The compatibility of democracy

The Pakistani intelligentsia is used to bemoaning, in addition to the overdeveloped state structure, the disease of authoritarianism that threatens the future of democracy in Pakistan. This disease is nurtured, it is said, by a blend of retrogressive social values, which encourage submission to patriarchy and kill an individual's questioning spirit. Most importantly, it is argued that an essential structure of democratic norms, having evolved in the West through a long process of conflict between bourgeois and feudal elements, has not established itself in Pakistani culture. Going by the prevailing arguments, there are cultural prerequisites to democracy as a system of governance, and the absence of a particular moral and social fibre in the society inhibits the growth of democratic practice in Pakistan. This argument of organic incompatibility and retrogressive cultural values assumes a certain democratic ideal with which political situations can be compared – an ideal that is both a theoretical and a historical fiction. Such an argument brings Western and non-Western societies into a parallel that is unwarranted and simplistic, given the vast amount of historical and cultural differences between and within the two. In this hypothesis, democracy is granted a fixed historical origin. Instead of viewing culture as a process of becoming, the argument looks for prerequisites, as if it were not the democratic process but rather the culture without democracy that gives rise to democracy. Instead of studying the shaping influence of historical experience, this argument sticks to the emblems of origins, and pins the failure of democracy on cultural values. It omits the local brand of democracy by committing itself to the professional humanist habits of seeing only evolution along Western historical lines as true evolution, and of interpreting non-Western societies by their placement along such an imagined timeline. In other words, by staring too much at 'History', the Pakistani intelligentsia loses sight of its country's own multiple, discrepant histories. The argument of Pakistan's incompatibility with democracy testifies to the claims of British colonial historiography: that democracy was bestowed on India through colonialism. It supports the idea that it is thus an alien concept, one that runs only through the institutions of power that were put in place to colonise the native population. No doubt there is an element of historical credence to this point, but in the heat of argument we often forget that the grand narratives of democracy and enlightenment – as well as their institutional practices – mobilised people in the colonised world to rise up and throw off the yoke of imperial subjection. Aijaz Ahmad, a postcolonial critic and historian, has argued that the historical adequacy of such things as democracy and nationhood should not be looked for by referring to their origins in Europe; rather, this needs to be established through reference to the practices of political subjects within a geo-political space. Local democracy The historically adequate referent for democracy exists in pre- and postcolonial India in the shape of the anti- colonial struggle. Internally this process was far more democratic than was the colonial state, and it mobilised some 20 million peasant households through the Quit India Movement. In a similar vein, various sub-national resistances against the internal colonialism of the nation state in Pakistan – such as those of Bengali, Sindhi, Pakhtun and Kashmiri nationalism, along with broad-based peasant and labour movements – are testimony to the fact that democracy is not the privilege of a few cultures, nor is it tied to a string of liberal cultural values. However, the sad fact is that official historians of state nationalism excised crucial chapters from the pages of subcontinental and Pakistani history: those of the unleashing of a democratic process by the anti-colonial struggle. They did so by splitting the struggle along communal and separatist lines, thus creating part of a story that puts the onus of responsibility for extended military dictatorships directly on the shoulders of the masses themselves. Furthermore, the position that attributes the failure of democracy to certain archetypal features of Pakistani culture, such as family institutions and baradai networks, echoes the views of modernisation theorists who attribute underdevelopment to the internal backwardness of third-world societies rather than to historical and global circumstances. Such arguments, which emerge through the educated prisms of our intellectual elite, resonate with the paternalist arrogance of great fiction writers such as Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, who, by insisting that the Indian reality required (indeed, beseeched) British tutelage more or less indefinitely, ultimately forecast the untenability of their own theories of organic backwardness. Though the Pakistani state may give its citizens democracy more in breach than in observance, it is worth recalling that nowhere in Europe or North America is adult franchise implemented with such low levels of literacy and material well-being as there are in Southasia. And nowhere in the West did women achieve the right to vote in the founding moments of electoral democracy, as happened in post-Independence India and Pakistan. These observations are not intended to privilege feudal residues, patriarchy and gender oppression, or the presumed ills of social structure. Nor are they meant to play down the corrupting influences of martial law on Pakistan's fractured political process. Nevertheless, there is a need to register unease with the argument that ties democracy to a handful of Western liberal values. Democracy as a political practice must be read in the active struggle of political subjects in their political space. The institutional values of democracy should be separated from democracy as a set of cultural practices. When it comes to cultural practice, it is the active political struggle of a subject that can adduce a historically adequate referent for democracy, and not a squabble over the question of origins and endings. However, the forms of democratic norms are bound to vary in different cultural spaces. It is in large part the colonial engineering of Pakistani society – which fostered a certain evolution of the social structure of the colonised – that is responsible for the fact that it is not individual ethos, but rather ethnic, religious and kin networks that will continue to provide the support for the electoral process. Those who think that democracy can only work where there is a pervasive philosophy of 'one man, one vote' – the individual existing free of kinship networks – are searching for an impossible ideal. If 'clientelism' (the generally exploitative relationship between a powerful 'patron' and a weaker 'client') of one sort or another pervades Pakistani society, then the point is not to disown customary practices by imagining a monolithic definition of feudalism, or to castigate them in a barrage of moral rhetoric. The task is to understand the sociological significance of the patron-client relationship, which provides an important nexus of electoral politics in Pakistan and elsewhere in Southasia. British anthropologist Ernest Gellner once called politics based on clientelism "government-by-network". In this formation, formal institutional arrangements matter far less than do the informal connections of mutual trust – those based on past personal services, or on exchanges of protection from above for support from below. Pakistani society is ruled by networks, quasi-tribes, alliances forged on the basis of kin, services exchanged, groups of common regional and ethnic origins, and common institutional experiences. But even in this last case, the most important connections largely find their basis in personal trust, rather than in formal relations in a defined bureaucratic structure. In our passionate yearning for democracy, it is important not to disavow what is often hastily dismissed as 'feudal residue'. Rather, we need to understand how this structure has been carefully put in place through colonial governance, and how it works in the postcolonial state. Radical research into the various forms and norms of local democracies is what is needed to provide an understanding of a local democratic order. It should not be forgotten that if Pakistani society is ever to reform itself, it has to do so on the bedrock and by the terms of its own local cultural ideals and aspirations. Democracy cannot be thought of as something borrowed from the outside, or as something credited to its pristine ideals.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian