Pakistan: an ailing democracy

Will the people of Pakistan succeed in reclaiming democracy and saving their country from what many believe is a journey from a 'rogue state' to a 'failed state'?
Image: Global Village Space

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s tryst with democracy has not been noteworthy. Since its creation in 1947, it has been under military rule for over three decades. No democratically elected Prime Minister has completed a full term in Pakistan. Its failure to accommodate cultural and linguistic diversity and eventual disrespect to popular mandate led to the country’s partition in 1971. Democracy in Pakistan is once again in danger. The bigger question is: will the people of Pakistan succeed in reclaiming democracy and saving their country from what many believe is a journey from a ‘rogue state’ to a ‘failed state’? This article perspicaciously analyses and answers the above question.

Military intervention

While the threat of Martial Law is looming large, it is being argued that the biggest threat to democracy in Pakistan is its powerful army. This argument seems quite convincing owing to the history of military intervention after brief intervals. However, military intervention is not the disease. It is only a symptom. The problems are much deeper that requires a perceptive understanding of the social structure and milieu of the society in Pakistan.

Absence of land reform

The military in Pakistan, especially the high-ranking officers, represent the landed aristocracy of Pakistan. A major chunk of the political elite also come from the landed aristocracy or real estate barons. Electoral democracy in Pakistan, thus, has been reduced to the competition between political elites of this affluent class thriving on the votes of toiling masses.

The present economic crisis and high prices of essential commodities in Pakistan are also linked to landlordism and hoarding. Pakistan is an agriculture-dependent country. Some appreciable efforts have been made there to redistribute land, but the hurdle came from an unexpected quarter. The federal judiciary reviewed the 1977 legislation imposing the ceiling of the landownership at 100 and 200 acres for irrigated and unirrigated lands, respectively. The Supreme Court Shariat Appellate Bench declared the legislation “against Islam”. The judiciary in a developing society has the additional responsibility of becoming a vehicle of social transformation, welfare and even wealth re-distribution. The concentration of lands in the hands of a few must be a concern of Pakistan’s judiciary. It should have approached the matter with the well-established Islamic principle of Ijtihad. However, the Bench preferred to apply an orthodox and conservative interpretation of faith.

Weak socialist movements

Pakistan has had a history of a strong intellectual base of Socialism/Marxism. But the repression following the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and thereafter, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 did not allow this ideology to become a mass movement. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sealed the fate of Socialism in Pakistan and led to the spectacular rise of rightist forces resulting in the weakening of progressive voices, for example socialist and feminist movements.

Socialist movements across the globe have played a significant role in ensuring land reforms and championing the causes of the landless labourers, workers, and poor people against landlords and the bourgeoisie. The weakening of the left movements in Pakistan has been a great loss for the country’s people.

Religious extremism

Islam has a normative value in structuring or restructuring society in a country like Pakistan. However, history shows the ruling elite can misuse religion to promote their interests. As Samuel Johnson observed: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Islam has become the last refuge of Pakistan’s political and military elites. They use it effectively for political gains and to undermine democracy.

The emergence of the right-wing poses a major threat to Pakistan’s democracy. Some extremist religious organizations like Hizbut Tahrir seriously believe and preach that democracy is the system of kufr. Therefore, in a society like Pakistan, it is a challenge to provide a normative justification for democracy in the light of the brand of Islam legitimised there. A universal Islamic theory of democracy is conspicuously missing.

Consequently, it is not just Pakistan, but lareg numbers of people in many Muslim countries ho are today reeling under authoritarian regimes.

Imran Khan, a phenomenon

Imran Khan has emerged as the most popular leader in the history of Pakistan. His greatest contribution to Pakistan’s democracy is that he has brought common people, especially the youth, into political spaces and hence deepened the base of democracy.

Undoubtedly, he has been the darling of the masses since his cricketing days. The emergence of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tahreek-e- Insaf (PTI) has brought in a new idioms and grammar of politics in Pakistan. He has successfully challenged the domination of the powerful military and opposed its undue interference in democratic politics. However, Imran Khan has a tough challenge ahead. The euphoria he generated for transforming Pakistan into what he calls the Riyasate Medina may lead to acute disappointment among citizens as realising the ideal State of Medina in Pakistan seems to be an impossibility. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the Imran Khan-led PTI has successfully confronted the army and tried to reclaim the democratic space in Pakistan.

Imran Khan has also tried to liberate Pakistan from the strangulating grip of the USA. He wanted to follow an independent foreign policy. He took some bold decisions, including his visit to Moscow on the eve of the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. This annoyed the United States. The removal of Imran Khan from power is also explained by many as the regime change policy of the United States. The track record of Donald Lu as the master of regime change and his appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, and the unfolding of events in these regions also testify to this argument.

Imran Khan is the first political leader in Pakistan who openly challenged the powerful army and reminded it of its atrocities in 1971. Only a mass leader like Imran could have done it. The popularity of Imran Khan, even after fifteen months of repression, can be understood from the fact that the Shabaz Sharif government is still trying to keep elections in abeyance. However, it is too early to predict the outcome of the standoff between the deeply entrenched army and an emerging mass leader. Imran Khan is today standing on the wrong side of Pakistan’s history.

Neighbouring countries like India should support Imran Khan’s struggle for democracy as dealing with a responsible government in the neighbourhood will be easier than with a military dictatorship. 

(The author is a professor in the Department of Political Science at AMU Aligarh)



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