Masses without Politics

Posted by sepoy on April 06, 2005 · 5 mins read

Let's continue the almost-conversation about political leadership in Pakistan. Western historians often term the politics of South Asia, along with much of the developing nations, as the "politics of masses". Within this categorization hides both the Hobbesian fear of the masses ["to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will"1] as well the subscription to western modernity's teleological stages [brown masses are stuck in the "not yet" historical time2]. Those teeming millions hover out on the streets with rallies and get manipulated by unethical leaders. They break out in riots, they burn american flags, they yell Allahu Akbar. At the head of this unseemly and frightening mass is the charismatic leader - the magical, supra-natural charismatic of Weber [uncanny powers that draw on the realm of the unexplained phenomena like religion! or socialism; no legal or moral framework underpining him/her.].

If one reads respected authors, like say Stephen P. Cohen, on the Pakistan political scene, one feels the urge to hurl on said authors some rotten fruits. So imbibed are their "objective interpretations" with these prejudices. I am not going to waste time rehashing their arguments but feel free to pick up any book that has Pakistan in the title and was published after 1998.

Pakistan has had exactly one type of leader. The dictator. The thing about dictators - of any stripe - is that they operate on the whole "cult of personality" philosophy. The man who really cemented the archetype in Pakistan was General Ayub [1958-1969]. The self-avowed creed of "anti-corruption" and "industrialization" was meant to endear him to the masses. When that failed, Kashmir became the rallying cry and the 1965 war provided the rest. Bhutto [1973-1977] followed rather slavishly in Ayub's footsteps. The impermanence of power haunted him perhaps more than anyone else [the pyramid approach to governance makes coups so much easier]. Zia ul Haq [1977-1988] played the game as well as his tired soul could. He didn't have either Bhutto's flair or Ayub's tenacity.

The triumverate powerhouses of the Military, the Civil Bureaucracy and the landed elites, have supplied all of these leaders [the one exception is the very intriguing Altaf Husain of the MQM]. Their appeals to the masses are always the same: We will intervene directly into your life and make it better. Whether in the guise of anti-corruption or modernization, the rally addresses were always about development of corner streets and neighborhood factories [anyone remember Junejo/Zia's cottage industry intiative?], of the crimes of former/current regimes and the efforts to bring individuals to justice. Their appeals to the Americans is always the same: We will fight your proxy wars [commies or jihadis] if you give us money and leave us alone.

The lack of leadership on the national stage in Pakistan is inherently a representation of the lack of electoral politics and the dominance of the dictator. Those that can offer a viable alternative are quashed and sequestered. Those that toady themselves are promoted. Others abandon the field to the man with the gun.

My disgust with dictators begins and end with the simple observation that they epitomize that particular view of the "politics of the masses". Pakistanis are forever stuck in the "not yet" time - lacking education or training or a civil society to elect goverments to represent themselves. The masses are uncouth and uncivilized. "Mature" democracies such as the United States do not have mass rallies and tire burning after a child is killed in a road accident. "Mature" democracies elect their leaders after impassioned and logical thought as the best representing the ideals of the collective society. Pakistan has to be trained and Condi Rice is completely devoted to the "steps towards democratization" that The General is undertaking. The pendulum of metaphors swings from "time" to "distance".

On this one, I am squarely with the Subalternists. The filthy masses of Pakistan are political agents and they are ready for democracy. And they even have leaders. But, the unsurprising reality is that the system is set to prohibit any populist challenge to the regime. The two-legged bar stool of Pakistani dictatorship is firmly situated at this moment.

1. Hobbes' Leviathan
2. Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe


Saurav | April 07, 2005

I'm almost wholly unqualified to comment, but it's the Internet, so I will anyway: The filthy masses of Pakistan are political agents and they are ready for democracy. People are always ready for a healthier, more vibrant civil society, but for me the question is what you should prioritize--electoral or social democracy. At first glance, I always go with the latter on the assumption that if elections and electoral democracy are meaningful they have to be a codification, a formality that shows the underlying vibrancy of the social democracy, not a thing unto themselves. So, if I had as much power as George Bush has at his hands, my approach would be markedly different in a society like Iran, which has a strong culturally democratic tradition, than it would in Iraq, where it needs to build (and elections can be part of that--they're just not the thing by themselvces). I guess what I'm asking is, what's the path in Pakistan? What are the steps that lead into Pakistani "democracy" and what can outsiders do to support it?

praktike | April 07, 2005

Maybe Pakistan was just a bad idea from the get-go. What's so bad about India?

sepoy | April 07, 2005

Praktike: what's so bad about the Mughals? or what's so bad about colonialism? Whether Pakistan was a bad idea is moot as far as the realities of today are concerned. Saurav: I see that you take your Fareed Zakaria seriously. But, again, that throws the Pakistani masses into the "not yet" camp. The codification is there. Pakistan is not Iraq - it has a constitution, constituent assemblies with a judiciary and legal frameworks. Electoral politics is not everything but it is the necessary thing. As for the path: US support for Musharraf has to go. With it, all this is just academic.

Ms. World | April 07, 2005

I think `all this` will stay academic. I was rooting for Musharraf in the very beginning but he has stayed in power too long, played around with the constitution, and seems only interested in making nice with Bush and filling someone`s coffers (but not the poor people). If the U.S. didn`t support Musharraf, he`d probably be dead by now. (I hope that doesn`t sound too mean). Of course, if he stays in power too long and the militants can get closer enough to him, he`ll be dead anyway. Of course, Musharraf has survived a number of assassination attempts, so maybe he is doing Allah`s will. I think the U.S. has no real interests in seeing a democratic Pakistan because it wouldn`t serve their purposes. And we all know the land of milk and honey is all about maintaining & protecting their self interests in this `war on terrorism.` That is my 500 yen on a topic I`m barely qualified to comment on but in another life I was really into Pakistan (don`t ask).

Saurav | April 08, 2005

I see that you take your Fareed Zakaria seriously. No, just my primers and my classist desi backgorund. That doesn't speak very highly of him, though, considering how little i know and his rep. Electoral politics is not everything but it is the necessary thing. No, this is ass-backwards (pardon my English). Electoral politics is the last thing, no? I know that Pakistan is not Iraq, but it is not Iran either--it has a horrible history of religious schisms, ethnic schisms, language schisms, etc. I really hold out hope for something better, but this alternation of corrupt electoral rule and army dictatorship doesn't exactly inspire optimism. As for the path: US support for Musharraf has to go. With it, all this is just academic. Only until the Shah gets overthrown.

sepoy | April 08, 2005

Saurav: As Monty Python famously said, "Nobody expects an Islamic Revolution". My sole point is this: Pakistan has never had clean, untainted electoral process that completed even one cycle. Let's give that a chance before we write the whole thing off on our W1040s.

Andrew Reeves | April 08, 2005

Sepoy, I'm more looking to see if I understand things correctly than commenting, so forgive any gross errors on my part. As far as I understand things, Musharraf has the U.S. by the short and curlies because of the implicit threat, "If you don't give me unconditional support, then jihadis will take over the country and then you'll have nukes going of in New York City." If my understanding of the arrangement is correct, it makes sense that Musharraf isn't going anywhere any time soon.

sepoy | April 08, 2005

Andrew: It is just that "democracy" is such a buzz word with this administration. In any case, why the assumption that an elected govt. in Pakistan will wantnukes going off in NYC? We need dictators to fight terrorists? In which case, lets get some regime change from England to Italy. Or is it that Musharraf provides "stability" which Pakistani masses don't have. In which case, it is all back to the "not yet", lets-train-them thesis that I find even more abhorrent. To be clear, I am not arguing with you, but with the administration.

Saurav | April 08, 2005

As Monty Python famously said, "Nobody expects an Islamic Revolution". Umm, I do. I guess that's why my blog is called Dark Days Ahead... :)

Andrew Reeves | April 09, 2005

Hmm... I meant to put the last entry as more of a question rather than a statement. *Is* Musharraf holding out an implicit threat that without him, the Bad People take over? It seems that way from my cursory reading of the U.S. media on the whole thing, but then, I know next to nothing about South Asia, so I could be quite wrong.

Saurav Sarkar | April 09, 2005

*Is* Musharraf holding out an implicit threat that without him, the Bad People take over? My grossly uninformed read is that I don't think he needs to hold it out--the idea is obviously present in the minds of these people and he just has to invoke it once in a while. Anyone who knows that Indonesia and Saudi Arabia both exist and can think in terms of "the Muslim world's capacity for democracy" is obviously missing a few pages from their social science texts and/or life experiences (i.e. most americans). Sometimes that serves the interests of petit elites like Musharraf's crew. I imagine a lot of neocons and other Administration foreign policy people are a little more sophisticated, but how much so is a good question. But I still hold that this power dynamic works the way it's always worked--the U.S. has all of it, and Musharraf has a little. That's why he and his coworkers gets fighter jets and Americans get everything else...and Pakistanis get next to nothing.

No One Writes to The General | March 27, 2007

[...] - Musharraf will bring democracy or will train us to appreciate democracy. I consider this line of argument entirely specious: [The argument is that …] Pakistanis are forever stuck in the “not yet” [...]