The governed seek consent Socialism in villages,
Capitalism in towns,
In office, feudalism;
Authoritarianism at home.
– Bharat Bhushan Agrawal in
Utna wah sooraj hai
|Image: Edwin Week’s “An Open-Air Restairamt, Lahore’,1889|
Lahore is an intense city, one that overwhelms every one of a visitor’s senses. On the road, every vehicle seeks to overtake the one in front, while the frontrunners are equally determined to stay ahed. Drivers honk in unison to warn cars coming from the other direction, who in turn hoot back to demand their right of way.
Taking a walk along the busy Liberty Market roundabout is a particular experience for the nose itself. The combined stench of open sewers, overflowing waste containers and roadside eateries is overpowering, which mixes with the strong odour of rotting carrots and crushed sugarcane emanating from the juice shops. Whiffs of cologne waft from nattily dressed office-goers hurrying past burger outlets. Extravagantly dressed housewives shopping for jewellery reek of attar.
The light, sound, sight and smell of the Spring Festival at Race Course Park create an even more compelling impression. The hustle and bustle of Anarkali Market remains undiminished till midnight. Only the Lahore Fort and the Shalimar Garden still maintain the serenity and grandeur of their imperial heyday. All in all, Lahore is a quintessential Southasian city – languid, boisterous, pensive and impulsive all at the same time. Southasians from every part of the region feel instantly at home in this city of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh, whose empire once extended from the banks of the Jamuna to the Khyber, from Kashmir to Multan.
The long-overdue meeting of South Asians for Human Rights, a Track-II initiative of some eminent Southasians, finally met in March. Some SAHR participants also found themselves with a ringside view on police excesses against protesting lawyers, which took place immediately in front of the provincial assembly close to the venue of the conference. Below the city’s apparent calm, resentment against General Pervez Musharraf had been building among professionals and the middle class. It erupted over a routine case of impertinence from the generalissimo. Executive intervention in Pakistan’s judiciary has a long history, where ‘telephone justice’, dictated by influential generals, is known to have been read out by loyal judges in the courts. But the recent forced ‘inactivation’ of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry enraged even docile jurists. Even as police mercilessly beat up protestors, defiance of Gen Musharraf’s absolute rule had snowballed throughout Pakistan; nonetheless, the general population still seems surprisingly apathetic to the drama being played out in front of its eyes.
Something even more worrying has taken place on the other side of the Subcontinent, in Bangladesh. In Dhaka over recent months, the military has quietly taken over, put a puppet on the throne, pushed politics to the back burner, and begun consolidating its hold over the state – with hardly any voice raised in protest. This young nation is otherwise known for massive rallies held for or against every decision that affect the people’s lives. It has been surprising, then, that postponement of general elections for an indefinite period has been greeted with a wall of silence. In fact, the comfortable classes of Gulshan have heaved a sigh of relief. Perhaps this was exactly what they had longed for during the cacophonic regimes of the warring Begums: no more hartals, few politicians to put up with, and the reassuring shadow of military fatigues. Democratic deficit – dysfunctional institutions, dishonest individuals and discriminatory systems – appears to have given birth to indifference, if not animosity, towards popular rule in a large section of the Southasian population.
The intelligentsia of Southasia is faced with a perplexing predicament. It knows that the aberrations of democracy can only be removed with more and better democracy. But an influential section of the bourgeoisie has developed a taste for certainties of dictatorship. This is the constituency that has given rise to one after another military strongman in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Unless this group is convinced that its long-term interests lie with the rest of the people, the fate of democracy will continue to hang in balance. The daunting challenge of formulating a political agenda that appeals to the masses and the classes alike will test the mettle of party leadership in the coming days.
The other challenge that will determine the fate of freedom will be the ability of inimical political parties to work together and create a support base that extends beyond parochial boundaries. The days of one or two domineering political parties straddling the scene seem to be over. As multiple parties carve out their areas of influence, only their coalition-building abilities can sustain the system of democratic governance.
In its pre-Independence heyday, the Indian National Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru was an umbrella organisation that accommodated all the varying class, community, regional and cultural aspirations of different population groups. Mohammad Ali Jinnah challenged its hegemony by appropriating the agenda of Muslim Indians. But post-Partition, the Qaid decided that he needed to be magnanimous towards minorities to ensure the stability and prosperity of his newfound country. The legatees of his political heritage lacked this foresight, however, and failed to maintain Pakistan’s unity.
The Indian National Congress also disintegrated under Indira Gandhi, as disgruntled satraps of the Nehru era went their separate ways. This was the period when regional parties professing provincial agendas rose up spectacularly, particularly in peninsular India. Indians are in the process of overcoming that medieval urge of organising exclusively along communal or caste lines, as Akalis field Hindu candidates in Punjab, the Dalit-based Bahujan Samaj Party has more Brahmin and Thakur leaders than any other political outfit in Uttar Pradesh, and Lalu Prasad Yadav tries hard to overcome his rustic Yadav image.
Indian politics have come full circle. Parties in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Punjab or Manipur are provincial, but regional rather than communal. Local supporters identify with the party they vote for to the extent that they are willing to kill or die for it. The leaderships of all these parties are alike, their support bases are similar, their agendas overlap and they all speak a near-identical political language. And so they compete with each other without animosity, and show civility towards each other when they meet outside the electoral arena. Unfortunately, this culture has yet to take root in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, where contesting parties hate each other more than they abhor non-political usurpers.
Even when Dhaka’s two warring Begums are present at the same soirée, they tend to hold court at opposite corners. Similarly, in Pakistan, for the Begum from Oxford, Mian Nawaz Sharif is merely an arriviste, while the erstwhile trader of Lahore considers his Sindhi competitor unnecessarily haughty. Aware of these cleavages, the military brass of both countries keep deepening the rifts by planting agent provocateurs in competing camps. One of the main reasons behind the success of the anti-monarchy movement in Nepal was the unity of purpose forged between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists. The moment that weakens, however, the future of democracy in Nepal too will go the way of Bangladesh’s.
Run like feudal estates by leading figures, Southasia’s political parties repel youngsters of elite talents and egalitarian beliefs, who then veer towards the non-governmental organisations. Most political parties of the region have lately become anaemic, as youths form non-political platforms to pursue agendas of social change. The problem with this model, however, is that managerial operations can seldom function as manipulator, mediator and moderator of conflicting aspirations common to all emerging societies. The full impact of NGO-tsar Muhammad Yunus and his new Nagorik Shakti (Citizen’s Power) party in Bangladesh remains to be seen, but if it does manage to consolidate moderate forces, the rest will probably gravitate towards Islamic extremism. The unintended consequences of running a multi-cultural state as one would a business enterprise can be too horrendous to contemplate.
Democratic politics constitute the first casualty of the search for certainties. To dissuade the intellectual elite of Southasia from the fatal charms of formulaic solutions, it would be worthwhile to let it meander through its throbbing cities and isolated villages. The societies of the Subcontinent are too complex to fit any particular ism or model evolved from the unique experience of some faraway European country. But no system of governance can survive for long if it fails to institute credible mechanisms of acquiring the consent of the governed. That is the clear message of the bustling streets of Lahore, for anyone willing to listen.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.