An epitaph on Pakistan’s demokratia?

A constitution is only as good as those implementing it

We curse Chief Justice Muneer as the pioneer who paved for praetorian rulers. We however forget just what Chief Justice Muneer said shortly before pronouncing his verdict on the notorious Dosso case: ‘when politics enters the portals of justice, democracy, its cherished inmate, walks out by the backdoor’ (Roedad Khan, Pakistan: A Dream Gone Sour).

Our Constitution is based on the “separation of powers”. Yet, our history teems with luminaries who harboured supra-constitutional hallucinations. The ‘institutional boundaries’ in golden words of our constitution are crystal clear but ‘blurred’ in minds of purblind players, ruling bureaucrats, judges and praetorians-to-be.

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The kingpins in various institutions, always at daggers drawn, should not forget Jean Bodin’s dictum majesta est summa in civas ac subditoes legibusque salute potestas, ‘the highest power over citizens and subjects [is] unrestrained by law’.

Bodin explained power resides with whosoever has ‘power to coerce’. It does not reside with the electorate, parliament, judiciary or even constitution. In the past, our bureaucrats, judges, politicians, and even praetorian rulers fought tooth and nail to prove that power belonged to them. We have the rare distinction to live happily with a praetorian in uniform and grant another lifelong presidency.

History glistens with names of “heroes” who suffered from the “I’m the constitution” paranoia. Julius Caesar and Napoleon also harboured extra-constitutional thoughts.  Napoleon told Moreau de Lyonne, “The constitution, what is it but a heap of ruins. Has it not been successively the sport of every party?” “Has not every kind of tyranny been committed in its name since the day of its establishment?”

During his self-crowning in 1804, Napoleon said, “What is the throne, a bit of wood gilded and covered with velvet? I am the state. I alone am here, the representative of the people”. Take General Zia.  He had nothing but contempt for the Constitution and democratic norms (Roedad Khan, A Dream gone Sour).

While addressing a press conference in Teheran, he said, “What is the Constitution?” “It is a booklet with ten or twelve pages.  I can tear them up and say that from tomorrow we shall live under a different system.  Is there anybody to stop me? Today the people will follow wherever I lead them.  All the politicians including the once-mighty Mr Bhutto will follow me with their tail wagging (ibid.). Dicey said, “No Constitution can be absolutely safe from a Revolution or a coup d’état”.

“Till the day contempt of the Constitution vanishes, Pakistan will remain a battlefield of soldiers of fortune, in khaki or mufti” (ZA Bhutto). Alas! All the soldiers of fortune were mortal. Our ex-PMs and PMs-to-be should take the cue. Remember Nehru said, “Pakistan, I would not have that carbuncle on India’s back” (DH Bhutani, The Future of Pakistan, p. 14) . Patel called Jinnah ‘poison’. Let’s stop uncannily fulfilling the dreams of Pakistan’s enemies. .

Democracy is inherent flawed. Democracy in Pakistan is in peril as the politicians have no worldview. To correct multifaceted social injustice, all stakeholders, in khaki and mufti, should try to evolve the Aristotelian `Golden Mean’. Or else, continue on auto-pilot until divine retribution strikes.

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The rot starts in minds when executive, parliament or judiciary out-steps limits to its authority. In his book Governance Deficit: A Case Study of Pakistan , former finance secretary Saeed Ahmed Qureshi points out that our constitutional evolution had an uneasy start with preponderance of personalities over institutions. Qureshi goes on to recount “eight blows to the constitutional system” including dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the dismissal of elected prime ministers, the induction of Gen Ayub Khan as defence minister on 24 October 1954, the imposition of martial or quasi-martial law “for 33 out of Pakistan’s 68 years of history”.

The drafter of India’s constitution, Dr. B R Ambedkar, prophetically remarked, ‘However good a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad. However bad a Constitution may be, if those implementing it are good, it will prove to be good’. The Indian Constitution allows the President to dissolve the elected Parliament (doing so is treason in Pakistan). But he has never done so.

In Pakistan, it is the vested interests, not demos (people) of demo-kratia, who rule. There is no social democracy. To quote Ambedkar, ‘Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life’. The fault lies with democrats, not democracy, whether presidential or parliamentary.

In his study of political systems (oligarchy, monarchy, etc.), Aristotle concluded demokratia was probably the best system. The problem that bothered him was that the majority of free people (then excluding women and slaves) would use their brute voting power to introduce pro-poor legislation like taking away property from the rich. During the Aristotelian age there was only one house, a unicameral legislature. Aristotle too was a man of means. His household had slaves.

Aristotle suggested that we reduce income inequalities so that have-not representatives of the poor people were not tempted to encroach upon haves’ property. Like Aristotle, the American founding fathers were unnerved by the spectre of `rule of the proletariat’. James Madison harboured similar concerns. He feared `if freemen had democracy, then the poor farmers would insist on taking property from the rich’ via land reforms. The fear was addressed by creating a senate (USA) or a House of Lords (Britain) as antidotes against legislative vulgarities of the House of Representative or a House of Commons.

Aristotle would rejoice in the grave to see both Pakistan’s National Assembly (commons) and the Senate (lords) populated by the rich. A “democrat”, now self-exiled defiantly wore Louis Moinet `Meteoris’ wristwatch, worth about Rs. 460 million. Another, a proponent of Medinite State, owns a 30-kanal house. Our august bi-cameral legislature never took any legislative steps to equalise citizens in access to education, health-care, housing and jobs. They never looked into the origin of landed aristocracy, chiefs and chieftains in the subcontinent during the Mughal and British periods. As a result, about 560 scions of the British raj, along with nouveaux riches (industrial robber barons) have been perched in our lower and upper houses since 1947.

Participation was the sine qua non of the Aristotelian democracy. Vote-eligible men used to flock to the parliament when in session. But, nowadays, only a handful of “elected representatives” (a mafia) attend the parliament.

A German sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties, postulated the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Michels stated that the raison d’être of representative democracy is eliminating elite rule. It is an impossible goal.

Shabbar Zaidi’s book Rich People, Poor Country portrays a sorry state of Pakistan. Author’s estimates, based on the amount of assets revealed under Foreign Assets (Declaration and Repatriation) Act, 2018 (tax amnesty scheme) suggest that a substantial number of Pakistanis, around seven to eight percent of the country’s then total population of 210 million, were very rich. These Pakistanis have individual incomes possibly exceeding even the highest average per capita incomes in the world. In sharp contrast, our government remains poor— being able to collect taxes that constitute only 10 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

He argues a government not able to tax the rich will never have the resources required to provide the poor with economic and social protection.

Democracy is inherent flawed. Democracy in Pakistan is in peril as the politicians have no worldview. To correct multifaceted social injustice, all stakeholders, in khaki and mufti, should try to evolve the Aristotelian `Golden Mean’. Or else, continue on auto-pilot until divine retribution strikes.

Amjed Jaaved
Amjed Jaaved
The writer is a freelance journalist, has served in the Pakistan government for 39 years and holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law. He can be reached at [email protected]


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