.

On this, they are on the same page as the leadership of their army. Which is the key point we need to debate.

It is clear to all at this point that the ruling coalition commands neither the credibility nor the power to govern a country of 23 crore-plus with a broken economy and polity.

Until the other day, Pakistan always had a parachute for such situations of grave crisis.

That parachute, I regret to say, was the institution of the army.

It's a far from perfect idea, especially for those like us who must instinctively support democratisation.

But all nations, especially the democracies, need institutions that can stand up to majoritarianism of any kind, including parliamentary majorities.

In Pakistan, the judiciary, the election commission, the so-called corruption watchdog and the ever-so-scandalous national accountability bureau have all proven inadequate to the task of protecting its democracy or the national interest.

The army was so far the one institution that guaranteed stability.

Under this Imran onslaught, it isn't even a parody of its omnipotent past in Pakistan.

The country's biggest problem right now is that its army is at its weakest.

Why should we care, you might ask. Schadenfreude is always a tempting idea.

Whether or not it is such a wise one when it comes to your second largest neighbour is a debate we can leave for another day.

This week, we are talking about this counterintuitive and unfortunate idea of the perils of democracy in a country as large as Pakistan.

Why and how did the Arab Spring fail? In one Arab country after another, once the headlines of the multiple Tahrir Squares were over, elections followed.

What was confused for a democratic upsurge was essentially a popular rebellion against decades of militaristic, populist but near-secular dictators.

Instinctively, the response was Islamic. Religion was then the fuel driving these protests.

There was no surprise then, when in one country after another, the Islamists won.

It was invariably some version of the Muslim Brotherhood, except to some extent in Tunisia.

It unravelled in each one. It began with Egypt, where the army returned and restored the status quo ante.

And when it did that, it had a fair bit of popular support.

Because the people of Egypt had not bargained for the kind of Islamisation their elected government had launched.

IMAGE: A man walks past a damaged police station set on fire during clashes between the police and Imran Khan's supporters in Islamabad, May 13, 2023. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Tunisia, long seen as the one success story of the Arab Spring, has come apart now.

Its ultra-popular 'common man' leader, widely hailed as a true democrat in the Eastern world, has now morphed into a cynical dictator.

In the Arab world, democratisation meant Islamisation.

So far, the militarised dictatorships had kept the religion and the clergy in control, if not under brutal suppression.

Armed with the legitimacy of elections, Islamists now spread their influence.

This encouraged the new supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood like Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who pushed his own mostly secular and modern democracy into rapid Islamisation and an elected dictatorship.

Chastened by all of that, Pakistan's army wouldn't want a Mohammed Morsi in Imran as their new elected leader.

You cannot democratise on the run. You need the patience of many decades of prolific work on the ground, mass movements, development of ideas and ideologies, understanding and building of institutions and finally the maturity to accept the limitations of an elected majority.

IMAGE: A rally in support of Pakistan's armed forces in Karachi, May 18, 2023. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

In India, for example, much of this homework was done during the freedom movement.

Subsequently, there's a mass movement of some kind or the other each decade in some part of the country.

Or the big, history-changing events like the Emergency and the fight against it.

None of these Arab countries had made this preparation.

That's why, once they got democracy, they didn't have leaders who would know what to do with it.

Pakistan isn't quite so bad or inadequate on this count.

It has had its popular movements, developed a bunch of leaders, but has much distance still to travel.

At a popular level, it still has to acquire the patience you need in a democracy.

The patience to accept that even if I do not like the government I have, I must wait till the next election to change it.

For that patience to develop and sustain, however, you need institutions that are credible and strong.

I don't know who in Lutyens's team (the original Lutyens) had the sense to put this inscription at the entrance of our North Block: 'Liberty will not descend to a people: a people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing which must be earned before it can be enjoyed.'

For decades since I first noted it, I have nursed a secret fantasy to take the sand-blaster to it.

There are moments, though, when I realise that the departing British, however rude, were telling us something.

This would be useful reading also for the well-meaning people and institutions in Pakistan as well today.

By special arrangement with The Print

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