Empowering the people

Posted on September 28, 2007
Filed Under >Ayesha Siddiqa, Politics, Society
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Guest Post by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa

Pakistan’s political situation today raises more questions about the future of politics and democratic rule in the country than it did in the past. Clearly, democratic rule cannot be engendered through covert deals. Secret agreements made in the name of transition to democracy exacerbate the problem, because any political leader who comes to power using such methods would not want to be exposed to the norms of transparency and accountability.

We get into the old cycle of the military using such leaders who employ questionable methods for coming to power, and then dumping them soon afterwards on the pretext of national security or curbing corruption. It is a game of cat and mouse which has been played for the past 60 years and will continue to be played as long as our leaders are driven by short-term gains and shy away from focusing on long-term objectives.

Notwithstanding individual political alignments, the general understanding in the country is that political parties need to improve themselves as much as the military needs to curtail its ambitions.

The reality is that most educated people, especially the youth, frown upon the idea of Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif returning to Pakistan. Their contention is that why allow such corrupt people back into the country.

The counter-argument, of course, is that how could one even suggest that the former leaders are corrupt when nothing has been proven against them in the courts. But then, their corruption is a matter of perception. Just because the present regime has failed to prove anything in a court of law does not mean that the former rulers are clean in the eyes of the common man. For him, their greatest sin is that their questionable politics has contributed to the death of the political process in the country. A damaged political party can survive but a maimed political process is lethal.

The educated middle-class, especially the youth, challenges the existing leadership and the people’s ability to remove it through the vote. This is the damaging impact of years of authoritarian rule and the death of the political process when people stop believing in the power of elections to remove questionable politicians.

Sceptics argue that how can the people who are poor, uneducated and dependent on their feudal masters vote without being influenced? Haven’t we seen votes being purchased in the past? Do we expect that in a feudal/tribal system people can vote independently?

These are credible arguments but then the counter-argument is that such a closed political system is the by-product of a civil-military authoritarian system and is top-down rather than bottom-up. This means that the common man is more likely to vote fairly if the authorities stop meddling with the electoral process.

Let’s look at India where people vote leaders in and out despite having the same crisis of poverty and of votes being bought and sold. The autonomy and independence of institutions and the fairness of the electoral process allows people to have greater power to take political leaders to task.

But then, as some would argue, India does not have feudalism which Pakistan does. This is correct but even a feudal system could change once those at the helm of affairs allow people the freedom to exercise their right of choice.

Let’s step back for a minute and look at the connection between feudalism and the state of Pakistani politics. The basic question is: how does feudalism contribute towards peculiar choices at the time of elections?

Pakistan is a post-colonial bureaucratic state where laws, rules and regulations exist to strengthen those in power and the bureaucratic state itself. In such a state, politics is basically used for regime legitimisation and nothing else. In a bureaucratic state, laws are made not to dispense justice but to strengthen the bureaucracy and protect the interests of the most powerful.

For instance, the National Accountability Bureau or the accountability structures of the previous regimes were actually put in place to strengthen the regime and not the process of accountability. In fact, no regime wants to get rid of corruption. The accountability systems were made to strengthen and institutionalise corruption rather than get rid of it.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that people should try to align themselves with one powerful group or the other. Since power groups are the only ones capable of delivering benefits to its members or those who align themselves with it, people find it expedient to support one powerful feudal or the other.

Let’s look at the rural life. People vote for candidates on the basis of how much an individual has helped them in their time of need. A number of questions cross their thoughts. Did the candidate help me get my son, brother, husband or close relative out of the police station? Did he/she help me with the registration of my case with the police? Did the candidate help me with the revenue department? Did he/she help me get electricity or construct a road to my village or hamlet?

A close look at the voting pattern in any village shows variation. The total number of votes that a family or individual used to get has decreased, often substantially. The reason that people continue to vote for significant families/individuals in their area is because in the country’s existing socio-political and administrative system no one can survive without aligning themselves with someone powerful to ensure that the system fulfils at least some of their demands.

The civil and military bureaucracy does not have this problem because they are already part of a powerful clique. The common people need to align themselves with someone powerful so that things are done for them and rules and regulations are applied as well.

The popular conception that the common man has no life in Pakistan is true and explains the ethos of a post-colonial bureaucratic state dominated by feudal behaviour. Even educated people would like to challenge the law every now and then to show their relative power.

In fact, there are people who feel proud of themselves for flouting the law. It is a common sight in Pakistan to see the affluent and educated breaking the law and then getting help from an influential friend or family member to flout his connections.

Let’s go back to the miserable common man of Pakistan who does not have influential relatives or friends but only the option of trading his vote for some help and consideration. This common man does deny his vote even to the most influential which explains the variation in the total number of votes cast or number of votes obtained by an individual candidate. But then, why expect this man to change the system or blame his/her lack of education when the real culprits are the powerful, educated and affluent people in state and society?

Ask any affluent Pakistani about why he/she has broken the law and the answer will be because it is necessary to survive. This is as if the state or its systems are a gift from God and not manmade and so cannot be changed. Given this apathy, the common man will wait for his Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to come and share morsels of the advantages of the state. The problem lies with how the powerful use the state system rather than the lack of education among the poor.

About the Author: The writer is an independent analyst and author of the book, “Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.”

Note: This article also appeared in Dawn of Sept 28, 2007. Photo of for this article is taken from flickr.com.

26 responses to “Empowering the people”

  1. Rafay Kashmiri says:

    Empowering people is a perpetual suppression existing on every continent, just look at the history of last 200 years, latest
    are Pakistan & Myanmar. A world wide revolution for liberation is IMPERATIVE.

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