Saturday, December 7, 2013

Accountability, Ideology, and State

On Representation

There is a wide gulf between the politicians that the Pakistani public elects to represent them and the public itself. The political class is, in no way, representative of the public they claim to represent. This is most obvious in the rural areas of Pakistan but it is a persistent urban problem as well.

Politicians must be representative of the public that elects them to ensure that the problems of the common person are able to enter the public discourse. It is unwise to depend on well-meaning politicians that are unrepresentative of the public to solve the problems of the public. No matter how sincere such politicians are, it is impossible for them to understand the issues that beset an average person on a daily basis. 

However, as is so often the case, politics is something only the wealthy can afford to engage in. Pakistan is no exception. This scenario doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future barring some sort of seismic shift in the social dynamics of Pakistan. As such, we are forced to confront the fact that unrepresentative politicians are here to stay.

On Accountability

What is required to confront this lack of representation is a very stringent accountability of the political class. Pakistan’s problem does not lie in the absence of democracy. It lies in the existence of unaccountable democracy.  

That is why the judiciary must be empowered to pursue suo moto cases against politicians. Every attempt at holding politicians accountable outside of elections must be pursued. This does not mean that the courts should begin formulating policy and providing recommendations to the ruling government on security, economic, defence, and foreign policy matters. But it does mean that the Supreme Courts should use their authority to hold politicians accountable when it comes to matters relating to the constitution.

Unfortunately, such accountability is not enough. The courts do not have the capacity to pursue each and every matter. And taking this too far will result in excessive politicization of the courts. Politicians will be only too keen to paint the courts as being undemocratic and attempting to steal their mandate.

Does the key to accountability, then, lie in the media?

The media does have a role to play in this regard. While one major function of the media is to report events in an unbiased manner, their other function must be to act as a voice for the voiceless and vulnerable sections of society.

Once again, however, this is simply not enough. The media can be easily influenced and it is unclear what the source of funding for many of the major news outlets are. Ultimately then, the burden of accountability falls on the voting public.

On Elections

If the burden for accountability falls on the public, why is it that the public has so far proven incapable of holding its leaders unaccountable?

The first reason involves voters who have no particular sense of holding politicians accountable. This occurs when voters are completely ignorant of their political rights. One example of this is where followers of pirs and makhdooms vote for their leader solely on the basis of his spiritual, religious and social significance.

The second reason involves the absence of accountability due to vote rigging. Every Pakistani election in history has suffered from rigging to the extent that it is arguable whether any of these elections truly represent public opinion. Because of the nature of the international political system which is always in a hurry to legitimize any democratic system as well as the instability that may occur if election results are cancelled, there is always a push to accept election results no matter how much vote rigging occurred. In this scenario, voters may very well have a genuine desire to hold politicians accountable to their promises but are simply unable to. Once the election results are confirmed, the vote rigging is legitimized and the public is left waiting another 5 years for another feeble attempt at accountability.

The final reason for a lack of accountability involves voters that want to hold politicians accountable but where the accountability is of a very limited kind and only relates to how the politician has personally helped the voter and his or her immediate circle. This is an accountability of a sort but it results in politicians having to only deliver on short-term promises to individuals. There is no accountability in terms of how the politician has delivered on a party mandate.

On Political Parties

The responsibility for this perverted form of accountability lies with politicians and the political parties that they create.

At present, parties are built around individuals and families. The parties try and present a political platform but it is a calculated lie. Their support stems not from political principles and platforms that are sincerely believed in but rather from their social network. Only a political leadership which is short-sighted and selfish can be held responsible for this.  Such leaders have at their disposal material and social resources to build parties which push for a collective national vision. But in this regard they have failed. The rot began with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who exchanged socialist ideals for pragmatic political gain when he pulled back land reforms. Given his penchant for power, it is debatable whether he ever believed in his ideology. The history of the PPP since then has been one of a party gradually devolving from a left-wing socialist one into a Bhutto cult.

Is it conceivable that parties can be built around high-minded ideology in a country as conservative as Pakistan? Social traditions no doubt have their place. But there is no reason why age-old social traditions cannot exist side-by-side with collective political values. The rise of the communist party in China on the backs of peasants is one such example of this.

On Ideology

For the moment, pragmatism is the only ideology that holds sway with the exception of a few parties. This is because Pakistan’s political parties are shaped by historical and material circumstances more than political ideals. Parties like the MQM that were once radical and anti-state are now sitting in parliament. So called progressive leftist parties like the ANP and PPP have constituents with social values that are deeply conservative. A party like the PML-N whose supporters once stormed the Supreme Court subsequently supported the movement to restore Supreme Court judges.  

Not only does the development of a collective ideology require political leadership to put a limit on purely pragmatic power politics, it also demands strong state institutions to enforce that ideology.

On the State

The Pakistani state is essentially incapable of enforcing laws. On a day-to-day basis, the state is virtually invisible and has abdicated most of its responsibilities to society. This is one of the major reasons for the flourishing of NGOs which provide the health and education services that are the responsibility of the state. Such NGOs are only stop-gap measures that are incapable of providing services that can reach all citizens.

The situation is particularly dangerous because it gives the false impression that social development is taking place when in fact it is occurring for only a particular section of the population. In the long run, such a policy will lead to a widening gap in inequality because private initiatives will never be able to scale up to meet the demands of Pakistan’s population.