Karachi: Narendra Modi’s recent victory in India was termed by some as a blow to the country’s democracy. The strong mandate he received was interpreted as a mass critique of a system that has been paralysed by the chaos of coalitions, and resulting corruption. But for many in India who have reservations about Mr Modi, his electoral win is a high point in the country’s democratic trajectory. This is because they believe that their democratic institutions can provide the necessary checks and balances to any authoritarian or anti-democratic tendencies Mr Modi may harbour — they remain confident that no individual can prove more powerful than democratic institutions such as Parliament, the judiciary, political parties, media and the bureaucracy.
Whether India’s democracy shapes or is shaped by Mr Modi remains to be seen. But the importance of institutions in a democratic set-up is something we should pay more attention to on this side of the border, especially since larger-than-life political figures have dominated our news headlines in recent days. Altaf Hussain’s questioning by the British police brought Karachi to a standstill and provoked many questions about the future of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and political representation for Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking community more broadly. While Mr Hussain’s fate remains uncertain, there has been speculation in the media about a new strongman stepping up to lead the party.
These events have coincided with the anniversary of Nawaz Sharif’s first year in power, reflections on which have focused on the Prime Minister’s authoritarian tendencies. As Arifa Noor astutely observed in this paper, Mr Sharif in the past year has run the country like a small-time family business, keeping power close to his chest, failing to hold party meetings, distancing the Opposition, and barely bothering to show up in Parliament.
Imran Khan has also loomed large over the political landscape in recent weeks, playing the caricature of the enraged Opposition, and taking up issues that have little to do with his party’s manifesto or mandate in KP. The disproportionate influence of certain individuals over their political parties — and more dangerously, over state institutions — is a major indication that Pakistan’s so-called democratic transition is more farce than fact. For how can we claim to be democratic when individuals are more powerful than the institutions they supposedly serve?
The fact is, cults of personality endure because Pakistanis have little patience for building institutions — whether political parties or organs of the state — or institutionalising processes. For a host of well-known reasons — that range from the uneven nature of Partition and a young country’s reliance on Jinnah to long stretches of military rule and the early impact of feudalism on politics — Pakistan’s democratic institutions were never consolidated. Instead, a vicious cycle has ensued: individuals have dominated, and being inherently self-serving have used their time in power to secure their own interests rather than those of the state. The military, meanwhile, has sought to single out and prop up individuals as a consistent strategy to ensure that robust democratic institutions that could challenge its institutional dominance and privileged status do not flourish.
As Pakistan’s overall predicament worsens, strong institutions that can implement policies in a sustained manner — irrespective of changes in leadership — and tackle systemic challenges like the lack of rule of law and inadequate development are needed more than ever. Ironically, however, the worse things seem, the more the public clamours for saviours. And so we have the resilience of Mr Hussain, the authoritarianism of Mr Sharif, and the rise of Mr Khan — in other words, the continuing appeal of individuals who posit themselves as indispensable by refusing to delegate power, cultivate successors, and privilege institutionalised processes over personal promotion.
Pakistan’s multifaceted problems are growing to the point where they seem insurmountable. But the crisis of institution-building is one challenge we can start to address, starting with the political parties that claim to be democratic champions and should be counterweights to the one institution that de facto dominates — the military. There have been innumerable calls for improved internal party democracy, and it is high time that parties collectively committed to being run in more democratic and institutionalised ways.
Cultivating strong institutions is the only way to bring continuity and stability to Pakistan, and help shift the focus from individuals to processes. This shift is key in order for rule of law and basic democratic rights to flourish — a task too big to be left to a few individuals.
By arrangement with Dawn