Democracy: Corn Flakes, Cabbages and Kings

By Anjum Altaf


Editor’s Note: With reference to the discussion sparked by Vijay Vikram’s post (Arundhati Roy) we are reproducing an old article that is relevant to the issue.

I don’t believe in the corn flake theory of governance.

The corn flake theory equates systems of governance with brands of cereal. It presumes that just as one can go into a supermarket and pick any brand of cereal off the shelf, one can go into the supermarket of governance systems and select the system of one’s choice. It could be democratic, autocratic, monarchic or ecclesiastic — whatever suits one’s needs or fancy.

It’s a pretty flaky theory and therefore I remain sceptical of the belief that no matter what the situation, one can effect a regime change, organise an election and engineer a democracy that would be a model for the world to behold.

I am an old-fashioned type who persists in believing that material conditions and structural factors matter and that history imposes a grip that it loosens very reluctantly. One can’t just conjure up a governance system to order. I like to believe that Europe endured hundreds of years of monarchy and evolved into a democracy for some understandable reason. I would be shattered if you told me that it was only because no one during all those times was bright enough to realise that they could have had a democratic system all along.

If you are with me thus far you might want to stay and hear me out. If you are beginning to shake your head in disagreement, I would appreciate your feedback on where my logic has gone astray.

An argument I made earlier was that an essential pre-requisite of a democratic order is the existence of the rule of law. Without that there can only be variants of systems formed around patron-client relationships. Its emergence increases independent and impartial access to justice, basic rights and employment which reduce the need for a patron and enable the evolution of the modern role of a political representative.

As long as the system of patronage prevails, it matters little how the patrons are recognised and legitimised. They could rely on divine right, the largesse of emperors and colonists, or the vote. The mere fact they are legitimised by the vote does not make the system democratic. One can call a cabbage a rose; it is still going to smell like a cabbage.

When an elected individual becomes a political representative and nothing more his whole world and worldview are transformed. He has to go to the voters with no other hold over them except his ability to persuade that he and his party offer the best programme to reflect and carry out their preferences. If successful, he has to be faithful to the platform on which he was elected. If he jumps to a completely different ideology or changes party loyalties, he is expected to go back to the electorate for a fresh mandate.

The patron, on the other hand, is not bound by such constraints. His relationship with the voter is like that of the master to the slave — he could be very kind and benevolent but he is not obligated to represent the slave’s political preferences. His calculus involves making himself available to whoever at the top yields him the most power of patronage and influence over the allocation of resources. And in the absence of the rule of law, he exists in a system that resembles GS Cheema’s depiction of the later Mughal period — one in which “all ruling monarchs were ‘legitimate’ and the exercise of de facto power was sufficient to legitimise the usurpation of the most outrageous upstart”.

The patrons might be elected at the bottom of the political system but with no orderly mode of succession at the top, the political order reflects more the character of a monarchy than that of a modern democracy. In his book, Cheema describes the chaos that marked every succession in the Mughal dynasty starting as early as Humayun. His brother Askari “was forced to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, but died on the way”. With Kamran, another brother, “who had struck coins, proclaiming his sovereignty at Kabul, it was necessary to proceed to extremes”. Let me spare the reader the details. Suffice it to say that it is sobering to know one’s history and to realise the slowness of the pace of change.

The system in Pakistan is one of patronage of the monarchical type. One can re-start it anywhere; left to itself it soon begins to revert to type. The system may be called by any name and the leader may give himself any title. In effect, he would be a king, there would be a king’s party, the noblemen would flock to be part of the entourage, opponents would be dealt with a la Humayun, and the rule would be implemented by a succession of firmaans.

Even a king’s cabbage cannot be made to smell like a rose.

This article appeared first in the Daily Times, Lahore, on October 31, 2004. The book referred to in the article is The Forgotten Mughals: A History Of The Later Emperors Of The House Of Babar (1707-1857).




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