Fri. Feb 26th, 2021

Democracy in Essence and Practice


Sherbaz Ali Khan

Our society, traditionally and historically, has been less prone to democratic practices; therefore, democracy has not fully permeated into governance, systems and people in its real essence. Premature, therefore, it could be to compare the practice of democracy in our society with that of others where it has been in practice for long, and has become part and parcel of the system of governance and conduct of the people. Given the situation, it is completely normal, if we do not see the prevalence of democracy in our collective thoughts and actions, and also it is no denying the fact that expectations commensurate with the prevailing democratic norms existent in the overall structure of society can save us from many troubles including the thoughts of being in an ideal democracy while finding living reality in contrary.

Democracy and electoral politics go hand in hand, so our discussion here is mostly focused around politics and political parties. As the politics of GB is not separable from that of our country, although it has its own context as well, let’s look at the subject from broader perspective.  Unlike some other democratic countries; where political leadership evolves, parties have proper system of collecting funds, well worked out ways of nominations for elections and election campaigns, ensured accountability within parties, mechanisms for the party members’ voices to be heard and defined terms of power, we have a different political system. As mentioned earlier, our overall socio-economic realities and cultural practices have been less characterized by democratic approach, so is our political system. Political parties are integral part of political system, where leadership emerges with participation of the people. In our society, and so does in many other societies, power and influence plays significant role in shaping and reshaping political direction and decision making, thus we see manifestation of it in our political parties.

Political parties are called nurseries of democracy, which harness, sustain and strengthen democratic values and practices. Therefore, political parties need to reflect democracy and democratic norms within their structure, procedures and functions. In contrary, majority of the political parties in our country, the leadership is either concentrated in influential families or it revolves around personalities with strong social and economic background. The party leadership rests with personalities for life long and then descends down to their off spring. With political portfolio, once in power, the top government portfolio also awaits the party leadership, which multiplies its power and influence. There is no existence of direct elections for leadership, and once in leadership, the cycle perpetuate itself. Why is there no democracy in political parties? The answer again lies in influence and power, which is prerequisite for leadership. Secondly, there is no democracy in political parties because those in second or third tier of the party leadership know very well that they are better off under their existing leadership and can exercise their influence and power and are more likely to do so under status quo in their party, so they don’t push for change. Rest are the workers who are managed by the first, second and third tier of leadership. So, democracy – an alien term!

Like socio-economic exclusion, poor is excluded from political leadership and decision making in politics. Poor can become a good party worker, slogan chanter, sentimental supporter, and frontline fighter for party leadership, but has to remain worker. Poor workers’ world lies in the happiness of party leadership; they keep smiling for weeks if they see their party leaders looking at them smiling, they can feel the weight of their hand for long time if ever happened to have hand shake with party leaders, they frame, decorate and place at prominent place in their home or hut the picture they could somehow somewhere get with their leaders. As attachment with party for the poor workers is mostly sentimental rather ideological, where absence of critical thinking adds to the sentiments, they remain loyal to the party and leadership despite whatever party leadership does. What a poor party work can expect from their party, when it comes to power, is provision of jobs, subsidies, priority redressal of their issues, inclusion is social protection scheme if any (although the term itself alien to them), and a sense of power as being part of the ruling party. In these short-term benefits, poor workers remain oblivion to what happens to the country, its system, institutions, political culture and democracy. The leadership knows this well, so it has to do what is needed for the workers, and what is desired for themselves to sustain their interest, power, relevance and future prospects.

Some of the determinants of being chosen for party candidacy in elections or consideration for fourth, third, and second tier of party leadership are financial status, influence in terms of being part of a large tribe or clan, physical fitness and appearance, oratory (at times flattery) skills, resistant in face of  criticism, abilities of appeasing party workers and unconditional loyalty to the party leadership. These criteria are hard but not impossible to meet, so those meeting the criteria can make their way up there. Once elected, they have the huge task of performing their responsibilities, coming up to the expectations of their constituencies, and strengthening their future prospects in the electoral politics, in the party and in their constituency and creating enabling environment for themselves in the relevant quarters. There will be hardly any candidate, who is content with one term in office, rather the first term is only a period for positioning themselves well, creating opportunities and good will for their kith and kin, and expressing more adherence to the criteria mentioned above. There may be examples few and far between where elected representatives will go out of the way in their passion for service without eying on next elections. If time and circumstances change in favor of another party, chances are that the same criteria will be more strictly followed by becoming part of that party and at times directing outpouring of diatribe for their previous leadership. Thus, the electoral politics goes on in one’s life until the old age knocks at the door.

Participation in politics is good for political system as well as for people. The more people in politics, the more political consciousness in masses, more choices to select from during elections, more competition for service, more diversification of ideas, more leadership cadres, more performance, and more vouching of performance. In Gilgit-Baltistan, apparently people are perhaps less enthusiastic about politics and their interest in politics is rather moderate, therefore, the proportion of people directly engaged in politics is not very high for whatever reasons. Therefore, people have no choice than to select from the existing politicians and political parties. It does not mean to say that there is lack of competency in current politicians, rather the disinterest in politics shows that either people are not aware of the importance of political decision making and legislation in public matters or they want to remain oblivious as a matter of self-deception. Resultantly, whatever leadership emerges has consequences for the people when it comes to setting priorities, allocation of budget, representing their constituencies and forging their image provincially and nationally, knowing the sense of direction and vision, standing above personal prejudices or succumbing to those, and exhibiting leadership in normal as well as in emergency situations. For situations like this, one of the famous saying of Plato goes: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.

Politicians need to make themselves available on the ground even if they get vanquished in elections. During elections’ seasons, many new comers make their way to contest, and upon losing, they go back to whatever business they have until the next elections. This makes them irrelevant and shows lacking commitment. For a genuine interest in politics, they need to make their presence felt by suggesting alternate solutions to the existing issues in their constituencies, extending cooperation to incumbent representatives in matters related to the interests of people, and criticize wherever occasion arises. Similarly, civil society organizations can play their constructive role for bringing political awareness. They can use their platform to facilitate convey the manifesto of the candidates to the common people and arrange meeting for interaction, and they can also arrange debates among candidates in a cordial manner to communicate their programs and plans for the people to understand. This will not only increase the relevance of the candidates but also will result in greater awareness and understanding within the constituency. The active and experienced civil society representatives can also consider contesting elections as they have experience of service, leadership and representing people at the grassroot level.

After every five years, when elected government completes its tenure, as per procedure, interim setup is put in place for holding elections and taking care of the matters in the interim period. As soon as the sitting government is about to complete its term, names start to appear for Chief Minister and members of cabinet for the interim set up. The list of prospective CM and ministers brings name from various sections of the society enumerating their merits and presenting them unquestionably eligible for the portfolios. These high-profile names make us believe that there are people who can be at helm of power, although for an interim period, otherwise, we had brought our first two governors from other provinces due to scarcity of eligible people. At same time, one needs to wonder, if there are so many good candidates for the interim slots, why don’t they opt for politics and appear in elections, and a good many can make their way into corridor of power.

There is no short cut to strengthen democracy, even in those countries where democracy is order of day now, had to go through long and testing times before it matured. Therefore, let’s hope that with the passage of time, democratic norms will make their way into our individual and collective thoughts, systems, governance and societal behavior. According to George Bernard Shaw, “democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”, so let’s aim at deserving better by strengthening participatory political system.

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