Governance, Pakistan / 04.06.2008

Samia Altaf  The furor over the display of nudes at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad made me think of the Partition. Both situations represent the challenge of reconciling different points of views without conflict. And both are complicated by the fact that we desire to live in a democratic society. In the case of the Partition we failed. It was perhaps the most tragic failure of our times – a million people lost their lives and over ten million lost their homes. The conflict at the National Art Gallery is the same type of problem in principle but the stakes are much smaller and we can think about how to resolve the dilemma without losing control of our emotions. Hopefully we can draw some macro conclusions from a micro situation. The first thing to note is that democratic governance is not equivalent to majoritarian rule. The views...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, India, Politics / 31.05.2008

In the first article of this series (Democracy in India – 1) we had highlighted the importance of the introduction of elective governance in India by the British, the choice of separate electorates based on religion, and its negative impact on communal relations. The following quote from the Indian Statutory Commission in 1930 showed how religion was turned from a social distinction into a political one that mattered in terms of who got what: So long as people had no part in the conduct of their government, there was little for members of one community to fear from the predominance of the other. The gradual introduction of constitutional reforms, however, had greatly stimulated communal tension as it aroused anxieties and ambitions among many communities by the prospect of their place in India’s future political set-up. Thus “while the goal of achieving independence from British rule was never a...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics / 21.04.2008

By Samia Altaf   There is a point of view that the political culture of Pakistan is more like that of a monarchy than of a democracy. The external appearance of the political system is that of a democracy; its internal spirit is that of a monarchy. A lot more can be explained better when events are looked at in this perspective.   Take for example the exiling of political opponents, inconceivable in a modern democracy but quite common in earlier monarchies. The phenomenon of ban-baas finds frequent mention in Indian history and the banishment of English pretenders to France was not uncommon.   Similarly, the arrest of individuals on arbitrary charges and their incarceration in dungeons if they displease the ruler of the day is also a phenomenon associated with monarchies. Large cabinets and the movement of an entourage with the ruler are more akin to durbaars than to the...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics / 11.04.2008

By Samia Altaf  I don’t really care if the cabinet eventually includes all 342 members of the national assembly. As an analyst, I am interested in understanding what the size and distribution reveal about the nature of politics in Pakistan. I want to explore why an Opposition, vociferous in its condemnation of the previous government’s excessively large cabinet, feels so compelled to go one better when it inherits power. What is going on is obvious – a largely indiscriminate division of portfolios without matching qualifications to job requirements. Why it is going on is of greater interest. Mark first the discussion about who should get what. A lot turns on the ‘deservingness’ of the candidates. How unfair to deny X who spent the most time in prison while the leaders were exiled? How about Y who had her assets confiscated and was humiliated to boot? This is the...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics, South Asia / 28.03.2008

BySamia Altaf An editorial in The News on March 21, 2008 (“Bilawal to the rescue”) got it wrong when it expressed sadness at the “strange dynastic politics that have taken root in the region.” Dynastic politics have been rooted in the region much like they were in most other parts of the world in the past. The distinction of South Asia is that, unlike elsewhere, it has not left dynastic politics behind. Three centuries ago it was quite normal to have a Dauphin and a regent in France. Today, a French citizen would be completely nonplussed by the thought of such a practice. In South Asia, however, the practice is not only familiar, it is actually demanded by the citizenry. How else would one explain a democratic India feeling the need to transplant Rajiv Gandhi from an airline pilot to a Prime Minister? Examples abound across South...

Governance, Politics / 20.03.2008

By Samia Altaf SHORTLY after the emergency was imposed in Nov 2007, I wrote an article that used cricket as a metaphor to ask why Pakistani citizens accept the kind of blatant manipulation in the realm of politics that they would instantly reject in the world of cricket. After the Feb 2008 elections, I find that cricket still provides a good analogy to describe the present situation. In one sentence I would characterise it as follows: the bowlers have done their job; now it is up to the batsmen to deliver. The voters have performed beyond expectations and left it to the politicians to wrap it up. Will they? How many times have we been here before? How many times have the batsmen managed to defy all odds and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? How many times have we needed a sensible display of maturity...

Governance, Politics / 14.03.2008

By Samia Altaf There is a certain purpose and a value in an apology. Even when it is a century late and unable to redress the wrongs as in the Australian apology to its aboriginal citizens, it suggests a reflection on the past, an acceptance of responsibility, and a promise for the future. Now that Pakistan is on the verge of a new beginning, its major players should mark it by coming forward and apologising to the citizens who have given them and the country another chance. This will be an overdue apology and one that would be of immense value in setting the tone for the future. It would communicate to the voters a clear sense of what is unacceptable in modern politics and a measure of the standard by which political leaders and public servants agree to be judged in future. First, it should be the chief...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics / 01.03.2008

This is a companion piece to The Politics of Identity in which we outlined the views of Professor Stanley Fish on identity politics. In this post we present a critique of Professor Fish’s analysis, apply his framework to politics in Pakistan, and try to demonstrate the importance of context in such matters.  Professor Fish’s articulation of identity politics is most easily understood in the concrete context of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. An ideal non-identity voter would be one who behaves as if he or she is completely unaware of the “skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker [of identity]” of the two candidates. The voter (visualized as an abstract “citizen”) selects the candidate best qualified to lead the country and advance the policies (say on the war in Iraq, the Middle...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Modernity, Politics, South Asia / 23.02.2008

In setting up the next set of articles we use a thought-provoking op-ed by Professor Stanley Fish as the point of departure. Professor Fish deals with an issue, identity politics, which is of great relevance for us in South Asia. While the author’s application is to the election in the US (voting on the basis of color or gender), we can easily extrapolate some of the ideas to our context. Here is Professor Fish’s definition of identity politics: You’re practicing identity politics when you vote for or against someone because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker that leads you to say yes or no independently of a candidate’s ideas or policies. An identity politics voter says, in effect, I don’t care what views he holds, or even what bad things he may have done, or what lack of ability...

Democracy/Governance, Governance, Politics, South Asia / 22.02.2008

It is useful to study the history of democracy in Japan to highlight an aspect that is almost completely overlooked in South Asia – the critical relevance of electoral rules. Japan is termed “the only stable industrialized democracy in Asia, with a well-established parliament, political parties that vigorously compete in elections, and a solidly legitimate democratic constitution.” It is a “predominant party democracy” in which the same party was consistently supported by voters under free and competitive conditions for a very long time (38 years). However, “the Japanese formula for a successful, dominant party democracy has had its negative effects – the role of excess money in politics and corruption.” All these aspects are related to electoral rules “since the electoral system is a major determinant of a political regime:” In many newly-emerging democracies the choice of an electoral system is increasingly being recognized as a vital element...