Of the many comments I heard in Pakistan, one question particularly flummoxed me. Was democracy really the right system for South Asia? It came, unsurprisingly, from someone sympathetic to the military, and was couched in a comparison between Pakistan and India.
What had India achieved, he asked, with its long years of near-uninterrupted democracy, to reduce the gap between rich and poor? What of the Maoist rebellion eating away at its heartland? Its desperate poverty? The human rights abuses from Kashmir to Manipur, when Indian forces were called in to quell separatist revolts? Maybe, he said, democracy was just not suited to countries like India and Pakistan.
The question surprised me, in part because I had never really been forced before to defend democracy, possibly because in the West we take it so much for granted that we have forgotten why it matters. It also surprised me for the sheer conviction of the sentiment.
In Pakistan, this is not a mere academic debate. Just last week, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said there was no threat to democracy and the army had no intention of taking power. Yet the very fact he had to say so at all spoke of deep disquiet in the country over the civilian government's handling of Pakistan's floods, which with it has brought new mutterings of an eventual return to military rule.
"Why the prime minister needed to hammer this point home once again could be anybody’s guess," the Daily Times said in an editorial. "The diminishing returns of a corrupt and incompetent democracy are leading to the inescapable suspicion that something is in the air, in the possible shape of an anti-democratic intervention."