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Overshadowed by the hype of Panama Leaks judgment due today is a rather disturbing development that happened earlier this week. Irked by the habitual absence of ministers from the sessions of the upper house of the parliament, Chairman Senate, Raza Rabbani, tendered his resignation. Speaking at the occasion, he appeared equally displeased over the failure of civil and military bureaucrats to come to the Senate when duly summoned for explanations.

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The story of Pakistan’s absconding lawmakers is not new; we have seen it through and through across different political regimes. But when the father of the 18th Amendment offers his resignation out of frustration, the matter should raise eyebrows - especially at a time when everyone seems to be concerned how the Panama Leaks judgment will affect democracy in the country.

Democracy in its current shape and form has been evolving across regions since the Greeks in the sixth century BC. At some point during this evolution, it was characterized mainly as elections and ballots. While elections and ballots are not dispensable, confining democracy to votes is an old and narrowly institutional view. This view has been championed by many authors including Samuel Huntington who said that “elections, open, free and fair are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non”.

However, the contemporary understanding of democracy is much broader; it is no more limited to the right and exercise of vote, but as John Rawls maintains, it is the right and exercise of public reason. “The definitive idea for deliberative democracy is the idea of deliberation itself. When citizens deliberate, they exchange views and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions,” Rawls famously wrote. This public reasoning as Jurgen Habermas asserts ought to include “moral questions of justice” and “instrumental questions of power and coercion”.

In his book ‘Long walk to freedom’, Nelson Mandela wrote that as a young boy he learned about the importance of democracy from the practice of local African meetings. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers but everyone was heard, chief, and subject, warrior, and medicine man, shopkeepers, and farmer, land owners and laborer, the foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens,” he wrote.

The history of this subcontinent is not devoid of this broader notion of democracy. In ancient India, Emperor Ashoka, who ruled from Hindukush in Afghanistan to what is now Bangladesh, championed public reasoning in third century BC. The Mughal Emperor Akbar in 16th century also arranged public discussion not only on religious differences but also on matters relating to politics and society at large. The constitution of seventeen articles promulgated in Japan in 604 AD by the Buddhist Prince Shotoku also insisted on the need for wide consultation for decisions taken by the state.

Once again, there is not denying the importance of free and fair elections. But to keep on insisting on free and fair elections or the eligibility of candidates, at the exclusion of nurturing public reasoning is futile.

As Amartya Sen puts it: “one obvious limitation of seeing democracy exclusively as a system of free and fair elections is the fact that people’s votes depend on their understanding of the problems to be addressed, and also their perception of what others have reason to seek. Social and economic problems are not always easy to see and understand, and a vigorous exercise of public reasoning can play a major role both in expanding public understanding and in broadening enlightened politics.”

To question and to respond to those questions, therefore, are critical components of the social justice aspect of democracy. In Pakistan, however, it is not just the people’s elected representatives who play deaf to public reasoning by deserting the parliamentary sessions. It is the people too; even the university-educated degree awarded ones, as evidenced by the recent Mashal Khan’s case who, according to initial reports, was lynched not because of blasphemy but because he raised concerns about the university administration. Do not the people know that it is difficult to tread on ‘Rah-e-Haq’ without walking through ‘Rah-e-Aql’?

Meanwhile, the TV channels are happy offering amphitheatres where ordinary people can see gladiators from each political party spewing, sarcasm, hatred, and mockery over each other – elements that are light years away from the idea of public reasoning.

The universities too, who otherwise boast about hosting model United Nations, offer little to no space for public dialogues on locally relevant issues — engaging academics, students, parents, neighbourhoods and other units of society. Even the ‘dhabas’ across Pakistan proudly pronounce: political discussions are not allowed in this hotel.

Free and fair elections are important; as is the importance of choosing heads of government that are not corrupt. But one must not lose sight of the fact that the reach and effectiveness of voting depends on the opportunity for open public discussion; for when public reasoning is dead, no amount of free and fair elections can breathe life into democracy.

There are some among us who advocate patience, on the premise that Pakistan is a nascent democracy, and that political development takes time. But patience, as Ambrose Bierce wrote in1906, is a form of despair disguised as a virtue. And it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to despair.

 

Copyright Business Recorder, 2017

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