A Look at Democracy in Pakistan –  Part II

    Civil societyA Look at Democracy in Pakistan –  Part II
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    A Look at Democracy in Pakistan –  Part II

    The earlier article, following a talk at Islamabad’s National Institute of Pakistan Studies, put an academic lens on understanding the nexus between Pakistan’s powerful generals and judges and the rich and how they co-opt newcomers nursing dreams for the country.

    This second part of ‘A Look at Democracy in Pakistan’, explores using other, different lenses – a behavioural lens, a constitutional lens, an economic lens and a lens on the rights of citizens to appreciate the crisis of democracy in Pakistan.

    Naazir Mahmood

    A behavioural lens on democracy relates to how communities, individuals, and leaders behave in their personal and social lives – how people respect or do not respect democratic norms in their daily routines.

    The behavioural lens may be wide-ranging and subsume in itself society’s civic and cultural dimensions. Consider a situation where most people (within families) follow dictatorial tendencies and family heads impose their will on other members. Are such families going to cultivate a democratic community? A society can hardly be termed as democratic individuals favour authoritarian attitudes even if they are elected to power through regular elections. Behaviourally speaking, democracy is about personal choice and respect for others’ opinions.

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    In Pakistan, families do not even allow a young person to marry of their own free will or even refuse to accept a defiant couple, often hunting them down in the name of honour. The country might have a democratic setup at the top with elected governments. Yet, looking through a behavioural lens, the society is in crisis.

    This behavioural crisis disallows people to make personal decisions. It refuses to even allow a young person to choose what s/he wants to study or to pursue a dream.

    Behavioural crisis of democracy

    Besides, there is also a civic dimension of democracy that relates to how we behave as citizens. A behavioural lens is all about being considerate and respectful in a democratic society. If there is no consideration for other people in society, we can hardly call it democratic behaviour.

    It is a behavioural crisis of democracy when almost nobody is willing to stop at a traffic signal when they are supposed to. The behavioural lens of democracy tells us that it is a crisis when people do not understand – or do not want to understand – the principle of right of way on streets and instead, try to push themselves in, completely disregarding another person’s right of way, law and even decency. Behavioural and civic dimensions are an integral part of a democratic society, without which regular elections at the top won’t help much. But it does not mean a complete submission to authority.

    Decency and respect it is not about accepting dictates. A democratic society needs to strike a fine balance between respect and submission. It is deeply related to the cultural norms of a society. Democratic behaviour helps us become more sociable – though sociability is not a sure sign of being democratic. There are people who are fairly sociable in gatherings but highly undemocratic in their families. Still, it is safe to say that in public spheres, people of countries such as India or Pakistan are not pretty sociable.

    Sociability means cultural behaviour that brings people together in harmony. Sociable people smile at each other, nod in approval, and send positive vibes without violating somebody else’s personal space.

    Feudal make-up

    These signs of democratic behaviour are hardly visible in Pakistan. Through the behavioural lens of democracy, we notice that people appear to be aggressive and hostile. Their mood is ignited at the slightest provocation; even a minor road accident leads to fisticuffs rather than an amicable resolution.

    The behavioural lens also leads us to realise the need for some effective behaviour-change communication in our education curriculum. Civic education paves the way for a democratic society with individual liberties guaranteed. It is like social liberalism that challenges feudal behaviours that are, in essence, undemocratic. The behavioural lens is even more important in some cases than other lenses as it exposes the roots of a society as democratic or undemocratic. In countries such as India and Pakistan, democracy is in crisis as successive governments have failed to inculcate democratic norms, and that is the crux of the problem – irrespective of how many democratically elected or dictatorial governments we have had.

    Pakistan’s Constitutional crises

    Next, we can use a constitutional lens to look at democracy. It is different from the academic and behavioural lenses but it does not work in isolation as our Constitution is also a reflection of our academic orientation in constitution-making and the behaviours of those who frame or amend constitutional provisions. Looking at Pakistan through a constitutional lens, we find that it took us nine years to formulate the first constitution as opposed to India which could develop its own within two years by the end of 1949 and promulgated it within months, in January 1950.

    Our first Constitution survived only from 1956 to 1958 before being thrown out by Maj-Gen Iskandar Mirza and Gen Ayub Khan, both of whom had no role in the freedom struggle and catapulted themselves to power with the help of the civil and military bureaucracy. The 1962 Constitution that followed was a handiwork of self-appointed field marshal and president Gen Ayub Khan. The good general usurped power and concentrated all authority in the office of the president, targeting civilian leaders and senior politicians such as Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fatima Jinnah. The 1950s and 1960s saw a series of constitutional crises, ultimately resulting in country’s breakup in 1971.

    The constitutional lens shows us that even the 1973 Constitution is not ideal as it has had amendments that have changed its shape. There are provisions in the Constitution that need improvements or outright removal. The Constitution in its present shape is not entirely friendly to all citizens, and has some elements of discriminations embedded within.

    Need for multiple lenses on democracy

    We can go on forever discussing the constitutional lens but there are a couple of other lenses too, most significantly, the economic lens which helps us see the class divisions of Pakistani society.

    Academic and constitutional debates remain futile if there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor. In a truly democratic society, there should be some egalitarian considerations to cater for the underprivileged. We can also call this economic lens a window of equality and equity. There should be equal and equitable economic opportunities. With widespread poverty, Democracy can hardly impress anyone. Deification of the market economy deprives people of their opportunities that disappear behind a wall of capital.

    Finally, two more lenses are important: fundamental rights and gender. It is quite possible that there is constitutional democracy and yet, witness violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution by government and State institutions.

    The gender lens is a crosscutting lens that we must use to measure levels of democracy in any society. It is hard to find women in high offices even in developed countries such as America, China, and Russia. A look at the list of women in the US Senate or in the Politburo of China and the former Soviet Union will indicate how significant the gender lens is.

    This is a never-ending discussion, but the point is that democracy is always ‘a work in progress’ in all countries across the world with each country having its own impediments in the way to an ideal democracy.

    But we must use multiple lenses to understand and improve democracy.



    The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at  [email protected] 

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