How Person-Centric Politics Defies All Norms Of Democracy

The liberation of policy and polity from person-centric politics is important if equitable socio-economic redistribution is to be ensured.

by Uzair bin Farid from thefridaytimes
Democracy is a collective concept. It is a system of government where the highest power resides with the wishes of the people. If people do not feel satisfied with the constitution of a political body, they remove and replace it with a better structure in place. In its essence, democracy is an impersonal force of social progress, which cannot, in all probability be reduced to the whims of an individual. Thus, democracy is established and its longevity ensured, by a conscious process of collective decision-making and its broad-based acceptance as the only long road to freedom.

Freedom, as commonly understood, was granted to Pakistan in 1947. It remained, however, a distant mirage for a majority of the population. The state and its capture by interest groups never allowed the germination of the seed of freedom into a fully-grown tree that would have distributed its fruit and shade to everyone.

Instead, freedom became an evasive privilege for the toiling masses, which could not readily get or achieve the fruits of economic growth and efficient redistribution. Instead, the political structures and bureaucratic hallways got filled with people who believed in the traditional culture of power.

This particular culture fed on the cult of personality led to the demolition of democratic choices that people made. Instead, politics became an exclusive interest of 22 families, and the vicious circle of person-centric politics set in which ultimately caused the recurrent recourse to martial laws by the authoritative powers.

Many factors contributed to the emergence and maturity of the person-centric culture of democracy in Pakistan. One such reason is the traditional culture of power that is prevalent throughout South Asia. This culture of power is rooted in class- and caste-based differences. These class-caste based differences are a result of centuries of professional choices that people made. Also, the religious history of the subcontinent has a role, which is played in the ossification of these differences.

These cultures of power are well articulated by Ilhan Niaz in his Cultures of Power and Governance in Eurasia (2014). There, he explicitly outlines, how these traditional cultures emerged in the first place, and how they continue to perpetuate tyranny. These traditional cultures of power place a lot of authority and power in the hands of the dominating religiopolitical families. Thus, it becomes difficult for the people to present alternative choices to them. Moreover, the rigid belief systems that are still prevalent today in our society give certain credence to these established structures.

Democracy as a system of government and as an attitude to be adopted never had any broad-based acceptance. People in their rhetoric and demagogy would certainly allude to democratic ideals. But in practice, their actions defied all norms of democracy.

These rigid belief systems and faith in traditional sources of power like pirs, Sufis, landlords, and nabobs, have served to prevent the emergence of a democratic culture. The traditional structures of power are based on fear and submission. Democratic power liberates from fear and puts the power in the hands of those who are rational and progressive. Thus, the absence of the emergence of a democratic culture certainly did not help. Democracy as a system of government and as an attitude to be adopted never had any broad-based acceptance. People in their rhetoric and demagogy would certainly allude to democratic ideals. But in practice, their actions defied all norms of democracy.

What is more heart-breaking is that they could never come to understand and foresee the results of their actions for the long-term democratic development of the country. Person-centric beliefs and aspirations of the people certainly worked to entrench the hubris of democratically elected leaders in their invincibility, which led the country down to a more treacherous path (Wolpert, 1994). Too much belief in one’s own person and not in the sanctity of the democratic system sent out signals that the system and its power are always up for grabs.

We see that Pakistan’s history is punctuated with military rules. Soon after partition, when the democratically-elected leaders and assemblies could not agree on the results of the democratic process, through which they themselves emerged, military establishment intruded into the domain of civilian authority. After the first military rule, a pattern was set which was repeated by later military leaders. After the first military rule, later periods of authoritarianism led Pakistan down a path of self-immolation, where contradictions to its founding ideology emerged. One-man rule devoid of any critical thought process resulted in democratic depreciation that permeated all state institutions, not least the political establishment.

These military stints in power served to further increase the power of those people who believed in oligarchic-democratic polities. Non-party elections of 1985 under General Zia brought fore those political leaders which remained hooked to the military for their survival. They could not break free from the military’s tutelage, and whenever they tried, the country saw friction between state institutions. In the end, again, the interests of the people got violated with democratic backsliding, the ultimate result.

Democratic backsliding further dug its heels against correction by the policies of those who came to power. Since democracy in its current form is the rule of the majority, it certainly started to assert itself as the Lockean “tyranny of the majority”. People on the margins found themselves, helpless spectators, to the shenanigans of the rewarding regime. They included the people of Balochistan, South Punjab, interior Sindh, erstwhile Fata, and northern areas. The controversy over the eastern route of CPEC is but one example where the ruling elite, despite all the glaring differences in income and equality, could not help but favour their own constituency. They have mutated from the 22 families of Mahbub-ul-Haq to the 3 families of Lt. Gen. Tariq Khan (rt).

Tariq Khan, a veteran of the war against terrorism, led many successful operations against terrorists in Operation Zalzala, Battles for Bajaur, Buner, Mohmand Agency, and others. According to him, the tentacles of the political oligarchies have permeated the state institutions to such an extent that it is seemingly impossible to correct the system from the inside (Khan, 2021). The vengeful octopus is so strong that for a progressive middle-class agitator, it becomes impossible to push back.

Military rulers served to further entrench the person-centric culture of politics in Pakistan since it shone all the light on the whimsical decisions of one person at the top.

The reason for this is that decades of person-centric pathology of politics has made people accept this as the new normal. Devoid of any intellectual depth and anathema to reading books, the people of Pakistan have come to accept the tyrannical hegemony of the person-centric political structure. This has given rise to a shared feeling of “every man for himself”. The path to ambition forces one to accept the normality of the process. It is only by becoming a turncoat to one’s principles that one can achieve a high position in the Smithian stationary state apparatus (Ferguson, 2012). The path to social mobility makes a man one with the system. People have come to accept the current state of affairs as normal where bribery is not even considered a vice, and bloated bureaucracies are the most sought after jobs that people aspire to.

This retarded culture is a direct result of person-centric politics where reward, promotion and longevity of service depend on making the Orwellian Big Brother happy. The normalisation of the atrocious pattern of human and infrastructure development is both the result of person-centric politics and the further cause of it. It is the vicious circle from which countries struggle to break free (A. Robinson & Acemoglu, 2012).

The retrograde culture of person-centric politics and the vicious circle in which it continually moves results in the following features of a sham-democratic polity. First, the monopoly over politics is created only in favour of a certain number of families. Every constituency has a certain political setup dominated by a handful of families. Either they get their power from being religious overlords, or by being strong businessmen and industrialists. In any case, they have too much of the monetary and extra-monetary resources at their disposal to crowd out any competition to their political hegemony. Thus, politics has become the courtesan of only a few families who devour her, unheeding her virtuous nature and origins.

Extending the above argument one realises that when monopoly power is dictated over politics, the decision-making process no longer remains collective. Democracy in its true Athenian sense was the assembly of notables who would collectively arrive at a conclusion after the debate in the public interest. When contradictory political opinions are not accommodated in a democratic polity, it contradicts the foundational premise of a democracy. It is violated because a monopoly over political forces and the culture of a person-centric political process cannot exist in the attendance of a truly democratic political setup. They are antithetical forces. They simply cannot exist together.

This breeding of the personality-cult culture of politics allowed for authoritarian military leaders to violate the state constitution time and again. To and fro movement between military rule and civilian rule prevented the polity from maturing into a more democratic one. Instead, military rulers served to further entrench the person-centric culture of politics in Pakistan, since it shone all the light on the whimsical decisions of one person at the top.

There was no parliament to discuss and debate decisions of national importance. The role of parliament in decision-making was reduced to a mere paper stamp. The same culture of puffy-parliaments then entered the civilian setups. It is not hard to see the proceedings of parliament these days and gauge their effectiveness. Practically all the decisions of national importance are taken outside of the premises of the parliament. There is no consensus reached before the conclusion and implementation of such decisions.

In a nutshell, politics, especially democratic politics in its truest sense, needs to be embraced by all the segments of Pakistani society, as the only recourse through which national ambition can be achieved. Person-centric politics should be done away with, through a combined effort by state institutions, enlightened despots and civil society. The means of economic and social redistribution viz politics, if held hostage by person-centric trappings, will keep the country stuck in the vicious circle. The liberation of policy and polity from person-centric politics is highly important if equitable socio-economic redistribution is to be ensured.