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Pakistan's Absent Democracy



Pakistan’s Absent



kbar Zaidi’s wide-ranging article on Pakistan’s current political predicament (EPW, December 3, 2005), paints a rather depressing picture of the prospects of Pakistan’s democracy. This in itself is not surprising, given Pervez Musharraf’s putatively unshakeable position as a military ruler, whose key role in the US-led war on terror, guarantees him a tenure as long as that war lasts. However, Zaidi’s main conclusion that there are no credible elements in society who are interested in fostering a democratic polity and that there is no real constituency for democracy in Pakistan is alarming, but far-fetched. According to him, most such elements have, in effect, been co-opted by the ruling military-bureaucratic elite one way or another and “they do not have the need for either messy democracy, participation or even, accountability”. Zaidi reinforces his conclusion on the basis of the changing configuration of social classes in Pakistan through the major periods of Pakistan’s history.

With the analytical apparatus he uses and the empirical evidence he employs, Zaidi draws a rather surprising conclusion that “there is no reason to expect that there will necessarily be any move towards a democracy”. Zaidi’s conclusion seems to be based on an interpretation of Pakistani group behaviour, especially of the urban middle classes, characterised by their antagonistic disposition towards democracy, which he finds to be against the norm found in other countries and also across time, and is “perhaps unique to Pakistan”. This kind of particularistic social theory gives credence to the view that Pakistanis are in some ways different from other nations (India in particular) in being unable to identify democracy as a social need. This is a rather ingenious extension of the two-nation theory, which even Jinnah found redundant to invoke after the creation of Pakistan as an independent nation.

Instead of identifying the causes which have led to Pakistan’s disillusionment with democracy in recent years and suggesting ways in which this disenchantment can be overcome, Zaidi expostulates on a rational expectations theory of democracy, whereby people conditioned by the improbability of the existence of democracy in their lifetimes, resort to making opportunistic choices through “jore-tores” (expedient alliances). Such attempts only unwittingly play the role of a selffulfilling prophecy and further perpetuate the myth that democracy is not a workable option and that there is no alternative (TINA, for short) to the current dispensation in Pakistan, as Musharraf’s rationalisers, and I don’t include Akbar Zaidi among them, assiduously argue.

Another problem with Zaidi’s article is that it narrows the confines of the discourse (based on his perception of its relevance in the Pakistani context) to one which “revolves around how one can ‘work with the military’ rather than contest its supremacy, a politics of compromise – on the military’s terms, of course – rather than one of protest and confrontation.”1 Although the influence of the military in Pakistan’s polity was overarching, both in the Ayub and the Zia-ul-Haq eras, the political movements for democracy turned confrontational against them at some stage, although opportunistic elements, as now, collaborated with them as long as they did not run out of steam and also unravelled in their own contradictions. Unfortunately, in the current context, Zaidi concentrates only on the opportunistic tendencies which seem to lend an illusive cohesion and ignores the many inherent contradictions that the regime faces and which can only be resolved through the reassertion of the democratic process.

Zaidi’s article takes a rather selective view of Pakistan’s economic and political history. Although he says that “this particular paper does not go into why democracy has not existed in Pakistan in the past, but tries to examine the possible future of democracy in the country”, he does walk us through Pakistan’s history during his rather arbitrarily chosen subperiods of 1947-77, 1977-88, 1988-99 and 1999-2005. The first three decades of Pakistan’s history cast their long shadows on the last three. Pakistan’s real tragedy is that the lessons from the mistakes that were made in the first period were never learnt and corrected in the last three decades and continue to be made today.

In his first period, encompassing three decades, Zaidi lumps together the period of parliamentary democracy (1947-58), which was marred by the absence of elections to Parliament and the period of constitutional infringement by the governor-general and the continued alienation of East Pakistan by the usurpation of the economic and political rights of its people (a subject which does not receive detailed discussion in Zaidi’s article, but which is closely linked with the reasons for the lack of existence of democracy in later years of Pakistan’s history and, arguably, for its future as well). Indeed, it is surprising that Zaidi does not link the absence of democracy in Pakistan with the absence of regional autonomy, which manifested itself in the separation of Bangladesh and in the dissatisfaction that has created strong separatist movements in all three minority provinces of Pakistan.

Zaidi’s simplistic view that “Pakistan’s first decade 1947-58 was one where bureaucracy-led and assisted industrialisation took place” ignores the complex political economy factors that were behind such industrialisation. Neither is it true that the bureaucracy consisted mainly of migrants from India, who had no interest in agriculture. Ghulam Mohammad, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali and Mushtaque Gurmani represented the interests of the Punjab, rather than of the refugees. Even the bureaucrats of Indian origin, except a few, aligned themselves politically with the Punjab, rather than with East Pakistan, whose bureaucracy wanted a greater role in the central government. Many refugees had also been awarded landed property in Sind under the evacuee property arrangement, often disproportionate to the property they had left behind in India.

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

Zaidi also glorifies the Ayub Khan regime as a kind of “golden age” of economic growth and development, without mentioning its various downsides, especially the exacerbation of regional and economic inequalities. Representing the first foray of the military into politics, the regime was responsible for destroying the fragile fabric of democracy that Pakistan inherited at the time of partition. It is superfluous to go into the well known details of the events that led to the usurpation of civilian power by the military, which became the main beneficiary of the US military and economic aid. However, it is important to emphasise that the seeds of military’s supremacy over the civilian political establishment, something never countenanced in a democracy, were sown by the US Military Pact in 1954, well before the first military takeover by Ayub Khan.

Role of the Military

Thus the creation of this supremacy, as well as its perpetuation over time, which is at the heart of Pakistan’s political impasse and the main reason for the “failure of democracy”, is the result of the US’ continued support to Pakistan’s military establishment, in pursuit of the former’s own geo-political interests. This support, periodic vicissitudes notwithstanding, has provided the main source of Pakistani military’s strength and its propensity to consolidate and enhance its role in the political system, which it has distorted to an extent that it bears no resemblance with a democratic system. It is impossible indeed to think of a democratic system in Pakistan without a serious reduction in the size of the military, the resources at its disposal and the perquisites that its elite officer corps has become used to in the last few decades.

The military has become even more emboldened since the overthrow of Z A Bhutto’s regime, which alone presented some challenge to its authority for a short period of time, although the Bhutto regime’s policies were so contradictory that instead of clipping the military’s wings it increased its dependence on it through continued confrontation with India and choosing the nuclear option. It could be argued that Bhutto’s real motivation for the latter may have been to reduce the strength of the military once he had developed the nuclear bomb for which he mobilised considerable resources from Libya and Saudi Arabia.

However, this was an unlikely strategy that would have alerted both the US and the Pakistani military, who for their own reasons, couldn’t have allowed Bhutto to have such a dangerous weapon in his possession. It was in the interests of both, thus, to get rid of Bhutto and strengthen the military’s hold over Pakistan’s domestic politics.

The military establishment has learnt a bitter lesson since then and has seen to it that no strong civilian leader is ever allowed the reins of government. As a result all civilian governments, including those of Benazir and Nawaz Shariff, or those of Junejo and Jamali, have ever been allowed any real power. In the event, whenever they have dared to exceed the narrow limits of power (on defence, nuclear, Kashmir, Indo-Pak and Afghan and intelligence issues considered strictly off-limits for civilian oversight) or have shown any semblance of posing a threat to the military’s ever-widening interests, they have been summarily dismissed either via threats or the staging of a coup d’etat. The military remains a state within a state, whether in or out of government.

Zaidi’s thesis seems to rest on the premise that military regimes in Pakistan have needed the support of certain social groups for their survival and validation. The fact is, however, that the military has never felt the need for legitmising its rule through a transparent democratic process. What it has done has been either to promote its interests through proxy regimes (starting with Mohammad Ali Bogra in 1954 and Nawaz Shariff, Moeen Qureshi, Junejo, Jamali and Shaukat Aziz in more recent times) or to gain its entry into the political arena through fortuitous circumstances that gave it an opportunity to discredit an incumbent civilian government.

Zaidi’s categorisation of the “main social groups and actors in Pakistan today” is extremely loose as he lumps together “the following: the military, Islamic political groups, members of Pakistan’s civil and political society and of NGOs, international powers and donors, and segments of the middle class who are to be found in all institutional and ideological moorings.” Surprisingly, his definition of the military as an institution also includes “representatives from very poor social and economic backgrounds.” However, in Pakistani politics, it is the officer corps which is the main centre of power and is drawn largely from the elite. The ordinary soldiers play no part in either the exercise of power or have access to the perks and privileges that accrue to the officer corps, which include a substantial amount of agricultural and urban land at the time of retirement. The hierarchical nature of Pakistani military is a magnified reflection of that of the bureaucracy, which was its erstwhile senior partner. The hubris once associated with the bureaucracy is now equally the preserve of the military. Indeed the two rival groups have developed close links which have become more pronounced with each military takeover.

Crisis in Civil Society

Zaidi blames the “civil society” for its contributory role in the failure of democracy. In fact, Pakistan’s real tragedy is that civil society institutions were never allowed to grow by the feudal-militarybureaucratic junta which has presided over Pakistan’s destiny for most of its existence. In this, as in many other respects, there was a sharp contrast between East and West Pakistan. In the former, the influence of none of the components of the ruling triad was as strong or direct. Consequently, civil society institutions, such as the academia, professional associations, arts and letters, as well as trade unions and peasants’ organisations flourished more strongly in East than in West Pakistan. Being the political and economic underdog, East Pakistan’s intellectuals were more articulate and expressed their dissent in strong nationalist terms. In West Pakistan “dissent” was a dirty word. I recall that the newly-appointed vice-chancellor of my university, who was a strong supporter of Bhutto’s political party, publicly snubbed a young colleague (now a leading social activist) when he argued with her the right of academics to dissent from the official view. The vice-chancellor roared that there was no room for dissent in Pakistan. The rest of the academic audience hardly protested.

To give one more example from my personal experience, take the case of the Pakistan Economic Association that was an active body until the separation of East Pakistan, largely because Dhaka University had a strong tradition of economics teaching and played a pioneering role in energising the economics profession. After considerable efforts, the Pakistan Economic Association was revived in 1972 and a professor of Punjab University was elected its president. However, it turned out to be still-born. For more than three decades the

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006 association has not held any elections or conducted any meetings or activities, although the learned professor (who has since occupied many high offices, including that of vice-chancellor) has continued to use the title of president of the association and also represents the country in that capacity in international conferences. (In contrast, the Indian Economic Association, a purely professional and nonofficial and elected body, which has been in existence since December 1917, has never postponed a single session for more than three months). However, this has failed to stir the economics profession, much less the government, which does not feel comfortable with independent institutions and would have cause for worry if independent economists had a forum to articulate their opinions. Indeed, the Pakistan government treated its own economic advisory apparatus, including the Planning Commission, with an increasingly cavalier and dismissive attitude after the separation of Bangladesh.2 In recent years the government has reduced the status of the Planning Commission to a subsidiary department and its professional expertise has atrophied to mediocrity. The government does not have any advisory body consisting of academics or nonofficial economists and other experts.

Thus civil society institutions, like political democracy itself, have never been given a fair chance to flourish in Pakistan. But the relative pussillanimity and lack of activism on the part of civil society is more an effect rather than a cause of the failure of democracy in Pakistan. Civil society institutions develop in an environment of free debate and tolerance of dissent. The counterpart of Amartya Sen’s “argumentative Indian” was stifled in the very first few years of Pakistan’s existence soon after the feudal-military-bureaucratic triad had gained ascendancy and virtual hegemony over the population at large, including the civil society. The onslaught of the state on student and progressive movements in the 1950s and 1960s extinguished the spark of radicalism and inquisitiveness that characterised the youth of that generation. During the Ayub and Bhutto years it became difficult and riskier to challenge the established orthodoxy. The end of the cold war which coincided with the demise of Zia-ul-Haq’s regime relaxed the political atmosphere somewhat, but the damage done by the Zia years has left an indelible imprint on the Pakistani mind. People went into their respective shells and shunned politics, except for monetary gain.

Games of Legitimacy

The military has always found allies in the civil society who have queered the political pitch and derailed the train of democracy. In Ayub Khan’s days it found ways of corrupting intellectuals, writers and journalists, who hyped his regime’s achievements in the “Decade of Development”, which eventually contributed to his downfall. Zia-ul-Haq’s regime played the religious card to secure its legitimacy. In the process, it promoted obscurantist ideas and silenced the debate on policy options by encouraging the Islamisation process in every sphere of public life. Musharraf has tried, with only partial success, to woo some “liberal” elements on the basis of his fuzzy “enlightened moderation” agenda, but this has been more a means to placate his US masters than to pursue any real agenda of modernisation.

Zaidi also blames Pakistan’s nascent NGO movement for having betrayed democracy. It must be realised that the NGO movement in Pakistan is relatively young and much weaker than in other south Asian countries, especially Bangladesh and India, where the tradition of voluntarism and grassroot movements has been stronger. In Pakistan the upsurge in the NGO movement came from two major sources. First, largely as a result of the lack of opportunities for the young and committed (often foreigneducated) elite who were disenchanted both with the politicians and bureaucrats, which deprived them of any space for articulating their idealistic motivations. Secondly, the western donors changed their strategy of channelling foreign aid through the government, because of the perceived failure of the latter to deliver basic social services, especially in education, health and rural development. Their preferred vehicle, since the 1980s, has been NGOs, both domestic and international. Except for a few genuine first generation NGOs, such as those of Akhtar Hameed Khan and Abdus Sattar Edhi, a large number of NGOs would not have been there if these two basic structural changes, as mentioned earlier, had not occurred. To that extent, Zaidi implies that NGOs pre-empted the political space and stood in the way of democracy in Pakistan and it would be difficult to disagree with this.

Zaidi’s criticism of NGOs, however, is valid only for Musharraf’s early period, when the regime was badly in need of political legitimacy from any quarter. Some NGO leaders did join the Musharraf cabinet in the early period in the hope, no doubt misplaced, that he would leave after making a few essential reforms. But after Musharraf’s rigged election to become president and his political alliance with elements opposed to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Shariff, he had little use for the NGO representatives and brought in his “hard core” supporters, including some retired generals into the cabinet. After September 11, 2001, Musharraf and his junta were far more interested in the US’ military and economic support than on domestic political support and treated the politicians with the utmost contempt. All they wanted was a semblance of political stability to escape the wrath of the world community, especially the Commonwealth, which had suspended aid until elections were held.

Zaidi’s foremost argument seems to be that, unlike the previous military regimes of Ayub Khan and Bhutto, Musharraf has had to enlarge his support base to include large sections of urban and peri-urban elements, who became direct beneficiaries of the development process in the 1990s. For this purpose, the regime introduced a decentralisation programme ostensibly to give real democracy to the people. In fact, however, these reforms are like those of other non-representative regimes such as the British before independence and Ayub Khan’s basic democracy in the postdevelopment period.3 These reforms have all involved a decentralisation from the province to local levels but a curtailing of provincial autonomy and leading to some degree of recentralisation. The primary aim of these reforms has been for the nonrepresentative central government to gain legitimacy and to undercut the powers of the provincial governments and dilute the strength of provincial- and national-level representatives. This is unlikely to be acceptable to those who wish to see a system of government which is accountable at all levels of government.

The most salient feature of the current system, in which the military remains the dominant player in politics, is that almost a third of the national budget, devoted for defence, is above the scrutiny of public representatives in the parliament. As pointed out by an outspoken national assembly member and a former journalist, Sherry Rahman, “it is not just surprising but shocking that the defence budget in

Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

Pakistan remains above public scrutiny as well as the law. If lawmakers in Pakistan cannot discuss, let alone question the allocations and management of this chunk of the country’s wealth, then it is clear that once again, almost 30 per cent of the budgeted amount will remain out of parliament’s purview”. This is a matter of utmost concern for all sections of the population.

Zaidi seems to be overly optimistic about the decline of feudalism’s hold on Pakistan and its gradually diminishing role in politics. In the absence of any significant land reforms – the Ayub and Bhutto reforms had minimal impact and were designed more to harass political opponents than to achieve land redistribution – the hold of the landlords in politics remains intact, if slightly diluted and not as overt as before. A population with a literacy rate below 30 per cent and a headcount ratio of above 30 per cent, the landlords have a vast vote bank which they use unscrupulously to bargain in sharing the spoils of power. As scions of large feudal families, especially from Punjab and Sind, they continue to occupy their seats in both the national and provincial legislatures. No military government, including the present one, despite promises of bringing new blood into politics, has been able to dislodge these families from their firmly ensconced positions.

Zaidi fails to bring out the symbiotic relationships between the feudal, military and bureaucratic oligarchies which have played a dominant role in Pakistan’s political and economic development and also thwarted the establishment of democratic rule in Pakistan. The late Hamza Alavi, perhaps the most outstanding social scientist of Pakistan in recent times, succinctly analysed these interconnections as follows: “State power in Pakistan has been concentrated in the hands of a military bureaucratic oligarchy, a tightly knit coterie of mainly (but not exclusively) Punjabi officials who have remained in command of the state apparatus in Pakistan from its inception” [Alavi 1990].

Further on, Alavi ascribes two main reasons as to why movements for the restoration of democracy that emerged after each military rule failed, for they “made no effective dents in the power of the oligarchy, despite occasional ritualistic elections: first, because of the formalistic and narrowly legitimate constitutionalism of Pakistan’s political leadership, which has failed to address itself to the question of generating effective countervailing power, especially by way of organising the working masses of the country, including the peasantry, with which to confront oligarchic domination. Second, because the main base of party politics in Pakistan has rested on landlord-dominated factions, uncommitted to the spirit of democracy and all too easily patronised and manipulated by those in control of the state apparatus, their basic class interests are fully guaranteed by the state, for the dominant bureaucrats and military officers have substantial landholding interest in their own right” (ibid).

Zaidi’s lament about the absence of any counterpart of Sen’s argumentative Indian in Pakistan is not unfounded, but unfortunately he does not relate it to the causes of his/her disappearance or low profile. Today the argumentative Pakistani has a lowly existence in the columns of Pakistani newspapers, but he/she engages in a dialogue of the deaf, which does not translate into the formation of public opinion and, unlike India, has little impact on policy formulation, due to the low level of literacy and the minimal influence of public opinion on decision-making. However, the recent tactical retreat by the government in postponing the construction of Kalabagh dam is to some extent indicative of the fact that the rumours of the demise of the argumentative Pakistani, may be rather exaggerated.




1 See footnote 2 of his article in EPW, December 3, 2005.

2 For the reasons of the decline of the economics profession in Pakistan, see S M Naseem, ‘Economists and Pakistan’s Economic Development: Is There a Connection?’, Pakistan Development Review, Vol 37, No 4, Winter 1998, pp 401-30 and S Akbar Zaidi, The Dismal State of Social Science in Pakistan,COSS, Islamabad, 2002, which draws extensively on the former.

3 For an elaboration of this argument, see Cheema Ali, Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Adnan Qadir, ‘Local Government Reforms in Pakistan: Context, Content and Causes’, Kennedy School of Government, Working Paper No RWP05-034, Harvard University, Cambridge, US.


Alavi, Hamza (1990): ‘Authoritarianism and Legitimation of State Power In Pakistan’ in Subrata Mitra (ed), The Post-Colonial State in South Asia: Dialetics of Politics and Culture, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead, London and New York.





September 17, 2005
Social Health Insurance Redefined: Health for All through Coverage for All – Indrani Gupta, Mayur Trivedi
Health Care Financing for the Poor: Community-based Health Insurance Schemes in Gujarat – Akash Acharya, M Kent Ranson
Emerging Trends in Health Insurance for

Low-Income Groups – Rajeev Ahuja, Alka Narang

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Economic and Political Weekly February 25, 2006

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