The democratic project
Why is it that even after 70 years of its existence, Pakistan can only be described as a democratic state and society with difficulty, if at all? The main reasons should be sought in the legacy of the independence struggle and partition, the overweening role of state institutions such as the military and bureaucracy, and the mindset of our political class.
The independence struggle against British colonialism degenerated into a communal slugfest between the two main religious groups in undivided India – Muslims and Hindus. While the former community had by 1947, and particularly after the communal bloodletting accompanying partition, internalised the Muslim identity, the latter maintained a formal secularism punctuated by communal riots until the BJP rose to power and in its present avatar under Modi, is attempting to ‘Hinduise’ India.
In both cases, voices and forces of dissent from the received legacy were loud and clear. In India, it was the Congress Party, the Left, and to some extent the regional parties that rose to prominence later that led the fight to retain the secular principles enshrined in their Constitution, and continue to do so even today. In Pakistan, dissenting voices arose from the smaller provinces of West Pakistan and from the Bengali majority in East Pakistan. These struggles too are far from over.
In post-colonial Pakistan, the overdetermined colonial construct around the state institutions that constituted the ‘steel frame’ of the British Empire in South Asia – the military and bureaucracy – exercised an overweening influence in national affairs. As for the political class, it proved insecure, exclusionary, influenced profoundly by the communal strife accompanying partition, and motivated by considerations that militated against democracy in the true sense. Soon after independence, our political class abandoned/rejected Jinnah’s desire for a secular state as envisioned in his August 11, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly on the eve of the handover of power. That speech was suppressed for many years and proved in any case too little, too late after the genie of religion-tinged politics had been unleashed during the independence struggle. The political class took nine years to deliberate and finally adopt a Constitution in 1956 that reflected the turn towards religion as the legitimising principle of the state and undermined democracy by introducing One Unit in West Pakistan and parity between the two wings. This negated the democratic principle of one man, one vote, motivated by the West Pakistani political, bureaucratic and military elite’s paranoia regarding a threatened permanent East Pakistani Bengali majority.
Ironically, the Bengali Muslims remained in the forefront of the struggle for Pakistan, whose other centres were areas such as UP and Bihar that remained in India after partition. The areas comprising West Pakistan were latecomers (if at all) to the moveable feast at the new state’s table. The history of the country between 1956 and 1969 can therefore be characterised by the defining struggles against One Unit (some of them armed) and parity, i.e. the twin pillars on which the state’s construct rested. In 1968-69, Ayub Khan’s dictatorship faced a countrywide agitation and revolt that eventually saw him depart in favour of a fresh martial law imposed by his army chief, General Yahya. Repressive as this regime was to quell the popular ‘rebellion’, it also realized there was no way forward except to undo the main causes of the grievances against the top down imposed structure of the state. Hence One Unit was repealed and one man, one vote conceded for the elections called for 1970. That election reflected the volcanic lava that had been accumulating under the surface in reaction to the dictatorial structures of the state and polity. Suffice it to say in summary that Yahya’s refusal to accept the mandate of the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (albeit confined to an overwhelming sweep in East Pakistan that gave it a majority), and the collaboration of an ambitious and reared-under-dictatorship Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who had a majority in West Pakistan, scuttled any chances of a democratic turn and eventually led to the bloody breaking away of East Pakistan to reinvent itself as Bangladesh.
After the 1971 debacle, no accounting for the disaster took place, and the whole episode was swept under the carpet. The three or four generations since have amongst them many, especially young people, who are either unaware of the once existence of an Eastern wing, or know precious little about the circumstances surrounding its parting of the ways. This was done to spare the military, bureaucracy and collaborationist political leaders embarrassing blushes had the true facts seen the light of day.
Bhutto was installed in power by a post-Yahya military junta in what remained of Jinnah’s Pakistan. He consolidated his power, carried out radical reforms (not all good), annoyed thereby the capitalist and large landowning classes, and failing to carry through the logic of his populist politics, was overthrown and hanged as the dastardly revenge of the propertied against him and the ‘upstart’ poor who had dared challenge them under the illusions fostered by Bhutto’s populist rhetoric.
Then descended the dark night of the General Ziaul Haq era, whose hangover afflicts us to this day. Promoting religiosity and fundamentalism not only helped Zia suppress any hankerings for democracy, it enabled him to prolong his tenure when the Afghan war fell like a ripe and fortuitous fruit in his lap. In all these periods of non-democratic and dictatorial rule, the west led by the US supported and consolidated these tendencies (in return, at least initially, for Pakistan joining anti-communist pacts such as CENTO and SEATO).
The post-Zia ‘democratic’ interregnum of 1988-99 saw no government complete its tenure, with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif engaged in the game of musical chairs until General Pervez Musharraf turned off the music. His regime murdered Nawab Akbar Bugti, Benazir Bhutto and others to signal the drawing of a black curtain once again upon the realm. The hopes and aspirations accompanying the restoration of elected civilian governments in 2008 stand dashed against the malign manoeuvrings of the ‘establishment’, the suppression of dissent and criticism (ironically in an era of supposed freedom of the media and expression), and the showcasing of elected governments while retaining important policy areas such as defence, foreign policy and internal security to itself, de facto if not de jure.
This lengthy digression into our history is necessary to discern the pattern that emerges. Initially unabashedly military-bureaucratic dictatorships, later powerless elected civilian governments, this minuet sees the establishment raising to the heights chosen political leaders, inevitably falling out with them over the exercise of real power, and then pinning their own creatures against the wall until they feel compelled to cry out and raise the banner of ‘rebellion’. The only difference now is that the latest recipient of such ‘honour’ is for the first time a Punjabi (not from one of the virtual ‘colonies’ called smaller provinces). That has set a new dynamic in motion. However this struggle pans out, it is unlikely Pakistan will ever be exactly the same again.
The time, effort, sweat and blood that has been expended on the democratic project over the last 70 years offered the mirage of space for raising the grievances and aspirations of the deprived, marginalised, oppressed and exploited. Even if that has come to pass to some extent, the second half of the argument for democracy, that it could be the harbinger of a transcendence of the ‘limits’ of parliamentary democracy in favour of a radical change that empowers and places at the centre as the object of history the people, has yet to break through the dark clouds lowering once again on our political firmament.