Straws in the Wind

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 small governments of contemporary democracies. Dynastic succession provides the strongest evidence and is the most difficult to explain in any other framework. Because it occurs across South Asia it suggests a deep-rooted societal ethos not confined to particular religions or ethnicities.


But the evidence of a monarchical ethos does not necessarily rest on such major phenomena. It is when the manifestations can be found in minor, seemingly everyday occurrences that one is forced to acknowledge the extent it is a part of the subconscious psyche of the region.


I was reminded of this on reading the news that the Prime Minister had taken notice of the ban on Shoaib Akhtar and directed the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to revise the decision.


If correct, how else would one interpret this except as a firmaan from a ruler? One would presume that the Board had taken note of a transgression and constituted a panel that heard evidence based on which it reached its decision. One would also presume that a process exists for the aggrieved individual to file an appeal against the ruling.


How does a Prime Minister come into this and overrule the entire institutional process? It is understandable only if one thinks of the ruler as a monarch who has absolute authority. One can think back to the adl-e-Jahangiri where a complainant would appeal directly to the monarch and the latter would adjudicate based on his assessment of the merits of the case.


In that context, the holding of open kutcheries still remains quite popular in modern-day Pakistan. Individuals with parchis wait for hours to hand them to the ruler who scribbles orders to his viziers for compliance – a transfer, or restitution, or relief from bureaucratic harassment. The monarch dispenses justice and moves on.


The argument that the PCB was not democratic is ironic. If so, it only confirms that another monarch had appropriated the Board earlier with little protest by the citizens. In all likelihood nothing will change in the functioning of the Board except the faces.


I am not blaming the Prime Minister who is a nice man having vowed to change the system and bring back true democracy. My point is that perhaps it did not even cross his mind that he was emulating a monarch and that this was a quintessentially monarchical act, albeit a minor one. That is because the monarchical ethos is bred in the bone in South Asia.


Examples of the phenomenon will continue to recur with regularity. Take for example the Information Minister’s characterization of the repeal of the PEMRA strictures as a “gift to the media.” Not the concession of a right, but a monarch’s gift that could be taken back just as easily as it has been granted.


Or, take the gesture of the Punjab Chief Minister to convert the CM’s office to a university for women. A generous act indeed but once again quite an arbitrary and whimsical one. No need to consult anyone – the monarch knows best the optimal use of the facility and who is to question the appropriateness of the decision.


One enters as a democrat and begins morphing into a monarch before the day is done – the minor manifestations are the most revealing. It might help to keep pointing them out.


Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on April 21, 2008.


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1 Comment
  • Observer
    Posted at 15:44h, 01 July Reply

    Letter in Dawn, Karachi – May 1, 2008

    MISBAH U. Azam in his letter, ‘Taking due course to reach decision’ (April 27), has said that people have elected their leaders, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Asfandyar Wali, and must trust them. It is strange that Mr Azam should call heads of dynastic parties as our leaders.

    Samia Altaf, in her article, ‘Straws in the wind’ (April 21), had rightly said the political culture of Pakistan was more like that of a monarchy than of democracy. In fact, keeping political parties undemocratic reveals a sinister design of disenfranchising the public-spirited middle class away from politics. Our political system fits the system of plutocracy which is defined in these words:

    “Plutocracy refers to the rule or power through wealth or by the wealthy, where the degree of inequality is high while the level of social mobility is low.

    “The wealthy have disproportionate influence on the political process, and a very small percentage of extremely wealthy individuals control the government, appropriating most of the financial benefits. These plutocrats also control the executive, legislative and judicial aspect of government.”

    Delaying the restoration of pre-Nov 3 judiciary depicts the plutocratic mindset of the leaders who are naturally afraid of independent judiciary for obvious reasons.

    The prime minister should have announced the restoration of the judiciary the day he ordered removal of their illegal incarceration. That would have been the due course and right decision.


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