Liberal Democratic Values and Pakistan


Pakistan has never been a liberal democracy. But its political elite has, time and again, shown the penchant for some of the values of liberal democracy, especially after the political elite was afforded the opportunity to hobnob with the political and security elites of western liberal democracies.

Benazir Bhutto as prime minister adopted the neo-liberal agenda of privatization of state owned industrial units and public sector corporations after coming into the contact with political elites of western liberal democracies who after 1980s came all out in support of reducing the size of the government. Pakistani ruling political elite started to pay lip service to the value of freedom of speech and expression in their political discourse in post-Zia period. Putting political opponents behind bars became less and less frequent in the post-Zia period.

I am not trying to prove that Pakistan became a liberal democracy after the contact between Pakistani political elite and political elites of western liberal democracies became more frequent in the wake of withdrawal of Pakistani military into barracks. What I am trying to say is that Pakistan’s ruling elite has proved itself to be highly impressionable when it comes to foreign influence.

If somebody still has doubts about the malleability of Pakistani ruling elite, consider this: Pakistani government officials used to address press conferences in the post-911 period, sitting comfortably behind large desks. This changed after General Musharraf regime’s official contact with the Pentagon, US State Department and American CIA became more frequent in the wake of 911. Now Pakistani officials—President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the battalions of other officials—all started to address the press conferences while standing behind single person desks, just like their American counterparts.

Foreign Influence itself is not bad thing. But when it comes at the cost of your own values and traditions in the political realm, it can cause political instability. Parliamentary democracy in this part of the sub-continent, which forms Pakistan, is more than 150 years old, at least. Of course British introduced parliamentary form of government in India, but then we have lived with this tradition for more than a century and tried to imbibe its traditions into our value system. Our first interaction with western liberal political values took place in British India, and not during the Cold War when we entered into an alliance with the United States. The fact that we borrowed heavily from British liberal tradition is not something to be ashamed of. Our thinkers, political leaders and religious scholars all were heavily influenced by the British liberal tradition. One of the prime examples of this influence, in political realm, is the fact that the most conservative religious scholars, in the initial years of Pakistan, didn’t oppose the introduction of parliamentary democracy in the country at the time of framing of first constitution in 1956.

Allama Iqbal in his philosophical lectures– which were later compiled in a book form as “Reconstruction of Religious Thoughts in Islam”—clearly favors parliamentary form of government as a preferred system, which in his opinion could replace “Muftis” (or law givers) in modern times. This clearly shows the influence of British liberal political tradition on our thinkers and the future they saw for Pakistan.

But times have changed now. New political systems are emerging, which are being presented as alternative to western liberal democracies. New political alliances are being made in the world and in our region. And problem with our ruling elite is that its malleability has increased over the years.

In the west there is a wave of “Popular Nationalism” as an emerging ideology, which is posing the greatest challenge to liberal values in western democracy. Economic affluence in western societies is giving way to declining growth rates. The rise of China as an economic powerhouse is taking jobs away from the hands of middle classes in the western world and weaning western societies away from liberal values with decreasing tolerance with cosmopolitanism. Trump’s victory is seen as the biggest sign of things to come.

And in this grim scenario, Chinese political model is offering a viable alternative to western liberal democracies. Chinese Communist Party has devised a system in which the state is sharing economic affluence with the rising middle classes. But the system in China doesn’t offer political rights to the population: State owned media is hardly free from the iron hands of the state machinery, there are no political parties to rival the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power and anyone dissenting from the state ideology is sent straight to jail.

Sitting in Islamabad we often hear the buzz in town that talks about strategic shifts in the region. We also hear stories and rumors that Pakistani state is getting closer to China and Russia, after parting company with its former Cold War ally. These rumors don’t come to us alone. They are coupled with concrete facts that state machinery is tightly controlling the media and censorship of news content is rampant. We have just witnessed political engineering, which effectively shunted out at least two popular political leaders (Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussein—whether they are good or bad is another debate) from the political scene. And popular political forces and dissenting voices (the case of PTM) are being curbed.

Whether what we are witnessing is another example of Pakistani ruling elite’s malleability is too early to say. But there are visible signs of Pakistani state getting closer to autocratic Russia and authoritarian China. In the political systems of China and Russia the thing that is common is undoubtedly the lack of political freedoms. But the state in both the cases is sharing economic affluence with its people. And this is the key to the success of their political systems. Ironically Pakistani state is not in a position to provide economic affluence to its people. In this situation curbing political freedoms could prove to be counter productive.

The state machinery denies that Pukhtun Tuhfuz Movement has a popular acceptability and instead presents Prime Minister Imran Khan as the face of popular legitimacy in Pukhtun society. However, what is unusual even by Pakistani standards is the fact that the state doesn’t feel any hesitation in curbing the activities of PTM. PTM is not allowed any publicity on the national television screen, media just blacks out the group, everybody knows on whose instructions.

This seems to be a new development as never before in the post-Zia period Pakistani state has imposed this kind of curbs on the media not to give any kind of publicity to any particular political group. And this page is coming directly from the political culture of authoritarian countries like China and Russia, where dissent is curbed forcefully. And media is not allowed to given any kind of publicity to the dissenting voices in those societies.

On the other hand it would not be an exaggeration to say that the dissenting voices have been almost completely eliminated from the media scene. And dream of some in the state machinery to use Pakistani media as a tool of fifth generation warfare has come true. Jingoism, hyper-nationalism and propaganda campaigns against political opponents appear to be the only game in town.

I am not trying to say that this didn’t use to happen when Pakistan was in the camp of liberal democracies. In fact all these things were happening during the days when Pakistan was a Washington’s ally. However in those days Pakistani rulers used to pay lip service to political freedoms and liberties as General Musharraf used to do. But now they are openly unabashedly curbing the political and media freedom and feel no embarrassment.


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