A DNA Test for Our Democracy

By Anjum Altaf

Ask any good doctor. There’s no way to treat a disease without a definitive diagnosis. Treat a cancer as a stomach-ache and the consequences are bound to be fatal.

That’s common sense. Now apply that common sense to our system of governance. We have it from the highest authorities, again and again, that the system is diseased. Every fresh group of rulers swears that the previous set has left a ‘sham’ democracy and promises to transform it into a healthy one.

What exactly is this disease that turns a healthy democracy into a sick one so quickly and why has every effort failed to find a cure?

I wish we were at the stage where we could sensibly address this question. We would examine the diagnosis that the disease emanates from the dishonesty of the previous set of rulers. And we would patiently argue that reconfiguring the same set of allegedly dishonest rulers is not likely to lead the sick democracy back to health.

But we are not at that stage because we are confused about the identity of the patient. Think of a community that paints an ass with stripes and starts calling it a zebra. After a while, with much backslapping from interested participants, it convinces itself that it is indeed dealing with a zebra. Some jump up and down, others are willing to swear by it, yet others are indignant if its credentials are questioned. Yet underneath the stripes, all there is, is an ass.

The problem manifests itself when the animal falls ill. Instead of treating the ass, we begin giving zebra-revitalising remedies to what we think is an ailing zebra. Far from getting better the poor animal becomes sicker and sicker till it is literally on its deathbed. Does that come as a surprise?

The reason we can never nurse the sham democracy back to health is that we are not dealing with a democracy at all. What we have is a monarchy dressed up as a democracy, partly to feed our own pretensions and partly to appease our benefactors who would deny us their largesse if we were not seen to be wearing the right stripes. We are eligible for the largesse but we also have to pay a huge price to maintain the illusion and that is the endless charade that makes up our nights and days.

Everyone admits we don’t have a true democracy. And, of course, we don’t have a true monarchy either. What we have is a hybrid. But it is not difficult to disentangle a hybrid and identify its dominant component. There are a number of Western democracies that reveal elements of a plutocracy. The predominant gene – the DNA – of our hybrid is that of a monarchy. Which is why no matter what we do it very quickly starts to manifest the typical characteristics of a monarchy.

What are these typical characteristics of a monarchy? I will enumerate them briefly and leave it to the interested reader to think of examples.

First, look at the intensely dynastic nature of governance in all of South Asia. Where else in the world does one find anything remotely like it? Where else is there such popular acceptance of the replacement of a ruler by a blood relative quite independent of the qualifications or experience of the latter?

Second, just as at the top, look at the most acceptable replacement for lower level political representatives who happen to die in office. It is not the most competent eligible member of the late incumbent’s political party. Rather, by popular acclaim, it is the most available relative – political experience or ideological compatibility is not a requirement.

Third, look at the absence in our country of any orderly mechanism for change of rulers.

Fourth, look at the ease with which political representatives change sides and switch loyalties gravitating towards the most powerful contender to the throne. And look at the absence of any censure of such behaviour by the subject population.

Fifth, look at how our intelligentsia legitimises every new pretender to the throne finding silver linings in the piety of one or the boldness of another, pleading for him or her to be given a fair chance now that he or she has ascended to the top.

Sixth, look at how rival contenders are dealt with, either incarcerated on unproved charges or sent into exile.

Seventh, look at how completely arbitrary rules are decided upon first and only later rubberstamped by a body called a parliament.

Eighth, look at how politics revolves around factions, personalities and loyalty groups defined by ethnicity, sect or language, never around ideas.

Ninth, look at how every ruler begins to hear divine voices confirming that he or she has been specially chosen to save the nation.

Tenth, look at the system of patronage through which favours, resources and jobs are parcelled out and distributed.

All these are very obvious and typical characteristics of monarchical rule. And both the rulers and the ruled are quite comfortable with them. It is not too far-fetched to say that the ethos of the country is monarchical. At the very least it is not democratic. Fellow-columnist Ahmad Faruqui has referred me to an interesting finding from the University of Michigan’s World Values Survey that most of the Muslim countries surveyed think highly of democracy with Pakistan being the outstanding exception.

Recognising what we have as a disguised monarchy might give us a much better chance of figuring out a transition to a democracy – history is replete with examples. Persisting in the belief that we have a sick democracy and treating it with yet another set of new clothing will only keep us going round and round in circles.

An ass is a very sturdy animal capable of yielding much useful output. We cripple it by treating it as a sick zebra.

This op-ed appeared in The Daily Times on November 7, 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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