How Pakistan is paying for its failures as a democracy

DailyBiteOct 11, 2017 | 17:48

How Pakistan is paying for its failures as a democracy

The basis of a democratic state is liberty, proclaimed the Greek philosopher Aristotle some 20 centuries ago. Since then, humankind has strived to define and redefine democracy keeping this principle at the very heart of any democratic state.

But why is liberty fundamentally important?

The answer to this might lie in how the human brain functions. Neurophysiology has determined the brain operates most effectively in conditions of freedom, where the mind is not limited to one set of data or one intellectual approach chosen for it by some external authority: be it an education system, religion or state ideology. Essentially attesting freedom is a basic necessity similar to food, shelter or health. And liberty is simply a more collective synonym for freedom. Now, with this fact known, how best could any nation-state ensure and create conditions where individual freedom-liberty exists?


Before answering this question, it's important to see if there exists fundamental data to substantiate the above claim of neurophysiologists. As a result, we begin by observing the trajectory various nations have taken in pursuit of individual freedom and their state of human development and economic progress.

For the purpose of comparing apples to apples, we chose Pakistan and Malaysia — both are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, predominantly Muslim, medium-sized nations that got freedom from British rule in the same decade (1947-1957) and chose democracy as the model of governance.

Malaysia is home to diverse ethnicities constituting Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous people where the majority practises Islam. The GDP per capita of Malaysia was $10,380 (2012), with its population below poverty standing at 3.8 per cent (2009), unemployment rate at 3 per cent (2012) and overall GDP at $303 billion (2012) — of which exports made up $227 billion.

In terms of human development, Malaysia's literacy rate was 92 per cent (2008), with the government spending 34.35 per cent (2010) on post-secondary education. The life expectancy rate of the average Malaysian is 74 years and the country ranks 26th in the world on the quality of healthcare.


Similar to Malaysia, Pakistan too is home to diverse ethnicities constituting Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Mohajirs and Balochs as well diverse religions, with the majority practising Islam. However, unlike Malaysia, Pakistan ranks poorly both on economic and human development indices. Pakistan's GDP per capita was $1,290 (2012), one-tenth of Malaysia's. The population below poverty was at 22 per cent (2006), six times greater than Malaysia with the overall GDP of $231 billion (2012), of which exports constituted only $24 billion (2012).

The literacy rate in Pakistan was 53 per cent in 2008, with the government spending a meagre 2.17 per cent (2012) on education compared to the 34.35 per cent invested by Malaysia. The life expectancy rate is 65 years, with the country ranking 61st on the quality of healthcare. Further, Malaysia spends 1.30 per cent of GDP on R&D in comparison to the 0.29 per cent spent by Pakistan.

Observing these facts, one wonders, despite similarities, why has Malaysia prospered and Pakistan lagged behind?

Nations are not limited to infrastructure or natural resources or merely a boundary; rather, a nation is a collection of individuals bound by a common idea within a confined geography. The idea of Pakistan, that is nazaria-e-Pakistan, was and has ever since remained the negation of why they are not Indian, why they are not a product of subcontinental culture and values. And this very essence of negation has led it into a negative spiral of denial of history and facts, and imposed upon it a constant struggle to prove that the negation is real.


This need for psychological negation, over the years, has been so deeply and systematically ingrained by state that any other idea of state is seen as a threat to the survivability of the nation itself, resulting in the intellectual stunting of its citizens by a limited space and ideological prejudice that does not enable them to freely question, doubt and expose themselves to varied ideas so necessary for an individual's development and nation-building.

And, Pakistan's army has taken it upon itself to act as the sole protector and guarantor of the idea of Pakistan. So much so that only four years after its inception, an unsuccessful coup attempt was made against the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan. And, ever since, Pakistan army has been ruling the country directly (three successful coup attempts were made in 1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2008) or indirectly.

At the Lal Shahbaz shrine after a terror attack. Photo: AP

Pakistan army — through its propaganda, narrative building and rumour-mongering machinery — has successfully conditioned the minds of its citizens to believe that politicians compromise national interest and the only well wisher and saviour of this country are its defence forces. But the primary reason for the army's continuous involvement in the political process of the country and the forces' resistance to democratic development is that it provides the military an escape from accountability.

Pakistan army, in pursuit of its ideological goals, has initiated wars — beginning with the 1948 war with India on Kashmir, which led to a crisis that remains unresolved, the 1965 war with more loss at hand, the fall of Dhaka in 1971, the Kargil war that led to the loss of hundreds of soldiers just because of the suicidal plan of an ambitious general, and its nurturing of "strategic assets" who have killed thousands of innocent Pakistanis in last 15 years and the country's selective war on terror, with immunity to the "good Taliban" that attacks neighbouring countries.

The recent — not the first — disqualification of a sitting prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) by the supreme court of Pakistan on technicalities unrelated to the actual scandal is a case in point. The decision, though considered flawed, and a conspiracy against the democratic process by most "liberal civil society" activists, hasn't been able to encourage people to come out on the streets and resist Pakistan army's obscene intervention through the judiciary.

This says a lot about the effectiveness of its carefully curated narrative over many years of power, bestowing itself with unquestionable supra-rights that have stunted the ability of its citizens to see the obvious.

While the army and the judiciary are to be condemned for their roles in derailing democracy, politicians also wear the crown of aiding non-civilian forces against their political rivals. Both Nawaz and Benazir Bhutto toppled each other's governments in the '90s with the help of secret aides. And though the two biggest parties have played into the hands of the establishment and signed the famous "Charter of Democracy", committing themselves to stand by democracy in the country, the Pakistan army managed to outwit them by springing a new player Imran Khan, thus ensuring democracy never takes roots in Pakistan.

Given Pakistan's trajectory, it is no revelation that in comparison to Malaysia, it falters in all aspects of human development and economic prosperity.

Best recourse for a brighter future of Pakistan

In a fully functioning democracy, people should have effective participation in policy making, control the agenda, have equal voting rights and the option to learn, discuss alternatives and consequences of any policy and no information must be inaccessible to people or their representatives. People have basic fundamental rights, beginning with the freedom of thought and expression, equality and right to life, which cannot be undone even by majority rule. Democracy naturally, though chaotic, in the long run strives for "public good" and fosters human development in terms of health, education, income, et al.

And in a country such as Pakistan, which is rich in diversity and where culture changes every ten miles, a collaboratory system like parliamentary democracy is best suited as it provides representation to all segments of the society and creates harmony within the country, empowering people to thoughtfully question, debate and decide their destiny without fear or prejudice.

Pakistan's smaller provinces have long had grievances regarding the share of resources; it was only through a democratically-elected government that provinces were given autonomy and control of their own assets. Thus, a centrist approach for such an ethnically diverse country is perilous as it deprives people of their identity and representation.

In an autocratic regime, interests of the ruler and not the ruled are taken into account. This is the reason why we have the simmering Balochistan issue. Smaller ethnicities like Mohajirs, Sindhis, Pakhtoons and Balochs harbour a sense of resentment against the state, thanks to the destructive policies of dictators.

For Pakistan to unshackle itself from this negative ideological spiral and pursue development, it is very important that democratic sense prevails in Pakistani society. That the rights and choices of people from different groups are respected. That every institution performs within its constitutionally-defined role. Acceptance and tolerance will turn this otherwise underdeveloped society into a moderate and inclusive one.

Democracy needs time and continuity to show fruitful outcomes. There is no quick fix, there are no short cuts. People need to trust their elected representatives and if they don't prove themselves, the same people reserve the right to replace them with better ones — but only through vote. People should stop looking for a saviour who will come and solve their problems.

In short, liberty and democracy is the only antidote to what ails Pakistan.

Vive la liberte.

(The authors are part-time researchers and students of South Asian Peace and Security Studies, with a deep commitment to bring about change in South Asia, especially Pakistan. They have no political, government, NGO or media affiliations.)

Last updated: October 11, 2017 | 18:42
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