Democracy/Governance / 20.04.2015

By Anjum Altaf I want to tie together two conversations about politics because they bring together some strikingly similar views of very different segments in society. I find it useful to explore the implications to better understand what might motivate our politics. The first conversation, about a month ago, was with a taxi driver in Islamabad. A broken-up road triggered a litany of complaints about the increasing difficulties of existence – shortages of utilities, difficulties in access to services, etc. The monologue transitioned into a critique of democracy – could one eat it? – followed by the oft-heard desire for ‘strong’ governance. I submitted that we had tried the ‘strong’ route four times without the desired results only to be met with the dismissive judgement that conditions under Musharraf were distinctly better than they were now. It was not the occasion to ask if something done at one...

Democracy/Governance / 25.03.2015

By Anjum Altaf Consider two recent electoral results from India: Of the total seats contested, the BJP won 52 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 4 percent in the 2015 Delhi state elections. The first was characterized a sweeping victory; the second a crushing defeat. Yet, in both contests the share of votes cast for the party was the same – about a third. This is a quirk of the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system in which the candidate with the most votes wins a constituency. A candidate securing one-third of the votes cast could win or lose depending on the number of other candidates and the distribution of votes among them. Is this problematic? Yes, if one considers it unsatisfactory that a party representing a third of the voters in a state has no say in its governance. It is for this reason that the majority of...

Democracy/Governance / 04.05.2014

It was the late Richard Holbrooke who said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.” That, indeed, is a dilemma. For the Americans, even the election of a remotely anti-American government was a dilemma and they spared little effort in overturning the verdict of electorates whenever such an ugly possibility reared its fearful head. So, it could have been an occasion of smug satisfaction for the rest when the American electorate voted in Bush except that he inflicted incalculable harm on the world while driving the US deep into the hole. That highlights the other dilemma – whether those freely and fairly elected are racists, fascists, separatists, or just megalomaniacal fools and simpletons, the damage they end up doing to themselves and others is serious business. Enter Mr. Modi. Mr. Modi has not been elected yet but it seems...

Democracy/Governance / 01.04.2013

By Anjum Altaf Elections are due in a few months and one of the questions being asked is whether they would be an exercise in futility. I think not even though nothing much is likely to change in the short term – for that, one can look across the border where six decades of uninterrupted democratic governance has not made a major difference in the lives of the marginalized. It is the long-term implications that ought to be the focus of our attention. For better or for worse, and I feel it is for the better, we inherited representative government from the departing rulers. Better, because the precursor to representative governance, monarchy, no matter how benevolent at times, offered no mechanism for holding the aristocracy accountable or of institutionalizing orderly transfers of power. Those were huge negatives irrespective of how one looks at them. With representative governance, sovereignty,...

Democracy/Governance / 03.03.2011

By Dipankar Gupta The fundamental law of politics is that rulers act and the ruled react. This truth has held in all hitherto existing societies: it is carbon dated, weather proofed and tropicalized. The difference democracy makes is that it lets the people judge its leaders, but only after they have already acted. When an elected leader advocates a policy in the name of popular will, it nearly always is a big lie. By using people as a cover, ugly politicians have found happiness in parliaments everywhere. The sentiments of the people count when they are asked to judge a policy on Election Day. While votes do matter, they are always cast after the political act has taken place; never before it.A good democracy is that democracy where the electorate can take informed decisions when voting. They are never the architects of policy though clever politicians often...

Democracy/Governance / 08.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place? The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. What has Pakistani civil society done with this verdict delivered with such unanimity and clarity? Precious nothing,...

Democracy/Governance / 08.09.2010

By Anjum Altaf If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place? The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. What has Pakistani civil society done with this verdict delivered with such unanimity and clarity? Precious nothing,...

Democracy/Governance / 11.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf One has to sympathize with Pakistan at this time beset as it is with problems from all sides. The focus ought to be on ensuring survival. But surely there must be some thought that extends beyond the sympathy, beyond the jaded expressions of shock and sorrow. Will Pakistan continue to lurch from crisis to crisis? Will this cycle of pray and beg, beg and pray, ever come to an end? It will, but perhaps not in the way we would like. There is no such thing as equilibrium; it exists only as an idealized state in textbooks of economics. In the real world, things either get better or they get worse. And who will now dispute that, in general, things have been trending down in Pakistan mostly as the result of self-inflicted wounds.So, the real questions are the following: How long can this trend...

Democracy/Governance / 13.06.2010

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia. Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout.
Democracy/Governance / 29.05.2010

By A Pakistani It was not too long ago that those critical of governance in Pakistan were limited to a handful of academics, journalists, and other professionals. They were the subject of aspersions – being agents of this or that power or being self-hating Pakistanis or Muslims, as the case may be – and advised to “love it or leave it.” I am not talking of those opposing particular governments in Pakistan – they were many – but those who used arguments from reason to question the structure itself that characterized the governance of the country. To simplify, the opponents of particular governments behaved as if Pakistan was always one good leader away from salvation; the critics argued that given the foundations of the state that hope would inevitably lead to disappointment.Not only that but the bouts of hopes and disappointments would be accompanied by a downward...