For a Different Democracy


Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman, FRS, Ni, HI, Si, TI

PAKISTAN has been struggling unsuccessfully with establishing a fair and effective democratic system since its very birth in 1947. However the massive corruption accompanying democracies and the failure of our justice system to take timely action and punish the corrupt repeatedly led to military interventions. Democracy just cannot function when there is a strangle-hold of feudalism with its negative impact on education, socio-economic development and the justice system.
Feudalism once afflicted many countries, but it has gradually disappeared from around the world, except from Pakistan. It vanished from France after the revolution, and from Russia after the Communist revolution. In China it lasted for almost 2,500 years till it was broken by the Opium Wars between China under the Qing dynasty with the British during 1839 to 1862. Japan also had a feudalism of sorts, but it disappeared with the demise of the Samurai culture. In Turkey, Ataturk abolished feudalism after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. In Bangladesh too, feudalism was abolished soon after its separation from Pakistan. In India, led by the visionary Cambridge educated Jawaharlal Nehru, the Zamindari system was abolished soon after partition under the 44th amendment to the Indian Constitution. This led to the princely states being taken over and various states making their “Zamindari Abolition Acts”. The disappearance of feudalism from these countries allowed a reduction in wealth disparities and triggered rapid socio-economic development.
Pakistan seems to be the only country left in the world today with a deeply ingrained feudal culture and mindset. Some of the key figures in the Muslim League at the time of formation of Pakistan were feudal landlords (zamindars, Nawabs, Nawabzadas, Waderas —all different facets of this class). The British had found that they could be readily manipulated through conferment of honours, gifts and bribes. Due to the feudal mind-set among the rulers in Pakistan, education received the lowest national priority and a knowledge economy remained a dream. It is shameful that Pakistan, a nuclear power, is today ranked among the bottom countries of the world in terms of the education expenditure as percentage of GDP. This has prevented the emergence of a strong middle class with only a small percentage of our population falling in this category. In contrast India has a growing middle class—now about 600 million out of a population of 1.2 billion i.e half of its population. This increase, according to a report of the World Economic Forum has occurred in the present decade with a doubling of the middle class in the last 8 years. Most importantly, the present system of “feudocracy” in Pakistan has bred corruption, with the rich getting richer and more falling below the poverty line with each passing day. While the land holdings have diminished over time due to divisions among heirs, the feudal mindset unfortunately survived and thrived. These powerful feudals control the nation through the Parliament and Cabinet under successive governments. They also extended their hold over industry (cement, sugar, textiles etc.). Their manipulations in the cabinet under successive governments have led to huge increase in the prices of sugar during the last decade, to give one example. Marriages among cousins, a common practice in Pakistan, have allowed the land holdings to be retained within the feudal families.
A fresh and bold start is needed. Our Constitution, which is based on the British Parliamentary system of democracy, has not delivered because of two inter-linked factors— a strong stifling feudal system and massive illiteracy. A new Constitution is needed that allows a completely different Presidential system of democracy with built-in safe guards to be introduced. This is what Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah had recommended in his hand written note in his diary in 1947.
The 18th amendment has done huge damage to Pakistan as very large amounts of additional funds were transferred to the provinces. These ended up in personal foreign bank accounts and foreign properties of corrupt politicians. The Federation has been weakened with less funds available for national programmes such as buillding dams, investments in science & technology or for higher education.
A transparent screening mechanism is necessary through which all contenders to the positions of the Chief Executive of the country, Federal and Provincial Ministers, heads of political parties, Parliamentarians, and heads of key national institutions (PIA, Steel Mills, NAB, FIA, Police, FBR, State Bank of Pakistan etc) should be filtered before occupying those positions. This could be done by a “Committee of Elders” who should be appointed by a Judicial Committee comprising the Chief Justice and judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. The “Committee of Elders” should comprise persons of unquestionable integrity and international eminence in various professional fields.
In the new system of democracy, the President (who will be the Chief Executive) will need to be elected first. The candidates to the post of Presidency nominated by the political parties (or independent candidates) should first be carefully screened and approved by the “Committee of Elders” to ensure that only honest, highly educated and competent persons contest for this key position. The dynastic approach to party leadership, rampant among the leading political parties of Pakistan, should be strictly forbidden. The President, once elected, can then select his own team of technocrat Ministers from the most competent persons of integrity available in the country (subject to their clearance by the “Committee of Elders”).
The role of the parliament should be confined to law making. The federal and provincial ministers should not be selected from members of the National or Provincial Assemblies. The Parliamentarians must be highly educated and with the ability to understand legal systems and formulate laws. The heads of various national institutions (PIA, Steel Mills, NAB, FIA, Police, FBR, State Bank of Pakistan etc) should be appointed by their autonomous governing bodies. The government should have absolutely no control over them, so that a merit based system, free from political interference and exploitation, can be ensured. The national elections should be with proportionate representation and only be through an electronic system of voting with only persons having identity cards with integrated electronic chips being able to cast their votes through swiping these cards in electronic machines. This technology exists. Our present Parliamentarians will not agree to make these changes as it is against their vested interests. Such a system will need to be imposed. The number of provinces should be increased and local bodies strengthened so that funds are transferred to the grass roots. Capital punishment should be introduced for corruption, and cases for corruption tried under military courts because of the linkage of corruption with terrorism.
The government should then be tasked to develop a strong knowledge economy. For this the two key steps needed are: (1) Massive investments in education with at least 10% of GDP being set aside for this sector as a Constitutional requirement. We should follow the footsteps of Malaysia. Without an educated people we cannot tackle the challenges of a failing economy, terrorism, rampant corruption, and lack of timely justice. (2) Emphasis on science, technology and innovation so that we can focus on the development of industries in high tech fields (engineering goods, electronics, aircraft, ship building, pharmaceuticals, defense etc). This would require introduction of a National Technology and Innovation Policy to ensure national self-reliance.
In Surah Inaam, Ayah 116 (8th Para) in the Holy Quran, we are told in very clear terms that we should NOT follow the wishes of the majority, or we will be led astray. In Islam, we are advised to follow a system of “Shoora” —conferring only with the wise and knowledgeable.
Pakistan is rich in talent. We need to unleash this creative potential in order to progress rapidly.
—The author is the former Federal Minister for Science & Technology and former Chairman of Higher Education Commission.