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From empires to democracies: Part-I

The age of empires is gone, and empires have been replaced by ‘big powers’, which are mostly democracies. The simplest definition of democracy is: holding elections at certain intervals (four to five years) to change faces.

The ‘people’ – who are the real sovereign, according to the classic definition of democracy – go through this ritual, once every four or five years. The science of elections is the same the world over; a common person’s opinion and decision is manipulated through new tools of deceit and propaganda. We live in a post-truth era, in which there is no free choice in real terms.

The business of the big powers, like the old empires, remains the same. The instruments of power kept by the empires are used by the big powers almost in the same way. These instruments are: military might and efficient bureaucracy; politicians come and go.

No nation can live in isolation. The biggest source of the wealth of a nation is its trade with other nations. The global economy is controlled by the big powers. There are agents of big powers, known as regional powers, which are kept to a size and are allowed only to move up to a certain level and in a particular direction.

At the regional level, we hear that democracy flourishes in India while in Pakistan it is still an experiment. Why is that so? The answer lies in the historical, social, political and strategic dynamics of both countries. India is a big country and can only be kept united and ruled through democracy. That is what the big powers decided for it. The rest is nothing; the majority of the masses live in abject poverty, while society is divided into castes and creeds. News about corruption and crime pours in incessantly on a daily basis.

India is also one of the biggest violators of human rights but with Bollywood, and newly developed brands, it has been able to sell its soft image all over the world. Colourful spirituality sells well in the ‘godless’ West. India’s so-called middle class too lives an artificial consumer-based life – happy with brands. The peasantry in the villages still visualises ‘Mother India’ with an oxen and wooden plough. For this multitude, the journey from the Mauriyas to the Mughals and from the British to the BJP‘s new India hardly matters. India has, however, kept some instruments that it inherited from the empire intact – its military and civil bureaucracy, the latter described by Sardar Patel as a ‘steel frame’ (a phrase originally used by the British).

Pakistan, on its part, has flirted with democratic experiences. There is a continuous tension between the two instruments of the empire, the civil service and the military – collectively called the ‘establishment’ – on the one hand and on the other, a political, landed and industrial elite. Both feel threatened from each other and apparently cannot live together in peace. In the country’s relatively short history of over 70 years, there have been four direct military interventions/rules.

The current narrative is somewhat like this: politicians blame the establishment while the establishment has a strong case based on perceptions and realities of a huge trust deficit in politicians’ accounts in addition to alleged incredible stories of corruption and abuse of power. The past two and a half years went by in talk of Panama’s hungamas.

The nation, in the meanwhile, has become a laughing stock. A country with over 200 million population, mostly youth, bestowed with fertile lands and abundant natural resources and a huge costal belt, and located at the crossroads of a most strategic area of the world, unfortunately no more enjoys much respect in the comity of nations. There are self-inflicted deep wounds, which keep bleeding.

Two questions come to mind: where did we go wrong? And are there any chances to regain lost glory? Interestingly, everyone has a ready – but not necessarily correct – answer to these two questions. However, the two main parties to the issue are the establishment and politicians.

We are country with a written constitution that is the result of a consensus within the nation and which in principle recognises that the authority of the state is to be exercised by the chosen representatives ‘as a sacred trust’. Power, however, is seldom exercised as a trust here. It is an unwritten code of politics amongst civilised people that authority or power is a trust. Rather, the whole basis of power in the West from where the idea of liberal democracy comes is trust. Even in the Islamic polity, the foundation of worldly power is trust and accountability in this world and again on the Day of Judgment.

While the elite – civilian and otherwise – live a covetous life, the vast majority throughout Pakistan lives a miserable life in almost slum-like conditions. We are a country full of contradictions, one in which no segment of society is free from taint.

And, while the executive has failed in most of its tasks due to various reasons, another branch of the state, the judiciary – breaking with its past – has in recent years become very active in what is called ‘upholding the constitution’ in enforcing rule of law and fundamental rights through the instrument of judicial review. Some people call it judiciocracy. A good example of this would be the dam fund; what was originally the job of the executive was – due to admitted failure(s) – taken over by the judiciary. There are concerns though over dispensation of justice at the grassroots levels.

Distrust over each branch of the government is also constantly growing but its expression is suppressed under various garbs – from state security to state secrets to the fair administration of justice.

The economy of the state has become a game of figures. The state actually runs on donations, loans and charities; our smart and well-dressed secretaries and ministers belie what is going on in real life of a common man. In the meanwhile, indices and numbers are comprehensible to just a few and are quoted to augment causes, which are patently wrong. Some, with their unaccounted largesse, are a challenge to every organ of the state. Despite several opportunities such as amnesty schemes, an undocumented and parallel illegal economy runs in this country right under the noses of everyone. People continue living beyond their means without accounting for their wealth.

While for the past seven decades, laws and institutions have been specifically created for the eradication of corruption, it has embarrassingly increasingly increased. The father of the nation, in his famous speech of August 11, 1947, identified corruption as a social ill. As we fight over secular and Islamic states, we fail to realise that both Islam and liberal democracy condemn corruption.

To be continued

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court and former additional attorney general for Pakistan.

Email: mwaqarrana@yahoo.com

Muhammad Waqar Rana, "From empires to democracies: Part-I," The News. 2018-07-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political elite , General elections , Panama leaks , Corruption , Democracy , Politicians , Pakistan