March 23, 2008: Let Democracy Reign

Posted on March 23, 2008
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Politics, Society
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Adil Najam

Pakistan Flag DemocracyAddressing the Pakistan military parade today, Gen. Pervez Musharraf proclaimed that “you are seeing that a real democratic era has begun in Pakistan.” I say “Amen” to that. I remain confident as ever that Pakistan remains a democratic society trapped inside of an undemocratic state. I repeat and stand by what I had written a year ago today:

On this March 23rd, I am more confident than ever that not only can democracy work in Pakistan, it is the only thing that can. Whether our elites recognize it or not, the democratic spirit of the people can neither be tamed nor contained. Not any more.

If one were to go into details, my quibble would be that Pakistani society has always been democratic. It is the state that has been captured, again and again, by undemocratic forces – with or without elections. Elections, as so many have argued, are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy. Elections, in themselves, do not give you democracy; but it is impossible to have democracy without them. Democracy, ultimately, is the simple proposition that people have a right to and the ability to impact the decisions that will impact them. All else is the mechanics of how a society chooses to make this happen. The best way to safeguard democracy is to make democracy work.

The new government – under Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani, at least in the short term – have (yet another) historic opportunity to make get the mechanics right. After years and years of undemocratic interferences and spurts and starts, we need – more than anything – to demonstrate not only that democracy will work in Pakistan, but that it will work for all Pakistanis. Once people truly see democracy working for them, they will themselves stand in the way of anyone trying to circumvent the process. Here, if anywhere, it is indeed true – as the Kevin Costner character said in the move Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Indeed, they will!

As those in politics are wont to, Gen. Musharraf also takes far too much credit for himself – indeed, he takes credit even for that which has happened despite him. For example, when he says “during the past eight years, not only we laid the foundation of a real democracy, but we also put Pakistan on the path of progress and prosperity.” But the least one can do is to give him the benefit to believe so, if so he wishes to believe. As long as he actually believes – and will make believable – his next claim: i.e., “whichever new government is formed, it will have my full support.”

The test of his mettle will be whether he can, will or really wants to give his “full support” to the next government. The test of the mettle of the next government will be whether they will want, need or accept his “full support.”

23 Comments on “March 23, 2008: Let Democracy Reign”

  1. Eidee Man says:
    March 23rd, 2008 2:31 pm

    “On this March 23rd, I am more confident than ever that not only can democracy work in Pakistan, it is the only thing that can. Whether our elites recognize it or not, the democratic spirit of the people can neither be tamed nor contained. Not any more.”

    Yes, absolutely agree with you, Adil. Despite all of our problems with terrorism, the judiciary, economy, etc, I really believe that we have reached a critical mass….I am very hopeful, perhaps naively so, that the current parliament will seize the day and use this momentum for the betterment of Pakistan.

  2. Roshan says:
    March 23rd, 2008 2:59 pm

    The current political setup should and will have to lay the foundation of strong and real democratic norms. We must admire and adorn our civil society, lawyers’ movement and media which have been and will be playing the role of catalyst for the propagation of democracy.
    March 23 is commemorated as a resolution for an independent homeland was passed but the process of this passing this resolution purely based on democratic principles and precedence. Hence the resolution was not only for independent Pakistan but for a DEMOCRATIC Pakistan.

  3. Harris Siddiqi says:
    March 23rd, 2008 3:14 pm

    Good post but it is one of those rare occasions when I see myself disagreeing with you.

    I stopped visiting this site after the Lal Masjid issue because I found myself as a part of a very minuscule minority with my views being so different than the rest. This new development in the history of Pakistan compelled me to visit the site to see what my fellow countrymen were saying.

    Unfortunately I don’t share your enthusiasm about the future of Pakistan. The assembly that we have been given by the so called “enlightened” voters reads as who’s who of world’s most corrupt list

    No one in Pakistan believes that all the cases against Bhutto were fabricated or that Sharif did not abuse his power to extend his businesses. Yet. we elect them again to finish the job that they were unable to in the past. All it says about our people is that corruption has been accepted as a part of the normal life in Pakistan and we have no problems giving the keys to the family vault to the servant who has proven himself to be a thief.

    Our hopes of democracy flourishing in Pakistan under the same system is akin to hoping that we can make an edible cake with rotten eggs if we beat them enough.

  4. shakeel says:
    March 23rd, 2008 3:24 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree that Pakistan is a democratic society trapped within an undemocratic state. Inshallah, we are making a new beginning on this historic occasion of Pakistan day after some many false starts. In the end, democracy is about hope. Hope for the better, always.

    When we say democratic society trapped in a undemocratic state, what do we mean? It means that while our people are democratic and want man made laws, our elite politicians, bureaucrats and army generals want Islamic laws to govern us and impact those areas that impact all of us. Hence we are caught up in the democratic dilemma. This has been the defining moment of our times. It is the raging urge in our people to see democracy flourish so man made laws by our own people can trump Islamic laws and we can move towards modern day democracies in the region. This battle for democracy has been the corner stone of our demand for Pakistan. It has defined us as a people and liberated us from majority rule because we know democracy is not brutal rule of majority, but majority of rules, man made rules that is.

    This is indeed is the shining example of democracy. The elections of 2008 will go down in history as the turning point of global democracy. The people of Pakistan have proven once again that they can unleash democracy even within the confines of what is an undemocratic state. These undemocratic forces may well sabotage this experiment as Pakistan’s road to a more perfect union continues. I wish the present Govt strength and longevity.

  5. MQ says:
    March 23rd, 2008 3:32 pm

    Yes, it does look like a spring of hope after a long winter of despair.

  6. Pakistani says:
    March 23rd, 2008 4:06 pm

    “No Democracy” till Musharraf out of Islamabad

  7. ASHFAQ says:
    March 23rd, 2008 4:13 pm

    Adil, yaar, why waste this sophisticated description of democracy in its true sense on people whose comments are no more than slogans.

    Thanks for the inspiration, anyhow.

  8. March 23rd, 2008 5:05 pm

    Adil Bhai,

    I too share your optimism for a better tomorrow. For my ATP friends who are more pessimistic (or realistic?) I say in my defence and others like me that Pakistan must never stop believing, remember hope comes free!

    At the very least we can hope a little and even better would be if we do our own bit of national service to create an ‘other’ Pakistan – see

    We should echo the sentiments in words and in actions of the great Faraz saab namely:

    shikwa ae zulmat ae shab se tho kahin behtar tha
    apne hisse ki koi shama jalate jaate



  9. Viqar Minai says:
    March 23rd, 2008 5:20 pm

    To the extent that the majority of citizens in Pakistan have always (well, most of the time anyway) yearned for democracy, I can agree with you. But it is a stretch to say that the Pakistani society has always been “democratic”. Now I realize that there would be howls of protest over this assertion. But, to my mind, democracy does not only bestow certain right on the citizenry; it also places major demands of responsibility. Among these, the responsibility to be fundamentally law abiding, disciplined, considerate of others, and – more importantly – struggle to the point of being unwilling to accept anything less (than unfettered democracy for the society). Let me elaborate with a real example.

    Not too long ago, before the elections in Pakistan,I was watching one of them panel discussions on the DAWNNEWS TV channel. Among the panelist was Roedad Khan who narrated something that struck me. He was recounting a visit , in 1958 or 59, to Pakistan of a Congress leader (later to be Indian PM) Morarji Desai. This was shortly after the imposition of the 1958 ML by Ayub Khan. During his visit to NWFP, Desai expressed the desire to meet with Ghaffar Khan (Wali Khan’s father), which was granted by GOP. Roedad Khan accompanied Desai for his meet with Bacha Khan. According to RK, while they were driving to the meeting, Desai turned to him and remarked accusingly.”Is this why you partitioned the subcontinent? So that you will turn Pakistan over to the army?”. RK was angered by this and retorted,”Desai Sahib, there is barely difference of degrees among us; in Pakistan it is ML today, tomorrow it will be in India”. According to RK, Desai’s face darkened with rage:”Never, he screamed, over my dead body. If that happen’s Morarji’s will be the first chest to be bared to face the bullets of the soldiers”.

    This was no empty rhetoric, Adil. Indian politicians and leadership understood what freedom meant, and demanded of them; and they were willing and determined to pay that price. Sadly, never so for the leaders, or for the people of Pakistan.

    Till the lawyer’s movement recently asserted itself and persisted, Pakistanis have never been willing to face the music to overthrow the shackles. And even now, after 60 years of partition – yes I am still not willing to call it independence – the most inhuman form of elitism in the cruel shape of feudalism still thrives in Pakistan. It barely lived to see the dawn of independence in India.

    For all its tall claims, neither the political or the military leadership – which in fact springs from amongst its ranks – nor the common citizen have demonstrated the will to uproot this infamy with their blood.

    Not until the entire country is opened up, and the State has been brought to point where it is in a position to guarantee the right to life, security, and justice to the poorest of its citizens, will Pakistan have stepped from darkness into the light of freedom.

    As well, the temptation to short circuit the law manifested by indiscipline and utter selfishness in so many aspects of our social life – from driving on the roads to the corruption/bribery/IOUs in conducting our business affairs, is not conducive to being a good democratic society.

    Perhaps being fully democratic is a scale from 1 to 10 on which we have still not progressed beyond 3 or 4 . Let us not get carried away with labelling ourselves “democrats”, but continue to hope and pray that the day comes – the sooner the better – that we will be.

  10. Reza Kamran says:
    March 23rd, 2008 5:24 pm

    Musharraf talks in conciliatory tones these days. He says he would extend ‘full support’ to the new Govt. Now, what does he mean by ‘full support’? How is full support different from complete support? Well, it depends on what Musharraf means by full support. It could mean two different things. Full Support could mean support as long as it is administered by him. It could also mean support if the new PM will abide by his rules. The incoming Govt itself knows that support itself is not a given. It could mean Support from outside, but with enough power to pull the rug. If this Support comes with such strings, then that kind of Support may not be constructive support. But Support that can come without strings may look dubious. Moreover, Support could also mean only for a duration. In this context, it is important to delve into what he meant by ‘Full’. Again, ‘Full’ could mean so many different things. Note that he did not use the word ‘complete’. If he had said ‘complete’ may be the new incoming PM could have read it differently. Musharraf has sown some seeds in the minds of the new PM by saying Full and not complete. At this stage, whether it be full or complete, we need all the support and cooperation and collaboration for grand reconciliation. That could be the way forward indeed.

  11. Anwar says:
    March 23rd, 2008 6:08 pm

    Future of democracy and that of Pakistan will depend on just how flexible the new governemnt will be with respect to Uncle Sam’s demands.
    Mush can still dismiss the government if pressured by US. Let us keep our fingers crossed and wish for the best.

  12. Pakistani says:
    March 23rd, 2008 8:19 pm

    This a thoughtprovoking post. You are right in saying:

    “Elections, as so many have argued, are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy. Elections, in themselves, do not give you democracy; but it is impossible to have democracy without them. Democracy, ultimately, is the simple proposition that people have a right to and the ability to impact the decisions that will impact them. All else is the mechanics of how a society chooses to make this happen. The best way to safeguard democracy is to make democracy work.”

    You are correct and you say it beautifully.

    I do not like the way some things in PPP have recently gone. But I am happy to have a civilian government. I am willing to give them a chance so that they may prove that they will do better. The only good to have come out of the Musharraf government is that it has reminded us again that even a bad elected government is better than a dictator. People have voted in these politicians (Zardari and Sharif) not because we forgot their past performance, but because we realize just how much worse the Musharraf government has been.

    Democracy zindabad.

  13. Reza Kamran says:
    March 23rd, 2008 9:37 pm

    I would like to delve a little deeper into the subject of how the mechanics of democracy should work and how they have worked in Pakistan. Democracy is for the people, by the people, with the people and for all people. People are democracy and democracy is the will of the people. The mechanics of democracy involves the people. So, if the ruling class cannot agree on the rules of democracy and abide by it, then it fails. Also, for the mechanics to work, the rules cannot be changed in the middle of a game.

    And for mechanics to work, we need to get the optics right. For example, we cannot get into a situation where a sitting army general is left wondering what to do next when his plane is denied landing and running out of fuel. How does mechanics work in that situation? Can the people intervene to save democracy in such a situation? How can power balance be preserved? What can PM do to check power of President and vice versa? So, mechanics as we see are important for normal Government function. Otherwise, we get into awkward situations that spell doom of democracy and return to martial law without declaring as such.

    Hindsight they say is 20-20. But, we have placed a huge burden on Zardari and his party. Will they stand up and meet expectations is the big question. And democratic forces that have been unleashed we hope will keep them in check, Musharraf not withstanding.

  14. Qudoos says:
    March 23rd, 2008 10:17 pm

    I wonder how many people actually read what is actually written in the posts. from the comments above it looks like not many.

  15. Qudoos says:
    March 23rd, 2008 10:32 pm

    Democracy is a complex thing. Maybe no nation is ever really democratic but some try harder than others. Ours has not tried too hard. You are correct that elections are only one small part of democracy but a necessary part. The key thing is if people see the institutions of society as working for their own interests or not. People seem to have lost faith in the army and have found a new faith in the judiciary. In the old days it was the opposite. But now Musharraf has made the credibility of the army sink low and the lawyers have helped raise the credibility of the judiciary. The lesson is that people can learn and forgive old mistakes (like of judges and politicians) and people will also punish even those (like Army) who they once supported.

  16. Eidee Man says:
    March 23rd, 2008 11:50 pm

    “And even now, after 60 years of partition – yes I am still not willing to call it independence – the most inhuman form of elitism in the cruel shape of feudalism still thrives in Pakistan. It barely lived to see the dawn of independence in India.”

    I find it amusing that you used the word “elitist” to describe the zamindaars of Pakistan. Is it not, in fact, yourself who holds the elitist attitude that Pakistan has never been a democratic society?

    It makes me very disappointed when people from our “educated” and expatriate classes suggest that the reason Pakistan has a long way to go in terms of democracy is that it’s people, most of whom are poor and illiterate, are somehow too crass and dumb to know what’s good for them.

    There is a similar class-divide and elitist attitude here in the U.S. A lot of otherwise decent, educated people actually seem to think that some people actually CHOOSE to live in poor urban communities surrounded by drugs and violence. They think that the reason “these people” are poor is because they are too lazy to work.

  17. libertarian says:
    March 24th, 2008 12:16 am

    Adil, there is no Democracy on planet earth barring a couple of minor examples (New England town hall meetings for example). All major nation-states are Republics – including Pakistan. Democratically elected governments – yes. Democracy – definitely not. There’s a big difference. Democracy is tyranny by the majority – anything can be legislated as long as (usually) a simple majority exists. Republics have explicit protections for minorities – the ultimate minority being the individual. Hence a Senate with equal representation for geographical areas and an assembly with population-based representation. May sound like quibbling, but it seems like a big difference to this reader.

  18. Daktar says:
    March 24th, 2008 12:24 am

    Interesting comment by “libertarian.”

    I always thought libertarians worried about the “tyranny of the minority” and favored pure majoritarianism, since it is individual liberties that are paramount and where collective decision is necessary, those individual liberties can be simply aggregated. I guess there are libertarians and libertarians :-)

    (BTW, my own sense is that there is a huge difference between majoritarianism and democracy).

  19. libertarian says:
    March 24th, 2008 5:33 am

    Daktar: I guess there are libertarians and libertarians

    Yes, apparently there are (made me look!) :-) . I subscribe to the minarchist view rather than the more aggressive (radical?) anarcho-capitalist view. The short story is that the latter attempts to displace the state completely – “law enforcement, courts, national defense … and taxation”. That’s essentially throwing out the baby with the bath water. Like all extreme ideologies – likely has a low probability of success.

    where collective decision is necessary, those individual liberties can be simply aggregated

    Aggregated subject to not trampling “inalienable rights and liberties” (the non-aggression axiom) of any citizen. I’m interested in why you think majoritarianism differs from democracy.

  20. Viqar Minai says:
    March 24th, 2008 12:55 pm

    ***It makes me very disappointed when people from our

  21. Jaffar says:
    March 24th, 2008 7:28 pm

    Indeed Great Day for Pakistam.
    What PM Gilani do beside restoring the Judiciary and UN investigation of Benezer Bhutto.
    United Nations Investigation of alleged charges of corruption against Zulfiqar Bhutto, Benezer Bhutto, Asif Zardari, Sharif Brothers and other high ranking politicans including Gilani himself.
    This is the only way to get a clean slate for every alleged charges of corruption and restore full faith in democracy and come clean.
    In Urdu its called Doodh Ka Doodh, Pani ka Pani.

  22. Aamir says:
    March 25th, 2008 10:43 pm

    Thank you Mr Musharraf, it is you who brought this democracy to Pakistan. Unfortunately the dumb public of Pakistan voted the same old thieves, slackers and frauds back to office. However since it is their choice, I congratulate the people of Pakistan.

  23. Ahmed says:
    April 4th, 2008 2:32 am

    ab to sirf bhutto bhotto hi ho gi, democracy naihin. yeh sab log murduon pay siysat karnay walay hain. yeh be who hi kar rahin hai jo yeh pahlay kartay ain hai.

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