Democracy/Governance / 14.02.2019

By Anjum Altaf The lessons from Brexit for democracy and the democratic process are significant and general enough to repay attention even for those whose interest in British politics might be quite limited. First, it should be quite clear that meta-issues involving complex economic and political dimensions with uncertain outcomes are not suitable for referenda offering binary YES or NO choices. Representative democracy exists for the sensible exercise of judgement on such issues by those elected by the voters to act in their interest. If the latter conclude that their interests are being ignored for any reason, they can change their representatives rather than take decisionmaking into their own hands. Consider also how unstable the outcome of such a referendum can be with just a slight alteration. Suppose the choices to be voted on in the case of the UK had been, instead of a straightforward YES or...

Democracy/Governance / 03.09.2018

By Anjum Altaf Some lessons are very hard-earned and stand out for their stark truth and searing honesty. Ivan Klima, a well-known Czech novelist, was transported to a concentration camp at the age of ten and was there for four years till the end of WWII in 1945. Many who accompanied him did not survive their internment. In a deeply-felt memoir of that experience (“A Childhood in Terezin”), Klima recalls two lessons that stayed with him. First, that “Every society that is founded on dishonesty and tolerates crime as an aspect of normal behaviour, be it only among a handful of the elect, while depriving another group, no matter how small, of its honour and even its right to life, condemns itself to moral degeneration and, ultimately, to collapse.” And, second, “that often it is not the forces of good and evil that do battle with each other, but...

Democracy/Governance / 21.01.2018

By Anjum Altaf It should be obvious that alternative ways of drawing constituency boundaries can significantly influence electoral outcomes. An historical example can make the point: the 2003 redistricting (the term used in the U.S.) in Texas, spanning the 2002 and 2004 elections, changed the composition of its delegation to the U.S. Congress from 15 Republicans and 17 Democrats to 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats (1). It is no wonder that redistricting is a hot issue in the U.S. whose fairness has been the subject of repeated Supreme Court reviews. There the deliberate manipulation of boundaries to influence electoral outcomes, termed gerrymandering, is along two lines - favouring one party over another, as in the case mentioned above, or attempting to reduce the representation of racial minorities (2). In this context it is surprising to find no analysis of past practise in Pakistan nor much interest now that...

Democracy/Governance / 08.08.2016

By Anjum Altaf Brexit has triggered two arguments about democracy: (1) Voters are ignorant, and (2) Representatives are selfish. In either case the implications for governance are grave. It is significant that the questions are being asked in the West. They have always been on the table in countries like Pakistan but dismissed as reflecting the limitations of people rather than of democracy. The answers in Pakistan are clear. The wisdom of voters is extolled in theory but undermined by contempt for their intelligence in practise. Citizens are never asked how the revenue they contribute ought to be allocated - they cannot be trusted to determine what is good for them or the nation. As for the representatives, voters are convinced of their dishonesty, their task limited to selecting the least crooked. The rulers themselves leave no doubt accusing each other of egregious malfeasance. In the West the...

Democracy/Governance / 27.06.2016

By Anjum Altaf  Over two thousand years ago Plato was skeptical of democracy because he felt that voters, even those restricted to property-owning male citizens, were swayed too easily by the rhetoric of self-serving politicians. Democracy disappeared for over 1,500 years following its demise in Athens and it was only then that its slow evolution began in England and spread to other parts of the world. Doubts regarding its efficacy persisted but were countered by arguments that it was the worst form of government except for all others. Not that this was considered universally applicable – during colonialism it was openly asserted that natives were not ready for democracy. Similar reservations regarding the developing world persisted beyond the end of colonialism. In the 1990s the late Richard Holbrooke was reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that...

Development / 25.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf The Taj Mahal was the nub of the argument in a recent opinion by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque on the Planning Commission (Should we have a planning commission? The News, November 3, 2015). I feel both sides of the argument were misplaced and am elaborating my view in keeping with the exhortation of the author to “let the debate go on.”   Dr. Haque quoted Khawaja Asif as saying that “If there had been a Planning Commission the Taj Mahal would not have been built!” He then retorted by writing: “First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.” There are two questions at issue: Should the Taj Mahal have been built? And: What is the role of the...

Democracy/Governance / 23.10.2015

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy. Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows: Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest) Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family) Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless) Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family) What should one conclude? This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country. Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as...

Democracy/Governance / 28.08.2015

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...

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...