Pakistan, India and the value of democracy

September 12, 2010

gilani kayaniOf 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.”

To be clear, there is no sign of an imminent military coup. The army neither wants to, nor needs to take power, since it already calls the shots on the issues that matter to it — foreign and security policy.  But equally, the army’s lead role in flood relief has  increased its clout and encouraged misgivings about the value of democracy which could act as a slow-burning fuse if the civilian government is not able to improve its performance. And according to some, it is a slow-burning fuse lit by the military itself — or by what Dawn columnist Cyril Almedia calls the 800-pound gorilla of Pakistani politics, the army.

Democracy must deliver or else, seems to be the refrain currently gripping Pakistan. So far, however, few have spelled out the value of democracy, nor for that matter said precisely what they mean by  “or else”.

To return to the original question then, what has democracy brought to India in terms of reducing the gap between rich and poor that has been more effective than in frequently non-democratic Pakistan? (Let’s leave aside for the moment questions of global standing, or of Pakistan’s problems with Islamist militants which deserve a separate discussion).

One answer, perhaps, lies in the attitude of one of the Indian system’s fiercest critics, Arundathi Roy. In this lengthy piece about Indian poverty, Maoism and the country’s marginalised tribal people, she lays bare many of the failings of India that are frequently cited by Pakistanis when they compare themselves to their much bigger and ostensibly more successful neighbour.  

Her conclusion, however, is that the fault lies not with democracy itself, but in a lack of democracy. The Indian system, she argues, had been hijacked by economic liberalisation which handed power to big corporate interests, including mining companies seeking to operate in the country’s forested, jungle interiors which are home to India’s tribal people.  And whatever you might think of her argument, her answer lies in what she sees as a more just and democratic representation of the needs of the people, one she believes is possible in India.

“Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still immense hope. If anyone can do it, we can do it.” she writes.  ”The first step towards re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfilment.”

In other words, as I should have said to the Pakistani who asked me whether democracy was suited to South Asia, you should not conflate capitalism with democracy. True, capitalism and democracy developed hand-in-hand in the West, but at the very least I could have argued that the inadequacies of one are not identical to the failings of the other.

Pakistan, probably more than India, has an acute historical sense of itself as a country set up to promote social and economic justice.  Its ideological father, the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, was convinced that social democracy would never work in a Hindu-dominated caste-based India and that only in a separate Muslim nation could the egalitarian principles of Islam be put into practice.

“It is clear to my mind that if Hinduism accepts social democracy, it must cease to be Hinduism,” he wrote in a letter to Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in 1937. “For Islam, the acceptance of social democracy in some suitable form and consistent with the legal principles of Islam is not a revolution but a return to the original purity of Islam.”

His ideas, however, were rooted in the idealism of the early 20th century, when sweeping change from communism to fascism was promoted to build a fairer society.  Consider, for example, the following comments he made in a letter in 1933 in answer to a query from a scholar about Islamic economics. ”I would suggest that you should make careful study of the ideas of Mussolini,” he wrote. ”The essence of  Islamic Economics is to render the growth of large capitals impossible. Mussolini and Hitler think in the same way. Bolshevism has gone to the extreme of abolishing capitalism altogether.  In all aspects of life, Islam always takes the middle course.”

He was not alone in admiring the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini – even British wartime leader Winston Churchill once spoke warmly of him. But while the horrors of World War Two convinced western Europe to abandon grand plans and get on with the muddled and sometimes unsatisfying  business of democracy, Pakistan has retained a tendency to look for an all-encompassing solution to its problems.  Sometimes that has meant looking to military rule; at others to a strict interpretation of Islam.

For now, it is muddling through with democracy – not the pristine one envisaged by Iqbal – but an altogether messier one led by an accidental and unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari.  It is unclear now how long that democracy will survive.  What did strike me, however, from the question on whether democracy is suited to South Asia, is how shallow its roots are.

(File photo of army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani saluting Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani)

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