Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Democracy Debate

I was watching Dawn TV the other day, and Mr. Ali Azmat was being interviewed on Talk Back. After waxing eloquent about the poor and the oppressed, Mr. Azmat suddenly launched into an aggressive anti-democracy tirade. For ten minutes he said something to the effect of Musharraf is the man. Then pompously, he said that Pakistan doesn’t deserve democracy and democracy only means that the illiterate idiots (I am roughly translating jahil, the word he used with much contempt) of this country will vote for other illiterate idiots and promote “feudal” politics.

It is not like I have not heard this argument before. Every opponent of democracy in Pakistan will dutifully cite this argument, and I would not really bother to rebut it if not for the fact that it leaves many proponents of democracy completely stumped.

So let’s settle this once and for all. The fact that Pakistan’s literacy rate is an abysmal 50% does not mean that it is unsuitable for democracy. This argument assumes that people who cannot read are automatically incapable of both rational thought and of deciding what is best for them, which is about all that people need to make a democracy work.

During elections, politicians outline what they will do if elected. Individuals vote for those who they think will best represent their interests. The person/party that represents the most people’s interests wins the elections. If by the next elections it does not deliver on its promises or if the people now want something those in government are not offering they are not reelected. Democracy in a nutshell.

Now, it does not take a person decades of schooling to decide (a) what he or she wants from the government and (b) whether once elected the government has followed through on its promises. Then why does this argument have currency with so many people in the “literate” upper and middle classes (UMC)?

The answer is simple. Just as the British colonizers had the myth of the incompetent natives to justify colonization, the UMC of Pakistan have the myth of the illiterate idiot poor person to justify a form of governance that suits them.

Military dictators in Pakistan have historically been economically beneficial to the UMC. In both Ayub and Musharraf’s eras, the economic growth benefited only those who were already well to do. Economic disparity grew dramatically making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Zia came in and put an immediate stop to Bhutto’s spree of nationalization and his socialist economic program, which was really hurting the UMC and benefiting the “illiterate” masses.

Simply put, the UMC and the masses have divergent interests. The masses want living wages, labor unions, better government education and health. The UMC want a liberal import policy, tax cuts on businesses and lots of protectionism for local industries. Democracy means that the masses get their way and the UMC lose out.

Therefore the conveniently created myth of the illiterate idiot masses. The interests of these unfortunate people can only be protected by the kinder and more liberal of the UMC, like Mr. Azmat. They cannot, of course, be allowed to govern themselves because they are not yet sophisticated enough. They must educate themselves to earn that privilege. So on and so forth.

Remind you of colonial rhetoric much?

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